Events of the last week have brought something home to me: it is no wonder that unions remain national in scope. Whereas transnational corporations are ubiquitous, there are only a handful of genuinely transnational unions (i.e. not counting those with coverage of both the USA and Canada). Even the ambitious Service Employees International Union (SEIU) couldn’t break into overseas markets.
In a world where corporations have highly disciplined unanimity of purpose worldwide, workers have only the ten umbrella global union federations to co-ordinate cross-border campaigns. These are very loosely bound, barely more than forums really. Occasionally they have had successful campaigns where the interests of the workers in all nations are in alignment, e.g. the IUF Nestle campaign, but the central offices (generally located near the ILO in Geneva) have considerably less influence than the national affiliates.
I can see cross-border organising only getting harder in the near future, and here are two recent examples to show why:
- The Australian airline Qantas is currently embroiled in an epic dispute with three unions representing the ground staff, engineers and pilots. At the heart of the dispute is Qantas’ plan to employ more of its staff overseas.
- At the same time, the iconic Italian car manufacturer Fiat is threatening to decamp from Italy because skilled workers in nearby Poland will work for €8 per hour rather than €28 per hour.
This offshoring debate isn’t news, but this time around there is a critical difference. It was easy in 1991 and 1992, during the NAFTA debate, to explain that the economy can create new jobs to replace those that move away. In 2011 and 2012 it is a different story. Job security has risen up the scale of developed world workers’ concerns.
In this climate, how on earth can the workers of countries in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia be expected to campaign for those in other countries? It would be okay if their own prosperity was still rising or at least stable, but the generosity of spirit is understandably less when they see their own entitlements under threat – and especially so when ‘offshore workers’ are going to benefit in their stead.
I saw an isolated exception last week when the American United Steel Workers union publicly castigated Freeport-McRohan over the ongoing strike at the Grasberg Mine in Indonesia.
I don’t see a way out of this. The workers of the developing world are going to have to do it on their own. Either that of the global union federations need to alter the way they operate, away from a consensus model and more towards a truly federal model, including a division of powers. Hard to imagine it happening though.
- Global economy, global unions 11 February 2011
- Pros and cons of consensus 24 June 2011
- $2 an hour to work on an inhospitable mountain peak 27 September 2011
- Teamsters Condemn Qantas CEO Alan Joyce for Attack On Workers (planegrazy.com)
- Unionbusting at Qantas Causes Global Travel Nightmares (tigerbeatdown.com)
- Call Australia home: push to contain Qantas (theage.com.au)
- State of the unions: industrial muscle in 2011 (theage.com.au)