Union members in the developed and developing world have different values … we need to work around this

Posted: September 9, 2012 in Rights around the world
Tags: , , , ,
Telephone wires

Telephone wires (Photo credit: Stuart Barr)

I’m still working through Global Restructuring, Labour and the Challenges for Transnational Solidarity but one contribution merits attention of its own.

A chapter by Jonas Sjolander details the failed collaboration circa 1980 between Swedish and Colombian unions representing Ericsson workers. The latter were employed to build landline infrastructure.

The tale has “missed opportunity” written all over it. It sounded good in theory: The under-resourced Colombians could have advice from the long-established Swedish union Metall, which in turn could amplify the workers’ message right in Ericsson’s home nation, making it harder to ignore.

Alas, it fizzled out and the main impediment was the global union federation for manufacturing workers, the IMF, which ironically was established to facilitate cross-border co-operation between unions.

The Colombian workers considered the local IMF affiliate, Ultramicol, to be too close to the company and formed another, more radical union called Sintraericsson. Sweden’s Metall, however, was affiliated to the IMF and found it too awkward to promote the un-recognised Sintraericsson over their comrades in Ultramicol.

If you take a step back, this is no accident. Metall espoused values of company-union co-operation which make a lot more sense in the Scandanavian context than they do in Colombia which is about as unfriendly to unionists as they come. It’s no surprise that the radicalised Colombian workers didn’t feel at home with this model.

No one thought of a way to handle this. How different things might have been. In the decades since, the unionisation rate in Colombia has declined, Sintraericsson eventually died and Ericsson Colombia outsourced many jobs to third-party suppliers where they are held on short-term contracts. Now that people no longer work for the same company, the odds of fostering any form of transnational solidarity are even remoter.

The gorilla in the union movement’s room

This is not just a 30-year old case study but has relevance today.

The international trade union movement consists of 7 global union federations (including IndustriALL, the IMF’s successor) which collectively boast a membership of 175 million workers worldwide. They all talk, all co-operate and all work together.

Excluded from that count are the 193 million members of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The ACFTU is shunned by the global movement principally because it is not by any means democratic.

Perhaps its time to look at whether this policy is hindering more than helping.

Think about it. China’s Communist leaders travel around the world and are greeted with warm handshakes and White House receptions etc, while Taiwan’s non-Communist leaders find themselves systematically pushed out of one forum after another. Money talks. No one boycotts Lenovo computers or Huawei mobile phones which are made by companies that are also, let’s face it, controlled by Beijing. Same goes for all those state-owned construction companies that BHP-Billiton and the like sell iron ore to.

So I find it odd that the ACFTU is still singled out and wonder for how much longer this will remain the case.

Perhaps these Chinese unionists could do more to improve their members’ working conditions if they weren’t so isolated and had more opportunity to learn what unions elsewhere are doing.

The Finnish peak union body SAK has decided to do just that, meeting with the ACFTU just a couple of weeks ago.

What people really fear is that giving the ACFTU a voting seat in international forums will allow the Chinese Government to use it as a means to promote their state agenda, yet it should still be possible to work around this and co-operate in some fashion.

Just imagine how different things might be if Foxconn workers’ stories were able to come to us directly instead of via SACOM’s heroic undercover efforts and Mike Daisey’s re-telling. Even now, we don’t know the real name of a single worker who makes iPhones.

Related posts:


  • Sjolander J Detours of solidarity: experiences from Ericsson in Colombia in Bieler A & Lindberg I (eds) Global Restructuring, Labour and the Challenges for Transnational Solidarity (2011) Routledge, London & New York, pp. 48-57
  1. marksolock says:

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  2. […] an interesting counterpoint to the attempted cross-border solidarity in Ericsson covered in my previous post. That too involved Swedes attempting to assist Latin American workers (in Colombia, just a few […]

  3. […] the Ericsson post I started reflecting on the causes of culture […]

  4. […] Union members in the developed and developing world have different values … we need to work ar… 9 September 2012 […]

  5. […] cross-border co-operation is easier said than done. Apologies to the Swedish metalworkers who I criticised earlier in the year for a similar missed opportunity, I’m sure they tried to make it […]

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