Posts Tagged ‘Trade unions’

Union officials Joe and Jane congratulate managers Zanko and Anthony on the arrival of the new, safer stock picker, driven by Dave.

Union member Dave showcases the newly-arrived, safer stock picker. Union officials Joe and Jane and managers Zanko and Anthony all worked to this moment.

Here are two of my colleagues at a furniture distribution centre in Western Sydney. The photo is for an article in the next edition of the union journal about an innovative safety improvement that resulted from constructive collaboration between the union and site management.

The picker in the photo is the first of its kind. It is designed to lift goods up to 8 metres off the ground. The operator walks out of the cage onto the platform where he or she moves goods on and off the shelves. A harness is provided so they can’t fall but that’s only half the problem: if you place too many goods on the platform, the weight can tip the whole picker. Sadly one of these officials has dealt with a situation where exactly that happened, resulting in the death of a worker who fell onto a concrete floor.

The good news is that the hazard was raised with site management who accepted that it was a legitimate concern and set about working with Toyota to devise this first-of-its-kind picker that automatically measures the weight on the platform and sounds an alarm if load limits are approached.

I post this on here because the Murdoch-dominated press coverage of unions in Australia is so overwhelmingly negative that it’s worth remembering what the real work of unions looks like on a day to day basis.

I might also add that fresh data out of the UK shows that, in recent years, rises in union density are associated with rises in productivity.

The happy picker operators at this site are in no doubt why that is so.

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English: Loyalist Mural, Donegall Pass, Belfas...

About as helpful as this (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last month a rare spat took place at the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s annual conference.

The ILO is grounded in the notion of tripartite co-operation between employer organisations, employee organisations and governments.

Year after year, a moment has been taken to highlight the worst violations of trade union rights around the globe.

This year, the employer groups pulled the carpet, and got it taken off the agenda. Union federations reacted with great indignation at this affront to the co-operative process of the ILO.

I beg to differ.

The segment was the affront to the ILO process, in fact I’m amazed it had persisted this long. How are groups supposed to discuss things rationally if one group is forced to sit through a session specifically about how untrustworthy they are? How is that supposed to build trust and co-operation?

Imagine if the roles were reversed: Suppose employers got to play a video every year about the most egregious examples they could find of union misbehaviour.

Or translate the scenario to decisions in your own family. Imagine if, every time you sat down to discuss some major decision, your spouse/parent said ‘Hang on, before we talk about that, we’ll just have to stop for a minute and watch this slideshow about the time you were given decision-making responsibility and screwed it up royally.’ Well that’s pretty much what’s been happening.

The whole scene reminds me of the Orange Order in Northern Ireland, who thought it was critically important to hold annual marches to remind people of a military victory their ancestors won several centuries ago. As a result of their confrontationalism they have the distinction of being the last place on earth where Catholics and Protestants murdered each other over their religious differences. Most other European nations had discovered toleration by the 1700s.

So, far from being “an affront to the system”, last months’ agenda change may actually herald an approach more oriented towards results and less towards grandstanding. Let’s hope.

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Trevor Long, Taken by Trevor Long September 21...

Image via Wikipedia

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.

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More on the Qantas dispute
Memory Lines sculpture in Sydney's Darling Harbour

Lost to workplace accidents

Today, 28 April, is designated as the Workers’ Memorial Day by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

There are over two million fatal workplace accidents around the world each year, many of them sadly preventable. 100,000 die of asbestos-related illnesses alone.

Services are being held around the world to remember those who have lost their lives to workplace accidents.

I attended the one in Sydney. The peak union body here, Unions NSW, has done a fine job of elevating the day above partisan and sectarian divisions. The service was co-presided over by a rabbi, imam, priest and minister. State Government Ministers from the right-leaning Liberal Party and their counterparts from the left-leaning Labor Party were in attendance. Unions and industry groups were both in attendance.

The commemoration was held before the ‘Memory Lines’ sculpture in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. The sculpture is located on the site where Australia’s first steam mill was constructed in 1813, powering a saw mill, grain mill and foundry. Symbolically it is the birthplace of Australia’s industrial revolution. (Despite its proximity to Sydney’s Central Business District, Darling Harbour was an industrial area right up until the early 1980s.)

The emotional focus of the service was the placing of flowers and mementos on the sculpture by families who had lost loved ones to workplace accidents in the previous year. It was very difficult to watch, like attending several funerals at once, however to turn away would be to turn away from the reality. Deaths at work are not statistics, they are the faces above and many more.

The My Phong factory. Image: Nam Tuan via Panoramio

Just over a year ago the Vietnamese authorities arrested 3 organisers of a strike at the My Phong factory in Tra Vinh, Vietnam.

In that strike, 10,000 workers walked off the job protesting essentially at their low rate of pay, just USD 58 a month, which is insufficient to cover the cost of living.

The crime of Nguyen Hoang Quoc Hung, Do Thi Minh Hanh and Doan Huy Chuong was to distribute leaflets encouraging people to strike and purporting to form their own employee association without asking permission of the government.

They were sentenced to 9 years jail last October and last Friday the appeals court upheld their sentence.

Nine years in jail for attempting to exercise the right to free association! Disgraceful.

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There are ten international union confederations, each of them focusing on a particular economic sector. UNI Global Union comprises 900 national service-sector unions, representing over 20 million workers.

UNI deals with workplace relations matters at the United Nations level hence it is headquartered near the International Labour Organization offices in Switzerland.

UNI sees the way forward as negotiating agreements with multi-national companies. It’s the same principle seen on the shop floor, but taken to the next level: A united workforce gets a better outcome in negotiations than one individual. It stands to reason that a united global workforce will get a better result than a local effort.

UNI is spearheading a push for something called Global Framework Agreements. These are commitments made by multi-national companies that they will observe certain minimum standards in all the countries that they operate, including:

·     Recognising the right to bargain collectively

·     Recognising the right to join a union

·     Not discriminating in employment

·     Observing decent working conditions

These agreements do not set wages; those are negotiated at the national or local level.

By early 2010, 36 Global Framework Agreements had been signed with multinationals including Ikea and the Accor Hotels group. More are on the way. The beginning of things to come?

I can’t recall the last time I read so serious a book that was so entertaining.

The first thing that must be said about Mark Thomas is that he is a comedian. His book “Belching out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola” is a spin-off from a program he hosted for Britain’s Channel 4. As a result, it was never going to be a dry, pseudo-academic work and that is its strength. Official documents sanitise these issues, which have serious effects of people’s quality of living and in some cases amount to life or death.

Mark Thomas is a kind of Michael Palin on a mission. At least half of the book is a compelling travelogue of the eight nations he visits to interview people affected by the company’s operations, and it is as good a travel book as any. My personal favourite was his comparison of traffic in Delhi to

playing Grand Theft Auto with four million people connected to the same console.

Fortunately Mark doesn’t fall into the trap of poking fun merely at the people he encounters, to whom he is actually unfailingly respectful; there is plenty of riducule directed at rich world folk including himself and none so much as Coca Cola’s PR people.

However the book is not a random, meandering string of jokes, Mark remains quite determined to find the people he needs to, and find them he does, countering euphemistic business jargon with gritty real-life stories.

The book focuses on five issues:

1. Union-busting by Coca-Cola bottlers, a denial of the right to freedom of association;

2. Child labour in plantations that supply sugar mills;

3. Impact on local communities’ drinking water;

4. Strong-handed tactics used to maintain its 70% market share in Mexico; and

5. The company’s evasiveness about these as, impliedly, an issue in itself

The most relevant to Fair For All is the first. Mark visits people in Colombia and Turkey who’ve been affected firsthand by the local bottlers’ aggressive anti-unionism. In the case of Colombia, this means turning a blind eye to violence and intimidation by the local paramilitaries. Over the past two decades, a number of workers in Colombia who attempted to form a union in the bottling plant in Colombia have been murdered. Coca Cola’s response is to distance themselves, emphasising that national bottlers are a separate entity to the Atlanta-based company we all know (even though it owns a controlling stake in them) and to make vague reference to half-hearted investigations.

Mark Thomas’s concern is, firstly, that these things are happening, but even more that Coca-Cola’s PR releases and CSR reports, to the casual reader, imply that the company is making concerted efforts to redress these “concerns” when, on the ground in places such as Colombia and Costa Rica, they are doing nothing of the sort.

The most dramatic illustration of the gap between some of the officialspeak and the reality comes on the steps of the company’s Delaware AGM. Mark collars the global head of workplace relations and politely asks him about some of the ‘issues’ he has seen firsthand in his travels. The gap between the harsh reality we have experienced with Mark, and the carefully worded official company response is enormous.

Even more instructive is the additional gap between the Coke executive’s off-record comments and the company’s glossy CSR report which is being handed out just metres away, inside the AGM.

Mark puts it to Coke executive Ed Potter in person:

Colombia. Isidro Gil. I spoke to people who saw him killed – someone was shot and killed on Coca-Cola’s property.

Ed Potter explains away the company’s response (or lack of), saying:

Well we’ve never represented that the ILO was going to do an investigation.

Nonetheless Coca-Cola’s CSR statement “The Facts: Coca-Cola and Columbia”, asserts the company has a:

commitment to an independent impartial third-party investigation and evaluation

Mark Thomas has gone to a lot of trouble to prove his suspicion that he is being told that black is white. Good on him.

The book is available on Amazon, and also on Kindle and Audible.

You can watch Mark introduce the book here: