Global unionism to confront global capitalism
Yesterday I caught the closing session of a "Conference on Global Unionism," to inaugurate Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations new Global Labor Institute. Important ideas by 3 experienced labor leaders about how to move beyond the trade union movement's cliché of "Solidarity" -- which is fine, but often means nothing more than joint resolutions -- to practical organizing work across national boundaries. Here's some of what I got out of it:

Bruce Raynor, after years as an organizer in the very union-resistant textile mills in the U.S. Southeast, is now General President, UNITE HERE! (According to their web site, "UNITE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees) and HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union) merged on July 8,2004 forming UNITE HERE. The union represents more than 440,000 active members and more than 400,000 retirees throughout North America.") He said he had never thought about "international relations" as related to labor, and had never traveled abroad, until he had to try to organize workers in a French-owned firm in Indianapolis, a town with a very anti-union establishment. Then the U.S. union organizers appealed for support from the French Conféderation Générale de Travail, which had organized that same company's factories in France. The CGT began a campaign of embarrassing the company around the world; the company responded bitterly, but finally agreed to card check neutrality, and the workers got their union.

Despite such examples, and despite all the efforts of organizers in his and other unions, the percentage of unionized workers in the U.S. private sector has dropped to 8.2, and if we keep on going the way we're going, may soon be reduced to nearly 0. The same trend is seen in other countries, where Germany is down to below 26% (probably well below, but Germans have a way of counting pensioners that inflates the numbers of union members), France to about 10%, and so on. The difference is that, when those European social democratic unions were at their peak, they managed to win important legal reforms, such as health care and other benefits for the general population. The U.S. trade union movement, even when it was at its peak in the late 1940s and 1950s, never did, so the social costs of a weakened labor movement in the U.S. are felt much more immediately -- increase in those without health insurance, weakness of unemployment benefits, minimal or no social investment in housing, education, etc.

Tom Woodruff, Executive VP, SEIU, is looking to form joint campaigns with European and other union confederations to organize janitors, security workers and school bus drivers, who -- increasingly -- are employed by multinational firms based in Sweden (Securitas), England (the school bus drivers) and other countries, where their workers ARE organized. The problem for the European workers is that, as capital becomes more integrated internationally, there will be a tendency for all corporations to demand the same kind of union-free environment enjoyed by U.S. businesses. The only thing for U.S. labor to do is to radically change its way of operating to collaborate directly in international organizing, but the AFL-CIO continues to operate under rules that haven't changed for 50 years, and that create separate unions with separate bureaucracies where their needs to be joint effort. And unions here have to be much more aggressive organizers. Woodruff got his biggest applause when he said that Mercedes Benz plants in the U.S. would be organized a lot faster by Germany's IG Metal (the ironworkers union) than by the UAW.

The star speaker yesterday was Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and a veteran of the bitter anti-apartheid struggle. His whole talk is promised to be reproduced on the Global Institute's website (see URL above), but it's not there yet. Main points (from my notes): COSATU's strength is its overall approach of "social trade unionism," which means it's not just about hours and wages but about all aspects of the worker's life: health, housing, sanitary conditions in the neighborhood, transportation -- everything that affects that life. COSATU also gains strength from its tripartite alliance with the African National Congress (which is in power) and the Communist Party -- an alliance that cost it U.S. opposition, including from the AFL-CIO in its pre-Sweeney days, but which Vavi regards as fundamental to the union's strength. COSATU and the ANC government are not always in agreement -- in particular, COSATU believes the government has been too ready to adopt the kind of "neo-liberal" (not the word he used, but that's the term used in Latin America) policies promoted by the IMF. But the government has passed the most progressive social legislation in Africa, and progressive governments like that one must be supported, he argues. Since the end of apartheid 10 years ago, COSATU has grown phenomenally, but in the last three years that growth has stopped -- because of the swallowing up of South African firms by global capital and drastic losses of employment. Unemployment in South Africa, is around 40% today -- , and that's the most prosperous country in black Africa. Workers have only three reasons to join a union, he believes: 1) practical solidarity -- the sense that one's comrades will help one out; (2) expectation of empowerment, for example through education through the trade union, and (3) the capacity to use collective power to change conditions.

Those are just sketchy notes. Check the Global Institute's site in a few days for more, or look at COSATU's and the other federations' sites. We've got a lot to do to save the world.

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