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.

Stats on Iraqi civilian deaths
An article in Editor & Publisher begins: "An exclusive report from Knight Tidder's Washington office... revealed Saturday that U.S. and multinational forces and iraqi police are killing twice as many Iraqis, most of them civilians, as attacks by insurgents." Check it out!


On not winning the Hugo
After wasting hours at a superbly inefficient ticket-distribution system (and never getting a ticket), I learn today that Hugo Chávez is not coming to New York after all -- so to all those people who persisted in waiting hours longer than I, and got their tickets, Sorry! The official reason is some suddenly discovered mechanical difficulty in the presidential airplane, but I can imagine several other reasons why el presidente might want to stay close to home.


Identity & trauma I: Germany and Sander's portraits
I have long been fascinated by his work, and so was eager to see the Metropolitan Museum's show, August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century, a photographic portrait of Germany. Most of us are familiar with at least a few of these marvelous portraits. The one used for the exhibition poster, taken in 1914 in the countryside near the Dutch-German border, inspired Richard Powers' 1985 novel Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. (Click for a summary). Sander's "Pastry Cook" is another one that is widely reproduced. For the first time, the Met exhibit makes it possible for the general public (like me) to see these and hundreds of other portraits (out of the many thousands of plates that Sander made) in the context of his grand project, to portray all the social types of Germany in the new century. Sander (1876-1964) grew up in a Germany that where extreme social conservativism of the rural gentry (insisting on preserving their power as food producers and the perpetuation of traditional social statuses) confronted the growing power of urban industrialists (seeking social mobility, including the right to hire and fire at will, and lower food prices so they could pay lower wages) and the rapidly growing labor movement that challenged both elites. Sander's "20th century" project begins in 1914, the eve of the Great European War, which temporarily suppressed these tensions under aggressive nationalism. He kept photographing through the Weimar years, the Nazi's 12-year "Thousand Year Reich" (1933-45), and on until his death in the western part of divided Germany. Sander's own sympathies were clearly with the workers and the poor, though he also meticulously portrayed aristocrats and dandies as well. Sander's son Erich, himself a very good photographer and a Communist (or at least close to the party), died in a Nazi prison, but before he did, he got himself appointed prison photographer and managed to smuggle out shots of his fellow prisoners for his parents to deliver to their relatives. He also smuggled out a photo of himself, working at his prison desk. The last photo in the exhibit is by his father August: Erich's death mask.

What is wonderful about Sander's portrait collections dedicated to workers, industrialists, women (there are women included in the other sections as well), officials, et al. is that the subjects are all aware that they are being photographed and pose as they wish to be memorialized. Thus the Nazi officer, the revolutionary, the beggar, the bailiff, the bohemian actress, the Ukrainian forced laborers, the Jews preparing for exile or worse, come across with all the dignity (or arrogance, or flippancy) they can summon.

For my earlier reflections on the great 20th century drama of Germany, see Pagan Pilgrimage: Berlin, Oktober 2000.