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Unions for a Global Economy

By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, April 26, 2007

The business press has barely noticed and the usual champions of globalization have been mute, but an announcement last week in Ottawa signaled a radical new direction for the globalized economy. The United Steelworkers -- that venerable, Depression-era creation of John L. Lewis and New Deal labor policy -- entered into merger negotiations with two of Britain's largest unions (which are merging with each other next month) to create not only the first transatlantic but the first genuinely multinational trade union.

Mergers among unions are nothing new, of course, and as manufacturing employment in the United States has declined, some unions -- the Steelworkers in particular -- have expanded into other industries and sectors. Today, just 130,000 of the union's 850,000 members are employed in basic steel, with the remainder in paper and rubber manufacturing and a range of service industries. British unions have gone down a similar path; of the two British unions with which the Steelworkers wish to merge, Amicus is a multi-sectoral outgrowth of that nation's autoworkers, while the other, the Transport and General Workers, has long been what its name suggests.

All three unions are among their nations' largest; the combined membership, should the merger go through, will total roughly 3 million, making it the planet's largest union.

The story here, however, isn't the number of members but the adaptation of labor to the globalization of capital. The Ottawa declaration broke new ground, but the transnational coordination of unions has been building for more than a decade. The Communications Workers of America has been meeting with telecommunications unions in Europe and elsewhere for years to better deal with common employers. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has for the past two years been working with, and helping to fund, security guard and janitorial unions in other nations as ownership of the property service industry has been consolidated into an ever-smaller number of multinationals.

Last November, the SEIU organized 5,300 immigrant workers who clean the office buildings in downtown Houston -- a stunning achievement in the heart of the anti-union South. Stephen Lerner, chief strategist for the SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign, attributes the success partly to the same consolidation and globalization processes that have generally proved so debilitating to union power. Last year just five cleaning contractors -- all either national or global in scope -- employed the majority of the city's janitors, and many of the office buildings were owned by global investors. The emerging global network of property-service unions staged demonstrations supporting the Houston janitors in Mexico, Moscow, London and Berlin.

The Steelworkers' network of strategic alliances with foreign unions dates to the early '90s. As the production of steel became a global enterprise, the union formed alliances with mining and manufacturing unions in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Mexico, Germany and Britain. In part, the alliances emerged because these unions shared common employers -- Alcoa in metals, Bridgestone in tires and, now, with the Steelworkers and Britain's Amicus having grown to include paper workers, Georgia Pacific and International Paper as well. The unions share research, discuss common bargaining strategies and support one another during strikes.

But the purpose of the proposed merger is broader. "We determined that the best way to fight financial globalization was to fight it globally," says Gerald Fernandez, who heads the Steelworkers' international affairs and global bargaining operations. "Exploring a merger is the necessary first step to building a global union or federation of metal, mining and general workers."

Whether or not the merger goes through, the Steelworkers and their British partners have already committed to fund human rights and union rights operations in Colombia (which perennially leads the world in murdered unionists) and parts of Africa. They plan to mount a global campaign to protect employees' retirement benefits, under assault in a growing number of countries from financiers who view workers' financial security as a dispensable commodity.

For years, globalization's champions have attacked unions generally and the Steelworkers in particular for what they claimed were the union's protectionist, parochial and generally retrograde stances. But the union, it turns out, is every bit as internationalist as they. And as unions begin their inevitable transformation into global entities, globalization's cheerleaders must define themselves more clearly. Do they back globalization because it has thus far advantaged global investors over merely national unions and governments? Or do they believe that government and workers should go global, too, creating on an international scale the kind of mixed economy that governments and unions created in the decades after World War II -- the only economy in history to produce broadly shared prosperity? In other words, are they really for globalization, or just the return to the laissez-faire, enrich-the-rich world that existed before the New Deal? The question, now that the Steelworkers and their British partners have thrown down the gauntlet, is anything but academic.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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