Thebusiness at hand was furthering globalization, but the usual suspects were nowhere to be seen. No U.S. trade representatives set the agenda. No corporate executives stalked the hall.

But then, the meeting this week in Chicago of roughly 1,500 labor leaders from around the world had a rather novel agenda. They convened on Monday under a banner that read "Imagine a Global Union." When they adjourned on Thursday, they had begun to build one.

The world's first global proto-union, surprisingly enough, comprises workers in the property services industry -- that is, janitors and security guards. Over the past half-decade, companies all over the world that have long provided the employees who guard and clean offices and factories -- including such venerable U.S.-based security companies as Pinkerton, Burns and Wackenhut -- have been bought by a handful of largely European-based multinationals.

The consequences, for both the employees and their home nations, have varied considerably. The guards at Pinkerton and Burns, for instance, are now employees of Securitas, a Swedish-based multinational known for providing extensive training and having good labor relations. But the employees of Group 4 Securicor, a British-Danish conglomerate, haven't been so fortunate. In South Africa, guards at the airports have been reduced to working on month-to-month contracts with no benefits. In Indonesia and Kenya, Group 4 has refused to deal with its workers' long-established unions. And in the United States, guards at Group 4's subsidiary Wackenhut work with skimpy health insurance for a company that has been fined repeatedly for labor law violations.

Not surprisingly, it's the union that's been organizing security guards and janitors in the United States -- the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) -- that has taken the lead in getting this global effort off the ground.

Not only do property service workers increasingly share common employers but guards and janitors hold jobs that cannot be relocated. There are also so many immigrants in this workforce that the global nature of the industry is apparent at thousands of work sites. At London's Canary Wharf, where janitors are endeavoring to organize, says SEIU's Stephen Lerner, architect of that union's Justice for Janitors campaign, the contractor is ISS, which employs thousands of U.S.-based janitors. "The building owner is Morgan Stanley," he adds, "and the workers come from Africa and Latin America. The workers, the companies, the capital is global. Everything travels across the world -- except unions."

Now unions will be traveling, too. On Thursday the property services section of Union Network International, a Geneva-based amalgam of unions not involved in manufacturing, announced the creation of a new alliance, with a fund that will initially help organizing efforts in South Africa, India, Poland, the Netherlands, Germany and the United States. The SEIU will provide money and its expertise in organizing workers, shareholders and lenders to employers such as Group 4. The Swedish Transport Workers have already been working to convince their fellow European unions that without global organizing, the embattled paradise of Western European workers could quickly become a memory at best.

These far-flung unions envision a day when unions from every continent can sit across the table from a global employer and negotiate a common code of conduct and worker rights. Absent that kind of union pressure, a model employer in Europe that abuses its workers in the United States is more likely to bring its European standards down than its U.S. standards up. "It's much easier to change the behavior of a company that's unionized at an 80 percent level globally than it is when it's unionized at 10 percent," says SEIU President Andy Stern.

In a sense, I suppose, we've seen this once before. At the conclusion of the Civil War, the United States began to evolve from a nation of locally based economies to a country with a national economy. The first entities to go national were corporations, in railroads, meatpacking, oil and steel. At the beginning of the 20th century, professionals developed such national protective organizations as the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association. It took until the 1930s, though, for workers to build effective national organizations, with the coming of industrial unions that won national contracts with companies such as General Motors.

Now that process looks to be repeating itself on a global scale. Corporations have been going global for several decades, and global intellectual-property rights have been a chief focus of trade agreements for the past 15 years or so. But not until this week have we seen workers effectively lay claim to their place in the global economy. In a world where globalization has been designed and practiced almost solely for the benefit of corporations and their shareholders, the formation in Chicago has come not a moment too soon.

meyersonh@washpost.com