JULY/AUGUST 1997 · VOLUME 18 · NUMBERS 7 & 8
L A B O R
THERE WAS A NEW TWIST in the old contract talk routine when General Electric and unions at its U.S. factories faced off in New York in late May. The unions wanted what any workers would ask of the world's leading manufacturing corporation after a decade of superprofits when U.S. employment was slashed in half. For starters, they wanted job security, shorter career work time, and better pensions. But in a departure that unions at other big multinational manufacturing companies in Europe and the United States may soon emulate, the union coalition demanded that GE also negotiate a corporate code of conduct governing its worldwide operations. That code would protect worker rights, especially the right to organize, but it would also commit the company to sustainable environmental policies, safe and healthy workplaces, ethical behavior and respect for communities where it is located.
"Given the enormous influence the company has around the world," International Union of Electronics Workers (IUE) president Ed Fire told the company, "We believe GE has an obligation to uphold and promote adherence to universal standards of human rights."
"It's an exciting first step towards global collective bargaining and global organizing," says Douglas Meyer, IUE research director. Unlike the often weak and unenforced voluntary codes that many corporations have adopted to parry consumer criticism of exploitation of workers in developing countries, this code would be part of the contract, and the union would be part of any monitoring system.
The unions underscored their interest in raising global standards for GE workers by including in their talks labor leaders from GE operations in Canada, Brazil, Chile and Mexico, as well as representatives from the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF). The IMF was founded 104 years ago and now includes unions from 91 countries that represent 19 million workers in metalworking industries, such as steel, auto, shipbuilding, aircraft and electronics.
The IMF, which first sent observers to GE talks six years ago and recently pledged to support the U.S. unions in their contract campaign, has for many decades helped unions exchange information and discuss strategies, especially in a couple dozen councils that focus on individual multinational employers, like Ford, Caterpillar or Siemens. But in late May at its quadrennial convention in San Francisco, the IMF resolved to escalate its action. Partly, like other international labor bodies, it will fight more aggressively to make labor rights a top priority in all international economic agreements and institutions, such as the World Trade Organization.
Yet the IMF recognized that workers in many countries face difficulties organizing even if rights are protected in theory and that unionization of even core manufacturing industries is slipping in some industrial nations, like the United States. Unions will try to use strength that they already have to facilitate new organizing at branches of multinationals.
In the near future the IMF will target several multinational companies whose home bases are strongly unionized to win global protection of worker rights. Besides the U.S. unions at GE, Swedish and German unions at Volvo and Volkswagen are already talking about negotiating new worldwide codes of conduct. In another initiative, metalworking unions in Canada, the United States, and Mexico are coordinating efforts to organize Echlin, an auto parts manufacturer located in all three countries. The IMF also announced plans to work with U.S. and German unions to organize a GM-planned auto assembly plant in Thailand.
Recently European unions have been helping to set up new European Works Councils, consultative bodies that the European Union in its Maastricht agreement mandated for all multinationals operating in Europe. In some cases, possibly building on existing IMF councils, unions will try to expand those new works councils to include representatives from unions wherever the companies operate.
The IMF has a history, most recently in South Africa, Eastern Europe and South Korea, of effectively supporting emerging independent unions. Though the campaigns for corporate codes is more global, work focused on individual countries will continue. Currently the IMF is preoccupied with Indonesia, where the head of the unofficial, independent union federation, Muchtar Pakpahan, has been jailed and is on trial for subversion.
Largely at the initiative of unions in the United States, which often face anti-union tactics by foreign multinationals that have stable relationships with unions in their home countries, the IMF has become more involved in corporate campaigns against individual renegade employers. The Steelworkers, for example, regard the help from the IMF and its affiliates -- which ranged from short strikes to high-level protest delegations -- as crucial in salvaging two prolonged conflicts in recent years, first a lock-out at Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation and then a broken strike at Bridgestone/Firestone.
In the same vein, Canadian workers at Custom Trim, an auto parts plant, developed relationships with workers at a Mexican maquiladora branch of the same firm. When their Mexican colleagues struck in May, the Canadians made the Mexican issues part of their grievance discussions with their employer. Similarly, Swedish metalworkers have recently urged that Trelleborg AB, a Swedish multinational, stop its strikebreaking, anti-union campaign against workers at a sulfuric acid plant that it owns in Tennessee.
Some union leaders, like former United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser, enthusiastically argue that the IMF should move towards worldwide bargaining. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, his predecessor, Walter Reuther, wanted to negotiate a global deal that would link wage increases and productivity growth in auto producing countries to reductions in tariff barriers. But unions in Germany and Japan, who were then low-wage competitors of the United States at the early stage of their auto export expansion, resisted Reuther's plan. Reuther's strategy conflicted with their different national approaches to bargaining, but it also undercut their low-wage advantage. His plans for a global auto deal died.
Global bargaining is likely to run into many similar national differences in the near future, even though globalization means that, in the words of IMF general secretary Marcello Malentacchi, "the need for international solidarity has never, never been greater."
For example, Germany and Japan now run large trade surpluses, which partly explains why -- despite growing problems with movement of industrial jobs out of their countries -- unions in both see globalization more positively than do unions in the United States, which has long suffered large and growing trade deficits. Also, compared with the United States, unions in Germany and Japan have been able to count on more cooperation from both their employers and governments in protecting industrial jobs and in facilitating, through training and industrial policies, the development of new, higher skilled manufacturing jobs.
There are other barriers to global bargaining as well. The more that is negotiated at an international level, the harder it will be for rank-and-file workers to have a voice in union policy. The biggest barrier to cooperation, however, could be tensions over capital investment. "I always argued that the rest of the world has a right to its share of the auto market," says Bob White, president of the Canadian Federation of Labor and former president of the Canadian Auto Workers. "The question for us is whether corporations are going to recognize unions and negotiate agreements that result in better working conditions." But despite such internationalism, unions also quite naturally want to protect their members' jobs. While they may agree that workers in Thailand, for example, should be able to make cars for sale in that country, they are less enthused about corporations using low-wage countries as platforms for export back to advanced economies. Though the big German union, IG Metall, tends to see globalization as offering more opportunities for new markets than threats to existing jobs, spokesman Jorg Barcynski asks incredulously, "Would you expect Germans or French to buy Mercedes if they were made in Taiwan?"
Klaus Zwickel, president of both the IMF and IG Metall, is skeptical about global bargaining, but favors codes of conduct, works councils and negotiations to set uniform standards on health and safety and similar working conditions. After that, he says, it would be possible to move to discussion of wages, hours and social insurance, even investment policies. Difficult as it would be for unions to negotiate how they might share global capital among themselves or emerging producers, it would be better for workers if unions, rather than just managers and markets, tackled the question.
That is especially true when so many metalworking industries in the world can produce far more than consumers can now afford to buy. Such overcapacity, which could also be seen as a problem of depressed growth and wages, intensifies competition that holds down workers' wages. Part of the answer, the IMF concluded, is that there is a need for reducing work hours without cutting wages as well as for increasing rates of economic growth. But the IMF also urges development of new, more environmentally sustainable technologies and systems, especially in transportation, not the unsustainable expansion of current technologies.
Making these broad policy changes requires unions to be more politically active, since even though unionists cheered left victories in British and French elections, most unionists regard their traditional political allies as too "neo-liberal" and too deferential towards a dictatorship of the market. If the IMF unions can work together aggressively on broad public policy priorities on work time, macroeconomics, technology and the environment, its collective influence could be as great as it would gain through global bargaining.
At a global level, the labor movement can have a much greater role than it now has as a counterweight to multinational corporations and the "wild market" of the new global economy. It would be a mistake to think, however, that even the growing movement towards international solidarity will -- or even should -- eradicate all of the distinctions and differences among nations and even national labor unions.