SMALL GROUP OF immigrant workers in a garment factory in New Mexico are struggling in appalling conditions — and want to get their union recognised. Where can they turn to?
They do have one advantage. The company they work for, Farah Jeans, is, like many of the textile corporations, a multinational. It is not one of the bigger ones — a Coats Patons, a Burlington or a Volkhart Brothers with branches in every corner of the globe. But it does have factories in other countries and the workers there could be a source of help.
But first their request goes to Belgium to the fourth floor of a building in Maroles one of the few quarters of central Brussels that has not been razed to the ground by the bulldozers to make way for the Eurocrats or international businessmen.
This is an international headquarters too but one for workers — the International Textile, Leather and Garment Workers Federation Popular mythology would, no doubt, have union activity across international frontiers being organised by ‘tightlyknit groups of politically motivated men meeting in smoke-filled rooms’. But in fact the surroundings here look neither sinister nor conspiritorial.
The Federation is one of what are called International Trade Secretariats; organizations set up originally under the League of Nations and then continued under the UN. Their job is to coordinate trade unions working in the same industry but in different countries.
Like most of the Secretariats, the Garment Workers Federation keeps copious files on all the major companies and is always ready to respond to requests for help and information These arrive continually by letter, by cable or by telephone call.
In the case of Farah there was a lot of basic information to gather together. Who are they? What do they make and where? And, most important of all, what unions are involved?
Farah, it was discovered, had another plant in Sweden. And that rang a bell with one of the officials: ‘What about that Swedish trade union secretary that we met in that congress in Madrid? Let’s give him a ring and see if he’s got members in the Farah plant’.
And that was how a group of Swedish workers came to launch a boycott and mount an effective campaign to win basic union rights for a group of workers they had never seen.
But for action like this to happen at all the workers must, of course know that they are part of a multinational — and that is not always the case. People are usually most aware of the nature of the company when they can see that the management is foreign or when they are working in the home base of the company concerned.
‘Widening the dispute’ is common enough within national boundaries: there might be sympathetic strike action or a ban on strike-bound goods being moved. But the same tactics can work just as well within multinational companies on an international basis. When Fiat workers in Brazil were in dispute in 1981 it only needed a one-day strike at the Italian plant in Turin to bring the management back around the negotiating table.
When workers in another country are asking for a basic right like union recognition then there will be a pretty straightforward case for international support. Wages claims, however, are amore ’relative’ matter and it is rare for a union to call for international action unless the situation is desperate — the dispute has been going for some time and something is needed to break the stalemate.
International pay comparisons are in fact very difficult to make. But there is at least one International Trade Secretariat the Metal-workers Federation — which publishes data on the number of hours that have to be worked in a particular country to buy a certain range of basics — food, shelter, clothing and transport. When wide disparities appear the action is usually swift.
An interesting case occurred a couple of years ago between print unions during a dispute involving the Times of London Printing of a special edition had been moved to Germany to try and break the strike. But when the German unions discovered that the operation was only possible through the employment of poorly-paid immigrant workers at the plant concerned, the printing was rapidly halted But the trickiest problems for trade unions usually occur when they involve transferring production to another country on a more permanent basis. One set of workers might stand to gain what another loses.
You might think that most of these moves would be from rich to poor countries in search of cheaper labour. The majority of relocations by transnationals, however, are not to the Third World but to other industrialised countries. The tendency is merely to move where investment and tax advantages are better.
When companies move to the Third World they sometimes give the impression that more jobs are going to be created as a result. And you might think that since labour is cheaper, they would employ more people. In fact the reverse is true; companies usually become more capital intensive when they are setting up a new plant — having been attracted by the massive capital subsidies and tax write-offs available at the new site. When the Canadian multinational, Bata Shoe, moved to Rufisque in Senegal, jobs were lost in three Western countries. But even more jobs were lost in the local shoemaking industry when the capital-intensive company moved in Similarly, when Japanese textile companies moved into Indonesia, real unemployment in the industry as a whole rose by 300,000. Allowing the multinationals a free rein is not doing anyone any favours.
But trade unions don’t have to be concerned just with production Trade is an equally important issue. Multinationals control half the world’s manufacturing but they also control an even greater proportion of the trade in these goods. Trade if anything may be becoming even more important Unilever’s grip on the international palm-oil trade is no slacker now that they have divested themselves of many of their tropical plantations.
The companies are among the leading proponents of free trade when it suits them. But free trade in the sense that they mean has never existed in the history of this planet Even the malachite traders of Anatolia in the third millennium BC had their cartel. So it is legitimate for the unions too to be concerned with issues like import penetration when they see this to be affecting the interests of their members.
The fact is that the world economy is controlled not by governments, legal or otherwise, but by companies. And it is the realisation of this that has encouraged a hardening of attitudes amongst workers —particularly in the developed countries. They know that it is only the unions who have the power to take on the multinationals.
The companies know this too, as do the governments that they support. And the Third World is littered with examples of collaboration between governments and multinationals like Coca-Cola, United Brands, ITT and Union Miniere where lives have been lost as well as jobs.
We are challenging the multinationals’ right to run the world They are taking decisions that can have a profound effect on all of us whether it is Bluebell Jeans moving from Belgium to Tunisia or ITT teleprinters from the UK to the Far East and there has to be a response. If trade unions don’t act no-one else will.
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