New Internationalist

Union Levers

Issue 172

new internationalist
issue 172 - June 1987

Union levers
Unilever calls the shots. If it wants to it can destroy jobs,
shut factories, and move plants. But things can be changed.
Trade unionists are trying to stop the company in its tracks.
Harriet Lamb and Steve Percy look at what unions can do.

Stop killing jobs!' demand Unilever workers in factory stoppages and mass meetings from Liverpool to Stockholm. In Rotterdam 3,500 workers from ten different countries are marching together. It is November 1985, this is the biggest international trade union demonstration ever held against a multinational corporation. Workers have come together to present a petition with 70,000 signatures to international headquarters. They are protesting against the devastating job cuts in Europe and demanding that Unilever discuss its policies with international union representatives.

Such solidarity is challenging the power of multinational corporations. As their stranglehold on the global economy tightens, the need for co-operation between workers has never been greater. 'We need to redress the balance and put power back into the hands of the workers,' says Bob Ramsay, an organizer of the Rotterdam march. 'Unilever is a company you can't defeat overnight. You build up the links and action has to come in time - it's a natural progression.'

Union strength has been severely undermined as the fate of individual factories is determined behind the closed doors of international boardrooms. The direct control of Unilever headquarters is felt in the remotest corners of their empire. Unions complain that they are never negotiating with the real decision makers: 'The immediate management don't know what's going on. They are always referring back to Head Office and constantly having to go to more senior management.' Even in Bombay unions complain of a 'hot-line from the factory to London.'

Sunita works as a packer in a London meat factory. Now it is closing and 1,000 people are to be shown the door. What she doesn't know is that packers in a Dutch meat factory are also losing their jobs. In isolation they have little hope of reversing their fortunes. As a unionist pointed out 'As long as we're divided Unilever can pick off factories one by one and close them down. It's essential to get links going between factories'.

The week of action centering on Rotterdam sent a powerful message to the company that workers were solidly backing each other and prepared to challenge Unilever. Behind the protest was a united front of international and national unions, who over the years have been slowly building up a counter force to the company.

At the forefront is the International Union of Food and Allied Workers (IUF). This is an international association of unions in the food, drink and related industries. A primary aim is to unite people working for the same multinational around the world. Its two million members include thousands employed by Unilever from Danish margarine makers to South African ice cream and Filipino fats workers. It both supports local unions and has formed an international union machinery to control Unilever. (See box).

One major demand is that Unilever's central management sit down with representatives from all European unions and the IUF. Forging international links is important, even though it is hard to achieve. Unilever's thousands of products, mostly for local sale, are usually made from start to finish on the same premises: the raw materials are boiled up in a big vat and out comes a bar of Lux or a packet of Stork. So workers need never look beyond their factory. Employed by John West or Liptons or Lever Bros. Nigeria, they may not even know that they work for Unilever, let alone that it also has plants in Brazil, Holland and Kenya.

Piecing together the Unilever jigsaw is a major job for both the TUF and unions within individual countries. 'When you consider the co-ordination on management side,' says a union leader, 'you have at least to do the same on the union side. We have to find out the whole picture across the whole company. This means we must improve the process of getting to know each other across industries, across unions and across national boundaries.'

Work is well under way with international meetings bringing unionists together. Sometimes even those from the same country are meeting for the first time. At a recent workshop unionists from different countries all found they had been played off against each other with the same tales of higher productivity abroad! Delegates concluded that the exchange of information can help unions organize and pre-empt major management strategies, such as the introduction of new technology, which Unilever otherwise foists upon unsuspecting workers.

'We don't expect to revolutionize the situation in Unilever,' says Eddie Roberts of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), 'but are talking about a slow build up. We are becoming extremely knowledgeable on Unilever's forward planning... and are developing our perception of what needs to be done.' Unilever's tentacles spread in so many different directions that unions are tackling it piece by piece. Workers are joining hands within product groups such as refining oils and fats, regions such as Asia and Europe, and equally important, within countries.

Unions in Birds Eye/Wall's (UK) have shown the power of joint action. A total stoppage at all frozen food factories and distribution centres recently forced the company to meet the demands of the Gloucester workforce. 'The only way we have been able to tackle Birds Eye is by getting together' says Joe Barton from the TGWU. 'Individually they'll just walk all over you! But they do respond when you can really hit them. You need more than one factory out - only then will they talk to you around the negotiating table. Of course you need to picket every individual site - it's a costly exercise but it gives the results.'

The unionists from Birds Eye/Wall's are joining forces with unions in other British Unilever companies. 'We don't just want committees and conferences,' says Joe, 'we want action from the shop floor up. We've got to use our own strength back at the plant.' With only one Birds Eye and Wall's ice cream factory left in the UK they are also looking to Unilever ice cream workers abroad.

Workers coming together can draw inspiration from past confrontations with the multinational giant. The IUF sustained years of international pressure on Unilever to recognize the black workers' union in its South African factories. The high-spot was a week of solidarity strikes in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Jamaica, Aotearoa (NZ), Sri Lanka and Italy. In 24 countries workers ran publicity campaigns in the plants and among the public, and made representations to management. Their support continued until the black union gained recognition and negotiating rights in 1980. 'This was undoubtedly a successful case of international pressure,' says Bob Ramsay of the IUF, 'though the company won't acknowledge that'

'Of course we can't have big campaigns all the time,' Bob continues. 'We can't do it overnight - but we can strike back.' The momentum is gathering as organizations are formed, awareness among workers increases and joint action is stepped up. International solidarity is becoming important in the struggle against Unilever.

Harriet Lamb and Steve Percy are freelance writers researching into multinationals in Britain and India, and development issues.

DAN GALLIN, Trade Unionist

Unions find Unilever a slippery customer. But the union movement is carrying on the fight against the Company. Dan Gallin, union leader, interviewed by Torben Kitaj, explains the tactics.

'Unilever seldom makes mistakes. It is a very careful and cautious company which operates almost like the British Foreign Office. Everything is thoroughly prepared and examined beforehand. We of the trade unions have few possibilities of attacking Unilever, and, for instance, drawing their attention to disregard of trade union rights and rules', says Dan Gallin. He is the leader of the international federation of trade unions within the food industry, breweries, the tobacco industry, and the hotel and restaurant trade. In this capacity he heads 184 unions from 61 countries with a total of two million members.

'We wish to discuss the employment situation in the Unilever factories and the company's investment plans,' he says. 'But the company refuses to see us. Apparently Unilever does not wish to meet IUL until the company is forced to. We shall probably have to create a problem ourselves, before they will see us. They must be made to understand that it will be costlier for them to keep on refusing to see the international trade unions.'

IUL has tried to arrange a meeting with the group management of Unilever. A letter was mailed to Unilever's chairman of the board. He replied politely and correctly that if there were any disagreements and issues the trade unions wished to discuss with Unilever, the discussions would have to take place in the relevant organs of the individual companies.

The trade union movement is not recognised as an international organization by Unilever. The individual trade union federations in the individual countries are reduced to negotiating directly with the individual companies of the Unilever group, despite the fact that the joint group management may make decisions across the borders.

But whom should a shop steward then approach in order to find out what will happen to her place of work? Will the Danish production of ice cream for instance be moved to West Germany? And who will be told anything about it? Dan Gallin emphasizes that what IUL wants is to be kept informed at all times, through direct meetings with the group management: 'Above all we wish to prevent Unilever from closing down plants. There are indications that the company may place more of its activities in the US, but we wish to keep the jobs here in Europe.'

'We may get into a situation where for instance Danish and German workers are competing for the same jobs. But basically this is a matter which should be discussed between Danish and German Unilever employees.

'In the long term we wish to build up so much strength that we become a force to be reckoned with. We wish to make Unilever realize that it is unrealistic of them to ignore us. We wish to change the present balance of power in companies like Unilever. We want Unilever to negotiate directly with representatives of the trade unions on the international level.

'Some of the hardest struggles for trade union rights and genuine trade unions must today be fought by us in the Third World, sometimes even against the government-controlled trade union federations. Now and again we have to co-operate with this type of trade union federation, when there are no alternatives and when it is the only possibility of obtaining contact with the workers.

'We support social clauses in trade agreements or in codes of conduct of multinational companies - if they work. At the moment there is no international organization, however, which has been capable of making governments and employers accept these rules as binding. Consequently, we give high priority in this field to strengthening the individual trade unions, as they are the only institutions which can guarantee effective control with and implementation of agreements.

Torben Kitaj is editor of the Danish magazine Kontakt. This interview was given at the Unilever Workers' Seminar in London.


A second look

If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
the wool pulled over your eyes. Each month the NI invites
one author to justify their style of argument.

Editor: You refer to multinational corporations' power as a 'stranglehold' and talk of their 'tentacles'. Isn't using this sort of highly emotive language a ploy to convince readers of your argument without offering proof?

Lamb and Percy: You cannot separate the language we used from the argument we made. You're implying that words can be value-free, as if in a vacuum. But language itself is political, an area of constant political struggle. Take some examples from the media: liberation struggles become 'terrorist attacks', and whole nations are classed as 'backward' etc. Unilever talks of 'rationalization' in the same way. That's not a neutral word but one licensed by companies to justify their destruction of people's jobs. Would 'operations' have been more acceptable than 'tentacles'? The company certainly would have thought so! They talk of their operations as if natural or part of a neutral system when they are part of an oppressive system - capitalism - which depends on exploiting the workers.

Of course our words are 'emotive' - but that itself is a word used by the ruling classes to define people's struggles as somehow irrational. Our purpose was wholly rational. The proof was based on people's experiences. Our words are a part of an analysis of that proof. Unilever's stranglehold is a reality.

Editor: You frequently quote trade union leaders but not the bosses of Unilever, although you mention the Company's policies. It is harder for readers to identify with the side who aren't quoted. Surely this omission counts as cheating?

Lamb and Percy: In carrying out our research we approached both unions and management. Obviously the management's views are important in assessing company policy. But despite repeated requests the company refused to meet us. They have even been openly hostile.

Writing can never be objective, just as language is not neutral. Like it or not, all writing takes sides: it is a form of political expression. We make no apologies for the overtly political purpose of our article which was intended to help the readers see the union's viewpoint.

Unions are given a consistently bad press. We don't hear that Unilever has cut 16,000 jobs while their profits are climbing. Our writing aims to redress this imbalance.

Editor: You open and finish with accounts of successful collaboration by the trade unions. Doesn't this way of structuring the article give specious authority to the idea that the unions are winning - an assurance that may not be justified?

Lamb and Percy: We write not only to inform but also to inspire. Obviously we do not want to simplify the issues and our article tried to bring out the problems facing internationalism.

We're not waving the red flag and saying the revolution is round the corner. But we are saying that people create their own history. It isn't that Unilever 'calls the shots' and the unions respond. The process is one of constant struggle. Behind the marches and strikes, thousands of seemingly separate actions are taking place every day: they are part of broader movements which can, and do, achieve change. So we're ending on a high note again!

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