Global trade unionism
THIS magazine argues that international workers’ solidarity is not just a vague ideal for trade unionists to sing about at political rallies. It is, quite simply, the trade union movement’s sole hope of surviving intact as the only effective industrial organisation of working people.
The reasons are economic and practical, not ideological. Global trade unionism offers a clear economic pay-off for all trade unionists, regardless of where they live and work. And if unions in different countries do not reach out to support one another, they will be stripped one by one of the basic rights and powers they have won through 200 years of struggle.
Trade unions have certainly expressed their verbal commitment to social justice on a global scale with dazzling fervour. ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ urged Karl Marx in 1848. A British trade union banner of the early twentieth century proclaimed:
Yet international trade union solidarity had very practical origins it was needed to make strikes effective. In the early l860s employers in London were able to break strikes in the building trades by importing foreign workmen This prompted the London Trades Council to send a letter ‘To the Workmen of France from the Working Men of England’, arguing that common economic interests demanded international cooperation among working people. The aim - to bring up the wages of the ill-paid to as near a level as possible with that of those who are better remunerated and not to allow our employers to play us off one against the other. These words, penned in 1863, seem today remarkably prophetic. They also underlay the deliberations of the ‘First International’, founded in London in 1864.
The initial success of the First International was due largely to its effectiveness in providing financial support to strikers and halting the use of foreign strikebreakers. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, as the International became preoccupied with political issues, economic con cerns were taken over by the ‘trade secretariats’ — autonomous organisations coordinating unions working in the same industry but in different countries.
During the first half of the twentieth century unions in the rich countries increased in fits and starts — their industrial and political strength, achieving within their own borders some of the power they previously had sought internationally. The introduction of passports, visas and work permits checked the flow of immigrant workers. Tariffs and quotas on cheap foreign-made goods protected domestic industries from competition.
Unions thus helped to push up living standards in the industrialised countries, winning a long list of victories — abolition of child labour, universal primary school education, statutory insurance and pensions, the 40 hour week, sick pay, minimal health and safety standards on the job, unemployment benefits and rising wage levels. ‘Solidarity forever’, they sang, ‘For the union makes us strong.
But unions also made their leaders strong Trade union bureaucracies have now become dominated by Presidents and General Secretaries who, once elected, often stay in their top jobs for life. Calls from the membership for greater accountability through periodic reelections have generally fallen on deaf ears. Nor do unions have an impressive record where women are concerned Although in the 1980s about one third of union members are women, they still sit in the wings while men take the leading roles. It is hardly a coincidence that women are also the lowest paid and the least organised sector of the workforce.
With whom, in practice, have trade unionists in the West demonstrated real solidarity?
Certainly not with workers and peasants in the Third World. The high living standards of working people in the West have been won largely at the expense of nonunionised Third World producers of the cheap raw materials feeding the factories of Europe and North America This contradiction seems not to have concerned many trade unionists in the West. With a few notable exceptions, unions have continued paying lip service to ideals of international solidarity, while identifying their own interests four-square with those of their own state. Our unions have simply followed the rules of the game in our capitalist economies and accepted the exploitation of Third World workers as beyond their control.
But the rules of the game have changed. and trade unions have been caught unprepared.
First, the phenomenal growth of multinational corporations has dealt a body blow to trade union control over the labour supply within their own countries. Multinationals can move capital and job opportunities to wherever labour is cheap and non unionised. thus playing off one group of workers against another. Commented an Australian trade union newsletter: ‘Very often when Australian workers are told that to save their jobs they have to be more competitive, it means competing against fellow workers in another country. But both work for the same employer. In that sort of competition, the loser will always be one group of workers but the boss always wins’.
Second, the economic recession in the West has demoralised the trade union movement to an extent not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. With one worker in every ten on the dole, others are intimidated tnto accepting a drop in living standards simply to keep their jobs. Workers served with dismissal notices accept their redundancy cheques with a sense of resignation which the trade union movement seems powerless to dispel Most union leaders do not even want the unemployed as members, because they pay only reduced fees into union coffers.
Third, trade unions are now being harrassed and crushed world-wide by governments which fear the power of an independent, organised workforce. Poland’s independent union ‘Solidarity’ — the most significant development in post-war European trade unionism — has been driven underground in the name of ’Socialism’. Throughout Africa, governments which rode to independence on the backs of trade unions in the 1960s have returned the favour by jailing workers’ leaders and taking control of unions. Throughout Asia, apart from Japan, unions are subject to restrictions, harassment, repression or government take-over; even in India, recent legislation curbs long-standing trade union rights. Throughout Latin America dictatorships crack down on independent unions, though in Brazil unions have won a little more freedom recently.
Even in the industrialized West, unions are under mounting pressure. The governments of the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have all launched legislative attacks on union rights. Britain’s 1982 Employment Act is the most savage, striking a blow at international trade union solidarity by outlawing industrial action by British trade unionists in support of their colleagues in other industries and countries.
The existing international trade union bureaucracy puts up ineffective resistance to this erosion of union power. The ‘global internationals’ — split into two camps by East-West ideological wrangles — are compromised by a history of political intrigue, internal rivalries and empty rhetorical gestures. Complaints about the violation of trade union and human rights are discussed politely at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva but little effective action ever follows.
But the trade union movement, often at its most dangerous when cornered. has started to mount a fightback.
Parts of the movement are now gaining self confidence as new forms of organisation and action are developed — by groups of women factory workers in Southeast Asia, by motorcar assembly workers in Brazil and by shop stewards, trades councils, cooperatives and some trade unions in the West.
First, some unions are standing up to the multinationals. The issue is the same as in 1863. when the London Trades Council addressed its appeal to the workinginen of France — one group of workers being played off against another. There can be no national solutions to international labour problems. Workers in multinational factories in the Third World and elsewhere need the backing of organised workers in the West to win union recognition. collective bargaining power and better conditions. But there is also a potential spinoff for workers in the West. Improved wages and conditions for workers in other countries are reflected in higher labour costs which in turn reduce the incentive for multinationals to transfer production and jobs. As the Washington Star noted shrewdly, ‘If workers in, say, Malaysia and South Korea were unionized, that could change forever traditional ideas of a cheap Third World labor force.’
The obvious machinery for coordinating global negotiations between multinationals and unions is the existing network of International Trade Secretariats ( ITSs) they have the contacts and the technical know-how. Alone among international trade union bodies, the ITSs (with a few notable exceptions) have generally concentrated on the practical problems of national unions which bargain collectively and represent workers in the workplace itself But the companies know only too well that the current practice of dealing with a divided union movement works to their advantage. ‘A cardinal rule of labor relations for multinational corporations,’ according to the US magazine, Business Week, ‘has always been to prevent unions from getting enough power to negotiate on a multinational basis.’
But chinks are appearing in the companies’ negotiating armour as unions learn to use the traditional tools of industrial action on a global scale. The blacking of goods, boycotts, sympathy strikes, stoppages and picketing have long been used by unions to support one another domestically. These tools of the trade are now being used globally. Early this year the Australian Storemen and Packers Union, working closely with its ITS — the International Union of Food and Allied Workers Association — put a three-week ban on supplies of Nestle products to warehouses and retail depots. This action was in support of striking workers at a Nestk subsidiary in Manila and the company was forced to back down It may not be long before a union in, say, Melbourne or Detroit puts on the bargaining table a list of union rights for employees of the same company in, say, the Philippines, Sri Lanka or Brazil.
Second, within parts of the trade union movement there is a rapidly growing awareness of the need for much more information, applied research and education on international labour issues. The past five years have witnessed a mushrooming of labour resource and education centres within the mainstream union movement and on its fringes. These groups — of which there are 15 in the UK alone — are contributing to courses for shop stewards and union officials, talking to groups of ordinary trade unionists and organising campaigns. This is generally low-key work and the groups themselves are small. understaffed and strapped for funds. But their members are extremely well informed and deeply committed They could well make a lasting impact on the policies and strategies of global trade unionism.
But union power alone cannot build a sufficiently broad basis for international worker solidarity. In the struggle for democratic rights and a fair deal from governments and multinational employers, the trade union movement needs allies. For many years trade unionists have allied themselves with political parties. But having been let down too often by politicians, unions are now discovering vast areas of previously unsurveyed common ground between themselves and other nongovernment organisations. Third World development agencies, for example, used to attack the unions as bastions of selfish protectionism. Unions, for their part reviled the ‘development set’ as middle-class trendies with no understanding of working people’s real problems. A seismic shift is now taking place. More and more unions and development agencies are realizing that they are allies in a broad coalition aiming to achieve democratic rights and decent living standards for all working people, wherever they happen to live.
The same realisation is occurring across a broad spectrum of non government organisations. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International, environmental protection groups, the growing peace movement, single issue campaigns. cooperatives, women’s and minority rights groups. antiracist organisations and church agencies are all lining up with trade unions to defend the rights of working people. This broad coalition is developing a common vision of the long-term interests of humanity and working out ways of realising that vision. The end of the tunnel is still a long way off but a thin shaft of light has split the darkness.
This special report appeared in the global trade unionism - light at the end of the tunnel issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.