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EconPapers: The Unions’ Response to Globalization

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Globalization may have opened as many doors as it closed. At the most basic level, the globalization of communication has countered one of the most formidable barriers to global action. With email, social media, and other online platforms, workers enjoy better tools to organize across countries—imagine trying to organize a transnational strike a century ago. Globalized capitalism may have created the basis for a new global working class, not only in material conditions but also in consciousness. Transnational unionism can take many forms. It can operate among union executives or on a grassroots level, while organizing can be workplace-oriented or based on collaboration with NGOs on issue campaigns.

Successful transnational unionism has the capacity to navigate complexity and operate on multiple levels. In particular, transnationally oriented unions have used globalization to their benefit by organizing transnational labor actions, forming new transnational structures, and fostering solidarity with migrant workers at home. When a transnational corporation spreads production nodes across countries, thus distributing the workforce, the geographic expansion also increases the possible leverage points for organizing against the corporation.

The workers of Irish budget airline Ryanair understand this well. In mid, they went on strike—starting in Ireland before spreading across the continent—for pay increases, direct employment, and collective labor agreements that comply with national labor laws. Management, which had used its transnational status to play workers against each other, was confronted by a united cross-national organized labor force.

Labor has also showed strength by partnering with allies at different points along the globally dispersed production chain. A campaign against sweatshops in the apparel industry showed how direct action by students in the US can support organizing by workers in Honduras. Garment workers in global production chains are usually considered weak compared to hypermobile, high-profit companies like Nike. Transnational union resources focused on a particular industry or country have considerable power to deny market share and thereby bolster demands at the point of production.

Besides enabling specific actions, the new economic landscape has given rise to new organizing structures, as labor unions realize that old methods of operating can no longer suffice. However, they proved unable to create the stability and continuity needed to achieve the transnational collective bargaining power the unions hoped to develop. Thus, gains won where labor is stronger can spread to where it is weaker. By , Global Framework Agreements had been signed around the world, focused mainly on core workplace conditions and the right to collective bargaining.

Developments like GFAs grew from the realization that relying on old national-level collective bargaining had turned into a dead end. Labor needed new strategies, tactics, and organizational modalities. A significant manifestation of this shift is the emergence of global unions.

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The new union, Workers Uniting, represented almost 3 million workers at its founding in the steel, paper, oil, health care, and transportation industries. Oil conglomerate BP and steel behemoth ArcelorMittal are both transnational; now, their workers are transnational too, refusing to be pitted against each other in negotiations. Maritime workers, who have a built-in internationalism, have taken similar steps.

Two years later, workers took the partnership a step further, voting to create a single transnational union: Nautilus International. Notably, the smartest unions are treating migrant workers not as a threat but as an opportunity. By making common cause with migrant workers, trade unions have deepened their democratic role by integrating migrant workers into unions and combating divisive and racist political forces.

In Singapore and Hong Kong, state-sponsored unions have recruited migrant workers, to mutual benefit. Through such positive, proactive outreach, unions can counter the divide-and-conquer strategy on which anti-union management thrives. Despite such bright spots, many contradictions and pitfalls impede the forward march of transnational labor organizing.

The mismatch between the unlimited scale and complexity of the challenge and the limited resources available remains a chronic problem. Also, successfully organizing new layers of workers may reduce the capacity of unions to take action due to the difficulties of mobilizing an informal or precarious global labor force. These problems are not insurmountable for a nimble and strategic labor movement, but they must be addressed head on.

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The persistence of this upsurge in transnational organizing is not inevitable; maintaining growth and success requires deep rethinking of the role of trade unions. However, no iron law governs how trade unions respond to crisis. New visions may emerge, new alliances may form, and new forward-thinking leaders may arise.

If we see labor as a social movement, we will perceive its constant regeneration.

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While still weakened by the ravages of the long neoliberal night, the international labor movement has, since the mids, been regrouping and recomposing. Struggles have matured from desperate rear-guard actions into concerted, proactive organizing campaigns. The International Trade Union Confederation now organizes million workers in countries. The aforementioned GUFs have approximately million members across such key sectors of the global economy as mining, metalwork, transport, steel, building, food, and public services.

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  • Together, these global unions show that labor has not disappeared as some had hoped and others had feared. Yet, structures do not in themselves make a social movement, especially when they remain chronically under-resourced. At the same time, reorganized national trade unions in many countries are becoming significant social and political actors. By moving into the organization of informal transport workers, with support from the International Transport Workers Federation, membership has grown to over 60,, and the union has significantly democratized its internal processes.

    Since , they have become among the strongest in the region by transforming their repertoire of action: building broad-based coalitions with NGOs, working with informal worker groups, and influencing government policy. The status of trade union revitalization is subject to debate in both academic and policy circles. There is no singular path forward. Key directions include recruiting in new areas, with migrant workers an obvious option, building coalitions with other social movements, and intensifying international solidarity actions.

    Trade unions everywhere although not all of them are getting back in touch with their grassroots, improving their communications, and looking outward instead of inward. Trade unions began as part of a popular struggle for democracy, and what the slogans of the French Revolution meant in that day, the principles of the global justice movement could mean today. The international trade union movement is both a transnational social movement in the making and a representative organization of workers on the ground.

    Its democratic structures, focus on the world of work, and membership-based nature distinguish it from NGOs campaigning on issues of gender equity, human rights, or environmental protection. While many advocacy groups are ephemeral, the labor movement will almost certainly be around for a long time, since the collective representation of workers is essential even as its organizational form evolves. That said, the labor movement has learned a lot from social movements and kindred NGOs, and to an increasing degree has been joining the broad alter-globalization movement.

    It can and will play a central and increasing role in achieving a degree of social regulation over the worldwide expansion of capitalism in the decades to come. Indeed, it must. In the formative stages of the labor movement, unions engaged actively with the broader political issues of the day, in particular, the call for universal suffrage. In contrast to the later tradition of craft unionism, the early labor organizers did not recognize divisions based on skill or race.

    Our world order, globalized from above, cries out for a globalized response from below, a new international fit for the purpose of system transformation in the twenty-first century. What would a new international look like? The models of internationals past are not useful for addressing the complex, interdependent, rapidly changing contemporary world. Nor does the template of the World Social Forum suffice, as it remains trapped by a vision of convening rather than action, and has failed to embrace the major transnational social movements, especially the labor movement.

    The exploitation of labor is as much at the core of capitalist relations of production in the "new" capitalism as in the old. But workers will not be the sole drivers of social transformation. All sorts of divisions—formal and informal workers, male and female, settled and migrants, North and South—must be bridged before labor can realize its full potential in an international fit for twenty-first-century challenges.

    Many NGOs, philanthropies, and U. Ultimately, though, only transnationally organized labor can be a counterweight to transnationally organized capital. The task seems daunting, but the myriad global interactions within and between social movements are already fertilizing the seeds of a new international.

    While a coordinating mechanism can emerge later, the priority now is to cultivate the basis for joint work and a politics of unity in diversity that engages old and new social movements and operates across spatial scales. This work finds expression around specific issues demanding a global response, such as fighting for climate action, gender equity, organizing the working poor, and alleviating the plight of migrants and refugees.

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    A new international also needs a shared a vision. Building on existing manifestos and charters, unions and their allies can foster consensus around a new labor charter comprised of radical reformist measures with transnational resonance. Rather than a centralized process, the work can proceed as a web of network interactions—the charter would not gain its legitimacy from the approval of union leadership and intellectual elites, but from union members, shop-floor activists, and allied social movements, all challenging the predations of globalized capitalism.

    A starting list might include the call for a six-hour day to reduce work stress while distributing work more equitably; universal labor rights including the right to strike and engage in international solidarity action; and policies to ease the plight of migrants, the precariat, the self-employed, and the unemployed.