Trade union responses to globalization

Significant developments are taking place as unions search for new ways of operating in a globalized world. Andrew Bibby reports on a new study.

On a day in late September this year, 1,800 activists from 30 countries demonstrated outside IBM premises in solidarity with Italian IBM workers in dispute with the company. This was, however, a rather unusual sort of protest: it took place on Second Life, the virtual world now populated by 7 million subscribers, and the demonstrators wearing union T-shirts were Second Life “avatars”.

It is easy to advance the view that whilst capital is global, labour remains local – that whilst business has found the framework to operate effectively on a trans-national basis, unions remain stuck in a nation-state view of the world. The IBM protest on Second Life (in this case coordinated by the Global Union Federation UNI) may or may not prefigure future ways of taking industrial action, but it does at least suggest that unions are finding intriguing new ways to try to respond creatively to globalization.

Certainly, trade unions’ adjustment to a globalized world economy is not unproblematic and remains best described as work-in-progress. Nevertheless, as an important new collection of essays makes very clear, there are some significant developments taking place, both in terms of theory and practice.

The book, Trade union responses to globalization (See note 1), pulls together in one place some of the work of the Global Union Research Network (GURN), established in 2004 to encourage researchers and trade unionists to explore labour movement responses to current developments in the world economy. The book is edited by Verena Schmidt, from the ILO’s Bureau for Workers’ Activities, who detects three common threads in this work: “Firstly the need for enlarging the trade union agenda, secondly the role of network and alliance building and thirdly the role of the ILO and labour standards in achieving a fair globalization.”

There is, of course, nothing particularly new about global trade, a point made by an essay in the book on the banana industry in Colombia which points out that a small number of global giants have dominated the banana business for a century or more. Nevertheless, historically social partnership and collective bargaining have almost without exception been organized within national state boundaries. This may be beginning to change. Certainly a significant new role is being taken on by the family of Global Union institutions, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the OECD’s Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC), and especially the ten sectoral Global Union Federations (GUFs).

It has been the GUFs who have led the way in negotiating the growing number of International Framework Agreements with multinational enterprises, a model for taking formal collective agreements to the global level which has now been adopted in more than 30 cases. As Marion Hellmann of Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) points out, international framework agreements offer a way of moving beyond companies’ voluntary codes of practice which, she argues, can be simply a marketing ploy. “International Framework Agreements constitute a formal recognition of social partnership at the global level,” she writes, stressing that they are qualitatively different from voluntary codes. “Multinational companies signing such agreements commit themselves to respect workers’ rights, on the basis of the core ILO Conventions,” she adds.

She describes in detail one particular framework agreement, that signed in 1998 between BWI and the Swedish furniture multinational IKEA which, thanks to commitment from both social partners, has helped raise labour standards in countries as diverse as Poland, Malaysia and China. Nevertheless, Hellmann points out some of the practical problems encountered in extending the reach of framework agreements so that they adequately cover multinationals’ networks of suppliers and sub-contractors.

This last issue – an important one, as many major companies increasingly outsource aspects of what were once core functions – is picked up by other contributors to the book. There are clearly contradictory tendencies at work. On the one hand, outsourcing work once undertaken in-house can be associated with worsening labour conditions. In an essay looking at the IT sector in both California’s Silicon Valley and India’s IT centre Bangalore, Anibel Ferus-Comelo suggests that strong competition on price for computers and electronics products is leading to highly complex subcontracting chains: “Whilst this has been a successful corporate strategy, it has detrimental consequences for workers further down the supply chain in different parts of the world. Working in the IT industry frequently means having precarious employment in a highly stratified occupational structure with casual or short-term contracts,” she writes. Two other writers, Esther de Haan and Michael Koen, describe the problems of protecting core labour standards in another outsourced industry, that of the garment manufacturing sector in southern and eastern Africa.

On the other hand, the increasingly tight-knit nature of global value chains, which bind together primary producers, manufacturers, intermediaries and eventual retailers, could be seen as providing new opportunities for exporting good labour conditions to companies and contractors operating “upstream”. Lee Pegler and Peter Knorringa, in an essay on the implications for unions of global value chain analysis, explore among other things whether companies who participate in global value chains have improved employment conditions (though the evidence they unearth is, at best, inconclusive). Nevertheless, multinationals can be seen as acting as a kind of transmission mechanism, transferring industrial relations practices from their country of origin to suppliers and contractors elsewhere, and this is an area to which unions might usefully pay more attention. As Verena Schmidt puts it, “The concept of value chains presents some opportunities for labour… Organizing along supply chains could be a way to focus efforts and move beyond existing North-South cooperation arrangements.”

A major problem for trade unions in organizing, it is argued, is the fickle nature of multinational enterprise, prepared to relocate apparently at will to new destinations offering lower costs or higher government subsidies. For instance, southern Africa’s garment industry, we learn, has suffered in recent years as Asian investors have pulled out, the result of the export quota rules changing. Bulgaria’s garment industry, too, faces serious organizing challenges. Nadejda Daskalova and Lyuben Tomev describe efforts by the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria to protect fundamental labour rights: “In a number of garment companies owned by foreign investors relocated to Bulgaria from neighbouring countries, the widespread practice is to work 14-16 hours a day for minimum pay – in drastic violation of the social and labour laws,” they write.

It is not just capital which can be footloose: in an increasingly globalized world, labour is, too. The UN recently suggested that the world’s migrants total 191 million, the majority of whom are migrant workers and dependants. As is well known, migrant workers are particularly at risk of facing poor employment conditions and exploitation at work; in some circumstances, the presence of unorganized migrant workers in a country’s workforce can also put downward pressures on the conditions enjoyed by domestic workers. Two particularly interesting essays in this collection report on initiatives by trade unions to tackle these challenges. Ann-Marie Lorde, who has played a key role in a recent project on the migration of women in the health sector coordinated by the public sector GUF Public Services International, explores the opportunities for a combined trade union approach to intra-regional migration within the Caribbean area through the work of the Caribbean Public Sector Unions (CPSU). Jane Hardy and Nick Clark report on the work being undertaken in the United Kingdom and Poland to organize the very large number of (primarily young) Polish migrant workers who have recently moved to Britain. Initiatives include the seconding of a worker from the Polish union federation Solidarity to the British Trades Union Congress, to work to organize Polish migrants into British unions. The writers report too on complementary efforts by Polish unions to advise would-be Polish migrants of their rights abroad. Whilst collaborations like this are at an early stage, the experience to date has clearly been positive. “The possibility of mutual recognition of union cards may enhance the attraction of union membership to a mobile workforce,” the writers also suggest.

If the need for greater transnational collaboration by unions is one message from this book, another recurring theme is the need for unions to reach out to make partnerships with other organizations, especially NGOs. As Mary Margaret Fonow and Suzanne Franzway point out, “There has been a proliferation of political spaces where the interests of labour overlap with other movements and with advocacy organizations concerned with labour rights and development.” Their own perspective is a feminist one, which sees a strong need for unions to tackle globalization by developing structures and ways of working which empower women workers and union members: “Those concerned with the renewal of the labour movement must come to terms with the fundamental way that gender structures neo-liberal globalization, labour markets and free trade agreements. We argue for gender analysis because sexual politics is integral to trade unions, globalization and efforts to challenge the neo-liberal agenda,” they maintain.

The value of alliance building by unions with other organizations is one clear proposal from this book. Another message stressed by almost all the authors is the relevance of the ILO and of labour standards in achieving a form of globalization based on fairness and equity. As Verena Schmidt suggests, the ILO’s role in this respect can be traced right back to its founding principles in 1919, and certainly to its call in 1944 to avoid labour being treated as a commodity. International labour standards will be an important campaign tool, she suggests, to improve working conditions in a globalizing world economy.

Note 1Trade union responses to globalization: A review by the Global Union Research Network, edited by Verena Schmidt. ILO and GURN, Geneva, 2007.