What’s the Future of Globally Organized Labor?
There’s an ongoing story of fragmentation in the union movement in North America. Will the concept of cooperation and individual sacrifice for the common good work in a global labor market populated by large multinational employers?
Globalization could spur organized labor to rethink its premises, objectives, and strategies. But the prospect for that is not clear, according to respondents to this month's column. As Arun Joshi put it, "Now that the world is becoming a global village, it falls to labor's competency and its ability to move up the value chain that will allow it to share the positive gains. If labor tries the old tactic of strikes, management will just outsource the staff from somewhere else ... "
Globally organized labor may benefit from improved communication. But the obstacles it faces include differences in objectives of various work groups, a concentration on short-term goals, and a leadership gap. "Unionization will be achieved from increased interaction due to the ease of communication through electronic means, telephony, and the Internet. But unionization would only gain momentum once the labor groups' revolutionaries ensure the establishment of a work ethic and collective thinking rather than just focusing on short-term needs," according to Hujaj Ali Nawaz Khan. Deepak Alse points out that, "The real issue with unions around the world has always been and continues to be a lack of good leadership! . . . The politics of international labor interaction are extremely complex and will require tremendous leadership ability to negotiate win-win deals across countries so that employees of corporations in diverse nations are satisfied." Paul Jackson is doubtful that globally organized labor will be able to achieve the same purposes that have motivated unions on a national basis because "the purpose of most unions is 'the greater good' and generally not that of individual workers' immediate needs. . . . Without answering individual needs, labor organizations should be in their death throes."
The kind of thinking needed to meet these challenges for organized labor can be found, according to Walter Blass, in Japan. In his words, "I suggest you look at Japanese unions for a model of unions that understand business. The metaphor of 'we're all in the same lifeboat' is a useful one, both for management . . . and for unions . . . " Tim Pinel is more optimistic. He says "Perhaps the lack of legal and cultural uniformity on a global basis is what will ultimately limit this kind of action, but I suspect that out of this will emerge new kinds of collective actions that will address the contemporary issues of multinational workforces and globalized networks of trade and commerce."
These comments raise several questions: Just what new kinds of collective action might Pinel have in mind? What are the premises and objectives on which these kinds of actions should be based? Can organized labor form the necessary kinds of alliances with business and government that might be necessary to, in Pinel's words, "address the contemporary issues of multinational workforces"? Is the Japanese model a good one? What do you think?
Two contrasting news stories caught my eye over the past couple of months. The first involved the strike, at least initially unsuccessful, by the mechanics' union at Northwest Airlines in an attempt to avoid pay cuts by, if necessary, shutting down the airline and forcing it into bankruptcy. Other unions at the airline decided not to support the strike in view of past differences they had had with the mechanics. As a result, the airline continued to operate with replacement labor.
It is perhaps one small vignette in a continuing story of fragmentation in the union movement in North America. On a larger scale, sizeable groups of workers primarily in service industries recently disengaged themselves from the AFL-CIO, which they perceived as being dominated by smaller, more traditional, industrial unions. The Northwest Airlines dispute is the latest in a series of labor-manager-owner conflicts—beginning with an air traffic controllers' strike in the United States in the 1980s—in which organized labor has suffered one defeat after another, often losing jobs in the process to more productive processes, technology substitution, or often-unorganized, lower-paid workers in other countries.
The second story, buried on the inside pages of the Wall Street Journal, concerned the announcement by the head of Union Network International, a federation of 900 unions in 150 countries, that UNI would "coordinate organizing efforts" at five multinational companies, including Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Deutsche Post AG, Walt Disney Co., News Corp., and Ikea. These efforts would include work stoppages in countries where employees in these companies are unionized (in the case of Wal-Mart, Germany) in an effort to foster organization efforts in countries where their employees are not organized. Such organizing efforts were said to be aimed at South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.
In the past, labor has by organizing gained the power necessary to counteract that of large organizations operating within single, typically developed economies. The question is whether the concept of cooperation and individual sacrifice for the common good will work in a global labor market populated by large multinational employers.
Organized labor has gained a questionable reputation in global competition. Europe, where it is arguably the strongest these days, appears not to be competitive in many global industries in which labor costs are still important. Germany, in particular, where workers and union members routinely occupy seats on boards of the largest companies (through a process called "co-determination"), recently has lagged behind other European countries in its ability to increase its productivity, grow its economy, and compete globally.
Are we about to see the rise of labor organized on a global basis? If so, will such a movement be able to achieve the same purposes that have motivated large unions on a national basis? By what means will this be achieved? Or are these proposed efforts typical of those of a movement in its death throes? If it is the latter, how will labor extract its share of the gains of an expanding global economy in the future? What do you think?