Carl Horowitz

If American unionism can be summarized in one word, it would be "solidarity."  A desire for unbreakable collective unity is pretty much why organized labor organizes in the first place.  Solidarity has an emotional power that can transcend race, sex, religion and national boundaries.  That last factor looms especially large these days.    

Union membership in this country, in relative terms, has been in long-term decline.  In 2006, only 12 percent of all U.S. employees belonged to a union; this "union density" rate, as it is called, stood at more than 30 percent of the non-farm workforce a half-century earlier.  But other industrialized nations also are going through this process.  A 24-nation survey by Jelle Visser of the Institute for Advanced Labour Studies (Netherlands) showed that during 1970-2003, union density fell by 9.5 percent in Germany, 13.4 percent in France, 15.5 percent in the United Kingdom, 27.3 percent in Australia and 33.1 percent in New Zealand.  Even where unions grew, as in Belgium, Finland and Sweden, most, if not all, growth occurred during 1970-80.     

Labor leaders throughout the world are fully aware of this trend.  That's why more than ever they are attracted to the idea of cross-national organizing.  Their campaign has been going on for some time, but recently has shifted into high gear.  Case in point:  a first-time-ever summit meeting this past December 10-11 at the AFL-CIO's National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., where the labor federation hosted more than 200 union officials from over 60 countries. 

At the conference, President John Sweeney called upon labor to go global: 

President Bush and his cronies have done all they can to destroy workers' rights around the world.  The truth is until we are able to restore basic workers' rights in the United States, the worldwide decline will not stop.  But rather than wring our hands in desperation or wash our hands of responsibility, we need to build strategies for global action.  We have to create global strategies not just to bargain with individual employers, but to restore the right to organize for workers all over the world.

Guest speakers amplified this theme.  "As never before, we must link global action with local action," said Fred Van Leeuwen, chairman of an organization formed a little over a year ago, the Council of Global Unions.

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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