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.
It's understandable why the AFL-CIO, which claims 10 million members, has been stepping up its campaign. Their full-court press on the Democrat-controlled Congress in 2007 yielded few victories. Though unions and their supporters convinced lawmakers to pass, and President Bush to sign, a phased-in hike in the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, they achieved little else. The bitterest pill was the defeat by Senate filibuster this past June of the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act. This measure, which earlier had passed the House by 241-185, would have severely curtailed supervised secret-ballot elections in favor of the card check, a process by which union organizers go to a given worksite and even homes to coax employees into signing a card indicating a desire to join. It's an inherently manipulative process. Yet the legislation would have required an employer to recognize the results of a card check whenever a union wins a simple majority of signatures.
Presenters at the AFL-CIO summit, in a pique, declared that U.S. labor law is stacked against workers. "The current state of affairs in the United States involves very heavy restrictions of the right to organize and bargain collectively, and that restriction has spillover effects in other countries," said Guy Ryder, general secretary of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation, with nearly 170 million members in more than 150 countries. In the minds of such people, not enacting a mandatory card-check law is evidence of repressing workers' rights.
A principal endgame of global cooperation, argues union partisan Harold Meyerson, executive editor of the Left-progressive monthly, The American Prospect, is winning company-wide contracts. When unions in America and elsewhere work together, they can coax collective-bargaining agreements from a multinational firm at all plants rather than one plant at a time. It's an updated version of the strategy pioneered by United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis back in the 1930s.
From organized labor's standpoint, this approach makes sense. Because many major U.S. employers have operations abroad, it is incumbent for labor organizations to think globally. And because American labor law provides a model for U.S.-based multinationals operating abroad and for foreign companies operating here, changing our own laws effectively changes laws worldwide.
This cross-pollination has been felt in a number of instances. In 2004, two American unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and UNITE-HERE, launched a drive to organize more than 100,000 workers at Sodexho Group, the European-based food and facilities service provider. SEIU's Tom Woodruff, campaign director, stated: "We are working for agreements in more than one country." It was a quid pro quo arrangement. Our unions wanted company-wide recognition by Sodexho, affiliated with the Marriott hotel chain; foreign unions wanted access to the company's list of U.S. workers.
In August 2005, American unions organized an e-mail campaign in support of 800 striking members of Great Britain's Transport and General Workers' Union fired by airline caterer Gate Gourmet, a subsidiary of the Ft. Worth-based Texas Pacific Group. The employer had indicated in a secret internal briefing obtained by the pro-Labour Party Daily Mirror (London) that it wanted to hire lower-wage Eastern European workers trained at secret bases.
This past year, the United Steelworkers of America entered into merger talks with its British sister union, Unite. The unions have formed global worker councils at several major multinational companies. This past September the USWA helped convene a global meeting of unions representing workers at the world's largest steelmaker, Arcelor Mittal.
Meanwhile, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) has embarked on a new way to organize employees at T-Mobile, which is owned by Deutsche Telekom. CWA members who work at the cell-phone company recently joined forces with the German union, Ver.di, to form the T-Workers Union. Members of this new entity will belong to both Ver.di and the CWA.
America's union leaders want to go beyond simply expanding membership, and become players in shaping the global economy. They want to curb what they see as dangerous excesses of capitalism. In a May speech in Seville, Spain before the European Trade Union Confederation, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka remarked, "I cannot emphasize strongly enough the degree to which the ten million members of the AFL-CIO stand shoulder to shoulder with you as we confront the threats posed by a global economy that is regulated solely in the interests of financiers, with little or no regard for the economic and social consequences that financialization is imposing on societies." Marxism, in this view, is good business, not just revolution. As SEIU President Andrew Stern puts it: "'Workers of the world, unite' isn't ideological anymore. It's practical."
Now there's nothing intrinsically wrong with an organization wanting to expand membership or wield influence. All organizations want that. Nor is there anything new, or inherently Leftist, about organized labor going global. It was, after all, the AFL-CIO, as much as any organization, that spearheaded the fight against Soviet Communism. Under the leadership of Lane Kirkland, the federation provided enormous assistance to leaders of the Polish Solidarity movement -- note again the "s" word.
The problem is that an organization has to be cognizant of the effects of its actions, most of all on its own country. Cultivating ties to unions abroad is defensible insofar as it advances American interests. But does organized labor's anti-corporate global campaign pass the test? It would seem that fighting Communism isn't quite the same thing as promoting it, even if in a more salable form. And then there is the matter of sovereignty. By advocating blending our labor laws with those of other nations, unions necessarily are weakening America's capacity for self-governance.
Business, to its debit, has been guilty in any number of ways of undermining our sovereignty. Many companies and trade associations, for example, have aggressively pushed to expand immigration, supporting any number of recent (and thankfully failed) amnesty plans. But that doesn't justify granting a blank check for unions to follow suit. Solidarity may be forever, as American labor's official fight song goes, but nations throughout the ages have been shown to be temporary.