The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Unions across borders

The global wage earning class today may be estimated to 2.5 to 3 billion. Among these 5 to 7.6 per cent are unionized. In a core capitalist like the USA the share has shrunk from 30 per cent in 1960 to 11.8 per cent in 2009, in Germany from 34.7 per cent to 18.6 per cent. Strike activity and support for the historical working class parties have also gone down. In this guest post, Knut Kjeldstadli from the Transnational Labour Project in Oslo reflects on the possibilities of establishing solidarity across borders.

These sombre numbers were recently presented at a workshop on transnational unionism organized by the Transnational Labour Project group at CAS, Centre for Advanced Study in Oslo. The traditional labour movement formed by industrial capitalism may be said to be in a state of crisis in huge parts of the world. Yet, the participants could also tell about counter movements, about successful attempts of establishing tariff agreements and of creating new forms of organization. The Argentinian CTA, which organizes wage earners, the unemployed as well as people who formally are independent workers, is one example. And new trade unions, which one conventionally might expect to be timid, show a high degree of militancy. One example is the Polish nurses’ union which in 2007 occupied the prime minister’s office for eight days, and when evicted, staged a tent camp for four weeks in the centre of Warsaw.

While capital has become global, trade unions to a large extent have remained national. Now, sufficiently strong unions form the necessary base for a forceful transnational activity. But in addition unions have to – against high odds – be able to meet the opponents at the same global level. And examples of such victorious fights were also presented at the Oslo seminar.

Solidarity work, where resources are transmitted from a stronger partner to those in need of support, is one form. One example is the 1997 campaign for the right to organize and enter into agreements at the American division of United Parcel Service. Their strike was supported by UPS employees in other countries, who refused to distribute parcels from the USA. Another example is from clothes sellers Hennes & Mauritz, where the union in the Swedish division pressurized the corporation management, who in their turn instructed the American management to accept a deal. A four nation network with links to the small peasants’ organization La Via Campesina cooperates with seasonal agricultural workers to organize.

Such support may rest on consumer power. The American clothes producer Russell sells college sweaters. The conditions in their factories in Honduras were appalling. A campaign in 2009 against ordering sweaters from Russell comprised 100 American universities, and also Canadian and British universities.  By using this type of collective buying power the campaign managed to press successfully for the right to unionize and a tariff agreement, a full victory.

Another type of transnational activity is coordinated actions. In 2005 South American unions, social movements and left orientated governments gathered into a huge campaign against the US-led plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The alliance was called the Southern Hemispheric Alliance. The campaign succeeded. And yet one has to add that the USA later entered into a range of bilateral trade agreements on free trade instead. In November 2012 there were coordinated strikes in Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal against the present austerity policy. The strike was combined with other forms of resistance – such as consumers’ boycott; orange ribbons were carried by those who could not strike, but wanted to demonstrate the support, theatre groups made performances, street theatre, road blocks and cyber-attacks at public web sites.

Finally there is cooperation based on common interests. A dockers’ campaign against a new EU directive led to victory in 2003. In 2012-2013 workers in Thessaloniki occupied a factory, supported by various radical networks. When similar occupations were carried out in Milano, Rome and Marseilles, they benefited from exchanging experiences. When the security guards in the American division of the giant corporation G4S wanted to unionize, the union brought the fight outside USA – putting pressure on investors, monitoring the companies etc. And tariff agreements were struck in almost ten countries where none had existed before.

More examples were presented at the seminar. Counter forces and internal differences in the world’s working class make transnational solidarity difficult – but not impossible. Many groups have managed to find what is common among differences, to go from the local and special to the general. Solidarity may be built across borders.


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