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Global Unions Unite to Fight ‘Lawless’ U.S. Corporations

December 12, 2007
Related Topics: Global Business Issues, Labor Relations, Latest News
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In the global economy, goods and services aren’t the only products that U.S. multinational corporations sell to other countries.

They’re also exporting anti-union attitudes that threaten collective bargaining around the world, according to international labor leaders at a conference in Washington on Tuesday, December 11.

“Corporations are sinking to new lows in the United States, thwarting workers’ freedom to form unions at every turn, and our nation’s labor laws are helpless to stop them,” AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said at a Capitol Hill press conference.

“The U.S. is exporting this lawless corporate culture, creating a domino effect that’s toppling workers’ rights worldwide,” he said.

Sweeney’s organization hosted a conference December 10 and 11 that brought more than 200 union leaders from 63 countries to Washington to discuss union rights around the world.

Much of a Capitol Hill forum that concluded the event, however, focused on domestic legislation that would make it easier for U.S. workers to form unions.

The Employee Free Choice Act would force a company to recognize a union when 50 percent of its workforce signs cards authorizing one. Under current law, companies can insist on a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

The measure also would enable companies or unions to turn to a mediator if they cannot reach agreement on a first contract within 90 days. If mediation doesn’t produce an agreement after 30 days, the dispute can be referred to binding arbitration. In addition, the bill would impose $20,000 fines on companies that violate workers’ organizing rights.

Most Democrats back the bill, which passed the House earlier this year. It was derailed in the Senate when Republicans blocked its consideration. President Bush indicated he would veto the bill if it gained congressional approval.

Republicans accuse Democrats of pushing the bill as a payback for organized labor support in helping the party take control of Congress.

Business groups fiercely oppose the measure, saying that it would curtail workplace democracy and enable unions to strong-arm employees into supporting collective bargaining. Critics also assert that the bill is designed to bolster sagging union membership, which has dipped to 12 percent of U.S. employees.

“The so-called Employee Free Choice Act is as cynical in name as it is in its intention,” said Alexa Marrero, communications director for Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee. “This is a bill that strips workers of the fundamental right to a secret-ballot election, which explains why it has been soundly rejected in the court of public opinion.”

But advocates at the global union forum praised it, saying it would set a precedent for the freedom to unionize that would be felt far beyond U.S. shores.

The bill’s passage would “shine a light of hope around the world,” said Sharan Burrow, president of the International Trade Union Confederation and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Burrow and others argued that increasing unionization around the world would result in workers obtaining better wages and benefits.

John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, said the conference demonstrates that U.S. and European unions will aggressively pursue workers’ rights while they still have the leverage of operating in the two economies that dominate world output.

“We’re going on the front foot to take the battle forward,” he said. “We’re all part of the same family fighting the same battle for working people of the world.”

In collective bargaining coverage, however, the United States varies greatly with its European cousins. Union leaders produced charts showing that 35 percent of workers in the U.K., 92 percent in Sweden and 95 percent in France belong to unions.

John Logan, a lecturer in the department of management at the London School of Economics, said the high percentage of unionization in Europe doesn’t undermine the assertion that the U.S. is fomenting anti-union behavior.

“The obstacles [to unionization] are far greater in the United States than in any other developed country,” Logan said. “Employer opposition is much more aggressive, much more intense and often illegal.”

That attitude can be exported through individual companies wherever they’re located and by the international activities of anti-union consultants.

“It’s highly likely that it would have negative consequences for workers and unions in other countries,” Logan said.

The U.S. wasn’t the only country singled out for criticism. In remarks at the conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized China.

“The right to bargain collectively is not respected there,” she said. “It’s not fair to Chinese workers and it’s not fair to workers in the rest of the world.”

Determining the extent of unionization around the world was one breakthrough of the conference, according to Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America.

“This kind of mapping exercise is a significant shift,” he said.

Now that they know their reach, unions have to act together across borders on a macro level to effectively respond to companies that operate internationally, according to a forum participant. They can’t confine themselves to national boundaries.

“We need to move from the episodic and haphazard to the permanent and systematic,” said Guy Ryder, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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