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U.S. Unions Act Globally, Benefit Locally

By creating international agreements with European multinationals, groups are gaining entry into American businesses that previously had fended off organizing efforts.

February 3, 2006
Complaints about the effects of globalization usually are lodged by employees whose companies have shifted work to other countries, leaving behind fewer jobs and lower wages.

    But now another con­stituency is feeling the local effects of international workforce decision-making: American subsidiaries whose parent companies in Europe are signing off on union-organizing agreements that are binding here.

    It’s a rude awakening for businesses that have for years been staving off union campaigns, often with the aid of highly paid attorneys and consultants. But it’s a great development for people like Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

    He says the "dawning moment" for the strategy came for him a few years ago when Sweden-based Securitas bought three U.S.-based firms--Pinkerton, Burns International Services Corp. and Loomis Fargo & Co.--within a 12-month period. Around the same time, Group 4 Securicor, a British-Danish company, bought Wacken­hut Corp., a Palm Beach Gardens, Florida-based security company.

    "All of a sudden we found ourselves needing to talk more to CEOs in Europe than in the U.S.," he says.

    With union membership in the United States at an all-time low, labor leaders here are reaching out to their global counterparts to help work together and organize. "The slogan ‘Workers of the world unite’ can’t be a slogan," Stern says. "It has to be a way of life if workers are going to be successful."

    Such solidarity is already having an effect in the U.S., labor experts say.

    "The issue is that you can have a multinational company in Europe agreeing to these things and the executives at the U.S. subsidiary are planning their own labor strategies, unaware that those agreements are having a direct impact on them," says Gerald Hathaway, a partner in the New York law firm of Littler Mendelson.

    And it’s not just parent companies that the unions are targeting in Europe, he says. In some cases they are targeting companies’ suppliers and customers there. Since the labor movement is much more a part of the social fabric in countries like Germany, where boards of companies are required to have union members, U.S. unions realize that they can accomplish more by beginning there than they can at home.

    "Unions are creating global agreements that affect all of a company’s subsidiaries," Hathaway says. "They are being very forward-thinking."

Global agreements
    At its Chicago convention in August, the Union Network International announced that signing global agreements with companies was going to be a big focus for the group. The network includes 900 unions with 15 million members around the world and was formed in 2000.

    "The idea behind the agreements is that multinational companies will apply certain rules of the game across all of the nations where they have facilities," says Jim Sauber, chief of staff and research director for the Letter Carriers’ Union, a Union Network International affiliate.

    The agreements cover labor standards, the right to organize and human rights issues. In some situations, the agreements include formal neutrality clauses, which mean that the employer agrees not to campaign against a union that is trying to organize its workers.


Union Network International has a list of 100 multinational employers
it will focus on. "But that doesn't
mean if you are not a big name that you will not be targeted."
--Philip Jennings, UNI

    Some of these agreements also allow unions to bypass the National Labor Relations Board certification process altogether, Hathaway says. In these situations, the multinational employers agree to allow unions to use card-check drives. If 51 percent of the company’s employees sign cards saying they want the union to represent them, the union wins representation. Unions prefer this method because it is faster.

    So far, seven companies have signed global agreements with the Union Network International: Carrefour, a Paris-based food retailer; Hennes & Mauritz of Sweden, which has its H&M stores in the U.S.; Denmark-based Falck; Internet Security Systems, based in Atlanta; Metro AG of Germany; Greek telecommunications company OTE; and Spanish telecom provider Telefonica.

    Philip Jennings, general secretary of Union Network International, says that since the right to organize is in all of the agreements, the unions can address issues that come up even without formal neutrality agreements being in place.

    Given the importance of these clauses in North America, however, UNI and other groups are focusing more on including them in their agreements, Jennings says. Fifty agreements have been signed, and another 50 are in the works, he notes.

    In several instances, U.S. unions have been able to get multinationals to sign neutrality agreements through their own outreach to unions abroad. In 2003, for example, the Graphical Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters began to talk to U.S. executives at Quebecor World, a Canada-based printing company with global locations, about allowing its workers in the U.S. to join the union.

    When the company responded by hiring "union busters," consultants whose job it is to stave off unions, the group reached out to unions that represented Quebecor workers in Europe and Latin America and found they were having similar experiences, says Tim Beaty, director of global strategies for the Teamsters. "So we started working as a group to pressure them to treat workers better," he says.

    By setting up meetings with management of Quebecor in the different countries where it had locations, the unions hoped to make the company understand that if they tried moving the jobs to other parts of the world, they would meet the same resistance, Beaty says. In May 2005, Quebecor signed a neutrality agreement that allows for the union to use secret-ballot elections to determine whether workers want unions. Under the process, if 30 percent of employees in a unit want to be organized, there will be an election within 21 days conducted by a neutral third party.

    So far, two plants with a total of 400 workers have been organized, and a number of other plants are in the process, Beaty says. Tony Ross, a Quebecor World spokes­man, says no other elections have been scheduled. He adds that before this agreement, one-third of the company’s U.S. employees were represented by a union. "Que­­becor World has always respected its U.S. employees’ right to choose or not to choose union representation," he says.

    The tactic that the Teamsters used with Quebecor is becoming much more common, says Philip Rosen, a managing partner at Jackson Lewis, a White Plains, New York-based law firm that helps employers with union avoidance and labor relations. Companies need to be proactive in assessing their vulnerability and make sure that they have the right relationships with local government officials in the countries where they do business, he says.


"There has been a ripple effect where companies are moving jobs from country to country and continuing to lower standards of labor. ...
We have to stop that."
--Anna Burger, Change to Win Coalition

Company focus
    The global unions are coordinating their efforts by focusing on specific multi­national companies. Union Network International has a list of 100 multinational employers that they will focus on, Jennings says. "But that doesn’t mean if you are not a big name that you will not be targeted," he warns.

    A number of retailers, most notably Wal-Mart, are on the Union Network International list, Jennings says. At its global summit in Chicago in August, the group laid out its plan to step up activities to get Wal-Mart to change its anti-union policies in North America and to help organize Wal-Mart workers in other parts of the world.

    The Communications Workers of America has organized company-specific committees of global union members. For example, the Vodafone committee holds quarterly conference calls at which representatives from the different countries where Vodafone has a pre- sence talk about what’s going on there, says Yvette Herrera, senior director of education and communications for CWA.

    Using an international approach to corporate campaigns can be extremely effective, says Anna Burger, chair of the Change to Win Coalition, the federation of unions that broke off from the AFL-CIO last summer.

    "There has been a ripple effect where companies are moving jobs from country to country and continuing to lower standards of labor and wages," she says. "We have to stop that."

    Union members say they know that there will always be some jobs that are sent offshore because it is cheaper, but the hope is that by organizing workers in those countries, they can raise the labor standards globally. "It’s not going to be a level playing field, but anytime you can increase the voice of workers and raise their wages and benefits, it helps everyone," Herrera says.

    CWA is focusing now on organizing workers in India, where many members’ jobs are going. As part of its fact-finding in India, the union learned that some companies are moving jobs from India to China. "This is why reaching out is important," Herrera says.

    China poses a huge challenge for the labor movement because the country does not allow organizing. "We have to find a way of working in China ... because all of the companies you negotiate with are there already," Jennings told delegates of the Union Network International Conference in August.

    The International Association of Machinists has made some headway in China by going through its union counterparts in Sweden, says Dennis Hitchcock, a representative in the trade and global organization of the union. The union in Sweden has a relationship with the Volvo factories in China, so the U.S. machinists try to work through them to learn what’s going on, he says.

Outlook
    Despite the conflict among the various unions in the United States, they all agree on the necessity of creating a global labor movement, members say. "In the U.S., unions are competing for members, but that’s not the case internationally," SEIU president Stern says. "Internationally we all have a common goal," he says.

    Barbara Shailor, executive director of the solidarity center at the AFL-CIO, agrees with Stern. "The absolute objective for the Change to Win Coalition and the AFL-CIO is the objective of the global labor movement," she says.

    How successful the unions’ international tactics are remains to be seen. Much of the work is still in its infancy, says Rosen, the Jackson Lewis attorney. "The next couple of years are absolutely critical to the labor movement, and I think they understand that," he says.

    Employers can start assessing their vulnerabilities, but ultimately the best way to avoid becoming a target of a global corporate campaign is to make sure employees are getting benefits and wages that are competitive in the industry, says Gary Glaser, a partner in the New York office of law firm Seyfarth Shaw.

    "This is not just about big business versus big unions," he says. "It’s about what’s best for the employees, and the unions still need employees to want them."

Workforce Management, January 30, 2006, p. 1, 31-334 -- Subscribe Now!