The globalization of capital that has undermined workers everywhere finally has brought about moves for the globalization of labor. Finally, unions worldwide are seriously heeding Karl Marx’ plea for workers to unite across national boundaries.
Although first voiced 160 years ago, "Workers of the World Unite!" is one of the most important messages that the unions of today are likely to hear. As President Andy Stern of the Service Employees Union says, Marx’ message "isn’t ideological anymore. It’s practical."
The need for international labor unity is great and daily growing greater. Government policies in the United States and elsewhere have allowed corporate employers to shift operations to poor countries, where workers are poorly paid and have few rights because they lack effective unions and other protections.
At the same time, there’s been a flood of cheap labor into the United States from poorer countries. That has helped hold down the pay of U.S. workers and keep them from gaining broader rights and better working conditions. Much of the problem has been caused by U.S. trade policies that are designed to help the corporate interests favored by most U.S, lawmakers and thus allow the exploitation of workers both here and abroad.
What it amounts to, simply, is that powerful multi-national corporations — that is to say, most major corporations — are able to keep pay and working conditions at low levels by playing one country’s workforce off against another’s workforce while maximizing the corporation’s profits.
In the meantime, the size of the worldwide labor force has doubled, while the size of unions worldwide has not come even close to keeping pace. That has severely weakened the bargaining power of unions in dealing with global employers.
So what’s to be done? How should workers of the world go about uniting? For one thing, they should develop international standards for the treatment of workers everywhere and jointly demand that they be followed and that trade agreements carry provisions to protect and further workers’ rights.
Workers employed by the same corporate employers in different parts of the world should act jointly — pool their resources, coordinate their efforts, help each other develop strong, effective unions and global strategies , They need to organize workers jointly and make the same demands for decent working conditions wherever the workers are employed, here or abroad – and enforce those demands jointly, if necessary, by strikes and other actions.
Steps toward the globalization of labor by those and other means have already begun. Unions, for instance, have put together an organization, the International Trade Union Confederation, that represents more than 150 million workers in more than 150 countries. The confederation’s charter spells out its purpose and needs quite clearly: "Confronted by unbridled capitalist globalization, effective internationalism is essential to the future strength of trade unionism."
The confederation promises to struggle "for the emancipation of working people and a world in which the dignity and rights of all human beings is assured."
Just recently, the world’s first global union was formed through an alliance between America’s United Steelworkers union and Unite, Britain’s largest union, which is made up mainly of factory and transportation workers. The alliance goes by the awkward, but apt name of "Workers Uniting: The Global Union."
The two unions, which represent workers at some companies that operate in both the United States and Britain, will remain largely autonomous. But they will have a joint leadership to coordinate common policy and collective bargaining for some three million members in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and the Irish Republic who work in virtually every sector of the global economy — in manufacturing, service, mining and transportation.
Other recent steps toward globalization have been taken by the Communication Workers union. It has formed a T-Workers Union for employees of T-Mobile who work for the German-owned company in this country and in Germany. Members will belong to both the Communication Workers and its German equivalent.
Andy Stern’s Service Employees Union has established a worldwide network of security-guard unions as the first of what the union hopes will be a series of organizing campaigns for workers in a variety of occupations here and abroad.
Former labor leader and U.S. Under Secretary of Labor Jack Henning eloquently explained why such steps are urgent and essential:
"We were never meant to be beggars at the table of wealth. We were never meant to be the lieutenants of capitalism. We were never meant to be the pall bearers of the workers of the world. Global unionism is the answer to global capitalism. There is no other answer."
Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer who has covered labor issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, dickmeister.com