Creating a New Internationalism for Labor

By Tim Shorrock

This article is from the September/October 1999 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/1999/0999shorrock.html

This article is from the September/October 1999 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 225 cover

More than 800 South African rubber workers employed by Germany's Continental Tire AG put down their tools for two hours last June in solidarity with 1,450 members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) who have been on strike for nine months at the company's General Tire plant in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The workers, who belong to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, marched to Continental's main office in Port Elizabeth and handed the CEO a letter. They demanded that Continental settle the strike and rehire the American rubber workers. The U.S. workers were fired and replaced in November after they launched an unfair labor practice strike because the multinational refused to bargain fairly.

Continental is not alone in trying to bust U.S. unions. The past 10 years have been marked by major confrontations between U.S. unions and foreign corporations. Japanese, Swedish and German corporations have replaced striking workers or fired organizers in ways that would be difficult, if not impossible, in their home countries (see box).

"It's like our companies going to Mexico," says Mark Cieskikowski, a 21-year veteran of the Continental General plant in Charlotte. "It's just wrong."

Wrong, but often legal. The erosion of workers' rights that began when President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981 has made this country one of the worst violators of workers' rights—and an ideal place for foreign multinationals to do business.

In the United States, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) declared in a scathing report issued in July, "the threat of permanent replacement is used to scare workers during organizing campaigns, to intimidate them at the bargaining table, and as a tool to eliminate union representation altogether."

But the ability to replace striking workers isn't the only lure for foreign corporations, which invested $91 billion in the United States in 1998, according to a United Nations World Investment Report. Aside from "high corporate profitability," the report said the chief attraction for foreign investors in the United States was "its flexible labor markets."

European Labor Protections

In 1997, most of the foreign investment flowing into the United States came from the European Union, with the Germans and Dutch leading the pack with $10 billion followed by the Swiss, French and British. These companies are fleeing what is arguably the most favorable climate for unions in the world.

Throughout Europe, unions and workers are required to have seats on corporate boards and a say in how the workplace is run through "works councils" chosen by employees. Those councils, which exist in every EU country but England, Ireland, and Scandanavia, negotiate with management over key issues like impending layoffs. The councils, which are dominated by industrial unions holding nation-wide contracts, have more influence than U.S. unions on issues like work rules because of security clauses that protect jobs.

Multinationals that operate in more than one country and employ at least 1,200 workers are required by the EU to establish European work councils that consult with top management. While not as powerful as the workplace councils, they still have substantial say in company operations and give a greater voice to employees of multinationals in places like England where works councils don't exist.

To economists and business people, that is just another way of saying U.S. corporate managers —in contrast to their counterparts in Europe—hold all the cards. In the United States, unions represent a paltry 10% of the private sector workforce, while unionization rates are as high as 90% in Sweden and 30% in Germany. Add to this mix the right-to-work laws in southern states that make it difficult to organize unions and the ban on solidarity strikes of the sort launched in South Africa, and foreign corporations think they're in paradise. It's easy to understand why so many European and Japanese auto manufacturers—such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Nissan—have built U.S. plants in states like Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.

But U.S. unions have made it clear to foreign investors that "flexibility" is not a green light for union-busting. Taking the lead are the Steelworkers, the Teamsters, and Hotel and Restaurant Workers who organize international campaigns in defense of U.S. workers against foreign corporations, often with the help of global labor federations. The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Unions (ICEM), for example, is coordinating the Continental campaign with the Steelworkers. (Full disclosure: I edit the USWA's international newsletter on the strike and do occasional work for the ICEM's North America office).

The AFL-CIO largely watches these developments from the sidelines, leaving unfulfilled President John Sweeney's campaign promise to transform the federation's international programs into a center for global organizing and solidarity. Although the AFL-CIO devotes considerable time and money promoting labor protections in trade agreements, this trade strategy is not yet linked to the primary goal of Sweeney's New Voice campaign—organizing.

Multinationals, Meet the Global Unions

The potential of international campaigns to build union power was revealed in the summer of 1997, when the Teamsters successfully struck United Parcel Service (UPS). The labor movement was galvanized by the strike, and won a favorable contract in mid-August because of strong rank-and-file support and the resonance of the union's key demand to end permanent part-time work. But the strike was also won by a daring campaign in the heart of Europe, UPS' most important international market when its North American operations shut down.

During the last three weeks of the strike, national Teamster officials criss-crossed Europe with a small group of UPS workers, handing out leaflets at UPS gates, and strategizing with the London-based International Transport Workers Federation. By mid-August, unions in Belgium, Holland, France, and Germany had agreed to stage simultaneous walkouts in solidarity with the strikers.

Meanwhile, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka was set to announce a broad international campaign to support the UPS strikers at a meeting of the ICFTU. Two days before that announcement, UPS agreed to end the strike. The company would not admit the European strike threat played a role, but UPS officials I spoke with were clearly concerned about damage to the company's reputation as a reliable package deliverer if its European workers walked out, even for a few hours.

The lessons from the strike—that a deliberate, cross-border organizing campaign could play a key role in winning a strike—were not lost on AFL-CIO affiliates and some AFL-CIO staffers. Still, the federation did not build on that experience to ensure that other unions would learn from it and from one another, union to union, strike to strike.

Sweeney had proposed to do just that in his 1995 campaign for the AFL-CIO presidency. A "Transnational Monitoring Project" would would work with AFL-CIO affiliates to develop organizing strategies for international campaigns and monitor global institutions like the World Bank. But change has come slowly, and the AFL-CIO's overall level of international solidarity work falls far short of where it could be.

The AFL-CIO's International Role—A Mixed Picture

One of Sweeney's first major steps on the international front was to dissolve the AFL-CIO's American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). AIFLD was notorious in Latin America as a conduit for CIA funds, its role in covert operations, and intervention in national labor movements. In the early 1980s, AIFLD earned the enmity of the human rights community by blocking a U.S. government investigation into labor rights violations in El Salvador, arguing that the unions suffering repression were communist fronts.

After getting the axe, AIFLD, along with other regional institutes for Asia and Africa, was reorganized into a single "Solidarity Center" that trains foreign unionists. Despite an article in the AFL-CIO News that the center would no longer accept government funding, it continues to be supported by the U.S. State Department's Agency for International Development (AID) and the Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Confronting Global Capital

It's not so easy to fight foreign multinationals, even with the solidarity of workers abroad, as the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) can attest. HERE, in cooperation with the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF), has been boycotting the Japanese-owned New Otani Hotel in Los Angeles since 1995, when it fired three Latino workers active in a union-organizing drive. HERE's strategy was to touch all bases. In Los Angeles, it persuaded a Japanese-American community group to cancel a sizeable contract with the Kajima Corp., a huge Tokyo construction company that holds majority ownership in the hotel. After several trips to Japan, HERE leaders convinced the Japanese IUF and Rengo, the Japanese equivalent to the AFL-CIO, to boycott New Otani hotels in Japan. But neither the New Otani or Kajima have budged on hiring the Latino housekeepers, and the Los Angeles hotel, like its counterparts in Japan, remains nonunion.

Government money in itself is not a bad thing; nearly every national labor center in the world receives some of it. Yet AID and NED money targets its support to U.S. foreign policy objectives that do not necessarily mesh with the need to build trade unionism abroad—and, more importantly for AFL staffers, they cannot be used to support organizing.

Then there is the issue of personnel. While a few of the more notorious Cold Warriors have retired from the AFL-CIO, many have remained at their jobs, particularly on the Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe desks. While they have less influence than before, they remain the face of the AFL-CIO in its contacts with unionists abroad.

One of the more curious of these figures is Harry Kamberis, who quietly took on the directorship of the Solidarity Center in 1996. The AFL-CIO originally hired him to work for its Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) after a long stint with the State Department in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Greece. During the 1980s, when Kamberis served as staff in the Philippines and South Korea and then director, the institute refused to openly support independent unions in Korea being attacked by the military government. In the Philippines, it saw its primary mission as undermining a leftist labor federation suffering intense repression. AFL-CIO staffers and human rights groups who questioned Kamberis' credentials were told he was chosen because of his familiarity with the mechanics of State Department and AID funding.

Good News on the International Front

Beyond the operations of the Solidarity Center, the new AFL-CIO has played a constructive role supporting unions emerging in post-Cold War Europe and Asia. This is due in large part to Sweeney's appointment of Barbara Shailor, a highly respected economist from the International Association of Machinists, to run the International Affairs Department (of which the government-funded Solidarity Center is only one part).

Shailor, along with David Smith, director of public policy, and Ron Blackwell, director of corporate affairs, have given the AFL-CIO a new, activist persona overseas. Gone are the days when U.S. labor officials stormed out of the International Labor Organization to protest Third World influence or supported unions and labor federations solely on the basis of their allegiance to U.S. foreign policy.

To see the difference, take the Korean general strike in 1997. The long-shunned Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a progressive coalition representing workers at Hyundai and other large conglomerates, launched the protest after the government refused to recognize independent unions or allow public employees to organize. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) hesitated to support the general strike because the "official" Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) was not yet on board. The AFL-CIO convinced ICFTU leaders to support it anyway and Sweeney then helped resolve the dispute by convincing Harold Ickes, the New York labor lawyer and friend of the Clintons, to intervene on labor's behalf.

In another major step, the AFL-CIO has made new alliances with independent unions in Mexico, and Sweeney has played an important role convincing Japanese and European labor federations to support U.S. unions' fights with foreign corporations. AFL-CIO researchers and organizers frequently work on the international part of affiliates' campaigns, and AFL-CIO staffers routinely watch out for international connections to domestic organizing.

Much of this shift is due to Shailor's persistence and staff appointments of both Stan Gacek, an experienced international organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Bill Goold, a labor rights specialist with experience in Congress. Their presence in the AFL-CIO hierarchy sent a signal that the AFL-CIO would no longer tolerate departments like AIFLD interfering in the political process of other countries. And despite Cold War holdovers staffing other desks, respected organizers have been hired to direct the Solidarity Center's Latin America and Mexico City office.

The Trade Divide

If the AFL-CIO's foreign policy seem schizophrenic—torn between reform and the seduction of government money—the AFL-CIO faces an equal muddle on trade policy because of the diverse economic base of its member unions.

As AFL-CIO president, Sweeney has run a carbon copy of the trade policy he inherited from past presidents Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue, albeit with less focus and verve. In 1993, Kirkland's AFL-CIO poured tremendous resources into the congressional battle to defeat the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Donahue, a trade expert, argued labor's case for linking trade with worker rights.

Those campaigns laid the groundwork for labor's 1996 fight against "fast-track" trade legislation, which requires Congress to vote trade agreements up or down without amendments. At first, senior AFL-CIO officials resisted the idea of an all-out fight on fast-track that could pit the federation against the Clinton administration. Several unions, including the Teamsters, threatened to fund the fight on their own. While the AFL-CIO eventually threw its lobbying weight behind the battle, the big industrial unions most affected by trade won enough lawmakers to their side to force Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich to pull the legislation.

That marked a turning point for U.S. trade policy. Since the defeat of fast-track in 1997, the debate over trade has focused on whether labor rights or the environment should be defended as much as intellectual property was in NAFTA. Labor's stiff opposition to new free trade agreements gives the labor movement strong leverage with the Clinton administration, which in turn pressed labor's agenda at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international organizations. In November, the AFL-CIO will be working in a broad coalition to organize large demonstrations at the World Trade Organization's (WTO) ministerial meeting in Seattle to protest the WTO's refusal to include labor or environment in the rules of trade.

Still, the industrial unions want the AFL-CIO to take a much stronger stand on trade, a position that reflects a widening rift between manufacturing-based unions like the steelworkers and auto workers, and the service unions where Sweeney spent his career. This divide was visible just a few months after the fast-track victory in the summer of 1997, when Asia's so-called "tiger economies" began to collapse. The economic crisis spread rapidly, causing deep concern in the Clinton administration about the political stability of East Asia. By early 1998, the Clinton White House cut a deal with the AFL-CIO and Gephardt. Clinton agreed to back away from new free trade legislation while his labor and Democratic allies agreed to work with the administration on legislation to fund the IMF's $80 billion bailout of Asia.

There was considerable debate within the AFL-CIO about this risky policy. The industrial unions and some AFL-CIO staffers opposed it because they felt the IMF bailout and the depreciation of Asian currencies would benefit Asian industries weakened by over-capacity and boost manufacturing exports from Asia—a prediction that came to pass. Those who had worked to defeat fast-track also didn't trust Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's promise to include stronger worker rights protections in the IMF bill.

Both camps were overruled by senior AFL-CIO leadership, apparently convinced by Rubin that the U.S. economy would be wrecked by a catastrophic collapse if strings were attached to the IMF money. When a left-right coalition eventually emerged to oppose the IMF bailout—and its aid to global banks that had poured speculative capital into Asia—the AFL-CIO was nowhere to be seen. The only opposition in Congress came from the Republican Party, Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders, and a tiny group of maverick Democrats.

To fulfill its side of the bargain with labor on the IMF bailout, the Clinton administration pushed international financial institutions to open lines of communication with trade unions and include union officials in reviews of economic development projects. The Treasury Department hired a labor policy analyst for the first time, while the World Bank recently approached the Solidarity Center for help evaluating labor markets. Even these largely symbolic policy shifts have not been welcomed by Clinton's senior economic advisers or the IMF. "The Treasury is pretty damn resistant to it," one U.S. official told me.

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO's silence during the Asian crisis was deafening. Despite prodding from affiliated unions and some senior AFL-CIO staffers, the Solidarity Center didn't organize a single event for trade unionists to discuss the impact of the crisis on workers or develop common strategies to deal with the IMF. Whether out of fear of rocking Clinton's boat, or concern that such an event might conflict with State Department policies—and bite that hand that feeds the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center—an important opportunity was lost to develop an international trade union agenda.

The AFL-CIO is not ignoring important global issues. If anything, it is taking a lead role in promoting workers' rights. But, contrary to its early promises, the federation has left solidarity campaigns like the one involving the South African trade unionists largely to the unions that make up its federation. This has costs. As a veteran international organizer put it to me in a recent discussion about the steelworkers' campaign against Continental: "Why do these unions have to do it all over again when it's been done before?" That's a question that begs an answer.

Tim Shorrock is an independent journalist whose writings on labor and East Asia have appeared in The Nation and The Los Angeles Times. He also works as a writer and editor for union publications and covered labor for seven years at The Journal of Commerce, where he served as president of a union affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. He interviewed a dozen staffers of the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions for this article.

end of article