Unionists brainstorm on international organizing

SILVER SPRING, Md. (PAI) —More than 200 union activists from 63 nations worldwide—everywhere from Azerbaijan to Britain, Fiji, Russia, the U.S. and Venezuela—brainstormed for two days on ways of international organizing and cooperation. And when they weren’t discussing joint activism at their sessions at the George National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., on Dec. 10-11 they headed for Capitol Hill to show the importance to the entire world of stronger U.S. labor law and unions.

There they discussed the worldwide impact of passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which would level the playing field between U.S. workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining. They picked up the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Labor Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The AFL-CIO-convened meeting featured discussions of joint operating strategies and wins. They included the Bakery Workers’ (BCTGM) victory the prior week at Dannon Yogurt’s biggest U.S. plant, aided by pressure from 56,000 European unionized Dannon workers, mobilized by the federation of food workers’ unions that includes BCTGM.

But delegates also admitted the confab is only a start. Unions must build multi-national alliances to counter, international union leader Guy Ryder noted, multi-national corporations, which are now some of the biggest economic entities on the globe.

“There’s no greater challenge than making it possible for all workers from all nations to form unions and lift themselves with collective bargaining,” AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said in opening the conference.

Besides international activists, a large group of U.S. union presidents joined the conference. Among them: Leo Gerard of the Steel Workers, Larry Cohen of the Communications Workers—and his predecessor, Morton Bahr—Linda Foley of The Newspaper Guild/CWA, Joe Hansen of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Pat Friend of AFA/CWA and Greg Junemann of the Professional and Technical Employees.

Also attending were Andy Stern of SEIU, Ed McElroy of the Teachers, Bill Burrus of APWU, Tom Buffenbarger of IAM and Bob Kingsley of the United Electrical Workers. Paul Almeida of the Department for Professional and Technical Employees joined the sessions, as did retired AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson. Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka moderated part of the Capitol Hill session.

Much of the discussion in Silver Spring focused on joint organizing campaigns, where union federations worldwide could link individual national unions together to help battle the conglomerates. Besides the BCTGM’s success at Dannon, other such wins included the Graphic Communications Conference/IBT win at Quebecor, North America’s second-largest printer, and SEIU’s drive to unionize security guards.

But the international cooperation also extended to politics, as Cohen and several other delegates pointed out. They cited the recent Labor Party win—ousting a 12-year-long right-wing government in Australia. A key to the win Down Under was Australian unions’ 2-1/2-year campaign against the right-wing government’s draconian anti-labor law and how it affected not just workers but their families and standards of living.

“We have to be clear about building a political movement around bargaining rights,” said CWA’s Cohen, chair of the AFL-CIO Organizing Committee. That’s what happened in Australia, he noted. “When we have the ability to establish collective bargaining rights, the other issues” such as rising wages, universal health care and protected pensions “will take care of themselves,” he declared.

“The key shift is to focus on collective bargaining coverage” worldwide, Cohen said. “The national labor movements as well as the 10 global unions will be focused more and more on this crisis,” he added. Collective bargaining coverage has been declining in many developed nations, not just in the U.S., but rising in several developing nations, such as Brazil, South Africa and Uruguay.

Brendan Barber of the British Trades Union Congress warned politics would not solve everything. “Electing labor governments is not, in and of itself, the sole answer to this challenge” workers and unions face from multi-national corporate power, he said.

“We have to have a statutory right to trade union recognition”—writing into law automatic recognition of unions when they receive majorities. “But that still hasn’t responded to changing shares of the economy. For example, 25 years ago, we had 7 million manufacturing workers and now we have 3 million. There are huge challenges in reaching out to the private sector” in services “and organizing them.”

The delegates, in computerized tallies in response to 23 questions conference organizers posed, agreed on some ways to work across national boundaries. For example, 55 percent said “national plans aligned with global unions and principles will support the sustainability of the labor movement globally.” Another 23 percent said unions could do so by “building local coalitions in support of coordinated strategies.”

The Capitol Hill session focused on the legislative solution, and its importance, that Barber mentioned, specifically on the Employee Free Choice Act. It passed the Democratic-run House earlier this year but a GOP Senate filibuster killed it.

“This era of globalization must be judged not just by growing profit margins and rising gross domestic product, but by how we treat the workers who create that,” Kennedy said.