Labor unions seek to play global game

Kyle James Jan 30, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Organized labor’s taking a page from the corporate handbook. This is — as we’ve reported more than once — a global economy. Companies have taken that to heart. They’re outsourcing and driving their costs lower. Getting bigger so they can get bigger. Now, labor unions have decided to fight fire with fire. And in a way, it’s fair game. Kyle James reports from Berlin.

KYLE JAMES: Demonstrations organized by German unions can be boisterous affairs. But for all the sound and fury, the power of labor unions in Germany is actually shrinking — something not lost on union member Jürgen Rönsch.

JÜRGEN RÖNSCH: Something new needs to happen to unions here. A lot of people I work with don’t join the union at all. They say it doesn’t do any good anymore anyway.

Trade unions have been hit hard as corporations move production and other parts of their operations to lower-wage countries. Horst Mund is the director of international relations at IG Metall, Germany’s metalworkers union.

HORST MUND: We unions are under intense pressure, and not only in Germany. Industrial jobs are being lost and the pool of potential members is shrinking. That means we have fewer resources and less influence. It’s a big challenge for us.

But his union and others are trying to stop the slide into irrelevancy. They’re asking, if corporations aren’t constrained by national borders, why should unions be? IG Metall has signed agreements with Britain’s second-largest trade union, Amicus, and two American unions — the United Steelworkers and the Machinists.

The agreements call for more information sharing and collaboration. But the ultimate goal is much bigger. They want a transnational super union within a decade, which could have more than 7 million members. It could, for example, call for multinational strikes and keep companies from playing workers in different countries against one another. Jerry Fernandez is the head of the United Steelworker’s international office.

JERRY FERNANDEZ: We feel that ultimately that’s the way we’re going to have to approach bargaining, if we’re going to have any impact on globalization, and any impact for justice, dignity and the economic well-being of workers — just not in the United States but in those respective countries where we have a strategic alliance.

Michael Burda is a professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University who studies trade unions. He says there are a lot of hurdles that unions will have to jump if they do cross borders.

MICHAEL BURDA: The cultures are different. The strike is regarded differently. They’re so different that it’s incredibly difficult to imagine this happening anytime soon. Although, clearly the more power that is amassed on the other side, the more likely it is that some countervailing power will arise from labor’s perspective.

But he says much of what’s happening now with globalization is not between the U.S. and western Europe, but in eastern Europe, India and China. If unions really want to increase their clout, he says, they need to get organizing there. And that’s no simple task.

In Berlin, I’m Kyle James for Marketplace.

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