Human Rights

May Day Alert: Only Global Unions Can Stop the Race to the Bottom

Ironically, globalization is creating the greatest opportunity to organize global unions among the poorest and least-skilled workers employed in an economy dominated by giant corporations.
Editor's note: Stephen Lerner is a veteran union organizer with the Service Employees' International Union (SEIU) who headed the Justice for Janitors campaign. This is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the winter 2007 issue of the New Labor Forum.

At no time in history has there been a greater urgency or opportunity to form real global unions whose goal is to organize tens of millions of workers to win economic and social justice by counterbalancing global corporations on the world stage even as the power of the state declines.

Global labor solidarity, as currently practiced, is failing and will continue to fail in the face of the growing power of global corporations and the declining power of the state. Instead, global unions need to be formed whose purpose is to unite workers to negotiate global agreements with global corporations. The property services sector, which includes janitors and security officers, has many of the critical characteristics and immediate conditions needed to organize a true global union, and provides an important, but not unique, model of how a global union is possible. Globalization is creating change at an even faster pace than during industrialization. We need to understand how it is reshaping workers' lives and power around the globe, so that instead of being swept away by globalization, we can harness it to transform ourselves and the world. To win real power, workers and their unions need to build a movement defined not by what we are against, but by what we are for: a movement inspired by hope for a better world and a plan to achieve it. Anything else puts unions at risk of becoming as irrelevant as those who opposed industrialization in the hope of defending artisans and small craftsman.

Understanding globalization: the world is tilting

The world is tilting away from workers and unions and the traditional ways they've fought for and won justice -- away from the power of national governments, national unions, national solutions and government institutions developed to facilitate and regulate globalization. It is tilting toward global trade, giant global corporations, global solutions, and toward Asia, especially China and India. We can no longer depend on influencing bureaucratic global institutions, like the ILO, or fighting the entities that ultimately are accountable to or controlled by global corporations, like the WTO. Workers and their unions need to use their still-formidable power to counter the power of global corporations before the world tilts so far that unions are washed away, impoverishing workers who currently have unions and trapping workers who don't in ever-deeper poverty. The power equation needs to be balanced before democratic rule and institutions are destroyed.

Tilting toward global corporations

Since the formation of early global companies, like the English East India Co. (1600) and the Dutch East India Co. (1602), multinationals have spread around the world. In 1600 there were 500 global corporations. In 1914, there were 3,000; in 1992, 30,400; and by 2000, the total number of global corporations had ballooned to 63,000. Today, they are bigger and more powerful than ever before and no longer allegiant to the country in which they were born or are now headquartered.

As multinationals have grown, wealth and capital have become increasingly concentrated. Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 52 are not nations -- they are global corporations (see here for data). The problem isn't that corporations operate in more than one country -- it is that multinational corporations are so powerful that they increasingly dominate what happens in whole countries, hemispheres and the entire globe.

Tilting away from the state

For 150 years, trade unionists and progressives have viewed influencing and trying to gain control of the state as central to any strategy of winning a more just society. National governments still have enormous influence, but their power is diminishing every day.

As corporations grow in power, the state will find it increasingly difficult to mediate their behavior to protect workers and their unions. The state must be pressured now to act as a vehicle that can assist unions in gaining the ability to deal directly with multinational corporations both in their own countries and across the globe. This is a crucial distinction. Instead of depending on national governments to control global corporations, as states become weaker and corporations stronger, we need to pursue a strategy that anticipates the continued decline of state power and works to rebuild workers' strength today so we can deal independently and directly with global corporations in the future. We need to do so quickly, while states still have some power to regulate corporate behavior.

Tilting away from national unions

As global corporations grow and state power declines, national unions are shrinking in membership and power. Union density is down across the globe. From 1970 to 2000, 17 out of 20 countries surveyed by the OECD had experienced a decline in union density. Though many of these countries experienced an increase during the 1970s and 1980s, density declined in the 1990s. While the specifics and timing are different in each country, what is remarkable over the last 30 years is how similar the story and the results are. No country, no matter how strong its labor movement or progressive its history, is immune from these global trends. Density is starting to decline in Scandinavia, South Africa, Brazil, and South Korea, countries that until recently had stable or growing labor movements. In France, general strikes and mass worker and student mobilizations have slowed the rollback of workers' rights, but these are defensive strikes desperately trying to maintain standards that workers in surrounding countries are losing.

In country after country, unions began declining from their peak at first slowly, and then more and more quickly. As density declined, so has the ability to protect both collective bargaining and legislative gains.

The antidote to global corporations: global unions

Why aren't there global unions? For 150 years much of the argument for global unions has been abstract, theoretical and ideological. The simple argument was: Capitalism is global, therefore worker organizations should be too.

However, even though capitalism was global, the reality was most employers weren't. Theoretically, workers were stronger if united worldwide, but the day-to-day reality of unionized workers enabled them to win in developed and some developing countries through organizing and bargaining and using the power of governments to help them. Unionized workers saw workers in other countries as potential competition for their jobs rather than their allies. There was not an immediate, compelling reason or pressure to go beyond national boundaries. It is an ironic twist of history that globalization is itself creating the greatest opportunity to organize global unions among the poorest and least-skilled workers employed in the historically least organized sectors of the world economy, which are increasingly dominated by giant corporations. Even as manufacturing and mobile jobs, aided by new technology, are being shifted and dispersed around the globe, the infrastructure of the FIRE sector (finance, insurance and real estate) and the jobs needed to support it are increasingly concentrated in some 40 global cities.

These economic hubs directly depend on these service jobs, dramatically increasing the potential power of these workers. It is among the most invisible and seemingly powerless workers that we can build a global movement, reinvigorate trade unions, and face global corporations with genuinely countervailing power sufficiently strong to ensure that workers have the chance to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. This is not to argue that global unions can't be formed in manufacturing or other sectors characterized by mobile jobs, but instead to say that at this time in history the opportunity is greatest in service jobs based in cities that are driving the world economy.

Starting in property services

As sociologist Saskia Sassen has pointed out, the increasing scope and complexity of the global economy leads multinational corporations to massive growth in the demand for services (legal, accounting, insurance, real estate, etc.) by firms in all industries. These service firms tend to gather in 40 to 50 "global" cities. In some ways, these global cities act as "engine rooms" for multinational corporations, or as Sassen puts it, they are the "sites for concrete operations of the global economies." The concentration of service firms also leads to a massive disparity in wealth in these cities, an increase in the number of blue-collar jobs, such as janitors, mechanics and security officers, and an increase in the numbers of immigrants and minorities. As Sassen states, we can think of these cities "as one key place where the contradictions of the internationalization of capital either come to rest or to conflict." Ironically, the poorest and least skilled workers employed by global corporations in these cities may be in the best position to challenge growing corporate dominance.

Companies that clean, secure, and maintain commercial, residential and other properties around the globe comprise an industry that annually grosses more than $170 billion, and multinational property services companies directly employ more than 3 million workers.

Property Services allows us to organize in a global industry that offers unique opportunities to build off the strengths of both existing unions and movements for justice in the world as part of a new movement for global fairness and equality. The 3 million workers directly employed by property service multinational corporations can provide the platform to strengthen and expand existing unions and to organize and establish new unions in cities and countries where they don't exist. Strengthened by agreements with global multinationals, national unions can expand their unions, uniting workers employed by smaller local employers as part of a broader strategy of uniting a majority of property services workers on a national and global level.

The plan: a new global union movement

Global unions should be true international unions rather than unions that operate in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico and call themselves internationals. They must organize workers and negotiate contracts to raise living and working standards across the globe. They need to focus on organizing and negotiating agreements with global companies, while they support and help organize companies and workers within national borders. They must be global unions that grow to amass real power, so they are not relegated to making policy suggestions, but have the strength to negotiate with the entities that set the rules under which global corporations operate.

There were tremendous obstacles to birthing national unions within one country: battles over leadership, balancing local versus national interests, protecting democracy locally while making decisions and governing nationally. And so will it be in forming global unions. Nationalism is growing in some countries, and unions from the United States are viewed with suspicion because of their past ties to the CIA. National unions worry about loss of autonomy. These issues and many more create greater obstacles to forming global unions than workers faced in forming national unions.

The world economy has changed and is integrating globally. To have a meaningful role in the 21st century, we must create true global unions whose vision, goals, purpose and governance combine national interests in the same way that national unions were formed in the 20th century. The global unions that result must be capable of coordinating, directing and transferring power and resources to counter the power of global corporations. Experience makes it abundantly clear that this isn't possible by just federating national unions whose primary mission, resource allocation and internal political identity are limited to one country. Global corporations don't subordinate their interest to individual countries and neither can workers. Either through the transformation of existing institutions or by creating new ones, workers need unions that unite them globally to increase their power, instead of fighting global corporations from a position of weakness and with limited coordination on a country-by-country basis.

In addition, the mission and goals of global unions cannot be limited to just economic improvements. To unite hundreds of millions of workers and build support for global unionism, global unions must be part of a campaign to protect and expand democracy in the face of worldwide megacorporations. Global unions must be seen as and be part of global campaigns for economic and social justice. Their mission and role is nothing less than to replace the declining power of the state with global unions as the equal and counterbalance to global corporations on the world stage. And the time to start is now.

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