The unions mount a drive for global labor standards

September 01, 1997|By Sanford Gottlieb

WASHINGTON -- For decades, America's labor leaders had a ''foreign policy'' of virulent opposition to global communism. Today their number-one target is global capitalism, and they have begun an effort to counter the power of multinational corporations.

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney charges that the multinationals ''scour the globe in search of places where working people have low wages and no rights.'' Fear of a job exodus to such places was the underlying reason for union opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Now unions see developing countries far beyond North America luring multinationals with the promise of cheap labor and scant regulation.

To resist this dark side of globalization, the AFL-CIO has embarked on a long-term mission to strengthen foreign unions where they exist, and help create them where they do not. The idea is to win a better deal for the multinationals' work force on every continent, including our own, and eventually reduce the gap in wages and working conditions between the West and developing nations.

Some modest first moves in this direction have begun. In recent bargaining with the multinational giant General Electric -- which has 239,000 employees, one third of them outside the U.S. -- 14 U.S. unions, bolstered by the AFL-CIO, negotiated jointly. Visiting unionists from GE plants in Brazil, Chile and Canada, and from the International Metalworkers Federation, attended labor rallies, exchanged information and sat in on a negotiating session.

At a crucial stage of the talks, when a strike loomed, Canadian unions informed GE management they would refuse to work on any struck material sent their way. It proved unnecessary to make good on that commitment.

Ed Fire, president of the International Union of Electrical Workers, who chaired the 14-union team, says that the plan is to have ''representatives from every union everywhere GE operates'' participating in the next negotiations ''to gain as much leverage as possible.''

The unions will need all the help they can muster just to organize the unorganized here and abroad. The Electrical Workers accuse GE of threatening workers who seek to form unions, of using vicious anti-union tactics, and moving work to non-union shops -- in the U.S. If this is the case here in the 1990s, what is the reality in countries like Indonesia?

In the most recent talks, unions tried to get GE to accept a code of conduct covering basic labor rights at its plants worldwide. Their success was limited. Under the new contract, both sides agree to avoid campaign literature or references to each other that would undermine the collective bargaining relationship. A union-management committee would address disputes over campaign tactics.

Prison or child labor

This constitutes a small step toward the global standards -- including the freedom to organize and bargain, and banning prison or child labor -- that the AFL-CIO would like to see included in trade treaties and in labor agreements with multinationals.

That approach faces big hurdles. The Clinton administration refuses to include labor standards in the body of trade agreements. Beset by protectionist Democrats, Republicans opposed to NAFTA's side agreements and Third World governments that see the threat of a global minimum wage, the administration has opted not to impose such conditions on its global trading partners.

The AFL-CIO has had no better luck with the U.S. Trade Representative in the case of Guatemala. Labor wanted the government to extend the 1992 probationary suspension of that country's duty-free trade benefits, citing the continuing violence against unionists and failure to enforce the right to organize. The proposal was rejected on the grounds that labor reforms are making progress -- contradicting the head of Guatemala's union of Coca Cola workers, who says resistance to union efforts has grown even as political conditions in the country have improved.

It will be some years before we will know whether the AFL-CIO's new solidarity initiatives can alter working conditions in the global economy. But someday we may see 1997 as the first harbinger of worldwide collective bargaining between unions and multinational corporations.

Sanford Gottlieb, the author of ''Defense Addiction'' (Westview Press), wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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