Unions and Globalization

The relationship between businesses and unions has been tedious at best, both in the United States and on an international scale. Despite the creation of labour laws as well as the formation of national and international labour organizations, employees still find themselves at the leniency of their employers. And, in an increasingly globalized world where companies are investing more and more in foreign markets, it becomes a substantial challenge to monitor labour rights and treatment, let alone human rights violations. This growing interconnectedness between business industries finds itself at the fore-front of international labour disputes.

Nationally within the US, there has been a constant struggle by unions for greater pro-union legislation as well as more stringent monitoring and prosecution of companies who try to prevent workers’ rights to freedom of association. Under the National Labor Relations Act (otherwise known as the Wagner Act) passed in 1935, “Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing…”(http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/29/usc_sup_01_29_10_7_20_II.html). This part, referred to as an employee’s Section 7 rights, allows those who wish to form a union to do so but also for those who are part of a non-union company the right to “…engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…”  (http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/29/usc_sup_01_29_10_7_20_II.html ). Meaning, they have the ability to discuss and protest issues that deal with their hours, wages and working conditions. Working for American unions are the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (A.F.L.-C.I.O.), which has about 11 million members and the Change to Win federation, representing more than 5 million workers, among others. Roughly 16 million American workers are in labor unions, though the percentage of unionized workers has declined.

Recently stated in a New York Times article… “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12.4 percent of the American work force belonged to a union in 2008, down from 35 percent in the 1950s.” (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/l/labor/index.html?scp=1&sq=national%20labor%20relations%20act&st=cse). The author also notes the large disparity between the private and public sector as it relates to unionization rates (7.6% vs 36.8% in ‘08) which is not a particularly new trend but still markedly different. Reasons given for the lessening percentages have been that “…companies have closed many unionized operations and moved them overseas and [that] many employers have grown more sophisticated in beating back unionization efforts” (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/l/labor/index.html?scp=1&sq=national%20labor%20relations%20act&st=cse). There is also the contention that, since conditions for the growing work force have improved since WWII, there is not such a strong need for union representation.

The author further comments on this affect of globalization by providing the example of the 1980’s growth within the Japanese economy and auto industry and how it placed pressure on US auto manufacturers. He also points out how the low cost of labour in China as well as the booming information technology industry in India has encouraged many companies to outsource jobs. “The movement of so many jobs to the developing world has lifted living standards in many once-impoverished countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but has raised concerns that workers in some of those countries toil in sweatshop conditions”. (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/l/labor/index.html?scp=1&sq=national%20labor%20relations%20act&st=cse). Such labour problems as outsourcing have also been proven an issue in Europe.

Internationally, there has been a similar push for unions. Not only in developed countries but in those considered as having an emerging market economy, there are organizations working, globally, on behalf of workers, employers and governments. One such organization, that has this tripartism approach, is the International Labour Organization (ILO). Within this is the International Trade Union Confederation which, itself, is comprised of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) and eight other national trade union organizations. Organizers wanted “…to give workers a stronger voice in meeting the challenges of globalization and allow the union movement to remain…” an essential contributor within the “economic climate” (http://www.ilo.org/public/english/region/ampro/cinterfor/news/press49.htm). Its efforts’ focus on improving productivity as well as working conditions, outcomes which will ultimately provide better quality products without sacrificing employees well being. “The ITUC’s primary mission is the promotion and defence of workers’ rights and interests, through international cooperation between trade unions, global campaigning and advocacy within the major global institutions” (http://www.global-unions.org/spip.php?rubrique12). The most encompassing though, is that of Global Unions which is, basically, the collection of all international trade union organizations. All such organizations under this group “…share a common determination to organize, to defend human rights and labour standards everywhere, and to promote the growth of trade unions for the benefit of all working men and women and their families” (http://www.global-unions.org/spip.php?rubrique25).

A problem arises with union intervention on a national and international stage in combating globalization. Because the issue or more so, the effects of globalization are so hotly contested, the idea of a nation industrializing under (for lack of a better word) the constraints of union laws and practices does not provide foreseeable outcomes. So, if one is to argue that developing nations today that are industrializing are in a way “catching up,” then the presence of unions will hamper that process. The US, Russia, parts of Europe, etc. did not formerly industrialize with unions present, let alone stringent labour laws. But, as mentioned before, not only is the argument that globalization will allow for countries’ development purported but it is also disputed. So, in that situation, labour unions would serve well at protecting employees, if not from the workers’ own countries, then from international interests.

But if the matter is international solidarity for the cause of social justice, then the efforts of labour union organizations may effectively be no different than the proponents of globalization who contend that it is an increasing international solidarity for the means of economic equaling.

For more information on globalization and/or unions, visit www.wto.org, www.global-unions.org, www.ilo.org

By: Monique Brunatti


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