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


Fair Trade

While there are many products you may have to think twice about purchasing, or should avoid if possible, there is one type of product you can always count on.

Those products are fair trade certified products, and they can help in the mission to become an ethical consumer. “Fair trade standards are established by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) and address social and economic development, environmental management, and labor conditions of Fair Trade farms” (TransFair USA). The strength of fair trade is that it helps the producer and the consumer. “You’d be forgiven for thinking Fair Trade was about the price, but it isn’t. 100% Fair Trade is about relationships. Relationships between people both locally and globally, relationships between organisations up and down the supply chain, and the relationships between the consumer and producer” (World Fair Trade Day).  When you purchase fair trade products you are supporting their 10 standards, many of which address basic human rights and match up with many modern desires.

“Organizations who buy Fair Trade products from producer groups either directly or through intermediaries ensure that no forced labor is used in production and the producer complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and national / local law on the employment of children” (World Fair Trade Organization). People and their rights are the main focus of these standards. “100% Fair Trade is a total commitment between people to deliver a prosperous and sustainable future for the good of the planet and for the good of mankind” (World Fair Trade Day). It’s also about helping impoverished people. “The organization supports marginalized small producers, whether these are independent family businesses, or grouped in associations or co-operatives. It seeks to enable them to move from income insecurity and poverty to economic self-sufficiency and ownership. The trade supports community development” (World Fair Trade Organization). The organizations which are approved by the World Fair Trade organization are held to many standards which are intended to better the lives of employees. “The organization respects the right of all employees to form and join trade unions of their choice and to bargain collectively. Where the right to join trade unions and bargain collectively is restricted by law and/or political environment, the organization will enable means of independent and free association and bargaining for employees” (World Fair Trade Organization). The companies are monitored to ensure that these conditions, among many others, are met.

In America, the Fair Trade Federation was established in 1994 as the North American Alternative Trade Organization, or NAATO. The name was switched to the Fair Trade Federation in 1995. “Fair trade seeks to change the lives of the poorest of the poor who frequently lack alternative sources of income. As North American fair trade organizations grow, they employ more and more individuals in their communities” (Fair Trade Federation).  Rather than taking American jobs to other countries, as you may suspect, the products represented by these organizations aren’t necessarily in production in North America. You also don’t have to worry about the prices of these goods being too much more than normal prices. “Most fair trade products are competitively priced in relation to their conventional counterparts. Fair trade organizations work directly with producers, cutting out exploitative middlemen, so they can keep products affordable for consumers…” (Fair Trade Federation). This form of trade is about making life better for all people, and for fostering balance and self-sustainability. “The Federation envisions a just and sustainable global economic system in which purchasing and production choices are made with the concern for the well-being of people and the environment, creating a world where all people have viable economic options to meet their own needs”(Fair Trade Federation).

In the UK the FairTrade Foundation was established in 1992. “Our vision is a world in which justice and sustainable development are at the heart of trade structures and practices so that everyone, through their work, can maintain a decent and dignified livelihood and develop their full potential” (Fair Trade Foundation). Since 1998 the sales of Fairtrade certified products in the United Kingdom have increased from 16.7 million to 799 million, in 2009. In 2008, FairTrade’s organization found that 70% of people recognize the FairTrade symbol (see below). They also found that 1 in 4 shoppers are consistently buying products with the FairTrade Label (Fair Trade Foundation). These trends are continually expanding. On May 11th, 2010, Fair Trade Foundation published a press release saying that a recent “survey showed that Fairtrade clearly adds value to products and strongly impacts on people’s intention to buy. An overwhelming 90% of active ethical consumers say the FAIRTRADE Mark on pack helps the product create a positive impression and many say it makes them more likely to buy specific brand. What’s more, over 60% of existing purchasers are likely to recommend Fairtrade to friends and colleagues” (Fair Trade Foundation). These increasing numbers can say only good things for Fair Trade’s progress.

As a consumer you can become more ethical by looking for these labels on products you regularly shop for. Some popular fair trade items are coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa and chocolate, fresh fruit, sugar, rice, vanilla, flowers and honey (TransFair USA).  The Fairtrade Labelling Organization says there are “…thousands of products that carry the FairTrade mark. Fairtrade standards exist for food products ranging from tea and coffee to fresh fruits and nuts. There are also standards for non-food products such as flowers and plants, sports balls and seed cotton.” (Fairtrade Labelling Organization) While you may not be able to find all the products  you’re looking for in Fair Trade form, you have to start somewhere. Ethical consumerism is about taking the small steps necessary to make a big difference, in your life and in lives all over the world.

By: Hailee Monk