Apr 15th 2010.
Andy Stern, the head of the Services Employees International Union who revitalised the American labour movement over the past 20 years, announced his retirement today. In an interview with Ezra Klein yesterday, Mr Stern talked about the need for the labour movement to move away from a model that treats workers as employees of a single firm or even as members of a single profession. "In the 21st century," Mr Stern asks, "do unions have the focus, spend the resources, have the plans, have the partnerships with employers, have innovation and deal with the fact that workers are going to have seven or 12 jobs by the time they're 35? It's not our fathers' and grandfathers' economy." Mr Stern talks about the labour movement's gradual recognition, since the 1980s, that negotiating for dramatically higher wages at one firm only puts that firm at a disadvantage and threatens workers' jobs. Agreements, he says, need to avoid disadvantaging individual employers and eliminating jobs. Then he talks about how globalisation has affected labour.
(W)e need to realize that capital went global, trade went global, finance went global. So how are we going to be local or even national? So our Sodexo campaign, when we're trying to organize these outsourced employers, is really now a global effort on the part of unions around the world. Our efforts to organize these global security companies, Group Four and Securitas, are now done with workers in Africa. We were down in Brazil last month talking to bank workers in HSBC and Santander there. I just think unions are more and more recognizing that we can't be national, we have to be international.
Mr Stern is clearly right. As he goes on to say, it makes no sense for an American union to negotiate solely on behalf of Sodexo's workers in America, who constitute just 5% of the company's workforce. The effect of winning higher wages for the American workforce, presumably, would be to drive the company to shift more of its work to its operations abroad. (Though for services unions like those Mr Stern has represented, this issue is less acute than for manufacturing unions; Sodexo can't serve food to Americans using workers who live in Mexico.) And the Obama administration seems to be on board. While the administration has not pushed hard for most of organised labour's priorities, its Labour Department has been far more active in international efforts than was that of George Bush. Labour standards and the freedom to organise are a major part of the administration's signal free-trade initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But working internationally is an immense challenge for unions, because labour law and labour movements are so profoundly different in different countries. The country whose labour law may well be hardest to integrate with American, European, or International Labour Organisation standards is the one Americans think of first when they think globalisation: China. There can be no freedom to organise in China; all unions are subsidiaries of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is affiliated with the Communist Party. Over 200m Chinese workers belong to such party-affiliated unions, but they do not organise strikes or bargain collectively with employers. Union representatives in any company generally have their salaries paid by management, and their interests generally align with those of management and of government. Strikes and "mass incidents" (as they are known in China) are wildcat, spontaneous affairs, with workers' leaders taking pains to deny that they are leaders or have any kind of organisation, lest they be arrested for political subversion. The most positive role the ACFTU can play is to step in to mediate after strikes take place; and, to its credit, it has been doing that increasingly frequently, according to the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.
The reason it's illegal to organise workers in China is the same reason it's illegal to organise any independent potentially political organisation in China. Paradoxically, the Communist victory wound up eliminating the freedom of workers to come together in associations to defend their interests. Chinese leadership has begun to recognise that stronger worker representation is necessary to avoid massive disturbances and strife, but the solutions contemplated are more mediation by the ACFTU and more sympathy from courts for suits by workers alleging labour-law violations, as Christian Caryl reported in Foreign Policy recently. Letting workers form their own unions, however, is off the table. Single-party Communist states can coexist just fine with free-market economies and capitalist businesses, as China has been demonstrating for 30 years now. What they cannot coexist with, as Poland showed in 1980, are independent trade unions.
The story is basically the same in Vietnam, and that has become a sticking point in American efforts to include Vietnam in the TPP. In March, the AFL-CIO, along with the major labour federations of Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, authored a statement insisting that an agreement "must at a minimum require that each party adopt and maintain laws and regulations consistent with the International Labor Organization (ILO) core labor rights." That would presumably include the ILO Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise. Unfortunately, in countries like China and Vietnam, that's not going to happen.