Global Unions, Local Power: A New Spirit for Labor?

book coverOne day in June 2009 a South African trade unionist emerged from a meeting with the boss of a global security firm, G4S, the largest employer on the African continent. He held his hands in the air, and in his fist he had a wrinkled copy of the contract his union had negotiated with the company. He had just successfully helped a recently-fired security guard reclaim his job, claiming the language in the contract showed unjust termination. He said:

“This is my copy of the global agreement. It’s like a bible, man. When management tells me to get out, I show them this. When workers are afraid to join, I show them this. When people tell me we don’t have the right, I point to this. This this this. This is the key. But only if we use it right.”

He was referring to a global framework agreement (GFA) that was the culmination of five years of acrimonious struggle by UNI Global Union, as well as its allies in South Africa and others around the globe. GFAs are policy instruments signed by transnational corporations and global union federations that create an arena for global labor relations. GFAs also link unions around the world in an effort to impact the behavior of companies throughout their supply chains. The agreement forced G4S, the world’s third-largest employer behind Walmart and Foxconn, to recognize unions and raise standards in a handful of countries, or risk losing investors. Notably, the agreement granted all of its nearly 600,000 employees workplace “neutrality,” the right to organize without management interference.

I wrote a book, Global Unions, Local Power, claiming that the campaign was basically a success story in a world with few success stories. I viewed the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and its global union federation, UNI, as the frontier of a “new spirit” of labor organizing that was experimenting with ways to confront global corporations at an entirely new scale. I basically concurred with one of the main on-the-ground organizers:

“SEIU [which played a large role too] is going to change the world. We are changing the world, for workers anyway. . . . Look, we picked it up in London, it worked there…Look at the Netherlands, it’s amazing what we have been able to do there. They were getting their asses kicked and now they’re running campaigns, occupying buildings. Look at South Africa, they are using this model down there, you know. Lots of people are doing this with us. This is open- source organizing. And it works.”

But not everyone was celebrating.

In a union office in London, a leader of the union that represented G4S security guards, said “the first draft of every Global Agreement seems to come out of the offices of the same Wall Street legal firm.” He claimed the agreement was a sweetheart deal that, because of the aggressive tactics used to win it, unnecessarily alienated the company, making for a tougher bargaining partner on its home turf in the UK. Similarly, a union officer in India scoffed at the idea that a “transnational partnership” between Indian labor unions and UNI Global Union, which had been active for almost four years, had anything to offer the five million low-wage security guards, where G4S was again the largest overall employer on the continent. Disgusted, to demonstrate what he felt was the heart of the matter, he raised his hands and moved his fingers so as to suggest the movements of a puppeteer bringing life to a marionette.

Perhaps most surprisingly, a leader from the very union that initiated and supported the entire campaign, the Service Employers International Unions was conflicted, claiming the campaign against G4S was “too long, too expensive, too destructive, too aggressive and didn’t get us what we wanted anyway.”

Recently, as part of an American Sociological Association delegation to China, I gave a lecture on the potential of global campaigning to improve the lives of workers. Immediately following, I was sternly denounced by an experienced activist in the audience for promoting what he saw as nothing more than the next “paper tiger.”

It is not surprising that activists disagree on how workers should respond to globalization. Academics do too. Against nearly two decades of claims that globalization undermines labor rights, creates bad jobs, destroys unions, and depresses labor standards—all of which there is abundant evidence for—a counter discourse emerged. It argued that, under certain conditions, the increasing vertical consolidation of corporate power made global capitalism more vulnerable to disruption. These conditions, it was said, provided workers a kind of built-in “structural power” to the logic of large firms. The increasing complexity of the global division of labor allowed for local disruptions (strikes) to reverberate through a company’s global supply chain. Additionally, a union drive at one place necessarily brought into the fold multitudes of workers across different geographies. Where workers did not enjoy a kind of structural power, creative strategies allowed a small movement to speak for large groups of workers at once, against the a single giant boss.

There is some evidence for this too. The transnational campaigns in the late 1990s against sweatshop labor were able to raise wages and standards for garment workers in Latin America. The proliferation of social clauses within global trade agreements offered unions and even individual workers a legal avenue to pursue grievances against multinational companies. As conditions worsened in the low-wage service sector, workers were able to refashion that decline into “symbolic power” through creative protest, discursive resistance, and “associational power.” All in all, what Peter Evans defined as counter-hegemonic globalization—from below and from the left—seems worthy of consideration.

My examination of the global campaign against G4S took stock of coordinated labor organizing strategies on four continents that unfolded over five years, from the very periphery of the movement in Malawi to its strategic headquarters in Geneva. Twenty years ago, a campaign like this was impossible. Today, almost one hundred large multinational firms have signed global framework agreements with various global union federations. The agreement with G4S is exceptional, however. The movement to win it involved the hallmarks of comprehensive campaigning—grassroots organizing, anti-corporate “air war” tactics, institution building—and it was focused on winning demands that would empower unions locally. And it did. Workers in nine US cities won union recognition with the company. Security guards in South Africa and Poland won union recognition, wage increases and political goals. With the help of UNI, Indian unions built an entirely new labor institution for security guards, which helped secure access to identification cards, win job contracts, and defend their claim to the minimum wage. New unions of security guards were formed in Nepal, Ghana, and Malawi, all largely because of the global agreement.

The bad news is that a campaign like this, given the necessary outlay of resources, is not easily replicable at this time. But that does not make any point moot. It does, however, suggest that the debates about its relative successes or failures might be asking the wrong questions. A more important consideration is what this particular experiment with global unionism can tell us about workers’ power in the 21st Century.

First, the global economy produces workers as well as goods and services, and most of them have no claim to “structural power,” or the rights and protections that constitute “associational power.” Instead, when they organize, most workers have to create their own power. This case shows it is possible. Second, global framework agreements should not be evaluated in terms of their short-term potential, as many academics and activists do. Rather, we should concentrate on their potential to build power within an entire industry. UNI saw this campaign as part of a wider effort to discipline the global security industry by bringing its largest player into the sphere of union influence. That bet has already paid off in various ways, but the true test is whether, in the next decade, the agreement can be used to build union density throughout the industry and its supply chain. Finally, global unionism can empower workers locally. It is not easy at this point, and not a given, but it can happen. Moreover, in this case, it was the involvement of workers in the global South who helped secure a victory that had reverberations in the global North. This suggests that reversing the activist adage—think locally, act globally—might help us to clarify a strategy for worker organizing in the future.


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