|"We all work in the same world. An injury to one is an injury to all
- even if the injured one lives on the other side of the planet."
Until very recently, international trade unionists had to hammer that
message home everywhere, time and time again. Today, it is common knowledge.
"Globalisation" is the slogan of our times. Many workers have themselves
felt its effects, notably in the form of job losses. Employers and politicians
no longer hide the fact that nation states have merged into a one-world
economy. On the contrary, they now invite us to "face up to global realities."
What they mean, all too often, is that our pay, our conditions and our
concepts of human decency should be brought down to the very lowest of
Underlying all this is the idea that the world will soon be one big
"free market." It is held as dogma that an irresistible force, a sort of
natural economic selection, will cut costs and prices, boost growth and
usher in prosperity for all. But that new golden age is already looking
more like a fool's paradise. And the biggest dupes, unless we are very
careful, will be workers and their families everywhere.
Over the past two decades, financiers and industrialists have redrawn
the world map of production. Using more flexible technology and a global
infrastructure of electronic communications, factories have been shifted
from the traditional sites of their investment origins to new ones closer
to raw materials, new markets or sources of cheap, unprotected labour.
This "global sourcing" of production is facilitated by an economy in
which investment by the big multinational corporations is now a greater
force than world trade between nations.
That has been the case for several years now. UNCTAD's 1994 World Investment
Report estimated that global sales by multinational companies exceeded
4.8 trillion (million million) US dollars - a larger volume than "world
trade" and over 25 percent of the world's gross domestic product (GDP).
The previous year's report had shown that, between 1983 and 1990, foreign
investment grew three times faster than "world trade" and four times faster
than world output.
By the year 2000, according to a recent study by McKinsey consultants,
the global financial market will grow to $83 trillion - equivalent to three
times the Gross Domestic Product of all the OECD member countries combined.
Ownership of these foreign assets is also highly concentrated, with half
the total being owned by just one per cent of the 37,000 companies that
have international subsidiaries.
Indeed, the very concept of "free trade" is made ridiculous by the knowledge
that one-third of all trade across national borders is simply transfers
of stock at internally managed prices between the subsidiaries of the same
multinational company; at least another third is sales made by multinationals
to other companies; and good part of the remaining third is inputs from
smaller national contractors and resource-providers to the same multinationals.
Multinational corporations also dominate the development of new technologies
that are licensed to other, smaller producers for carefully defined market
areas. Add to this the many thousands of joint ventures, cross-licensing
deals and market-sharing arrangements and we have something that looks
very like a global market. What it most certainly does not look like is
a "free" market.
The message is plain: we are witnessing not just the globalisation but
the corporatisation of trade. Now more than ever, the world has a planned
economy. But it is planned in secret, behind the boardroom doors of the
multinationals. The national political process has lost control over the
real world of economics.
Having lost that control, however, national governments have now embraced
the inevitable with gusto. Over the past decade or so, they have been unashamedly
pandering to the multinationals.
This can be seen, for example, in the provision of "tax holidays" for
inward investors and in national governments' creation of "export processing
zones" or "free trade zones" that are often free only for the companies.
The workers brought into these zones are frequently deprived of their individual
and collective rights. In the competition for investment, governments often
curb basic trade union freedoms.
Where once the elected government concerned itself with the welfare
of its country's people and measured its success by the well-being of its
workforce, its primary concern seems to have shifted to the manipulation
of its citizens and workers to meet the demands of corporate investors.
It can be seen, too, in the current worldwide craze for privatisation.
As merger and integration between the major multinationals reach a natural
plateau, where the leading product markets are subject to oligopolistic
control, the next profitable field of expansion lies downward from the
global level into the assets held in national public hands. Among the most
prized of these assets are the energy utilities.
And it can be seen in the creation of the so-called "World Trade Organisation"
in 1995. If the vast majority of trade is dominated by private corporations,
why have an organisation that continues to pretend that trade is manipulated
by governments? The reason is that the real goal of the WTO is to establish
complete "freedom" of investment, actually eliminating what little remains
of national and governmental control over the activities of the multinationals.
Any government that tries to intervene will be penalised.
But while deregulating investment, the WTO will be enforcing tight new
regulations on "intellectual property" - in other words, the knowledge
built into the processes and products for which the multinationals hold
most of the patents and trademarks. No loose talk about "freedom" there.
World capital is getting the best of both worlds.
Yet, precisely at this time of unparalleled corporate power, the trade
union movement has tended to concentrate more and more of its efforts on
lobbying governments. If the aim is to gain influence in the changing world
about us, then frankly we have been talking to the wrong people!
So where should labour - and, for that matter, the public at large -
direct their attention in the hope of some relief? Since political and
social forces currently have no effective presence at the global level,
is it possible to solve our problems by addressing ourselves to the institutions
which are emerging at the regional level, where those political and social
forces are trying to regroup after the rout?
My answer would be - it depends on what you are expecting them to deliver.
For a start, it is entirely wrong in my view to see the regional groupings
- the European Union, NAFTA/MERCOSUL, APEC or ASEAN - as new nodes of production
for the world economy. Production is now sourced on a global basis. The
world is the multinationals' oyster!
Secondly, and despite the constant rhetoric, the regional accords have
nothing to do with so-called "free trade." The concept of international
trade is now devoid of meaning except in the sense of exchanges between
- or, increasingly, within - individual companies. And the regional agreements
themselves are far from free of regulations. The General Agreement on Tariffs
and Trade (GATT) is encyclopaedic in its proportions, the NAFTA agreement
stretches to over 2,000 pages of dense prose, and the treaties, rules and
regulations of the European Union require a whole separate nation of bureaucrats
to draft, interpret and administer them.
Rather than deregulating transactions, these agreements seek to provide
a comprehensive framework that will encourage and protect multinational
property and which will delineate new, enlarged markets. The purpose of
encouraging a broader and more cohesive set of markets is to limit the
need for product diversification and to assist integrated production. It
is much easier and more efficient, for example, to market a European car
- even though it may be actually produced in a series of specialised and
globally dispersed satellites - than to design and build a distinct national
model for each country of the region. And the "world car" is already on
The limits of regionalism are perhaps most clearly shown by the recent
advent of what was at first called the European Energy Charter. The "European"
was quietly dropped from its name after it became clear that the charter
was global in scope and membership. Although its main target is the vast
and newly privatising energy industries of Central and Eastern Europe,
it in fact implies the "liberalisation" of energy extraction, generation
and distribution worldwide. Signatory states are forbidden to favour their
own energy companies and to discriminate against foreign companies (in
practice, usually the big energy multinationals). This at a time when sectors
such as electricity, until recently a national-based industry par excellence,
are being privatised and globalised. As a result of Britain's controversial
electricity privatisation, for example, the planet now has a major power
multinational called National Power. In today's world, beware of names!
But the real problem with the Energy Charter treaty is that it completely
ignores the social dimension. In some Central and Eastern European countries,
electric power workers are being paid 3-4 months late, but do not have
the right to strike. Miners in some parts of this region are owed up to
six months' pay. Many of its power plants and mines are very dangerous
for their workers and highly polluting for the environment. Is this the
level playing field that we keep hearing about? Is this what is meant by
The ICEM has therefore been campaigning hard for a social protocol that
would oblige signatory countries to the charter to ratify and apply the
cornerstone Conventions of the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO)
on freedom of association, collective bargaining, health and safety and
other labour rights. We need to balance the enthusiasm for profit with
an equal enthusiasm for employment and social benefits. Social clauses
in international trade agreements are one means to that end.
But at the same time, we should remember that trade unions have never
been able to rely on government, national or international, to do their
job for them. Our strength lies elsewhere - in our tried and tested mechanisms
of worker solidarity.
So if companies and governments have abandoned even the pretence of
economic nationalism, why are unions so often the world's last surviving
champions of a perceived national interest? Surely, the only national issue
for workers is whether home-grown employers are any more understanding,
controllable or patriotic than foreign employers, or whether they are simply
laughing all the way to their offshore, tax-haven banks.
Certainly, if workers in one part of the world accept political and
business challenges to engage in a head-to-head "competition" with their
colleagues elsewhere, we are all on the road to ruin. If we accept the
dominance of direct labour-cost competitivity, then workers in the industrialised
triad of Japan-Europe-North America are ultimately in competition with
workers earning less than a dollar a day in Indonesia, with the child labourers
of India, Africa and Latin America and with the slaves of Burma.
China, meanwhile, is rapidly overtaking the USA as the foreign capitalists'
favourite destination. A new consumer market of middle-class Chinese is
appearing - a new "red bourgeoisie" - backed by a docile labour force of
more than a billion workers and peasants. And in 1997, this totalitarian
society will acquire one of the world's most sophisticated capital markets
in Hong Kong.
Western chemical companies have not been slow to gain a toehold in China,
this last and greatest market. The German-based multinational BASF was
one of the first foreign investors in the Chinese chemical sector in the
early 1980s, and is still one of the biggest there. Interestingly, it was
BASF's boss J³rgen Str³be who advised German chemical workers
in 1993 that "wages have to orientate themselves towards productivity and
By 1996, the less enlightened sections of German business - and of German
government - were calling into question the social aspects of the "social
market economy" on which Germany's post-war prosperity and democracy were
built. As the main German business daily, the Handelsblatt, rightly pointed
out, nation states will "soon have to ponder again on a coherent strategy
for the international defence of national values, such as the constitutionally
prescribed social market economy. In the age of globalisation, the lines
of defence for such values lie far beyond national frontiers."
In China, for example, where millions of impoverished peasants are pouring
into the factories of the South? Where even on official figures more than
60,000 people a year die in workplace accidents? Where it is a "crime"
to advocate independent trade unions?
Is this the destiny of labour in a "competitive" global economy?
Yet, in a world where 85 percent of global wealth is consumed by 20
percent of the population - while the bottom 20 percent barely exist on
just 1.5 percent of total world income - there is a clear case for expanding
economic activity in the underdeveloped countries. Labour solidarity must
embrace jobs for the world's poorest if it is to mean anything other than
defence of an unjust status quo.
The desperate truth is that the acceptance of a concept of "competition"
between nations, based on labour costs, is leading to the pauperisation
of the mass of the world's population and the enrichment of the very few.
What is presented as a crisis of over-production is, in fact, a crisis
of distribution. And just distribution is the appropriate field of trade
union competence and action.
Despite the rapid rise in international investment mentioned at the
outset, still 85 percent of such investment is between the developed US-European-Japanese
triad nations. The fabled growth of the newly industrialising countries
(NICs) and the hopes of the poor remainder are confined to the remaining
Still the poor South owes the rich North over $1,700 billion in debt.
This costs the South a net $120 billion every year in servicing charges.
Still, in 1995, a German industrial worker who was lucky enough to remain
in a job could expect an average wage of $31.88 an hour, while an Indian
industrial worker needed to be even luckier to find employment and could
expect to earn 25 cents an hour.
It is also a salutary lesson in development economics to recall that
ten years back, in 1985, the German industrial wage averaged $9.60, while
in India it averaged 35 cents!
These are injustices which the fire of "free market competition" has
done nothing to eradicate. Instead, it has worsened the global inequalities.
At the same time, the necessary changes in the productive fabric of
the old market economies can only be brought about if workers and their
families can be assured of social security through the maintenance of pensions,
health provision and incomes. Insecurity is the bitterest enemy of change.
If the political environment were once again focussed on the welfare
of its citizens, much more could be achieved. Efficiency is not best obtained
by "making the human assets sweat" more. The engine of industrial growth
has been driven throughout most of the past 200 years by technological
advance - the application of capital to provide new solutions to production.
In the chemical industry, for example, the shift of basic commodity
chemicals production outside of Europe - notably to Asia - has been compensated
in financial terms by an increase in the development and production of
specialised and higher value-added products - advanced engineering thermoplastics,
coatings and pharmaceuticals, for example. The rise of biotechnologies
has brought both new kinds of product and new pathways to existing ones.
The problem for Europe's workers, however, is that these new areas of
production are not adequate to make up for the huge job losses from closure
of the old mass production facilities. Higher value-added means, by definition,
less labour per production unit. What is required is a new look at human
need in the broader sense and a breakthrough to new kinds of production
in the old markets.
If we accept that real economic change is brought about not by governments
nor by obscure "market forces" but by very tangible and globally operating
companies, then we stand challenged to devise a determined and properly
resourced strategy to deal with these prevailing economic institutions
on their own ground.
The leading companies have escaped from the social consensus that supported
certain shared ideas of "social partnership" in advanced industrial cultures.
National or regional production bases are now seen as available resources
among many others, and not as a commitment. Above all, there is no longer
a commitment to create local jobs and a balanced local economy. The jobs
carnage continues throughout the old producer countries, yet industry profits
are booming. The Economist - a journal not renowned for radical criticism
of big business - called this contrast "profits without honour."
Real social partnership to create a lasting recovery, based upon deep
innovation and a retrained workforce, will come about only through the
respect born of negotiating power. To regain that power at the new regional
level, we will need to respond to corporate power which is a continuum
right up to the world headquarters. To my mind, an effective European trade
union response, for example, will come as part of an integrated global
strategy for labour. At the moment, labour still has the pygmy perspective
of nationalism, though in Europe at least we are trying to rise sufficiently
to reach the regional bargaining table. But there we face the giant's glare
of the multinationals, gazing down from their Global Olympus on this sideshow
to their broader plans.
The ICEM is trying to spearhead the creation of really global networks
between workers organised within the far-flung subsidiaries of individual
It is a hard and painstaking task. Each union which has members in a
subsidiary of the target company is asked to nominate one local correspondent.
His or her task is to report any changes in the collective agreement, in
production, in working methods or in shift systems, for example, to the
network desk at ICEM headquarters. There, this information is sifted, consolidated,
analysed and re-presented as a global picture of the company strategy to
each point on the network. Over time, a database of this collective bargaining
information is being constructed. This will enable rapid assessments to
be made and will support moves towards an upward harmonisation of important
contract clauses and common contract renewal dates. In this way, we can
increase our combined clout.
Individual companies will be carefully studied to see those elements
which are common to all their operations. These may be common technologies,
work systems or health and environment issues, for example. The multinational
network will then press for an integrated approach to these issues by management,
to introduce the best practice in all its plants.
Though this work is only at the beginning, there are already examples
where companies have demonstrated their readiness to sit down at the international
level and to discuss such issues as health and safety.
Also, for instance, the network of unions in the Bridgestone/Firestone
tyre multinational played an effective role in maintaining pressure on
the company worldwide in support of sacked American trade unionists. The
courage of the US workers, combined with the pressure from the network,
was ultimately successful in achieving reinstatement and a good union contract
in the US plants.
Many issues, of course, will not be appropriate for international discussion
for a long time - if ever. I doubt that wage negotiations, for example,
will move beyond the national context for many years. Long-term planning
agreements with individual companies on investment, manpower and retraining
might well feature at the regional level, however, as a result of the impact
of good examples of the European Works Councils. But trade unions will
be at a disadvantage at all levels of discussion and negotiation as long
as the organising continuum from local, through regional, to global level
remains incomplete and therefore does not correspond to the economic and
social reality of the leading companies in each sector.
If our interventions in the process of change are to be effective, however,
trade unions themselves must first become the champions of change. We must
recognise that the survival and security of trade union members, of our
societies and of our own organisations lie only in embracing root and branch
reform. We need to become a respected source of new ideas, not the neglected
guardians of a glorious past. We need to develop our own radical and long-sighted
strategies for new industrial directions that contain within them the hope
of labour's emancipation.
Of course, there will be important choices to be made on the way to
new socio-economic development. Does it make sense, for example, to spend
tens of millions on developing nuclear power plants that will employ a
few hundred people, when similar amounts invested in photovoltaic cell
development would provide us with distributed energy generators on a household
basis, creating thousands more jobs, bringing less harm to the environment
and establishing a decentralised power network freed from the domination
of the multinational corporations?
We have to recognise that change strategies will mean redistribution
of employment and will require unprecedented programmes of retraining and
continuing education. We have to be there at the institutional level and
at the corporate level to negotiate these changes for our members. But
we also have to promote change, so that we can be taken seriously when
we also promote the support measures and social safety nets that must accompany
TRADE UNION REGROUPING
At the national level, the trend to redefine old industrial and trade
groupings is already well advanced in the wave of merger activity between
unions. Just as our employers can no longer be easily classified within
a single sector, so it makes no sense for trade unions to act as though
industrial development had ceased at the end of the last century. General
industrial unions are now emerging in many countries. In Australia, the
USA, Britain, Spain, Scandinavia and elsewhere, former trade-based or sectoral
unions are grouping together in a new pattern of industrial solidarity.
In part, of course, these moves are prompted by the membership and financial
crisis. Whatever the immediate motive, however, it is a move long overdue.
These new trade union structures have to be integrated from the local,
through the regional to the global level.
One important step in this process was the founding of the International
Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM)
in 1995, through a merger between the chemical, energy and allied workers'
international, the ICEF, and the miners' MIF. This is one of several amalgamations
among the sector-by-sector International Trade Secretariats (ITS). Another
recent example is the merger between the internationals of the food and
allied workers and of the agricultural workers to form the present IUF.
Media and entertainment workers' internationals have also recently established
a grouping (confusingly entitled ICEME!).
I personally hope this process of amalgamation will continue until we
end up with the necessary four or five internationals that will give us
the depth and resources necessary to do the big, vital job that confronts
That task is to defend and improve workers' pay and conditions right
around the world. The means to that end is organising. In terms of membership,
we have to regain lost ground and reach out to new constituencies. Where
unions are weak or non-existent, we have to embark on ambitious programmes
of union-building. Where older-established trade union movements have been
on the wane, they must be revived. Fortunately, there are now many signs
at the national and international levels of a new emphasis on organising
and a new concentration on our core tasks.
Internationally, this implies first and foremost establishing direct
dialogue between multinational companies and the relevant International
Trade Secretariats. Since the power increasingly rests with the companies,
rather than the governments, it is primarily with the companies that the
trade unions have to establish a negotiating relationship. An example of
what can be achieved is the pioneering agreement signed in 1994 between
our colleagues in the IUF and the French-based food multinational Danone.
This commits both parties to monitor the observance, in all Danone subsidiaries
worldwide, of the trade union rights specified by the ILO. These include
the rights to organise and to bargain collectively. We need many more such
agreements, and the means to monitor their enforcement. We are working
to achieve such accords in the ICEM's sectors.
That said, the world trade union movement obviously still needs to dialogue
with government, globally as well as nationally. Despite a weakening of
national political power, there is yet hope that a new political agenda
will enforce itself at an international level. The fading of the old Cold
War trade union rivalries leaves the International Confederation of Free
Trade Unions (ICFTU) well-placed to provide a progressive, identifiable
trade union voice within the inter-governmental agencies, old and new,
that preside over the New World Disorder. The ICFTU must be combative and
focussed in its approach. Freed from the vision of "combating communism",
it can now engage the real adversary - irresponsible capital.
It must become a fighting champion for workers and their families, rather
than a sparring partner for institutional bureaucrats.
The welcome signs of renewed emphasis on core trade union values lead
towards a firmer relationship between labour's international industrial
wing and its political wing. In many countries, a similar redefinition
of structures between the national centre and the branch unions is taking
place. The debate has been engaged at the international level and a bid
is being made to renew and to empower the international organs of trade
ARE WE WORTHY?
It was the great economic and social upheavals caused by the expanding
industrial revolution that gave birth to the labour movement of which we
are the proud inheritors. Born out of change, our trade union forebears
also demanded change. They understood and welcomed the onward sweep of
industrial progress for the benefits it might bring; but they also understood
that it was necessary to build their own means to ensure that these benefits
would be shared among the many rather than hoarded by the few.
But are we worthy of those origins? Do we still observe the changing
trends of industrial advance with the same clarity of vision? Are we also
prepared to change the nature of our social institutions to meet the new
challenges that development has brought to confront working people?
Or have we grown too comfortable in the trade union clothes our fathers
and mothers wove? Is our vision dimmed by fear of what sacrifices change
might bring with it? Do we resist the very force of change in our own organisations
To confront these questions and to come up with honest and adequate
answers is the greatest challenge facing today's labour movement. If we
fail to meet it, we fail not only our past proud history, but we fail those
who come after us, because we risk losing the one remaining chance to give
them control over their own working lives.