Cross-Border Labor Unions?

This piece from the Washington Post may be old news to our readers, but it was a new idea – and more importantly – new practice to me.

With two like-minded unions, the clothing-and-laundry UNITE and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (soon to become one union, UNITE-HERE, next month), the SEIU is embarking on a campaign to organize such multi-service global companies as Sodexho, Aramark and Compass Group — corporations that provide food, laundry and janitorial services in ballparks, schools and hospital cafeterias, as well as in Iraq. Combined, the three companies employ 1.1 million people globally and 330,000 in the United States. Sodexho has 110,000 workers in the United States, and the three unions are putting up $10 million and 80 organizers and researchers to unionize it. But the battle won’t only be fought stateside. In conjunction with unions in Europe, says the SEIU’s Tom Woodruff, who is running the campaign, “We are working for agreements in more than one country.” The U.S. unions seek company-wide recognition, while unions in, say, Britain, want access to Sodexho’s list of workers.

Companies have been global a long time. Why have labor unions remained national?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Political issues by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

7 thoughts on “Cross-Border Labor Unions?

  1. Companies have been global a long time. Why have labor unions remained national?

    Probably because, when push comes to shove, the workers behave like idiots who’ll believe whatever their puppetmaster politicians tell them as long as it is wrapped up in nationalism. For god’s sake, look at what happened in 1914.

    And you really don’t think it won’t happen again — that no-one will invent some pretense to get the US workers all riled up at something the French workers are doing or not doing? And of course getting them to be upset with Europeans is the hard part — getting them to be upset at Asians will be a walk in the park.

  2. Pace, Maynard, but you don’t need 1914-era SD conspiracy theories to figure out why unions tend not to be transnational.

    To begin with, returns to capital can be apportioned amongst the equity and debt holders in a way that’s very difficult to duplicate for returns to labor. GM has an interest in looking for the lowest unit costs available because the profit can be redistributed to the (identical) shareholders in nearly the same manner whether the cars are ultimately built in Paris, Shanghai or Warsaw.

    The workers in those locations, however, are subject to very different local labor markets and costs-of-living. The fellow in Warsaw exists in a lower capital-intensity, lower productivity environment where standard-of-living expectations are lower, and would find himself priced out of the market posthaste if he tied himself to Paris wage-rates and work-rules. Why move the plant from Paris to Warsaw if the productivity is lower and the wages are just as high? No, he’s objectively better off limiting himself to what the local market will bear and poaching a position from Paris. _Aggregate_ returns to labor are lower, but returns to _his_ labor are higher than if he didn’t have job.

    To operate in a fashion equivalent to a multinational corporation, the over-arching labor-firm would have to decide that aggregate returns to labor are best in Paris (that is, the most cash for the least work) and would then have to subsidize the workers elsewhere to keep them off the market, guaranteeing its control of the labor supply.

    Also, GM can ditch uncompetitive factories but UberUnion can’t ditch uncompetitive workers. Barriers-to-entry are (relatively) large for auto manufacturers, but the only barrier-to-entry for labor is having a pulse.

    Bernard Guerrero
    “So complex, indeed, will be the job of organizing specialists that there will be specialists in organization. More even than machinery, massive and complex business organizations are the tangible manifestation of advanced technology.”
    –John Kenneth Galbraith, “The New Industrial State”

  3. I recall that Sir Ken Jackson had a scheme to unify the AEEU/Amicus with IG Metall in one huge seething mass of Euro-unionism, but this of course went out with Jacko himself.

  4. Racism has been used successfully here in the US to set groups within the same economic class against each other. But when it comes to labor unions, and anything that smacks of socialism, there’s no discussing it here in the US. There’s an interesting rictus of fear that crosses most people’s faces. Here, you can buy a copy of Karl Marx’s book – nicely printed, and intended for use as a display item on a coffee table.

    The fundamental problems of labor still exist. What seems to be lacking is a decent examination of how to solve the problem in a equitable fashion. Here in the US, you can’t even discuss it – someone will always play the race card, and the discussion will devolve into a competition amongst poor whites and poor *fill in the race of your choice here*.

    I guess that old slogan “Workers of the World Unite!” is just a slogan after all.

  5. See the German unions post 1990. Continuous pressure from the dominant western faction of the union movement for upgrading of pay and conditions in Eastern Germany. As a result, massive and continued unemployment. Only recently the union movement again tried to strike but the Eastern union members refused to participate.

    Much has been written on failures of German unification, but perhaps the worst failure was creating a unified wage bargaining system.

  6. Otto,

    “Much has been written on failures of German unification, but perhaps the worst failure was creating a unified wage bargaining system.”

    That’s because _there can’t be one._ You might as well blame a government for failing to shift the speed of light or add 2 to the value of “e”. As per my first post above, the workers in former West and East Germany started out in very different capital and productivity environments, and consequently have very different interests. And the returns to labor accrue not to some overarching pseudo-person (as they do in a corporation) which can then redistribute the returns on a per-share prorated basis. The returns to labor accrue directly to the guy or girl doing the work, and the sort of redistribution (in one direction or the other) required by a true trans-national labor organization is simply a non-starter. Nobody is going to join an organization (or vote for a program, if done under governmental auspices) that promises to equalize their wages down to a fraction of what they currently make, nor join an organization that promises to price them out of a job by trying to equalize their wages with people who have access to 5 times as much capital per capita.

    Trans-national unions work only where the differentials between the two groups are low enough that some similarity of interests exists. I.e. US and Canadian auto workers. You could see such trans-nationals organizing similar groups across the richer portions of Europe, but the differences between the new and old members of the EU are such that one group would be agreeing to economic suicide by joining the other.

    Also keep in mind that some forms of social coercion that are available in a local setting simply don’t translate well across long distances and don’t scale up well to large groups. As a former Teamster, I was asked to go on strike on several occasions. Keeping aside the fact that they always looked like good opportunities to screw a few extra bucks out of my employer at a time when labor was tight and profits healthy, I would have been hard-pressed to cross that picket line even if I had wanted to. Everybody in that hub would have been quite aware of my defection in short order and life thereafter would have been miserable. And possibly unhealthy. But there is no effective way for a group of German autoworkers to ostracize or pressure a group of Chinese autoworkers who take on additional volume when the Germans go on strike. Their immediate interests diverge and the idea that the Germans will fly out to Shanghai en masse to snub the Chinese is laughable

    Bernard Guerrero

    “Holland loaded itself with ten times the impositions which it revolted from Spain rather than submit to. Tyranny is a poor provider. It knows neither how to accumulate nor how to extract.” ? Edmund Burke to House of Commons, September 1774

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