The contemporary labor movement faces three kind of constraints engendered by the dynamics of globalization.
In the first place, the internationalization of production processes through delocalization and outsourcing, with its uneven consequences of precariousness or unemployment.
Secondly, the transformation of former welfare states in the neoliberal era, with associated regressive reforms and the reshaping of unions’ institutional role.
Thirdly, the formation of economically integrated regions and export processing zones, with the consequent engagement of labor movements in supranational institutional arrangements.
These processes underlie the activities that the international labor movement has carried out since the turn of the century, shaping a global strategy based on the strengthening of labor relations and collective bargaining systems, democratic institutions and the enforcement of human and labor rights across the world. At the same time, the labor movement has targeted multinational corporations as a privileged focus of action, building global networks to organize workers in different locations of the same corporation.
In order to understand the relationship between these macro-level transformations of political economy and the building of local union power, I have conducted fieldwork on the creation and dynamics of a global union network grouping together workers from a “translatine” steel corporation.
The Economic Comission for Latin America defines “Translatines” as corporations founded in a Latin American country that have expanded through Direct Foreign Investment to other Latin American countries. Translatines have increased their participation in DFI in the region since 2000. They are based primarily in Brazil, México and Argentina.
The network was formally constituted in 2006 by unions representing workers in the company’s oil and gas pipe production plants. By 2014, union representatives from another company owned by the same corporation – producing flat steels for the automotive, home appliance and construction industries – had joined.
Drawing on data from fieldwork, I argue that the global strategy outlined above unfolds through uneven and heterogenous local and regional contexts. At the same time, it contributes to strengthening local organizing processes, framing them through the work of a more powerful international organization
Internationalization of Production and the Need for “Bottom-up” and “Top-down” Networked Practices
Since the turn of the century, Argentinian metalworkers faced an accelerated transnational expansion of two steel companies owned by the same corporation, which meant increasing pressure in collective bargaining for flexibilization under threat of delocalization (of products or plants).
By 2006, the United Steelworkers Union (USW) from Canada faced their first round of collective bargaining with the new Argentinian owners of a steel facility, who pressured the union to accept regressive clauses in the collective agreement, with the argument that “this is the way we do things in Argentina”.
The communication between the two unions; the pact to resist the incorporation of flexibility clauses; and a rally at the corporate headquarters in Buenos Aires in support of the USW’s strike were the first actions that led the unions to build the Global Network.
Although the unions had been in touch previously to exchange information, this was the first time that the company faced an international solidarity action – and was beaten.
Developing networked relationships between unions in plants owned by the same multinational corporation to promote Workers’ Councils and international collective bargaining has been an organizational strategy of the international labor movement since the 1960’s. Since the 1980’s, these networks have sought to involve unions from the Global South.
Canadian and Argentinian leaders drew on these practices when faced with the undermining of their former local and national nodes of union power by a corporation ironically based in the Global South. The network was incorporated into the broader organizing strategy of IndustriALL, a global union federation (GUF), with organizing and other material campaign resources provided by the USW.
Mobilization and Globally Coordinated Actions to Achieve Global Aims
The labor movement’s response to the transnational expansion of corporations has generally been oriented toward the establishment of an institutional framework for global labor relations under the assumption this will strengthen the bargaining position of more precarious groups of workers and less powerful unions.
GUF’s promote Global Framework Agreements (GFA’s). GFA’s are collective bargaining protocols to set standards of labor relations within a transnational corporation wherever it operates. Because there are no supranational institutions to enforce the agreements at the global level, GFA’s are a non-legally binding representation of the balance of forces between the corporation and the unions.
According to the latest data avilable more than 300 GFA’s have been signed, mostly by European-based transnational corporations. An assessment of their effectiveness for strengthening the position of precarious workers and weaker unions indicates that unless the local workforce and trade unions are actively involved in the negotiation process, the GFA is not enforced and working conditions do not improve.
The pursuit of a GFA is the main goal of the global union network of my research, and it has been proposed to the corporation through several public statements and letters to the CEO.
The corporation has firmly opposed the establishment of a transnational arena for collective bargaining and recognition of the global network, arguing that labor relations are dictated by the national laws of the country where they operate. Thus, the global union network has sought to increase its leverage by incorporating more unions to increase its representational power.
The network meets periodically in different locations to exchange information; to discuss action plans; and to assess obstacles and achievements. The main coordinated activities are the global “Action Days”, (such as the ILO World Day for Safety and Health at Work).
A flyer or leaflet signed by the global union network is delivered to the members at each facility in each country where the global network operates, accompanied by demonstrations. Some unions organize meetings or rallies, some others walk off the production lines and others simply deliver the flyer at the gates.
The network also seeks to increase its leverage through lobbying activities in different governmental and supranational organizations, such as the ILO or OECD, or in corporation shareholders meetings.
The Struggle for Local Unions as a Global Goal
Research suggests that transnational corporations tend to adapt themselves to the standard practices of labor relations in each of the countries where they operate. Thus, the same corporation may accept collective bargaining and dialogue with unions in countries like Argentina, Canada or Italy while adopting fiercely anti-union practices in countries like Colombia and Guatemala, from legal maneuvers to the use of armed guards to threatening activists.
Global union networks therefore play very different roles in each country.
In Colombia, workers engaged in a long-lasting conflict with a pipe factory owned by the corporation. Local managers, taking advantage of the country’s authoritarian and repressive context, fiercely fought workers’ organization, delaying the recognition of the union and firing activists.
Local mobilization tactics by a broad network of democratic and anti-authoritarian unions, NGOs, and political organizations in Colombia were combined with support letters to the CEO signed by members of the global union network and lobbying actions to pressure the Labor Ministry and Human Rights Secretary, among other authorities.
The 2012 global union network meeting was organized in Cartagena, Colombia and the entire global committee held a demonstration at the gates of the plant, showing support to union leaders and workers. The corporation conceded to bargaining with the Colombian union.
In 2012, Guatemalan workers employed by the corporation had organized a union, but through legal maneuvers, all of the leaders were fired before winning recognition.
The 2013 global union network meeting passed a resolution to campaign for recognition of the union and the right to collective bargaining. Again, a multi-level set of actions were deployed, including demonstrations at the gates of the plant, letters to the CEO, a presentation to the OECD and to ILO and a “lobby from below” by local leaders in different countries asking their managers to send a message to corporate leaders.
The global union network met in Guatemala in 2017 and held a rally to the gate of the plant. Experienced negotiators from the Argentinian and Mexican unions provided a training on collective bargaining with the support of the GUF.
As part of the strategy, the global network presented a complaint to the OECD citing the corporation for unfair bargaining. A collective agreement was subsequently signed in 2020.
In both cases, the engagement of the Global Union Federation fostered militant organizing on the ground to pressure governments and employers, In doing so, the GUF participated in the making of national and local relations of forces. At the same time, the global union network built strength through each step of the process, improving its position as the representative of the corporation’s global workforce.
The Making of a Global Union Strategy
Delegates to the network represent labor movements and unions from varied organizational and political traditions and are entangled in different local balances of forces. Nevertheless, they are socially organized and connected through members’ employment by the same corporation.
One of the GUF’s organizational challenges is to bring together working classes formed through historically different processes.
GUF’s contribute to the process of developing global organizing and strategy through a program focused on the strengthening of unions, the globalization of basic standards for labor relations through supranational bodies, and the support of progressive governments.
This represents a significant ongoing transformation in the making of the global working class because although successful global union networks do not supercede the local scale of union action, they incorporate it into a global strategy to improve the working standards and institutionalized labor relations of workers around the world.
Julia Soul is a Research Associate at CEIL-CONICET, the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Laborales, in Buenos Aires.
Image: Tenaris-Ternium Workers’ World Council