The announcement of a ‘merger' between the British Unite union and the United Steelworkers of America to form the "world's first global union", a 3-million strong Workers Uniting, was accompanied by extravagant claims. "This union is crucial for challenging the growing power of global capital," declared Leo W. Gerard, president of the USW, a union that already has members in Canada and the Caribbean: "Globalisation has given financiers license to exploit workers in developing countries at the expense of our members in the developed world. Only global solidarity among workers can overcome this sort of global exploitation wherever it occurs."
"Our mission is to advance the interests of millions of workers throughout the world," proclaimed Derek Simpson from Unite, "The political and economic power of multinational companies is formidable. They are able to play one nation's workers off against another to maximise profits. They do the same with governments, hence the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us. With this agreement, we can finally begin the process of closing that gap."
The two unions have already cooperated on trying to save jobs, not only in the US and Britain but also in Canada and Ireland. "The new union plans to set up operations in Colombia to help protect union members there from violence, in Liberia to aid rubber workers, and in India to help impoverished shipbuilding workers" (New York Times 3/7/8). They are encouraging unions from Poland to Australia to join them.
The media has been unsurprisingly cynical about the motivations behind the deal. Union membership has declined enormously since the 1970s and size is equated with influence. Unite itself was formed from the merger of the T&GWU and Amicus, which, in its turn, was the amalgamation of a whole range of unions. As for the USW's membership, only 20% are in the steel industry, with the rest in a variety of sectors such as mining, oil, paper, health care and security. Bigger is supposed to be more impressive.
More interestingly, some commentators have pointed to the protectionist tradition in American unions. The USW campaigned for a complete ban on steel imports that was supported by President Bush and led to a ban on British steel being exported to America. Other unions in the US were furious at a Pentagon contract given to a European consortium led by Airbus for refuelling tankers, and are still fighting for Boeing to get the job.
When it comes down to it, unions, regardless of any ‘internationalist' rhetoric, are national entities, acting in a national framework. Richard Hyman, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics was quoted in the New Statesman (2/7/8) as saying that unions "represent distinctive, national interests. In many industries, there is an underlying international competition in terms of investment and so on. If one is then trying to bargain, competing interests will come to the fore." Therefore each union's fundamental loyalty is to the economy of the country in which they function.
Protectionism is not only alive in the US; it's a widespread and growing tendency. Whenever jobs are outsourced or relocated, unions don't talk of workers internationally, just of those in the country where they operate. When British industry suffers through global competition, British unions stick up for it.
Unions internationally against the class struggle
But it's not just nationalist loyalty that belies the ‘internationalist' rhetoric. What's more important is the way that unions in every country behave in the face of workers' struggles. Whenever you hear of an ‘unofficial' or ‘wildcat' strike you know it's not been sanctioned by the union but also that it's probably been actively opposed. It's not difficult to see why unofficial strikes happen in countries like Vietnam (where there have been hundreds of illegal strikes this year) or Egypt (where there's been a strike movement throughout the last 18 months) because the unions there are so obviously bureaucratic and part of the state. But the example of Poland in 1980-81 shows that when workers go beyond the official unions, even in a massive movement, they can still be taken in by illusions in ‘free trade unions'. Solidarnosc was the main force to undermine the workers' struggle before the imposition of martial rule in December 1981.
Workers Uniting talk of helping rubber workers in Liberia. American unions have already done more then enough there. Rubber is very important for the Liberian economy, and Firestone (now a subsidiary of Bridgestone) is Liberia's largest employer. During a strike in 2006 angry workers took over the offices of the Firestone Agriculture Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL), holding a meeting to change the union leadership. In April 2007, during a strike in which police attacked and arrested strikers, workers set up roadblocks. They were attacked by the police and United Nations forces. After fighting broke out, tear gas was used to disperse the workers. Further strikes, during which workers were beaten, intimidated and several killed, led to an election (‘observed' by the USW and the AFL-CIO union federation) in which the FAWUL was transformed from being a ‘company' union to a ‘free union'. Initially this was not accepted by the management, but after strikes, beatings, firings and appeals to the Liberian Supreme Court, the union was finally recognised by the company. And what have workers gained? The leader of another Liberian union said how grateful they were for the intervention of the USW and AFL-CIO. Yes, now they will be relying on the big unions that are used to working hand in glove with big corporations. Because of that, in the fight between Firestone and its employees, workers have temporarily lost the initiative.
And the thousands of workers killed in Colombia, or the steelworkers of India can also only expect union activity to undermine and sabotage their struggles.
In contrast, the ruling class knows very well how much it needs the unions. French President Sarkozy wrote in Le Monde (April 18) "I would like to pay my respects to the trade unions.... One cannot govern a country without responsible trade union forces." Currently the French bourgeoisie (like many others) is concerned that unions are being increasingly discredited. A presidential adviser told Le Monde that they wanted to prevent "a weakening of the trade unions and the appearance of uncontrolled movements".
Workers most definitely have the greatest need for the international unity of their struggles, but this can only come from appreciating the united interests of workers across the globe, interests that go against the states and corporations that so much rely on the work of the unions. The reason that the USW and Unite have tried to make out they're ‘tackling global capital' is to give themselves some credibility with the working class. It is fitting that the deal is going to finally be signed off in Las Vegas, the home of many tacky shows with gangsters working behind the scenes.
The workers of the world can unite, but only if they overcome the union obstacle and take struggles into their own hands. Car 5/7/8