A coalition of international labor groups that claims that multinational corporations collude with some governments to suppress workers’ attempts to organize is urging passage of a pro-union U.S. law as the first step toward re-energizing labor movements around the world.
More than half of U.S. workers would like to join a union, but companies are thwarting workers’ freedom to form unions and U.S. labor laws are helpless to stop them, said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, which is a member of the Council of Global Unions, at a news conference Dec. 12, 2007, in Washington, D.C. The United States is exporting a “lawless corporate culture” globally and thereby “creating a domino effect that’s toppling workers’ rights worldwide,” said Sweeney at the press briefing. The event was part of a conference on global workers’ rights designed to garner support for the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 800, S. 1041). The briefing highlighted the council-sponsored report, Unions Facing Hard Times: The Global Crisis in Union Collective Bargaining.
The Employee Free Choice Act was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who spoke at the news conference but took no questions. “This era of globalization must be judged not just by growing profit margins and rising GDPs [gross domestic products], but by how we treat the workers who make the progress possible,” he said. “We know that true progress and prosperity for our nations come only when our workers share in economic growth. In the United States, we’ve seen this first-hand, as strong unions made a strong economy, but in far too many instances across the planet, workers rights’ and economic security are under attack,” he said.
“It is time to stop this global assault on labor rights and put the brakes on a global economy that creates a boon for business and a bust for labor,” Kennedy said. “It’s time to put an end to the harassment and violence that trade unionists face around the world. But workers can’t do it alone; they need legal assistance that upholds workplace rights instead of trampling them down.” The House approved the Employee Free Choice Act—introduced there by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., on March 1, 2007. The Senate version, which has 46 co-sponsors, was referred to the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Kennedy chairs.
The bill seeks to amend the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier for workers “to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts.” Specific measures in the bill that might make it easier for workers to form or join unions are:
- Stronger penalties against employers who violate the rights of employees who seek to form a union, or during first-contract negotiations.
- Providing mediation and arbitration for first-contract disputes.
- Recognizing employees’ desire for a union through cards they sign authorizing union representation.
However, the Employee Free Choice Act would not solve all of the problems facing American unions and workers, John Logan, a lecturer with the London School of Economics and Political Science who wrote the report, told SHRM Online.
The number of employees who want to form unions and negotiate collective bargaining agreements is far greater in the United States than in any other developed country, yet U.S. union membership is only about 12 percent, the lowest of all the industrialized countries, Logan said. The country with the second-lowest percentage of employees who are represented by unions is Japan with 24 percent, and the highest is France with 95 percent, he said. The report says U.S. union membership is impeded by weak laws that do not provide enough protection for the right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining, he said. In addition, U.S. employer opposition is much more entrenched, and companies are much more aggressive in their opposition to unions in the U.S. than in any other advanced English-speaking country, and probably greater than in any other country in the developed world, he said. Highlights of the report are:
- Union density and collective bargaining coverage have plummeted in advanced English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and that can be attributed, in large part, to government hostility to collective bargaining.
- The decline in bargaining coverage in the United States has contributed to skyrocketing levels of income inequality and workplace entitlements that lag far behind those of other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations.
- Public-sector collective bargaining coverage in the United States is about four times the level of private-sector coverage, largely because of the absence of employer aggression in the “sheltered” public sector.
- While union membership has declined in several Western European countries, collective bargaining has remained relatively high and stable.
- Collective bargaining coverage has increased significantly in several new and emerging democracies over the past few decades. Unions in Brazil, South Africa, South Korea and Taiwan have been key actors in democracy movements and have linked struggles for recognition and bargaining rights to broad-based struggles for socio-economic justice.
- Levels of public- and private-sector collective bargaining coverage in the United States not only lag behind other OECD countries but also trail coverage in several new democracies.
- The repressive character of U.S. labor laws—which allow free rein to anti-union employers—hurts not only American workers but also workers in other nations.
- American and European multinational corporations have been accused of complicity in, and have benefited from, anti-union violence in several developing countries, most notably in Colombia.
- American and European employer groups and multinational corporations have attempted to block or water down labor policy in other nations—most recently in China—in an effort to undermine independent unions and genuine collective bargaining.
- Employer groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and National Manufacturers Association have opposed the inclusion of labor provisions in free-trade agreements.
- International financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have praised nations that violate the right to organize and bargain collectively and fail to enforce other internationally recognized labor standards.
J.J. Smith is manager of SHRM Online’s Global HR Focus Area.