• Trade Unions: International Solidarity in Action

  • Christian Pilichowski | 03 May 12 | Posted under: Social Movements and Trade Unions
  • International solidarity can be understood as cooperation between trade-union organisations that, by their nature, share the same objectives because they represent the workers of their countries. It takes on a special importance when the workers are employed by the same multinational company or in the same worldwide type of industry.

     

    Why are all workers involved?

    When the head office of a multinational makes a decision regarding employment or investment, it has a direct impact on several sites of both the company and of its sub-contractors in several different countries. What recourse can the workers have for dealing with the probable consequences of such a situation other than by looking beyond their borders to trying and make common cause?

    The globalisation of companies is shaping a world that is becoming increasingly uniform. Their pressure is making workers’ rights, wage levels and conditions of work converge to their lowest level. This negative spiral toward the social minimum is increasing, often dragged down by the leaders of countries with low wage levels and restricted social rights, who see this as a way of developing and industrialising their country while in fact they are mainly accommodating the strategies of the multinationals and their political intermediaries.

    They are seeking:

    • to free themselves, as much as possible, from labour legislation and collective bargaining in the name of free enterprise and competitiveness;
    • to increase labour flexibility in all various forms;
    • to make use of short term employees, (contract workers, temps, and increasingly precarious forms of employment).

    To sum up, to reduce the price of labour, what they call “labour costs”, by every possible means.

    The consequences are well known. The rich of all countries get richer – the others (the 99% as the “indignados” say) live less and less well. We are indeed dealing with a class conflict and not a conflict between peoples or nations

    France’s General Confederation of Labour (CGT) has from the first developed relations with all other trade union and democratic organisations throughout the world with the aim of globalising social progress. All the international organisations, the UN, ILO and even the OECD, today affirm that it is through the creation of decently paid jobs and the establishment of some basic social security on a world scale that we will be able come out of the crisis.

    The workers are in the front line against the present form of globalisation

    Don’t the employers keep telling us that everywhere else the workers are more flexible, competitive, less demanding? So long as the multinationals can set the workers of one country against those of another, we will never be able to get out of the infernal cycle of the social minimum and the permanent blackmail of the bosses over our jobs, the downward pressure on wages and the deterioration of our working conditions.

    For the CGT, the solution is to establish relations between the workers of different countries – starting with those working for the same multinational company.

    What can trade unionism do?

    Once we are organised, many things are possible. By exchanging information with other wage earners, it is possible to know their living and working conditions – not just what the bosses want to tell us but the way the wage earners live. Once contacts are established, we can envisage building solidarity in action – not just by exchanging messages of support but by acting in a co-ordinated manner against the same boss by informing the wage earners and establishing a balance of power that transcends borders. We have all seen the effectiveness of united actions – unity at international level will carry even greater weight.

    The experiences that have taken place prove this.

    A few examples: Joint seminars held in 2007 between French, Czech and Hungarian workers of the Leroy Somer Group have enabled the union members to set up a platform of well-argued common demands enabling the Hungarians to win significant wage increases. The more the gaps can be reduced the more difficult it becomes to pit us in competition against one another.

    In 2009 the activists of four multinationals operating in France and Turkey published the account of their encounters and reported the decisions taken in common in both languages and with the logos of both the CGT and the Turkish union (Birlesik Metal) on all the union notice boards of the relevant companies in France and in Turkey. The repercussion amongst the workers of the groups was enormous – the bosses’ anger also. We had aimed this right on target.

    Also in 2009, the visit to China of the comrades working on the Airbus A320 assembly line, and their meeting with the trade unionist on the spot allowed them to measure the reality and ends of the establishment of Airbus in China and bring back reliable information to the workers in France in place of fantasies. Telling things as they are and thus overcoming irrational fears contribute to raising the awareness of workers in the face of the current globalisation.

    Three working sessions were organised in Tunisia in 2009 and 2010 between French and Tunisian trade unionists regarding the setting up of Aerolia, a firm created specially by an Airbus subsidiary with the aim of delocalisation. They covered the issues of “qualification, classification and wages” and opened the perspective of actions and trade unionisation in Tunisia, which at this moment are crucial.

    The meeting in Grenoble on April 2010 of virtually all the trade-union representatives in the world working in the Caterpillar Group, following the intense struggles within the company, certainly demanded a great deal of time and effort – about six months of making contact with the TU organisations throughout the world working in the group, with the help of Italy’s International Federation of Workers in Metallurgy (FIOM). We also had to do a lot of work to draw up an agenda that could deal with all the expectations, fundraising, a place to hold the meeting as well as the constraints of language interpretation. However, a TU network now finally exists – that is a purely trade-union structure run by a small committee of trade unionists that regularly exchanges information on the economic and social aspects of the firm. Joint approaches of all the unions are taking shape. Discussions with the world CEO of the group have occured. Common actions can be envisaged at this stage. The next meeting has been set for 2013.

    The reciprocal visits in 2010 and 2011 between the comrades at Alstom Transport and their opposite numbers at TMH, the company in Russia that Alstom invested in, obviously to delocalise the making of wagons and locomotives, resulted in a strong demand: indeed, the European Company Committee (ECC) was informed and consulted (or should have been) about the restructuring of the group. Yet a major part of the firm’s activities were transferred to Russia. Therefore French and Russian workers together demanded that the Russian Trade Unionists sit on the ECC as observers to avoid their being pitted against one another in competition and to build joint strategies. Moreover, this is possible: we defend our jobs and so do they, since they tell us that Alstom wants to dismantle the R & D departments and separate R & D from production, which is senseless. This is working – the trade unionists in France think the same and are waging the same struggles.

    The contacts and numerous meetings between activists in France and Morocco within the ArcelorMital Group have led to the same demands being put forward in ArcelorMittal’s ECC. In fact, the Moroccan comrades came to give evidence of the working conditions during a meeting of the ECC in order to come up with solutions basing themselves on the more favourable balance of power we have in Europe. In the same spirit and still in Morocco, the comrades from Safran, following our meetings with the trade unionists in the aeronautic industry, are considering the wisdom of associating the trade unionists of Morocco and Tunisia to the meetings of the ECC.

    We needed every time to refute the bosses’ allegations and establish the facts. We thus perceived that the most useful document in the international exchanges was undoubtedly the report of the Company Central Committee’s (CCC) economic expert and the ECC’s expert report. Going from effective political solidarity to effective economic solidarity requires sharing the information with all our comrades. Since wage earners in France still have some rights, we arrange for the wage earners in other countries to benefit equally. If we want to make the economy serve the social, it is useful to make economic information available to all those who are fighting for social progress.

    There are dozens of other examples with comrades from Brazil, examples involving South Africa’s aeronautics, involving fuel, power and transport, the motor car industry, involving meetings in the United States with Boeing trade unionists, those representing the blue collar and also the white collar workers, or involving the CGT in EADS. There are examples in India regarding the setting up of Renault there, and examples of Alstom, Schneider, examples in Australia because of Thales establishing itself there to manage the maintenance of that country’s Royal Navy.

    These initiatives have been made possible thanks to long-standing links with other trade-union organisations in the world. These links are the result of a political determination by the Metal Working Federation of the CGT, in which internationalism is one of the raisons d’être for our presence in the European and international federal structures. They exist because we think that maintaining bilateral relations is an indispensable complement to our active participation in the life of both European and international federations. Let me repeat that despite some reprehensible policies at the moment and the culpable passivity of some international federations in the face of the systemic crisis, our presence within them is a real help to our own activity and in no way changes our complete independence of action.

     

    Understanding the limitations

    Every trade-union organisation, every country, has its own history, its own way of doing things in accordance with its conception of trade unionism. It is often necessary to explain what we are looking for, what our objectives are, for those in other countries to understand and enter into a relationship and a lasting one. We are dealing with relations between human beings, but also between trade unionists who, like us, are caught up in day-to-day problems and are managing their priorities as best they can.

    What does this lead to?

    First of all, to getting a clearer understanding of the company’s strategy. It involves securing information about what is happening outside France from trade-union representatives and not from the boss. The workers will find new arguments for backing up their demands and countering the employers’ strategy. They could act together to support one struggle or another or to fight for the same objective at the same time, thereby markedly improving the balance of powering in our favour.

    The aim is to build a permanent network between trade-union organisations within multinational companies and for this to have the means of acting in a coordinated manner. Subsequently, joint working in the network should enable us to demand an International Framework Agreement (IFA), to have negotiations between the company’s management and the international federation, whereby the company undertakes to observe the standards and conventions of the ILO and the guiding principles of the OECD throughout the world, whatever the local legislation is. The network is a factor in the balance of power that should make it possible to reach an agreement that has a useful result.

    In conclusion

    The directors of firms within a group or a subsidiary consult one another, see one another regularly, and do so at the company’s expense – government leaders do the same. They do it because it is useful and necessary for their activity. Thus wage earners must be able to do the same. This is firstly decided within the firm.

    The issue of financing arises. Obviously we must do as much as possible to get the employer to meet the costs. But why not demand:

    • that the UN update its declaration on the “guiding principles regarding firms and human rights”;
    • that the OECD does the same with the “guiding principles regarding multinational companies” so as to include the obligation for organs of information and consultation on a world scale for multinational companies?

     

    We are demanding a kind of worldwide directive regarding “world group committees” as well as the obligation for providing trade-union organisations with the capacity to meet once a year, among themselves, without representatives of the employers.

    The ITUC, the International Trade Union Confederation, could present this demand to the ILO, to the OECD via the Trade Union Consultative Committee via the UN. 


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