The Global Union; the Split We Engineered in America's Oldest and Largest Labor Confederation Was Small News Compared with Our Real Goal: The Creation of a World Union

Newsweek International, November 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Global Union; the Split We Engineered in America's Oldest and Largest Labor Confederation Was Small News Compared with Our Real Goal: The Creation of a World Union


Byline: Andrew Stern (Stern is president of the Service Employees International Union.)

On July 25, 2005, in an airy conference room at Chicago's Sheraton Hotel, organized labor once again captured the headlines in a city that has seen its share of labor strife: a number of unions, led by my group, the SEIU, decided to leave the country's oldest and largest labor confederation, the AFL-CIO. Health-care workers, hotel workers, construction workers and hospitality workers all walked out; we believed that our interests weren't being served by the outdated industrial model that the AFL represents. It was called the biggest split in labor since 1930, but it was what happened a month later, with much less media attention, that historians may look back on as the pivotal moment in labor history.

In the same conference room, in the same city, representatives from China, India, Europe and the United States met under the banner imagine a global union.

What would a global union look like? Think more corporate partnership than class struggle. Today, capital is global and employers are global. Companies, not countries, make the rules. To survive, unions need to find their niche. Global companies are going to need an organization that, in a sense, will manage their labor and protect workers' rights. A global union would set standard practices and codes of conduct--perhaps even minimum wages and work hours. It would also provide services like 401(k) management and health care.

It would take a page from the NGO playbook: as NGOs have pressured companies like Reebok and Nike to change their practices, a global union would try to do the same, but with more resources. A global union would match the dynamic free-market flexibility of multinational corporations.

My critics in the labor movement cringe when I use words like "partnership" and "value added." The reality is that unions need to add value or corporations will ignore us. If we want an equitable stake in the company, we need to define what our goals are. We can't just demand a raise in pay without offering an incentive to the company. …

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