Bonds of Steel: Can Alliances with Unions in Mexico and Europe Return the United Steelworkers to Its Former Strength at Home?

By Blumgart, Jake | The American Prospect, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Bonds of Steel: Can Alliances with Unions in Mexico and Europe Return the United Steelworkers to Its Former Strength at Home?


Blumgart, Jake, The American Prospect


From the 1930s through the 1980s, the United Steelworkers (USW) and its sister industrial union, the United Auto Workers, were the heart of organized labor in America. If the woman in the street or the legislator in D.C. had been asked to name the most powerful union in the country, the USW would have been at the top of the list. And deservedly so: With a membership topping I million, correspondingly vast coffers, immense political sway, and industry-wide bargaining power, it won the kinds of contracts and prominence that few other unions ever gained in America's notoriously conservative political economy.

Everyone knows what happened next. With great power comes great complacency, and by the 1980s the American steel industry no longer maintained its once commanding grip on the international steel market. Coupled with an increasingly piratical global corporate culture, the industry suddenly and violently collapsed, scattering steel production to cheaper labor markets abroad.

In the 25 years since, conventional wisdom has pronounced the death of organized labor a thousand times, and attention has shifted from the industrial unions to the giants of the service and public sector--whose jobs cannot be so easily outsourced. But the USW isn't dead. With an official membership of 850,000 active unionists, down from a peak of 1.3 million in 1975, the USW is the largest industrial union in America. (Much of this growth was achieved by absorbing other declining industrial unions, including the paper, rubber, and forestry workers.)

Despite these figures, the United Steelworkers is fighting on an international battlefield which its corporate opponents have commanded with impunity since the 1970s. The USW's leadership tries to compensate for this crippling strategic disadvantage through a network of tactical partnerships on both the national and international scenes. Domestically, the union's Blue Green Alliance with American environmentalists rightfully gained widespread attention, but it is the USW's outreach to the international union movement that may point to a new path forward for labor in a worldwide economy.

The USW is developing a web of strategic alliances with sister unions on every inhabited continent in an attempt to ensure that the fruits of globalization are fairly distributed. Two of the union's efforts--one in the global South, the other in the North--provide a window into a struggle for transnational unionism that neither the media nor the political establishment seem to have noticed. Both efforts include strategic alliances that the union is trying to upgrade into transnational organizations, creating (at least theoretically) a force to match the transnational corporations.

"The USW has been so innovative in part because they were hit full force with globalization 30 years ago," says David Madland, director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund's American Worker Project. "[Now they are] seeking ways to partner and develop deeper relationships internationally to raise standards for workers both internationally and in the U.S. It certainly has real potential. Whether it actually works, it's certainly better than nothing."

SOUTH OF THE BORDER, the USW has thrown its weight behind Los Mineros, the mining and metalworkers union in Mexico, providing critical support to that embattled union. Its ties to Los Mineros are particularly strong because of their shared border and, to an extent, overlapping labor markets (15 percent of the Mexican labor force works in the U.S.), which gives the USW powerful incentives to strengthen independent Mexican unions. Significant disparity between the two labor markets is to be expected, but the contrast is much starker today than it used to be.

A June Bureau of Labor Statistics report on international compensation costs shows a clear decline in the hourly compensation costs for Mexican manufacturing workers. In 1975 Mexican compensation costs stood at 23 percent of their American equivalent. …

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