To provide a counterweight to multinational companies, trade unions in Germany, Britain and the US have signed agreements pledging closer cooperation. It could mark the first step toward a transnational super union.
Unions in Germany can still get a crowd out into the streets, but their power is waning
The agreements, between the British union Amicus, Germany's IG Metall and two American unions, the United Steel Workers and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, are not quite blueprints for a merger, but they do mark a desire by unions to take a step in that direction, largely to keep up with corporations who no longer feel constrained by national borders.
"The world is changing and the new global realities involve transnational companies being able to trade off countries and workforces against each other," said Derek Simpson, general secretary of the Amicus trade union, one of the UK's largest, when the agreements were announced.
"Our aim is to create a powerful single union that can transcend borders to challenge the global forces of capital. I envisage a functioning, if loosely federal, multinational trade union organization within the next decade."
A transnational union could make enough noise to get the attention of mulitnationals, advocates say
The era of globalization has not been kind to trade unions. As more corporations have moved parts of their operations to lower-wage countries, they have been able to demand wage concessions from unions. Even in Germany, where the labor movement has traditionally been strong, unions have felt their power ebb and their membership rolls shrink as industrial jobs go abroad and the service sector grows.
"Trade unions in Europe have lost ground in organizing new industries, the service sector and the growing economy," said Michael Burda, a professor at Berlin's Humboldt University who studies the labor movement. "Whereas in the United States, this was observed 20 to 25 years ago, it is just playing out in slow motion now in Europe."
According to him, trade unions in most of Europe are in a state of strategic retreat.
In Germany, real wages continued to rise for workers until the 1990s. The result was that unions, in effect, priced themselves out of the global marketplace. High labor costs made it very expensive to do business in Germany. Companies simply began taking production to eastern Europe or India or China, where wages are a fraction of what they are in Germany.
But over the past five to seven years, unions have agreed to wage concessions and either accepted small hikes or even wage freezes in collective bargaining rounds. While painful for workers' wallets, it has helped price German manufacturing back into the market.
IG Metall has been critical of US "cowboy capitalists"
Still, that market has shrunk. Whereas around 28 percent of the German labor force worked in manufacturing 15 years ago, today that number is closer to 20 percent.
"We have to admit, it hasn't gotten any easier for unions," said Horst Mund, head of international relations at IG Metall, Germany's metalworkers union and one of the signers of the solidarity agreements with the American and British labor groups.
"This is absolutely necessary when you see the scope of globalization. Companies are continually globalizing themselves, capital is mobile and employees have to face up to this challenge and work together internationally."
The next step
While IG Metall already has information-sharing agreements with foreign unions and has set up networks of employees at multinational corporations, the solidarity agreements take the cooperation one step further.
A counterweight to global capital?
"Unions in Germany need to know what's going on at companies in Great Britain, for example," Mund said. "We need to know what is being discussed about production locations, labor standards and other things, so we can address these issues with a united front."
While the head of Amicus is calling for a super-union within a decade, Mund would not put forward a time frame, saying only it is a long-term goal. Marco Trbovich, a spokesman for the United Steel Workers, told Britain's CNS News that his union also saw an official tie-up as something for the long term and that no discussions had been held yet.
There are stumbling blocks to any proposed transnational trade union merger, however hypothetical it may be at this point. Besides the obvious language differences, there are big differences in trade union cultures, the relationships between employers and employees, even the way wages are bargained for.
"I'm a bit skeptical," said Humboldt University's Burda. "Whereas a multinational can plop the same company down in many places, it's very hard to establish a German-style trade union in Italy, for example. They're so different that it's incredibly difficult to imagine this happening anytime soon."
But, he added, the more power that is amassed on the side of the multinational corporation, the more likely it is that some countervailing power will arise on the labor side.
IG Metall's Mund agrees, saying that trade unions have little choice but to team up across borders if they want to stay relevant. While teaming up internationally might be an unwelcome thorn in the multinationals' side, the goal would not be to try to stop globalization or do as much harm as possible. "As an exporting nation, Germany profits from globalization," Mund said. "But we have to represent our employees' interests, and this is likely going to be the way to do it."