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Metalworker union's aim: globalization
By Peter Tirschwell, Journal of Commerce, 28 May 1997
An umbrella union organization representing 20 million metalworkers around the world is to approve today a groundbreaking blueprint to confront corporate globalization. Meeting in San Francisco to set its agenda for the next four years, the International Metalworkers Federation laid out an ambitious program to organize workers in developing countries while expanding alliances among unions in different countries.
The federation encompasses more than 175 unions in 91 countries, representing workers in aerospace, steel, automotive and machine tool manufacturing.
Traditionally dominated by unions in Europe, Japan and North America, the federation has seen its membership growth shift to developing nations as heavy manufacturing has migrated there. Member unions added 2 million members in developing countries since the group's last convention in 1993.
Far from causing a retrenchment among old-line industrial unions, however, that shift appears to have galvanized the group into a global mobilization designed to offset the influence of multinational corporations.
"Metal unions have a unique role to play because you represent workers at the giant multinationals that are driving globalization - General Electric, Boeing, Seimens-Daimler Benz, ABB, Mitsubishi and Volvo," John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, told the group in a speech on Monday.
Central to the group's strategy as outlined in a 40-page ""action plan" is to organize newly hired workers of companies that already have contracts with federation unions in other countries.
The plan, scheduled for approval this week, outlines a proposal to organize 2,500 workers at a General Motors plant in Thailand with the support of U.S. and German auto worker unions. Organizing those and other workers will require a substantial increase in cooperation across borders, the federation says.
"Your successes or failures in making sure multinationals based in your countries operate unions worldwide will in large part determine the fate of trade unionism as we know it in the 21st century," Mr. Sweeney said Monday.
The group's main goal over the next four years is to create a global network of metalworkers that, wherever possible, will bring international pressure on companies involved in disputes with workers.
"We have to respond to this challenge by having much better trade union cooperation all over the world. It is not enough that we organize ourselves within individual countries," said Marcello Malentacci, the federation's general secretary.
Officials said the federation's action plan underscores the extent to which globalization and related issues of worker rights, social standards, environmental protection and privatization have come to dominate the agendas of trade unions.
"While four years ago the (federation) was beginning to consider the impact of globalization, this action plan is much more specific," said Dennis Hitchcock, associate editor of IM Journal, produced by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. "There is an awareness now that wasn't there five years ago to the same extent."
As an example of the type of cooperation the group is seeking, officials cited the highly publicized Bridgestone-Firestone Corp. dispute, which was settled last December after a series of walkouts and demonstrations were held in Latin America and Europe in support of the 6,000 striking workers.
"It sent a message to multinationals that workers could unite across borders and impact productivity and market share," said Gary Hubbard, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America.
The federation's blueprint that the 800 delegates were expected to approve with little opposition outlines a series of efforts including increasing funding for organizing efforts and strengthening ""company councils" where information gets disseminated about activities at other company plants.
With some figures suggesting that 30 percent of workers in developing countries are unemployed or underemployed, a key policy objective the IMF will take on involves combating unemployment, said Len Powell, an IMF spokesman.