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Unions push for transnational alliances
By Farhan Haq, IPS, 23 March 1998
NEW YORK, Mar 23 (IPS) - When several major airlines recently decided to form a strategic alliance, cabin crews working for such companies as Lufthansa, United Airlines and Air Canada were worried that their wages and working conditions could sink to the lowest common denominator.
The cabin crews, however, had a big advantage, said Elaine Bernard, executive director of Harvard University's trade union programme: they enjoyed almost free air travel to meet each other and organise.
As a result, when their companies linked up in the Star Alliance of Airlines, and began to deploy the lowest-paid cabin crews in the richer fleets, the crews formed their own transnational alliance, called Cabinet, that could fight to uphold their common labour interests.
As unionists - gathered for a three-day Socialist Scholars Conference at the Borough of Manhattan Community College - agreed, such alliances are likely to become more common as workers face an increasingly globalised business world.
"Capital is working very fast, much faster than we do," argued Jean-Pierre Page, head of the international department of France's leftist General Workers' Committee (CGT). "We are late. The neeed for solidarity has never been so important."
In many countries, said David Abdulah, research director for the Oilfield Workers Union of Trinidad and Tobago, structural adjustment programmes and bilateral investment treaties are strengthening the power of transnational corporations, at the expense of the local workforce.
"We have returned to the pure plantation state in terms of the control of the economy completely by (transnational) corporations," Abdulah said.
In Trinidad, U.S. companies like Amoco and Exxon are responsible for placing some two billion dollars of U.S. foreign direct investment annually, he said. One result is the construction of capital-intensive projects like one liquefied natural gas plant, to be built for a cost of one billion U.S. dollars, that is intended to provide work for only 83 people - including 16 experts hired outside Trinidad.
Labour's hand has been weakened, Abdulah said, because of restrictive labour laws, the government's need to provide tax holidays and other incentives to attract foreign investment, and, most crucially, continuing high unemployment. Some 15 percent of the Trinidadian workforce currently was unemployed, he noted - and even that high level was relatively low compared to unemployment rates over the past 15 years.
Country after country reported the same labour problems. Jakob Moneta, editor of the newspaper of the German Metalworkers Union, contended that corporations now had the flexibility to seek the lowest labour costs throughout Europe because of high levels of regional unemployment.
More than five million people in Germany may be unemployed - out of a country of some 81 million - Moneta declared. "People are smashed by unemployment - but now the unemployed are beginning to mobilise," he said. "They remind us that mass unemployment is an intolerable blackmail."
In Amsterdam, a recent 'Euro March' against unemployment attracted 50,000 protestors across Europe, from Finland to Greece.
In France, the spirit of unity among workers - and the feeling of solidarity with the international workforce - had increased since the 1995-96 'Winter of Discontent' campaign brought the country to a standstill, Page said.
For the first time, the main U.S. labour coalition - the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) - met last year with CGT officials at their French headquarters, Page said. Such a meeting would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, he argued - a reference to the Cold War politics that previously made any alliance between the centrist AFL-CIO and pro-Communist CGT impossible.
Although there was a greater spirit of common interests among workers, Bernard cautions that the new transnational partnerships increasingly look less like unions and more like broad social movements. "They're not traditional labour... They're sort of messy," she said.
The partnerships still need common causes to support. "We have to build common strategies, from the bottom up," Page added.
One such strategy favoured by European unions is to provide more employment opportunities by shortening the standard 40-hour work-week. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's socialist government promised last year to cut weekly working hours in France from 40 to 35, without any concomitant loss in pay, but had yet to push that proposal after protests by French businesses.
"If we want to go forward in terms of representing Europe socially ... we must carry on the battle of the 35-hour (work- 0week) all together," Page argued.
Moneta said such a struggle would be in keeping with the tradition of worker unity. In 1889, for example, unions joining the First International decided that one of their first projects would be to mobilise workers throughout Europe behind the goal of an eight-hour working day regarded, at the time, as a difficult task.
Meanwhile, Page pointed to examples of labour successes - from last year's Teamsters strike against the giant United Parcel Service in the United States to the building of a strong social movement in South Korea which played a role in electing President Kim Dae Jung. As capital unites across borders, he maintained, the campaigns - and successes - of a united world labour force will also grow.
(END/IPS/fah/mk/98) Origin: ROMAWAS/LABOUR/
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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