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What the transatlantic union can do
2 July 2008
What the transatlantic union can do
2 July 2008
It has been a long journey for Derek Simpson, the joint general secretary of Unite, the new union formed out of the merger of the engineering workers' union, Amicus and the Transport and General Workers' Union. Barely a decade ago he was a regional officer of the engineering workers union who had spent his formative years in the Sheffield communist party. Today he will stand up in a luxury hotel resort in Las Vegas and announce that his union is to create a new force as a result of a link-up with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). Simpson's fellow general secretary, Tony Woodley, will join the ceremony by video link from London.
What will the 3,500 delegates gathered in Las Vegas, which, like Blackpool in the UK, is now the favourite conference centre for American unions, make of the announcement that a new global union has been formed? Certainly, the USWA president, Leo Gerard, a Canadian social democrat with vision and drive, is a rare internationalist amongst American labour leaders.
But only up to a point. A few years ago I was giving a talk at the Pittsburgh head office of the USWA with whom I have worked for a quarter of a century. It was a grim time for American steelworkers. Their answer was to launch a political charter to keep jobs safe. They asked me to sign it. I looked at the first clause. It called for a complete ban on imports of steel into the US. I had to say:
Sorry, guys. I represent Rotherham which makes the world's best engineered steel and exports tonnes here. How do I go home and say I have signed a protectionist pledge to block my constituents' exports to America?
President George Bush did support USWA and imposed a ban on British steel being exported into America. It was reversed after a bitter battle in which the EU did the heavy lifting for British steelworkers.
So it will be fascinating to see how the new Unite-USWA alliance deals with the first instinct of embattled American industrial workers which is to demand import restrictions.
American unions have fulminated against the decision of the Pentagon to award a contract for 130 refuelling tankers to a European consortium headed by Airbus. This was a boost to jobs of Unite members in Britain but there is now a ferocious battle in Washington to reverse this decision and award the contract to Boeing. It will be an important test case for the Unite-USWA alliance to see if the new transatlantic union can see off the protectionist attitudes of American labour.
But any coming together of trade unions across frontiers is to be welcomed. The US trade union movement is in even weaker shape than Britain's. Fewer than 15% of American employees are union members and the majority of those are in the public sector or work for federal, state or municipal employers.
In Britain, if you take out top managers and senior professional categories, there are more VAT registered companies (1.96 million) than trade union members in the capitalist sector of the economy (1.94 million). The situation is far worse in France and German unions have lost half their membership in the past 15 years.
American and British unions often keep retired members on their books which flatters to deceive in terms of membership numbers. Both American and British unions are more lively and imaginative than ever. Check the Unite website or the USWA website and there are struggles, detailed negotiations, political support for Senator Obama, and international solidarity actions which are impressive and wide-ranging.
In the past, the links between British and American industrial unions were based on specific industries. Thus the skilled engineers of the AEU looked to the Machinists' Union. The carworkers of the TGWU looked to the United Autoworkers Union. The steelworkers of the ISTC, now Community, had a special relationship with the USWA.
The more logical merger would have been put to put together the three American metal industry unions into one giant union, along the lines of IG Metall in Germany or Svenska Metall in Sweden. A merger was attempted in the 1990s but it fell apart over issues like the president of the Machinists' Union refusing to give up his union-financed private plane. The narcissism of small differences is as true in the higher reaches of organised labour as in any other institutions.
In fact, the merger between Amicus and the TGWU could be a model for a new generation of American union leaders. Instead, what we are seeing in the US is the transformation of classic US industrial unions into catch-all general unions which seek to recruit and organise in many different sectors from healthcare to university employees.
As in Britain, American unions spend as much time fighting over what they call jurisdiction issues – who can organise which workers and where – as they do in fighting the bosses.
But both sides of the transatlantic labour movement can learn from each other. British unions might gently explain the virtues of the NHS, for example. An American union contract has perhaps 20 pages on wages, grievance procedures and pensions and 200 pages setting out in detail the level of medical insurance an employee is entitled to. As a result, American unions have, in the past, been very jealous of the medical cover they negotiate for their members and families and have not been enthusiastic about a more general tax-financed healthcare system à la NHS.
Another issue Unite might discuss with its new American partners is the need to break down protectionist barriers in North America so that the poorer nations of the region like Mexico can grow. At the moment, a lorry driver taking his load of Corona beer from the brewery in Mexico has to unload his cargo at the US-Mexico frontier and transfer it onto trucks driven by teamster drivers. Imagine if in Europe, a lorry driver from Yorkshire had to stop and transfer his cargo to another lorry each time he passed a frontier. As a result, the Mexican trucker cannot share in the broader US-Canadian prosperity and may be tempted to become an illegal immigrant as US labour campaigns against open borders.
Therefore some gentle education on the value of open economics as a way of reducing poverty might be useful. Equally, the USWA can explain how unions do not have to be a formal part of the Democratic party structure or pay money directly to the party in order to influence its direction or contribute to progressive politics. The USWA is a doughty political campaigner and spends money generously on causes and candidates it supports. But Britain's Labour party is the last place in the world where unions expect as of right to sit on the party's leadership body, send blocks of voting delegates to the party conference, and directly pay party bills.
There is a rich tradition of radical and progressive politics in the US but it is hidden away in states or cities or smaller towns. From Britain, we focus on Washington and the White House but American unions are strong in many communities and influence political culture in a progressive manner which British unions could learn from.
Welcome as the Unite-USWA link-up is, the real game in town for British unions remains Europe. The future of British workers will not be determined by changes in US law or policy. As Jonathan Freedland rightly notes, the swift rightwards march of Senator Obama suggests that if he wins the White House, hopes of a rupture with US policy up until now may be disappointed. Certainly Obama's language on protectionism in his bid to win over working-class votes makes President Sarkozy sound like an Adam Smith free trader. Obama's protectionist line will be watered down in the White House but anyone who saw a drawn, exhausted Peter Mandelson on Newsnight replying to Sarkozy's intemperate attack can have few hopes that a new trade round to help the jobless and poor of the world is likely to be agreed by today's US.
It will be interesting to see if the Unite-USWA alliance amounts to a real fusion with one governing body and a British union member able to go and find work in the US and vice versa under common terms and agreements or whether it remains a leadership alliance in which the top people from both sides of the Atlantic meet twice a year and issue communiques. The latter is worthwhile but has actually been happening in any event under the aegis of existing international union federations.
The bigger question to answer is what do unions in both America and Europe do to win back membership and shape a new relationship with employers and with allied political parties. In Germany, Bertold Hubner, the new moderate leader of the giant IG Metall union has rebuked the left, organised in Die Linke (The Left) under Oskar Lafontaine's leadership. Hubner has said his union wants to see mainstream social democracy triumph and told Die Linke to go away. In Britain, that kind of support for a Labour government is curiously absent from today's union leadership. Their spin doctors prefer aggressive language in which a Labour government not a millionaires' anti-union resurgent Tory party is the chief target of union anger.
Worldwide, employees need unions more than ever. But the international union outfits from the International Labour Organisation to the global union federations are less and less able to transform their demands into reality. This is where real thinking and new leadership is needed. If the Unite-USWA alliance can prod unions on both sides of the Atlantic into rethinking what they do and what their 21st-century role and mission has to be, then it is to be welcomed.