The Labour Divide

IV. Trade Unions (Syndicates) after Communism

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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Written July 2002

Updated July 2005

The AFL-CIO (the result of a merger, exactly 50 years ago, between the American Federation of Labour and the Congress of Industrial Organizations) is America's largest trade unions umbrella organization. When it splintered in July 2005, it merited barely a mention in the international media. Thus far have fallen the fortunes of organized labor.

The rebels include the 3.1 million members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Another 2 million, in smaller syndicates, may join them soon - practically halving the AFL-CIO's strength of 13 million.

Add to that the decline in membership - 800,000 in the last decade alone - and the picture is grim indeed. A mere 8% of workers in private firms and one eighth of the overall labor force in the USA are unionized - a whopping drop of two thirds since the 1950s.

The malcontents complain that the bulk of members' dues - the AFL-CIO's annual budget is $125 million - is being wasted on lobbying politicians and schmoozing with the powers that be, rather than on member recruitment and support of industrial action (read: strikes).

The picture is equally dismal elsewhere.

Self Defense started as a Polish farmers' trade union a decade ago. It leveraged its populist and activist message to capture 20 percent of the electorate. But in June 2002 it failed to bring Poland to a halt in protest against liberals in the central bank and iniquitous bureaucrats in Brussels. In the last elections in Poland it won 10 percent of the votes and 53 seats.

When the Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions convoked a rally against the government's bungled economic policies at the end of March 2002, less than 1000 people turned up. Restrictions imposed by the often violent authorities coupled with sabotage by pro-government unions assured the dismal flop.

Public sector trade unions in Macedonia have been more successful in extracting concessions from the government in election years, though, usually, not before they embark on a nation-wide strikes timed to coincide with ill-fated visits of the IMF mission. Despite strident warnings from the itinerant delegates of global finance, the minimum wage is then raised heftily as are salaries in the public sector. The unions are about to strike again in an effort to extend the settlement to other state functionaries.

Romanian union members took the streets on May 30, 2002 threatening to emulate Argentina's mass protests and shouting ominous anti-government and anti-IMF slogans. The government buckled under and agreed to raise the minimum wage by 70 percent within 12 months - as an opening gambit in the forthcoming round of bargaining. Industrial action in Romania in the past often ended in bloodshed and its governments are mindful of it. An agreement was signed with the prime minister on June 11, 2002.

On June 20, 2002 Spain's trade unions went on a general strike, contesting the prime minister's advanced plans to reform both hiring and firing laws and unemployment benefits. With both job protection and social safety nets threatened, the unions' success was less than striking. Only socialist dominated regions and cities responded and demonstrations flared up in only a couple of places.

The murder of a - second - government advisor on labor legislation in March 2002 has stiffened the Italian authorities' resolve to amend, however marginally, provisions pertaining to the reinstatement of "unfairly sacked" employees. Two small trade unions - CISL and UIL - have signed an agreement with the government in June 2002, ditching a common front with CGIL, by far the largest syndicate with 5.4 million members. CGIL called for regional strikes through July 11, 2002 followed by a general strike in September and October 2002. It also challenged the amendments to the law in the Constitutional Court. All these initiatives petered out.

In mid 2002, Solidarity called upon the Polish administration to withdraw its amendments to the labor code and to allow it to negotiate with employers the voluntary expunging of anti-labor clauses. In what they called a "historic manifestation", Solidarity teamed up with erstwhile rival left-wing union to demonstrate in front of the Ministry of Labor. About 400 people showed up.

The one country bucking the trend may be Tony Blair's United Kingdom. It has adopted a minimum wage and forces employers to bargain collectively with unions if most of their employees want them to. The number of such "recognition" agreements, according to "The Economist", tripled between 2000 and 2001, to 470. Union membership in the service sector and among women is rising.

Working days lost to strikes in Britain doubled from 1997, to almost 500,000 in 2000 and 2001. Although a far cry from the likes of Ireland, Spain, France, and Italy - it is a worrisome trend. Interesting to note that many of the strikes are the result of performance-related wage gaps opening up among workers following botched privatizations (e.g., the railways, the post office). Bellicose, fogeyish, trade unions leverage the discontent bred by mismanagement to their advantage.

Failure to mobilize workers, half-hearted activism, acquiescence with policies implemented by right-wing governments, transformation into political parties, growing populism and anti-Europeanism - these are the hallmarks of these social movements in search of a cause.

As more and more workers join the ranks of the middle class, own shares and real estate, participate in management through stakeholder councils, go entrepreneurial or self-employed, join the mostly non-unionized service sector, compete with non-unionized and thus more competitive workers in their own country or globally, become temporary and contract workers, or lose their jobs - union membership plummets.

Outsourcing and off-shoring of jobs to non-unionized countries doesn't help either. Companies now openly resort to discriminatory practices last seen in the 1920s - refusing to hire and firing union activists. Politicians ride the wave: two recently elected Republican governors, in Missouri and Indiana, scrapped long-standing collective bargaining deals the minute they settled into office (2004).

The ignominious implosion of Communism and socialism throughout Europe tainted the trade union movement, often linked to both. Membership was halved in Britain in the lat two decades. Union membership among the young in heavily unionized Sweden slumped to 47 percent in 2001 - from 62 percent in 1995.

The failure of trade unions the world over to modernize only exacerbates this inexorable decline. The structure of a traditional trade union often reflected the configuration of the enterprise it had to tackle - hierarchical, centralized, top-down. But rigorously stratified corporations went the way of central planning.

Business resembles self-assembling ad-hoc networks, or a guerilla force - rather than the bottom heavy and elephantine organization of the early 20th century, when most unions were formed. Individual workers adapted to the ever-changing requirements of ever-shifting markets by increasing their mobility and adaptability and by immersing themselves in life-long education and training.

Consider the two ends of the spectrum: agency, freelance, and fixed-term contract employees (or even illegal aliens) and executives. Both are peripatetic. Workplace-orientated trade unionism cannot cater to their needs because they rarely stay put and because their skills are transferable.

The UK's Economic and Social research Council Future of Work Programme, launched in 1998, studied the role of trade unions in the rapidly changing landscape of labor. In Working Paper no. 7 titled "Beyond the Enterprise? Trade Unions and the Representation of Contingent Workers" published in 2001 by the Cardiff Business School, the authors say:

"The empirical pattern revealed by the research is complex ... We also encountered situations where unions had made use of enterprise unionism to represent contingent workers. For example, enterprise collective agreements may be used to regulate the numbers of contingent workers employed together with their terms and conditions ... Departure from the enterprise model was most apparent within unions that organize freelance workers. The latter are mobile workers and unions adapt to their mobility by reliance on non-enterprise forms of representation. Amongst agency and fixed-term contract workers, however, there is more emphasis on integration of the needs of these workers in the dominant, enterprise model of union representation. In part, this reflects the fact that agency and contract workers can develop a long-term employment relationship ..."

Trade unions are adapting by modifying their recruitment methods. Unions solicit members in employment bureaus, temp agencies, job fairs. They offer "customized packages" of workplace-independent benefits and services dispensed by paid, roving, union officials, or sub-contractors. Many unions re-organized along geographical - rather than sectoral or enterprise-wide - lines.

Syndicates are in the throes of appropriating functions from both the public and the private sector. Some unions offer job placement services, training, requalification, and skill acquisition classes, legal aid, help in setting up a business, seminars and courses on anything from assertiveness to the art of negotiating.

In some countries, unions, having failed to negotiate with multiple employers in different sectors all at once, resorted to - mostly failed - attempts to unilaterally dictate to employers the employment terms of temporary, freelance, and contract workers. This was done, for example, by publishing fee schedules. Others negotiated enterprise agreements with labor supply firms, thus circumventing the employers.

Unions have always tried to sway legislation by lobbying, making political contributions, and endorsing political candidates - as they have this past week Gerhard Schroeder who is up for re-election in Germany come September. The unions' ability to mobilize the vote makes them a formidable force even in relatively non-unionized countries, such as the USA.

Recognizing their importance as a social institution, government or employer-financed unions still exist even in Western and better governed countries, such as Greece. In the former colonies of the British Empire, trade unions have to be approved by a registrar.

Unions act as think tanks, advocacy groups, and pressure groups rolled into one. They try to further job protection wherever possible - though the task is becoming increasingly untenable. Even old-fashioned unions put the media to good use in exerting pressure over their recalcitrant governments.

Some scholars urge the unions to diversify and embrace work-related issues of minorities, the disabled, gays and lesbians, or the old. Egged on by the ILO International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), Nepal's three main trade unions have targeted child labor in their country. They issued a code of conduct applicable to all their members. This is an example of the convergence of trade unions and NGOs. Syndicates are recasting themselves as labor non-governmental organizations.

Britain's once belligerent 6.8 million members strong umbrella Trade Unions Congress (TUC) now talks about a partnership with employers and labor-input in management decision making. German-style institutionalized consultations with employees regarding labor matters and crucial business decisions are already enshrined in EU directives.

The unions are trying to modernize in form as well.

In Britain, trade unions put technology to good use. The Web sites of the TUC's member unions provide online membership application forms, information packs, and discussion of social and cultural issues. Jane Taylor, Information Manager at the Communications Workers Union, writing in 2002 for the online research guides community,, commented about the new openness of the revamped unions:

"More and more unions are providing online access to their internal and external documents.  Some only provide access to their journals, but others put a full range of their documents online.  These are often the most interesting as they tend to be responses to government proposals, briefings on changes in employment legislation and briefings around the issues facing their members, whether they be teachers or postal workers."

But Web sites are insufficient weapons against the twin tsunamis of technological change and globalization. Unions often blame the latter - and its representatives, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank - of retarding workers' rights by imposing austerity measures on crumbling countries.

The ILO Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV) organized, in September 2001, a get together between union activists and representatives of international financial institutions. The IMF's much vaunted poverty reduction strategy which calls for consultations with all social stakeholders, trade unions included, as a precondition for new lending, was derided by the Rwanda representative. Quoted in the ILO's December 2001 issue of the "World of Work", he complained:

"One day I was called to meet a representative of the Bretton Woods Institution, but only during breakfast in a big hotel in Kigali! I would have preferred to have him meet the inhabitants too. He would have seen homeless people, sick people, starving people. He would have seen that while the financial institutions produce tons of pages of reports, poor people continue to die by the thousands."

Others grumbled that the IMF had a strange way of "consulting" them - they were invited to listen to a monologue regarding the policies of the Fund and then dismissed. The usual criticism prevailed:

"When one knows that in Africa an employee feeds five or six people, how can the Bretton Woods Institutions speak of a reduction of poverty by requiring the layoff of 25 per cent of civil servants? ... And when the IMF demands that Bulgaria reduce salaries even more, when they are already so low, one cannot speak of a measure aiming to reduce poverty ... In this country at war (Colombia), where unionists are being assassinated, where workers live in fear for their lives, the IMF has just requested the government to show more flexibility on the labour market! Where will that lead?"

Even the ILO joined the chorus accusing the IMF of violating the ILO's core conventions by arguing against collective bargaining and the provision of social protection. The delegates also demanded a labor-related input in all WTO deliberations.

The landscape of labor unionism is subject to tectonic shifts. But unionism need not conform to its image of archaic obsolescence. UNI and Ver.di are examples of what can be achieved when a timely message is combined with sprightly management methods and more than a modicum of spin doctoring.

United Network International (UNI) held its first World Congress in September 2001 in Berlin. It is the outcome of a synergetic merger between IT, telecom, print, and media-entertainment unions. All told, UNI boasts 800 member unions in over 140 countries. It represents a break with both exclusively national and rigid sectoral unions.

It is a "global union" - a cross-country, cross-sector body of representatives. Its natural counterparts are multinationals and IFI's. It already signed agreements with OTE, Carrefour, and Telefonica - three global telecom firms. Ten such umbrella organizations exist under the auspices of the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

The 3 million members strong Ver.di is the outcome of a March 2001 merger of five German labor syndicates. It is a services only union in a country where professionals prefer to belong to less proletarian "associations", the modern equivalents of medieval guilds. Its muscle, though, is a response to the perceived threat of "transnational capital".

Yet, at the bottom of it all is the single member, the worker, who pays his or her dues and expects in return protection, better pay, better work conditions, larger benefits, and, above all, a sense of belonging and purpose. Referring to a ceremony to commemorate 20 years of Solidarity in Poland, a disgruntled former dissident welder poured his heart to the ILO's "World of Work":

"There are no workers at this feast, just men in coats and ties. Nothing remains of Solidarity except its name. It has lost its essence, they have betrayed and forgotten us."

This betrayal, the bourgeoisification and gentrification of trade union functionaries and erstwhile rebels, the cozying up to the powers that be, the bribes implicit in swapping the shop floor for the air conditioned offices and minibar-equipped limousines, the infusion of trade unionism with nationalistic or populist agendas - these corrupting compromises, expediencies, amenities and tranquilizers may constitute the real danger to the continued existence of the labor movement.

The Labour Divide - V. Employee Benefits and Ownership

Also Read

The Labour Divide - I. Employment and Unemployment

The Labour Divide - II. Migration and Brain Drain

The Labour Divide - III. Entrepreneurship and Workaholism

The Labour Divide - V. Employee Benefits and Ownership

The Labour Divide - VI. The Future of Work

Immigrants and the Fallacy of Labour Scarcity

Industrial Action and Competition Laws

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:
Employees and Management Ownership of Firms

Make Your Workers Your Partners

Battling Society's Cancer: Unemployment

Growing Out of Unemployment

Meritocracy and Brain Drain

The Professions of the Future

Workaholism, Leisure and Pleasure

The Demise of the Work Ethic

The Morality of Child Labor

The Iron Union - IG Metall

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