Global Labor Solidarity Gets Real

Cohen-Coleman_photo.jpg
Paul Garver

Labor activists have long called for international solidarity to confront global corporations, but sentimental and rhetorical appeals to the workers of the world to unite failed to produce lasting results throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, recent global organizing campaigns in fast food, which employs millions worldwide, and telecommunications show promise.

Fast Food

The international coordinated actions of fast-food workers on May 15, 2014, took place in 158 U.S. cities and 93 other cities across 36 countries. More than 10,000 workers and their supporters participated. This represented an unprecedented level of global labor solidarity.

Organizing fast-food workers on a global scale poses enormous challenges. There are relatively few workers in any outlet, and they are mostly precariously employed by third parties other than the global corporations. Labor law in the United States and most other countries is ill-adapted to facilitate worker representation and collective bargaining for such an atomized work force. Fast-food unions have gained small toeholds in only a few European countries that have collective bargaining by sector. Only in New Zealand has a determined union membership been able to conduct repeated, if brief, strikes to raise wages.

After the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began putting significant resources into community-based organizations and worker centers, fast-food worker organizing has taken off into a powerful movement for raising the minimum wage for all workers.

Global coordination to raise the minimum wage by raising public consciousness rather than through sector or workplace organizing is done through the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Association (IUF). The IUF, using funding from its own member unions, including the SEIU, held a global meeting of 80 fast-food workers and union representatives from 26 countries in New York in the week prior to the May 15 actions. Many of the foreign delegates remained in the United States to help organize the protest actions in U.S. cities. IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald notes that “The Fight for 15” is “just the beginning of an unprecedented international fast-food worker movement.”

Telecommunication Organizing

Another major global organizing campaign is talking place within Deutsche Telecom (DT), parent of T-Mobile U.S., which the Communication Workers of America (CWA) has been trying to organize. The large union ver.di, which represents DT workers in Germany, has been supporting the CWA organizing drive, trying to compel DT to apply higher worker rights standards to its operations in the United States. In May 2014, ver.di sponsored a thousand-strong rally at DT’s Berlin headquarters that included hundreds of international trade unionists in Berlin for an International Trade Union Confederation World Congress, CWA President Larry Cohen, and fired T-Mobile U.S. union activist Josh Coleman. Because of ver.di’s tireless media campaign, Coleman has become well known in Germany as a symbol of DT’s anti-union conduct in the United States.

This was not a one-off event. Ver.di members on the DT works council have visited several Southern U.S. cities where CWA is trying to organize at T-Mobile, and the two unions have formed a joint organization called T-Mobile Workers United (TU) to encourage contacts between German and U.S. workers, including an online discussion forum.

To be effective, global labor solidarity must be mutual and long-term, built around the common interests of workers in particular sectors and transnational companies. Global campaigns like these are moving in the direction of deeper practical organization and strategic planning.

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Paul Garver is a retired organizer for the IUF and for SEIU and has been active in DSA for more than three decades.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.


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