Unions Turn to Global Campaigns


By Kate Bronfenbrenner 

Worker actions and community and labor support remain essential in union organizing campaigns, but the success of organizing in a global economy also depends on global strategies. In 2001, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) began a drive to organize 800 workers at Brylane’s Indianapolis distribution center. Brylane, an apparel and home furnishing distribution center for nine mail order catalogs, was a major subsidiary of French catalog and retail apparel giant Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR). PPR also owned luxury firms Gucci, FNAC, and Conaforma, with lines by big name designers Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. According to Brylane’s own records, in 2000, one in ten workers at the Indianapolis distribution center suffered a repetitive motion injury, a rate nearly 18 times higher than the industry-wide average. It was this issue that jumpstarted the organizing campaign.

Both Brylane management and PPR responded by intimidating and harassing employees. Faced with aggressive opposition from the employer, the union recognized that it would need to run a campaign that reached well beyond Indianapolis. Researchers at UNITE had learned that workers in the supplier countries were organizing with the Clean Clothes Campaign against sweatshop conditions in their factories that included cases of sexual harassment, child labor, and subsistence wages. Thus, the first step of the international campaign was a global customer campaign followed by a multi-country Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) complaint linking the health and safety conditions and labor law violations in the United States with the labor and human rights violations in the supplier countries.

Opening another front, Brylane workers and their global labor allies began picketing and leafletting Gucci stores and designers Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, asking them to tell PPR to “get in fashion—respect workers’ rights.” On January 29, 2003, the workers at Brylane won card-check neutrality (meaning that the employer agrees not to interfere with the union’s efforts to form a union) and a first contract. But they did not stop within the borders of the United States. The global campaign continued until they won a code of conduct agreement with Brylane to address substandard working conditions in the sourcing factories in the Global South and Eastern Europe. The ripple effect of the campaign helped workers in other companies. When UNITE began to organize Sweden-based H&M, the possibility of a Brylane-like global OECD campaign was enough to get H&M to agree quickly to the same card-check and neutrality agreement that was won at Brylane.

Research found that there were three key elements to the Brylane victory. First, the supply chain research gave the Brylane workers a connection to workers in the supplier factories and the retail stores that was essential both for the success of the Gucci campaign and to keep Brylane workers and their allies motivated to hold out for the code of conduct for the suppliers after the Indianapolis victory had been won. Second, the strategic shift away from catalog sales toward luxury goods gave the campaign leverage that it did not have with a catalog company, because McCartney and McQueen were public figures with a brand and an image that could be damaged with an association with sweatshop labor. Third, the Gucci investment was highly leveraged, which meant PPR had to maintain high profit margins or the lenders might call in the loans.

UNITE succeeded at Brylane because the campaign was based on in-depth, strategic research analysis of the entire corporation combined with a multifaceted, escalating campaign that built on that research. The campaign was carried out by workers and their labor and community allies locally, nationally, and internationally. This story has been repeated over and over again in organizing campaigns in the United States and around the world, whether with security guards organizing in South Africa or 3,000 TÜMTIS members in Turkey gaining union recognition and a first contract from United Parcel Service (UPS). Unions are learning, and my research has confirmed, that these elements together—strategic corporate research, escalating multifaceted campaign, involvement of workers and allies—are key to the comprehensive campaigns necessary for unions to win in the hostile organizing climate that workers face today.

Today, 50% of all organizing campaigns (including NLRB, the National Mediation Board, public-sector, and private-sector non-board campaigns combined) involve multinational corporations, and 30% involve foreign-owned corporations. Organizers depend on researchers more than ever. But few local unions have researchers on staff, and only the top 20 organizing unions have fully staffed research departments. Even then, they are stretched thin rescuing locals that move forward on campaigns unaware of whether the parent company is a huge multinational traded on a foreign exchange or a small U.S.-based private equity firm.

Earlier corporate research was focused more on collecting as much information as possible on the company as quickly as possible from as many sources as possible both on and offline. Today’s strategic corporate research follows a specific order based on corporate structure: starting with ownership, followed by operations, and then stakeholders, which then allows the researcher to develop a critique of the company that will be most useful for designing a comprehensive campaign. The most commonly used model for strategic corporate research is the one originally developed for the Cornell/AFL-CIO Strategic Corporate Research Summer School Program by the original instructors in that program. [Full disclosure: I am director of Labor Education Research at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.]

Part of the reason for widespread use of the model is that it was the one presented at the Global Companies, Global Unions, Global Research, Global Campaigns Conference attended by more than 700 trade unionists and labor academics in 2006 in New York City. The conference proceedings were published the following year as Global Unions: Challenging Transnational Capital Through Cross-Border Campaigns (Cornell University Press, 2007, Kate Bronfenbrenner, ed.). The other reason is that for the last 17 years, at least 30 or more students each year have been trained in strategic corporate research at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations Summer Program and have moved into strategic corporate research and/or strategic campaign positions in the labor movement. That does not include the students graduating from the residential programs of the University of Massachusetts and Cornell University, which include classes in the same subject.

Strategic corporate research is not easy, particularly when one is researching privately held companies and closely held publicly held companies. Much of the work is old-style detective work—going to courthouses, reading through loan agreements and deeds, and talking to workers. Unions cannot afford a researcher for every organizer. Instead of organizers, more and more unions are hiring what are now called “strategic campaigners,” staff who can do both research and organizing. They are filling those jobs.

Young people are choosing to go after strategic corporate research and strategic campaign jobs, and there are enough good jobs in both categories to keep stoking the growing interest. Even though many in the academy, media, and some in the labor movement itself are saying that labor’s time is up, the new approaches feed sparks of optimism. Those sparks are good for the new blood coming in to the labor movement and for the movement.

Kate Bronfenbrenner is director of Labor Education Research and senior lecturer, Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations. To learn more about the Cornell Summer School program, visit www.ilr.cornell.edu/worker-institute/education-training/strategic-corporate-research-summer-course/course-details. Footnotes are available upon request.

This article originally appeared in the Labor Day 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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