Global Policy Forum

International Unions Gather in Chicago to Craft Strategy

August, 2005

Union leaders from around the globe gather in Chicago next week to craft a joint strategy to boost unionization in the developing world, and especially to target the U.S.-based retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Union Network International's annual convention will gather 1,500 delegates from some 150 countries in Chicago to share labor strategies and discuss ways unions can collaborate over international borders. "We want more organizing initiatives on a global scale," UNI spokesman Noel Howell said. "We want global rules and global standards for workers everywhere."

The convention comes only a month after a schism in the American labor movement where three unions formally split from the umbrella American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations. The AFL-CIO lost one-third of its membership, or 4.6 million members, with the disaffiliation of the Service Employees International Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). All three disaffiliated unions will participate in the meeting of UNI, which is in its fifth year and represents 15 million workers, most from service industries. Union leaders said their decision to leave the AFL-CIO was the culmination of years of complaints that too few resources were spent on organizing efforts to arrest a decades-long decline in U.S. union membership.

Global Campaigns

While increasing organizing efforts in the United States may be a priority for the three giant U.S. unions, coordinated global campaigns are also on the horizon. "We think that this is an important moment in history and a terrific opportunity to act globally," said Stephen Lerner, a director at the Service Workers union. "They are global companies and we need to be global unions." Among topics to be considered will be whether to channel resources to unionization efforts in the developing world, where Wal-Mart and other multinationals have operations, Howell said. UNI officials have spoken with Wal-Mart workers in Argentina and Brazil, and will continue organizing efforts in India, considered a likely future destination for the retailer. "Wal-Mart and other multinationals better be worried," about union organizing in Asia, Latin America and the rest of the developing world, said Bill Adams, a labor relations consultant with Adams, Nash, Haskell & Sheridan. Other companies expected to be discussed as union targets are T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom and Britain's Group4 Securicor.

Low Prices

Beloved by shoppers for its low prices, Wal-Mart maintains that unions are unwanted and unnecessary for its 1.6 million workers - who are referred to as "associates" and says it is unfairly stigmatized because it is such a large employer. "In many of the countries in which we operate we are considered one of the best places to work. You'd have to ask the union why they would pick Wal-Mart as their target," said Bill Wertz, a spokesman for Wal-Mart's international operations. The world's biggest retailer has become a lightning rod for critics who say it mistreats workers, pushes wages down throughout the industry and that its poverty-level wages force employees to rely on public assistance to support their families, in the form of Medicaid health insurance for the poor, food stamps for groceries and state housing subsidies. In April, the retailing behemoth closed a store in Quebec, Canada after its workers voted to join the UFCW. In 2000, it eliminated all U.S. meatpacking positions after meatpackers in Texas voted to unionize. Philip Jennings, general secretary of the Switzerland-based UNI, appealed in a letter to Wal-Mart Chief Executive Lee Scott for a meeting to discuss its workers' rights. Jennings said in the letter that he would welcome Wal-Mart's "active participation" in the discussion.

The same week in Chicago, delegates from the United Auto Workers that represent unionized workers at car maker General Motors Corp. and auto parts supplier Delphi Corp. will meet to discuss such issues as company demands for changes on health coverage and pensions.



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