The AFL-CIO, the U.S.'s largest federation of unions, embraced a new level of internationalism this week in hosting a conference here sponsored by the Council of Global Unions (GCU), a governing body composed of representatives from numerous international labour federations, including the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 168 million workers in 153 countries.
Leaders from these groups highlighted the fact that as a result of globalisation, national unions have seen their bargaining power diminish in the face of multinational corporations, yet have also managed to win victories through the support of international unions.
"What we have now is a very clear recognition that we cannot, as an international labour movement, respond to international phenomena and international operations of capital with purely national responses," said Guy Ryder, ITUC chief executive and general secretary. "We need to move from the episodic and the haphazard to the permanent and the systematic in terms of international organising."
Titled, "Going Global: Organising, Recognition, and Union Rights," the conference brought together over 200 trade union leaders from 64 countries, and culminated in a press conference and congressional forum at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
In a wide-reaching display of international solidarity, U.S. and foreign labour leaders from Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and Latin America urged lawmakers at the congressional forum to support the "Employee Free Choice Act" -- legislation that would streamline the process for workers seeking to establish unions.
Indeed, U.S. workers seeking to form unions have faced increased difficulty in recent years due to the George W. Bush-appointed majority directing the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB), which has overturned longstanding legal precedents and eroded the rights of workers in the past six years, analysts say.
In October 2007, frustrated by the NLRB's "sustained assault on workers' rights in the United States", the AFL-CIO filed a formal complaint with the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation -- a move usually undertaken by labour leaders in countries where organising efforts result in physical threats and violence.
In the midst of this clash, the U.S. workforce's participation in organised labour has been declining, according to conference presenters.
Currently, only 12 percent of U.S. workers retain collective bargaining rights, as compared with 32 percent of Canadian workers, 35 percent of British workers, and 50 percent of Australian workers.
"The reason for that is not because employees in the United States do not want unions and do not want to engage in collective bargaining -- clearly they do," said Dr. John Logan of the London School of Economics, who prepared a paper on "The Global Crisis in Union Collective Bargaining" for the conference.
"The problem is that the law provides very weak protection for the right to form unions and the right to collective bargaining, and the employer opposition is much more intense, much more aggressive, and often illegal in the United States," Logan said.
Kelly Beringer, a registered nurse at West Suburban Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, who spoke at Tuesday's forum, described being targeted by her employer for attempting to organise her co-workers.
Beringer said that 14 unfair labour practice charges had been brought over the past four years against her employer, Resurrection Health Care, but that the punishment in each of these cases was only that the health care company had to post workers' rights notices.
"In real terms, there are no consequences to violating the National Labour Relations Act," Beringer said. "Every day in the United States, companies like Resurrection simply violate the law. To them, it's worth having to post a few notices if you can squash an organising drive."
Labour leaders and advocates hope that the Employee Free Choice Act will help close what many referred to as the "representation gap" among U.S. workers -- the discrepancy between the population of workers who have union membership, and the population of those who seek it, which the AFL-CIO president cited as 60 million.
The U.S.'s workforce involvement in organised labour is now lower than several developing and newly-developed countries, experts at the conference reported.
Among newly developed countries, union workers in both Indonesia and South Africa maintain collective bargaining rights at 20 percent and 42 percent, respectively.
Furthermore, although at times in the past the United States has served as model for workers' rights and democracy, the U.S. model now being replicated is that of union-busting, said ITUC president Sharan Burrow, speaking about the anti-union influence of U.S.-managed companies in Australia.
Globalisation's far reach has not been limited to multinational corporations. Other conference presenters described the U.S. "avoidance consultants and lawyers" and "strike-management firms" that have flocked to China to get into the business of union-busting.
Leaders within both the U.S. labour movement and internationally aim to use their new partnership to promote workers' rights through the Employee Free Choice Act in the U.S., but also to leverage their partnership in addressing other national campaigns across the globe.
Yet a first step in this process may be to reinvigorate -- and reform -- the U.S. labour laws that have diminished the U.S.'s standing in the sphere of workers' rights.
"When workers here are deprived of their fundamental rights, it becomes easier for foreign governments and multinational corporations to ignore even the mildest criticism from the world's largest economy," according to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.
© 2007 Inter Press Service