During the last week in August, Uni Global held its four-yearly conference in Philadelphia, US. You can read reports of the discussion at the two main days of the conference, here and here. A number of you get a mention. Reading the reports, you get the impression that Uni Global is strong on slogans, but not quite as strong on delivery. There were no announcements of major breakthroughs or of soaring membership. The dial on union membership in the legacy market economies seems stuck. If anything, it is moving backwards.
The global union movement also still seems infused with a rhetoric that might delight delegates in a conference hall but will hardly encourage multinational corporations to want to engage. “We can only defeat corporate power by building workers’ power, by rising together to change the rules. And that’s our joint fight,” said Luc Triangle, acting general secretary of the ITUC. If you frame the issue in this way, then don’t be surprised when corporations decide to defend themselves.
Earlier this week, the UK’s Trade Union Congress general secretary, Paul Nowak, told PoliticsHome that “we've seen lots of union wins over the last 12 months, we've seen a renewed activism and life inside trade unions… but what we haven't done is turned all of those wins into renewed membership”. Nowak drew attention to the “first strike” by workers at Amazon over pay increases as a sign that unionism is spreading into new workplaces. There were several hundred workers involved in the strike. Amazon employees north of 50,000 people in the UK.
Nowak was speaking ahead of this week’s TUC conference. You can read his speech to the conference here. The conference passed a motion saying unions would not cooperate with a new law which requires minimum services during strikes. How this is to be done is not clear though the motion stopped short of saying that unions would break the law. Read what two of the more militant union leaders think here.
In Belgium, the attempts by the trade unions in the supermarket chain Delhaize to block the decision by management to franchise out the 128 stores in its direct ownership seems to have run into a roadblock. The chain already has over 600 franchise operations in the country. The unions wanted the company to keep the 128 stores in direct ownership, with the 9,000 employees involved remaining Delhaize employees. In late August, management started rolling out the new franchise contracts on a phased basis. The union opposition to the franchise decision was widely seen as a union attempt to dictate to management how its business should be organised.
Those of you interested in the minority, upper-class sport of rugby will know that the Rugby World Cup is currently being played in France. Too good an opportunity for the French transport unions to miss out on. So, on the Paris underground and elsewhere, they served strike notice. Not too much effect, it would seem.
As the French political scientist, Dominique Andolfatto, the author of a book on the recent history of French unions has noted: Actions like these are driven from the top of the unions, not from the bottom. The are “spectacles” designed to generate media coverage, to make noise. They have little impact on pay or working conditions. A sign of weakness, rather than strength?
Coming back to Uni, this time Uni Europa, Oliver Roethig and Stan De Spiegelaere suggest that when it comes to collective bargaining Romania shows the way. They point to recent changes in Romania law which require:
- company-level collective bargaining (though not conclusion of an agreement) becomes obligatory for employers with at least ten employees;
- a company-level presence can be established by a trade union when it has at least 15 members;
- a union can win recognition on the company level when 35% of employees are members (previously the threshold was 50% +1);
- unions can secure recognition at the sectoral level if they represent at least 5% of the workers in the sector;
- multi-employer and sector-level bargaining is facilitated and, in some cases, sectoral agreements can be made binding upon the whole sector;
- cross-sectoral collective agreements are legalised once more;
- strike action is made easier and nationwide strikes become legal;
- employers need to provide information to, and consult with, worker representatives on more topics, and
- barriers to workers gaining access to trade unions are lifted.
We remain to be convinced that other European countries will go down this particular road.