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Global Unions, Local Power

Global Unions, Local Power: The New Spirit of Transnational Labor Organizing

Jamie K. McCallum
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press,
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Global Unions, Local Power
    Book Description:

    News about labor unions is usually pessimistic, focusing on declining membership and failed campaigns. But there are encouraging signs that the labor movement is evolving its strategies to benefit workers in rapidly changing global economic conditions. Global Unions, Local Power tells the story of the most successful and aggressive campaign ever waged by workers across national borders. It begins in the United States in 2007 as SEIU struggled to organize private security guards at G4S, a global security services company that is the second largest employer in the world. Failing in its bid, SEIU changed course and sought allies in other countries in which G4S operated. Its efforts resulted in wage gains, benefits increases, new union formations, and an end to management reprisals in many countries throughout the Global South, though close attention is focused on developments in South Africa and India.

    In this book, Jamie K. McCallum looks beyond these achievements to probe the meaning of some of the less visible aspects of the campaign. Based on more than two years of fieldwork in nine countries and historical research into labor movement trends since the late 1960s, McCallum's findings reveal several paradoxes. Although global unionism is typically concerned with creating parity and universal standards across borders, local context can both undermine and empower the intentions of global actors, creating varied and uneven results. At the same time, despite being generally regarded as weaker than their European counterparts, U.S. unions are in the process of remaking the global labor movement in their own image. McCallum suggests that changes in political economy have encouraged unions to develop new ways to organize workers. He calls these "governance struggles," strategies that seek not to win worker rights but to make new rules of engagement with capital in order to establish a different terrain on which to organize.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6948-0
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Just over a decade ago, the reigning doxa held that neoliberal globalization was a death sentence for labor standards and worker organizations. An inevitable race to the bottom hollowed out trade unions, undermined state protections, and placed national working classes in competition with one another for scarce jobs. Whereas capital had no country, workers, it seemed, were locked in place and left behind. As Piven and Cloward (2000: 413) summarized this belief, “Globalization in turn seems to puncture the century-old belief in worker power.”

    But the renaissance of global labor activism that began alongside an explosion of alter-globalization¹ movements in...

  6. Chapter 1 Forging the New Labor Transnationalism: Governance Struggles and Worker Power
    (pp. 19-47)

    By now we can definitively point to growing tendencies toward transnationalism within some segments of labor movements around the world. Take any large and expanding industry with a global footprint—telecommunications, automobile production, property ser vices, retail, transportation and logistics, food and agriculture, hotels and tourism—and there are active campaigns involving workers, unions, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other civil society groups in dozens of countries. This activity has increased since the mid-1990s beyond regional cooperation to develop legitimate global structures that can carry out sustained campaigns against some of the world’s largest and most union-resistant corporations. But the most...

  7. Chapter 2 The Globalization of the Organizing Model
    (pp. 48-73)

    In early 2010, Valery Alzaga, a Change to Win (CtW) organizer who had worked on the earliest incarnations of the Justice for Janitors (J4J) campaign with SEIU, was running late to a meeting of leaders from the largest German trade unions, Ver.di and IG Metal. Alzaga had mentored South African unionists during the G4S campaign and was then doing similar work in Berlin. Unlike many American unionists who have gone to Germany to learn about the successes of codetermination and political partnership, she was there to tell them it did not work anymore. And she had a way to fix...

  8. Chapter 3 The Campaign against G4S: Globalizing Governance Struggles
    (pp. 74-98)

    Although struggles to win justice for janitors were decisive points in the union’s history, then president Andrew Stern says his “dawning moment” came when the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began organizing security guards and faced a field of foreign employers. “All of a sudden we found ourselves needing to talk more to CEOs in Europe than in the US,”¹ he said.

    Two things are striking about this statement. The first is the shock Stern expresses—the union’s president was wholly unaware of the most significant employment trend in one of its prime sectors. This was an initial indicator that...

  9. Chapter 4 Transnationalism, Mobilization, and Renewal: The Battle with G4S in South Africa
    (pp. 99-121)

    In the summer of 2009 a group of security guards and union activists from across South Africa gathered in the basement of a hotel on Durban’s coastline. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizers screened a short documentary about the recent Justice for Janitors campaign in Houston, Texas. The struggle in Texas was significant because it had been the first victory for janitors in the heart of the Republican-controlled South.

    “We went global here,” explains a Change to Win staffer. “We had support from other janitors around the world, other movements, other campaigns.” Indeed, the Houston janitors enjoyed broad solidarity...

  10. Chapter 5 Organizing the “Unorganized”: Varieties of Labor Transnationalism in India
    (pp. 122-144)

    During a 2009 conference held at the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) lower Manhattan office, a UNI Global Union staff person, speaking about the global campaign against Group 4 Securicor (G4S), said, “We thought if we can do this [organize low-wage service workers] in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, even New South Wales, we can do it in New Delhi. But we were wrong. It turned out that we couldn’t do it in any of those places without doing it in New Delhi first.”

    The Indian context proved to hold more obstacles to transnational collaboration than did South Africa,...

  11. Conclusion: Labor’s Prospect
    (pp. 145-160)

    This book has sought to evaluate a new dimension of labor movement activity. It has proceeded from the position that labor’s fate is not predestined by ineluctable forces of world economic restructuring, though it must confront such forces with innovative strategy to rebuild its strength. In addressing this problematic, it has taken one complex case as an exemplar of a new horizon for workers and their organizations and has outlined three interrelated findings.

    First, transformations in the global political economy have shifted the bases of worker power. Unions are increasingly turning toward strategies that seek to alter the “rules of...

  12. Appendix: Comparative Research at the Global Level
    (pp. 161-166)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 167-178)
  14. References
    (pp. 179-204)
  15. Index
    (pp. 205-210)