Organising Globally

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Organising Globally

The theme of the 41st ITF Congress to be held in Durban, South Africa in August, is Organising Globally: Fighting for Our Rights. Is this just a catchy slogan? asks STUART HOWARD, Or does it represent an agenda to build a powerful global unionism?

Each ITF Congress in recent years has carried a key theme, which has served as the focus and direction for the ITF’s work over the following four years. These have aimed to respond to the dramatic and rapid processes of globalisation, the impact on transport workers, and on what the ITF needs to do to strengthen the capacity of unions to protect the interests of workers in this environment.

It is clear that international union coordination has never been more vital to effective union organisation, but it has also required some new ways of working. The Mobilising Solidarity programme, which was the key theme at the Delhi Congress in 1998, began to develop much more flexible systems of communications and stronger and deeper forms of interaction between the ITF and its affiliates.

This was when many of the ITF global campaigns began to take off, and when the ITF Summer Schools began to shift our education work to focus on challenging globalisation. More importantly, this was when international issues were becoming increasingly “mainstreamed” into national union agendas. Affiliates started to develop international campaigning more consciously and to explore the effectiveness of more coordinated international support in key industrial disputes.

This in turn has required more union members to become aware of the capacity and potential for international union action. Some of this has been achieved through ITF global campaigns. Thousands of road transport workers have been involved in border crossing actions and other mobilisations for the annual ITF International Road Transport Action Day.

International support brought a significant new dimension to some major industrial disputes such as with Patrick Stevedores in Australia, UPS in the United States and British Airways and LSG Skychefs in the UK in the late 90s, and more recently with Gate Gourmet in the UK and the successful efforts by European dockers’ unions to defeat EU attempts to deregulate the ports industry. Union representatives in global transport companies like DHL, UPS and TNT have been coming together to coordinate union strategies at a time of major corporate mergers and sell-offs.

The backdrop to this upsurge in international activities, however, has been continuing deregulation and liberalisation, massive job losses and attacks on trade union rights. Unions around the world have experienced huge losses in membership and influence.

In the economically strong, but to some extent de-industrialising countries of Europe, North America and Australia, this dramatic loss of union strength has been felt acutely. In these countries many unions – particularly those in the manufacturing sector faced with “offshoring” – have found themselves faced with a seemingly terminal process of decline. New priorities have emerged in some of these unions, which place organising at the forefront of all their activities.

Now increasingly, similar challenges are confronting unions in developing countries, in many regions. Unions used to negotiating with large, usually state-owned, employers are finding themselves confronted instead with private operators – often making use of small subcontractors, and determined to weaken or destroy effective trade unions.

As globalisation touches more workplaces in more countries, most unions have become more interested in being plugged in to international union networks. In those unions with very active organising strategies, and which have sometimes had to trim down other areas of work to pursue these priorities, it is noticeable that their international work has increased rather than decreased. It is now too well understood that it is no longer possible to have an effective union organising strategy in most industries without a global dimension.

In transport, the trend towards globalisation has only intensified in recent years. In the international freight industry in particular, as we have pointed out in previous articles in TI, we have seen the emergence of global logistics. The multinational companies who produce their goods on complex assembly line processes that stretch around the globe, have generated extraordinary new requirements for the movement of goods around the world. These companies source parts and components from many different countries, and operate global supply chains with finely tuned just-in-time delivery systems. There is now a received wisdom among industry analysts that logistics is now the strategic industry of the global economy.

This is an industry, however, which is also highly vulnerable to any form of disruption. The West Coast ports dispute of four years ago demonstrated how a lock-out involving a few thousand dockers could massively disrupt factory production and retail distribution, not only in the US, but all over Asia. It has always been the case that a transport dispute has knock-on effects on other industries, but globalisation and just in time delivery systems have massively amplified these effects. Industry is extremely nervous about these vulnerabilities and is working hard to develop risk management strategies.

Few transport workers’ unions feel they have become particularly powerful. Indeed as companies get more nervous about their supply chains, we can expect they will do everything they can to undermine union organisation in this sector.

The reality for most unions is that transport workers face increasing pressure towards lower conditions and less job security. Yet it is also true that the global economy now depends on sensitive global transport and distribution systems. The industry is growing and is likely to continue to grow. Transport is still a relatively highly unionised sector of industry. Can unions gain extra industrial leverage from this situation?

The Organising Globally agenda focuses on using the strategic role of the logistics industry to increase our industrial leverage. As a strategy it requires another significant shift in union approaches to international coordination. It borrows from some of the organising strategies currently being applied by national unions, and tries to see if these can be applied to building more effective international union organisation. Organising Globally is about affiliates mapping global distribution and transport systems, identifying globally strategic points and processes, and developing organising strategies for agreed globally strategic targets (see box).

We believe that both the ITF and its affiliates need to adapt to the new realities of globalisation. The goal is relatively clear. The route to it is not so obvious. Unions, and the ITF itself, may need to rethink the way they are structured. The separation of port workers, truckers, seafarers and rail workers may impede a union strategy that needs to cut across transport modes.

The critical role of information technology in organising the movement of goods means that new groups of workers, such as warehouse staff, dispatchers and information technology workers may need to be organised. As industry lines blur, unions will need to look at how to head off debilitating and destructive competition, for example between postal and transport unions, as postal and transport operations merge into one another.

Union cooperation has to be a fundamental part of our strategy. The ITF will need to develop working relationships with affiliates who will be demanding more from, but also providing more input into, ITF activities.

The prize could be enormous. Is it possible that we shall see the world’s most effectively globally organised workers operating in the most strategic industry in the world’s economy?

Stuart Howard is assistant general secretary of the ITF.

Lost without a map

Any trade union that wants to develop a strategy for organising workers in a particular employer or in an industry needs to know what its existing strength is. Just as important, it needs to know where its points of weakness are. Which are the workplaces where there is strong union organisation in a global company like TNT? Where is there little or no union organisation in major port hubs?

As the ITF develops strategies based on getting a grip on the global networks of specific companies – or particular types of transport operation, or transport hubs – it too needs to know where its affiliates are organised.

Getting this kind of information is known as “mapping” union organisation. For the ITF this is not as simple as it may seem. Up until now the ITF has not required such detailed information from its affiliates about where they have recognition or bargaining agreements.

Responses to questionnaires asking where union membership is located are notorious for their low response level. For most busy union representatives, filling in ITF surveys is never going to be their most important job of the day.

So what do we do? First of all we should try to make things easier for those who have to fill in these forms. There should not be too many questions. The questions should be relatively simple, and should not require highly detailed responses. In most cases it should be possible to answer by putting a tick or a number in a box. Nor should affiliates be inundated by one questionnaire after another.

The ITF should also develop its use of software that allows questionnaires to be answered electronically. Unions should get rapid feedback from the results of the survey as soon as they are available. Finally there needs to be an information campaign to explain to affiliates why this information is so important and what it is used for.

The ITF may need to launch a major global mapping exercise to get this process kicked off. A concerted effort is needed to get the most urgent mapping information done in the first year after Congress. With good cooperation and a strong sense of purpose about what this is all for, we can get this data in. As always, the ITF will be relying on its affiliates.


What is Organising Globally?

If we understand that global production now operates using global distribution systems, then it makes sense for unions to look at such a system and identify its strategic points.

Unions in truly global, multi-modal transport companies like DHL, UPS and Maersk need to develop their own global coordination.

Hong Kong is the world’s largest container port. This makes it a key hub in the world’s freight distribution system. Yet Hong Kong is almost entirely without union organisation.

The oil industry is making huge profits. Yet oil tanker drivers often work with low pay and no union. Should transport workers and oil production workers work more closely together within this strategic industry?

Major transnational passenger transport companies are now providing local and national services in many countries. Internationally they operate through global route networks. How much are unions coordinating in the same companies and networks? Are they engaged in wider debates on the vital role of passenger transport in the lives of our cities and rural areas?

Our unions have traditionally organised particular groups of workers: truck drivers, stevedores, rail workers etc. Are there new groups of workers in our changing industry whom we have not considered it our role to organise? Are our unions structured or equipped to organise these workers?

Organising Globally will ask unions to commit resources to strategies that would prioritise strengthening organisation in these strategic target areas.

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