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New unions need new leaders

The prospect of the first global trade union moved a step nearer last week when Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America, flew to London for merger talks with Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, joint general secretaries of Unite, now the UK’s biggest union with two million members. Unfortunately, it's more a case of union leaders huddling together for warmth rather than getting ready to fight global corporate power.

Launched a year ago, the move is a much-belated response to the globalisation of production. Over more than three decades, foreign investment and cross-border mergers and acquisitions produced corporations able to move production from country to country in search of cheaper labour. The rules of the new global economy undermined union organisation and turned their leaders into glorified, but obliging gang masters, persuading their members to accept ever-worsening conditions. These were needed to make workers economically attractive for competing companies struggling to overcome falling rates of profit.

If the talks are successful, the new transatlantic union would have about three million members in Britain, America, Canada and the Caribbean. But within their existing outlooks and leaderships, it is difficult to imagine what more this new collaboration will achieve beyond, for example, the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), one of 13 international federations of unions. The IMF represents the collective interests of 25 million metalworkers from more than 200 unions in 100 countries. Founded in 1893, the federation’s timid objectives are to build a global metalworkers’ movement, strengthen international solidarity, engage with transnational corporations, secure workers’ rights, including the rights of women workers, and fight for sustainable economic development.

The leadership of Unite of Simpson and Woodley has even less to offer. The union bureaucracy has sat back and done very little while the corporations, aided and abetted by the New Labour government, has driven down conditions and exported jobs to cheaper labour areas. When, for example, Rover closed its Midlands car plant on the eve of the last general election, Simpson and Woodley made sure no action was taken to avoid rocking the boat.

They are grateful for crumbs – even if they are stale. Last week, the government announced a “compact” on agency workers which only kicks in after 12 weeks, by which time most would have left/been fired. Yet Woodley claimed it was “landmark deal”, hailing the much-despised government for having “listened, acted and paved the way to equal treatment in the workplace”.

The unravelling of the systemic financial and economic crisis worldwide is driving hundreds of millions of workers in all industries into unprecedented conflicts. As the cost of food and fuel soars, pensions and homes are threatened, and jobs disappear. A new kind of union organisation is urgently needed.

The last great campaign for a global union - the Industrial Workers of the World (aka the Wobblies) - was launched in 1905. Its constitution provides a more inspiring model than the one currently on the table:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth ... Instead of the conservative motto, “a fair day's wage for a fair day's work”, we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system.' It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism.

Today, “engaging with transnational corporations” must give way to moving beyond the market economy, ending corporate power and establishing 21st century models of social ownership. For that to happen, the old discredited leaderships of Unite and other unions, who have spent the last decade propping up New Labour, will also have to give way to those who are ready to follow in the footsteps of the Wobblies.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
28 May 2008

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