Examining the Decline of Trade Unions

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Looking at the way things have gone in the past two decades, there has been a lot of arguments and extensive debates about how much contribution political , social and economic changes have had or have played in the decline of trade unions. The story about the decline in trade union activity is a very familiar one , and can be said to be appalling. Looking at unions around the world, it is less evident that they are regrouping and trying to be more proactive as they try to revitalize or reactivate the functioning of trade unions. (Frege and Kelly ,2004) There has been a realization by union leadership that with the current rate of international expansion by multinational corporations, they are not powerless. There are a number of measures and policies which trade unions can adopt given the right conditions which can go a long way in revitalizing the activities and existence of trade unions. (Frege and Kelly ,2004)

Looking at the decline in trade union activity, it is worth nothing that trade union decline in the last couple of years has been greatly due to loss of membership, decline in density, political influence on members of the trade union, and low levels of strikes. This decline was typical between the 1980's and the 1990's. In recent years however, there is glowing evidence that trade union activities and movements n Europe and America are beginning to recover from the downturn of recent years. (Frege and Kelly ,2004)

In order for unions to succeed, they need power. Be it in trying to secure the right to negotiate and secure workers to join their union or in putting employers under pressure or in trying to makes their voices heard in government in the interest of their workers. Over time the most traditional way of making their voices heard is by engaging in strike action. That is y withdrawing their workers from a particular firm or from a group of firms. If you look at the statistics from around the United States and Europe, it is clear to see that it has been more difficult for unions to be able to pull resources together to call a very successful strike action. (Frege and Kelly ,2004) However in cases that this has been successfully planned and executed, we have seen that the strike action has yielded collective benefits. This is not very evident in the current economic climate as the governments of countries in Europe and America are facing serious crisis with the financial capability, as such a lot of the strike action being put together hardly comes out with any positive results. (Frege and Kelly ,2004) It has become almost evident in the current climate that the traditional method of strike action, which entails withdrawal of labour, has to be supplemented with other resources if demand of trade union workers member has to be met.

The world has become a global village and international solidarity is one thing which can be on much use in defending and improving the interest of workers. Unions combining with campaign groups and social movements , in order to have greater powers, unions should be able to access governments at both local, national and the international level. And realistically try to deal with corporate campaigns, which are designed to divide employees and shareholders. (Frege and Kelly ,2004) In order for a campaign to be successful different tactics at different stages of production and distribution have to be implemented.

Part of the revival of trade union activity has been down to an increase in international solidarity action. Many companies or corporations try to trade beyond their existing borders, as such globalization has not only provided new opportunities to companies, it has also provided new threats to organized labour and new opportunities as well. A second example comes from the USA where the threat of plant relocation to Mexico or other parts of Central America has long been a major instrument in the repertoire of employers. American clothing and textile unions have increasingly realized that so long as these countries have large reserves of unorganized workers they will continue to prove an irresistible attraction for multinationals in search of cheap labor. One of many firms targeted by US labour was the Bibong Apparel Company, operating in the Dominican Republic. Successive attempts to build up union membership had been defeated as the employer illegally fired union activists. With the assistance of US and European trade unionists a fresh organising drive got underway in 1993. This time however pressure was also brought to bear through political lobbying. The US was a big market for Bibong and unions were therefore able to exploit US trade regulations to question the duty-free status enjoyed by the company's products. At the same time they also targeted retail outlets with a publicity campaign, branding the company's products as cheap labour goods. (Frege and Kelly ,2004) Eventually the employer was brought to the negotiating table and a collective agreement was signed in 1994. In this case again it was a combination of methods that succeeded where single methods had failed. The combination worked because it simultaneously hit two corporate weak spots: the company's labour process was vulnerable to disruption because of delivery pressures from customers; and the distribution process was vulnerable because of heavy dependence on the US market, a dependency US unions were able to exploit and turn against the company (Sarosh et al. 2009).

Evidence from the united kingdom suggests that unions tend to construct coalitions with campaigning groups and social movements when other channels of influence - through the state or via collective bargaining an example of this in trying to revitalize the work of unions comes from the international sphere where clothing workers' union UNITE has allied with student groups to pressure household name multinational firms such as Nike. UNITE has experienced a substantial growth in US plant closures followed by relocation to developing countries such as Indonesia. (Sarosh et al. 2009).Although it has been unable to stem the flow of manufacturing jobs, UNITE has been able to position itself as a powerful and effective agency of social justice by campaigning around the wages paid to Third World workers. (Sarosh et al. 2009).From 1996, growing numbers of union- trained student activists began to set up local branches of an organisation called Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) and to agitate around sweatshop conditions in Third World countries. In the case of Nike, joint work between UNITE and SAS focused mainly on generating bad publicity, with the aim of tarnishing the fashionable image of Nike trainers. (Sarosh et al. 2009).A domestic consumer boycott was unrealistic given the product's popularity but several local SAS branches did discover the power of a collective boycott. Nike sponsors sports programs at a number of major US universities in contracts worth millions of dollars to the company and to the universities. Campaigns by SAS and UNITE were able to pressure a number of college authorities into cancelling Nike sponsorships. The result of all this activity has been some improvement in wages for Nike's Third World employees. Moreover Nike and a number of other MNCs, such as Shell and Levi Strauss, have responded to US and international union pressure (from the ICFTU and a number of International Trade Secretariats) by adopting Global Corporate Codes of Conduct which supposedly commit them to fair treatment of their employees around the world. Many trade unionists will be rightly cynical about the value of these documents, especially in the light of Levi's recent decision to shut down most of their US plants and produce overseas. Nevertheless their mere existence can provide another source of leverage over multinational companies Another example can be seen in the living wage campaign which began in Baltimore in 1994 and has since spread to cover scores of cities across the north east and west coast of America. The objective of the campaign is to improve the wages and conditions provided by companies working in conjunction with city councils. (www.unionlearn.org.uk) Councils dispense large amounts of money to private firms either through contracts for services, such as building maintenance and refuse collection for example, or through local economic development programmes. This money in turn provides them with significant economic and political power at the point when firms bid for contracts. The aim of the living wage campaigns has been to access this power and persuade city councils to insist that contractors must agree to a number of specified terms. The most common clause stipulates a minimum hourly wage above the national level, but some local regulations also cover fringe benefits such as health insurance. Union pressure has played the major role in these campaigns but unions have rarely acted alone. Normally the campaign has been initiated and organised by a coalition of unions, central labour councils (the equivalent of British trades councils), religious organisations and community groups. There are now 82 'living wage ordinances' around the USA and many more campaigns are currently underway. By allying themselves with a broad range of local groups, unions have been able to frame their key demands in terms of social justice and secure widespread support. As a result they have undermined the employer retort that the campaign was no more than the sectional demand of a small and unrepresentative group that would raise local taxes. (Sarosh et al. 2009).The campaigns have generally been very successful in raising wages amongst low paid segments of the labour force, but to date have made less impact on union organising. There is one similar campaign in the UK run by The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO) and like its US counterparts it has involved coalition building between unions and community groups and has targeted the employers of low paid workers (Sarosh et al. 2009).

The Living Wage campaign provides one example of unions accessing political power, in that case at local level. The Labour government has certainly involved unions in discussions on policy to a greater extent than its Conservative predecessor. At the 2002 TUC Congress Tony Blair even spoke of a partnership with the unions. But why is it the case many European governments have been willing to go much further and enter formal social pacts with union confederations? (www.unionlearn.org.uk) Essentially governments have been willing to engage in meaningful negotiations with unions when they have been dependent on them for successful policy implementation. Such dependency can arise for a number of different reasons: a government committed to labour market reform may be weak, as with the minority Aznar administration in Spain (1996-2001). Moreover in the Spanish industrial relations system, as in many others throughout continental Europe, collective agreements negotiated between unions and employers are extended to cover most of the workforce. (www.unionlearn.org.uk) Governments can therefore have some confidence that national agreements with unions on wages or conditions can and will be implemented across the economy as a whole. Again, in a number of countries, such as Belgium, Ireland and Portugal, governments keen to control public expenditure have negotiated wage agreements and other social or labour market reforms with union movements. Finally, several European governments have confronted powerful and well-organised union movements willing to back their political demands with actions such as general strikes. The most recent examples are the campaigns in Italy and Spain around proposals to relax the dismissal laws. One conclusion we can draw is that governments will negotiate with unions when they have to or when it is in their interests to do so. (www.unionlearn.org.uk)

Conventional wisdom has it that national unions are often powerless in the face of international corporations because whilst capital can move around the globe, workers generally cannot. So when the Prudential Insurance company announced recently it was to axe hundreds of jobs in Britain and replace them with jobs in a call centre in India, there seemed little that could be done. (www.unionlearn.org.uk) The evidence from successful corporate campaigns however shows that workers don't need to move around the world to confront multinational corporations: it is international worker organisation, not mobility, that is far more critical. Two examples again illustrate the principles involved. An example of this come from the telecommunications industry. For many years the major telephone companies around the world were often state-owned monopolies and heavily unionised. A combination of government- driven deregulation and technological change has transformed the industry, opening it up to new firms and forcing many existing firms into mergers. One such firm

15was Ameritech which in the early 1990s rapidly bought up telephone companies in Europe to add to its core US holdings. There were two key elements in the company's industrial relations strategy. In its unionised establishments it pursued a sweeping programme of contracting out so that unionised jobs were literally removed from the corporation. In its newly acquired companies it ran aggressive campaigns to counter union organising drives. (www.unionlearn.org.uk) Over a period of years union density levels had fallen steadily as a result. By late 1997 the leadership of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) decided to step up contacts with union counterparts in other areas of the Ameritech empire. (www.unionlearn.org.uk) A meeting in January 1998 involved unions from Belgium, Denmark, Hungary and the US and decided on a mass lobby of the company's AGM in April followed by an international day of action in June to protest against the company's policies. Not surprisingly in the turbulent world of telecommunications the AGM was to debate an acquisition proposal from a US rival, SBC, with whom the CWA enjoyed a good working relationship. Both the lobby of the AGM and the International Day of Action went ahead as planned. Both alarmed the new SBC management sufficiently for it to invite the Ameritech unions to the first of a series of meetings in February 1999 to discuss the issues at stake (www.unionlearn.org.uk)