Unions are engaged in their own version of globalization through global union federations. These are umbrella organizations that coordinate the efforts of national member union affi liates, often a hundred or more. Those efforts focus on nonunion workforces in major countries through classic “topdown” organizing strategies.  

Global union federations target many industries, including transportation, retail, services, food production, restaurants and hotels, chemicals and energy, construction and metal trades. Their efforts have gained traction as of late with media attention often focused on subsidiaries and suppliers to multinational companies. They act independently, through their national affi liates and by joining forces with like-minded nongovernmental organizations, institutions and political actors.  

Who Should Be Concerned About Global Union Federations?

If you are a company doing business globally, or are a subsidiary of or otherwise affi liated with one, you should take note. Similarly, companies that sell goods or services to multinationals, or who are part of their supply chains, have been targeted as part of their “top-down” organizing campaigns.  

What Are the Objectives of Global Union Federations?

Global union federations have several stated objectives that they use for disguising their ultimate effort at organizing. These include:

  • Negotiating global framework agreements, thereby committing companies to adhere to international labor standards concerning freedom of association and collective bargaining wherever they do business.  
  • Using “social dialogue” to establish themselves as permanent partners of businesses at the highest levels, which then becomes a springboard for leveraging neutrality agreements and other organizing concessions.  
  • Using the forum of European works councils to supplement these efforts by expanding union connections to nonunion worker representatives and through gaining access to key information.

On their face, these activities appear innocuous. However, they are the cover for the global union federations’ ultimate objective of increasing their national affi liates’ membership through organizing previously nonunion workforces.

How do we know that these global unions are really after organizing my nonunion workforce?

The real aim of global union federations is shown by the key provision in the global framework agreements they negotiate, the companies they target and the timing and activities in which they engage. Also, most if not all of the companies targeted already have publicly implemented codes of conduct or they have signed globally recognized statements of principles, such as the United Nations Global Compact, committing themselves to adhere to international labor standards consistent with national law. Further, if you listen carefully, the global union federations will tell you that is what they are up to.  

Content of Framework Agreements

Buried within the wording of global framework agreements is a commitment by business to remain neutral in union organizing. On its face, the wording appears to say only that the business agrees to abide by international labor standards on freedom of association and collective bargaining, without subjecting those standards to national laws. But this seemingly innocuous wording is misleading because those standards—derived from conventions of the International Labor Organization—require employer neutrality in union organizing campaigns. This neutrality commitment—which takes away an employer’s free speech rights under section 8(c) of the NLRA—is the keystone of these documents.  

Whom They Target, When and How

By targeting companies that already publicly commit themselves globally to adhere to international labor standards consistent with national laws—either through their own codes of conduct or through signing the United Nations Global Compact or other international codes—the global unions are saying that such “good guy” corporate behavior is not enough for them. They are saying that a company cannot be a responsible corporate citizen unless it makes a compact with a global union, which will then monitor the company’s behavior globally. They are saying that adhering to international standards consistent with national law is not enough. And the reason is that companies could still avail themselves of their free speech rights under section 8(c).  

It is no coincidence that the businesses targeted by global unions have a history of successfully using free speech rights to lawfully resist unionization efforts in the United States or elsewhere. Nor is it a coincidence that once a business signs a global framework agreement, it can be quickly unionized. Examples include:  

  • Wackenhut had successfully resisted SEIU unionization for years. But once Wackenhut’s UK parent, Group4 Securicor, signed a global framework agreement with Union Network International (UNI), Wackenhut’s guards were quickly organized. Within days of the agreement, SEIU announced that Wackenhut had agreed to “work together” with it. Group4 Securicor had been targeted in a report by a nongovernmental organization, War on Want, for allegedly paying “poverty wages” to its South African workforce. This negative publicity jeopardized Group4 Securicor’s ability to win the valuable contract to provide security services at the World Cup.
  • A previously union-free Illinois facility of French-based chemical company Rhodia was recently unionized by the USW. The lever to unionize it: a global framework agreement that Rhodia headquarters had signed with the International Chemical, Energy, Mining and General Workers Union mandating employer neutrality.  
  • A global agreement between UNI and Telefonica, the Brazilian telecom company, has been credited with enabling UNI affi liate SINTETEL to increase its membership from 25,000 employees before the agreement to 120,000 after it.  
  • Sodexo, the French-based global catering concern, has been a UN Compact signatory since 2003 and works with unions throughout Europe. But it has also been the target of SEIU unionization efforts in the United States for years. Backed by UNI, SEIU and CGT (a French union) have each sued Sodexo for allegedly violating the voluntary Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises on labor standards. SEIU has also begun to attack Sodexo’s food safety record, tying provision of school lunches to the union’s efforts. A union-supporter Congressperson has recently called for a General Accounting Offi ce investigation of Sodexo’s practices. At stake is the renewal of the $1.4-billion contract to provide food service on U.S. navy bases.  
  • Several European-based multinationals, including Deutsche Telekom, UK-based grocery chain Tesco, Saint Gobain Group (France), Gamma Holdings (Netherlands) and Kongsberg Automotive (Norway), were all targeted for the “inconsistency” they have shown between their working relationships with unions in Europe (mostly because they are necessitated by the legal structure) and the alleged antiunion behavior of their U.S. subsidiaries. Each has been a signatory of a global instrument concerning labor rights for years. Each of their U.S. subsidiaries has been the target of organizing efforts for years.  

Global Unions Admit Th eir Real Objective Is Top-Down Organizing

UNI’s 2008 revised global agreement with Danish cleaning services company ISS shows that a company’s agreement and practices to “respect workers’ rights” are not enough for a global union if those workers are not organized. Despite a 2003 agreement between UNI and ISS committing the company to “respect workers’ rights,” UNI’s affi liates had not been able to unionize ISS workers in the United States and developing countries. Key provisions of the revised agreement: UNI unions get direct access to nonunion workers, ISS agrees to neutrality, and it will have to recognize unions who met minimal standards under national law; in short—access, neutrality and card check.  

The International Transport Workers Federation’s website, when discussing whether framework agreements help unions expand their organization in multinational employers, tout, “they certainly should” and point to neutrality provisions in these agreements.

An ILO Training Center Program for Workers presentation describes the purpose of a framework agreement as providing a “rights framework to encourage recognition and bargaining.” It added that framework agreements help unions to get recognized within multinationals, including their supply chains.

How Should Companies Respond?

If you are connected to a multinational, including through being a subsidiary or member of a supply chain, or if you are in one of the target industries containing multinationals, you should consider the following:  

  • Educating senior management at global, regional and national levels on the issues. Provide a fact-based analysis tailored to your organization. Ensure that they are prepared if faced with a surprise by the media, a union offi cial, employee or other person asking that the company sign a global framework agreement.  
  • Developing and gaining management commitment to a sound company position regarding global framework agreements.  
  • Conducting a detailed analysis of your current and near-term labor relations and business situation for each operating unit/subsidiary.  
  • Closely following trends in legislation, consumer sentiment and your industry that might affect the labor relations climate and your position.
  • Establishing communications channels so that real-time information on events and plans is channeled to appropriate managerial personnel.