World Labor Unity Advances

More unions in non-communist nations, including the United States, are adopting the old battle cry that Karl Marx promulgated in his 1848 Communist Manifesto: "Workers of the world, unite!"

The latest call for unity arises this week from union leaders of 21 countries who are meeting in Washington to develop ways for dealing with the anti-labor, anti-union tactics of many giant multinational corporations.

But in calling for worldwide unity of workers as Marx did, the non-communist unions aren't going communist. Many, like those in the United States, are as furiously anti-communist as ever and are not calling for an end to capitalism.

But as one national AFL-CIO leader, Robert Harbrant, put it, the non-communist unions are "increasingly aware that in a world of global economics, global union action is not just a good idea, it is an absolute necessity."

That means that unions everywhere have to help workers involved in disputes with multinational corporations, since a company's labor policy in one country affects its policies in all of its businesses in all nations.

One good example: A Belgian food workers' union is backing Americans in the United Food & Commercial Workers Union during their prolonged battle with Delhaize Freres Corp., a huge Belgian multinational.

Delhaize is the parent of Food Lion, a U.S. grocery store chain being struck by its employees who are UFCW members even though the union has no contract with the company. Founded just 10 years ago, Food Lion is the fastest-growing U.S. food chain, with about 700 stores in the southeast.

To help the UFCW, the Belgian food workers' union recently started "rolling strikes" all across that country. All business in the one store is halted for the day.

The rolling strikes in Belgium add muscle to the UFCW demand that Delhaize stop the destructive practices of its subsidiary, Food Lion, which is sharply undercutting wages and benefits paid by American companies under union contracts. Delhaize even undercuts wages and benefits of workers in American-owned non-union stores.

The company says low labor costs mean cut-rate prices for customers, and they do. But the price cutting comes from Food Lion's cutthroat labor practices--not efficient management--that not only hurt its own workers but those in other supermarkets that cut wages and benefits to meet Food Lion's competition.

The Belgian union is not acting only as a result of the slowly growing international labor solidarity. The Belgians fear that Food Lion's anti-labor practices will be adopted by the parent company in Belgium and that in time Delhaize will pull out of that country entirely to concentrate on its fast-growing U.S. market.

Gary Nebekker, UFCW's international affairs director, says that nearly 20% of the members already work for foreign-owned firms and that the trend is continuing.

That means, he says, that "the UFCW has had to move away from international political debates and get down to the vital job of helping workers in all countries--and getting their help--in our battles with the multinationals."

While labor's drive for international worker unity isn't aimed at overthrowing capitalism, all unions have "a responsibility to foster the development of a free labor movement to temper capitalism's exploitative tendencies," William Wynn told the opening session of the conference Monday.

Wynn, president of the 1.3-million-member UFCW, which is hosting the conference, said union leaders "can no longer afford the luxury of attending conventions of their counterparts around the world just to add another stamp to our passports."

That was a slap at many non-government international labor conferences that usually deal only in generalities about the plight of workers.

There are more active international union groups, such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, but they have spent most of their time fighting communism.

Since the recent and dramatic upheaval in the communist world, though, the non-communist unions are devoting more energy to the mundane but increasingly serious day-to-day problems workers have with multinational corporations.

The "global summit" session of unions in Washington is focusing on multinational retail and wholesale corporations. The UFCW organized the conference through one of the 13 international organizations called "trade secretariats" that represent unions with members in a wide variety of industries across national boundaries.

It is the first such meeting held by the retail and wholesale industries' secretariat, known by its French acronym FIET. It has 317 affiliated unions with 9 million workers in 101 countries.

The secretariats generally have done little to help unions cooperate on specific labor-management battles or in union organizing campaigns. They served primarily as a clearinghouse for general information.

An exception is the International Metalworkers Federation, which was founded nearly 100 years ago to help coordinate union activities in auto and steel industries. It represents more than 170 unions with 13 million members in 70 countries.

Even that secretariat's work has been limited, however, and although international labor cooperation is increasing, as evidenced by the Washington conference, its impact is still relatively small.

If the unions are smart, they will use those small beginnings to give real substance to the call for international labor unity in this era of multinational corporations that seem determined to increase their profits at the expense of workers in any country where they operate, including the United States.

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