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Globalizing Trade Unions

Labor union membership has declined steadily in the United States during the past several decades. And while some experts argue that the decline is global, others say unionization is flourishing in some countries.

Fifty years ago, nearly 35 percent of American workers belonged to trade unions. By 1983, union membership had dropped to 20 percent. Last year, that figure sank to 12 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The decline, says economist Michael Yates, author of a recent book on working America, Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate, is not unique to the United States.

"It's the sharpest decline in union density in 20 years in the U.S. For the first time in history, the density in manufacturing is less than the union density for the country as a whole. Union density is the fraction of employment that's unionized. And it's true worldwide as well. If you look at the period 1970-2003 as reported by the Monthly Labor Review in the United States, there have been declines in union density in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, the European Union, Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom, Ireland," says Yates.

A Reversal of Union Trends

But some analysts argue that in parts of the world, such as Scandinavia and Europe, union membership remains strong. And Peter Bakvis, Director of the Washington office of the International Trade Union Confederation, says new trends that favor unions are taking shape in the developing world.

"Interestingly, in developing countries, the labor movement is actually growing very quickly. With democratization in many parts of the world, workers are actually able to join unions for the first time and there's real enthusiasm to do that. And two-thirds are in membership now in developing and former communist countries, whereas 20 years ago, two-thirds of the membership was in the rich, industrialized countries," says Bakvis.

Lost Jobs And Changing Economic Realities

Some analysts attribute the drop in union membership in rich countries to changes that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when many developed countries altered their financial regulations to allow greater freedom of investment. This made it easier for companies, especially manufacturing firms, to move their money and operations across borders. That also encouraged competition that induced domestic or self-contained economies to become more global themselves.

In the United States, says James Sherk of The Heritage Foundation, many companies shifted their emphasis from heavily unionized manufacturing jobs, like the automobile industry, to new sectors.

"There just aren't as many manufacturing jobs as there were, say fifty years ago. These plants were [subject to] collective bargaining. And one-size-fits- all contracts made a lot of sense because all the jobs were pretty similar. Instead, we're getting more service sector jobs," says Sherk. "A program developer or a public relations consultant - - they don’t really have the skills that are very well represented in a general contract. And it's much harder to unionize people in the service sector than it is in the manufacturing sector."

Labor unions in developed countries, says Sherk, failed to adapt to new realities and continued to bargain for the same benefits workers had in the past, even though such benefits were, in his view, no longer sustainable in a globalized economy where companies could move their businesses to countries where workers were willing to work for less pay and fewer benefits.

Back to the Future?

Jeffrey Faux, founding president and fellow of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, acknowledges that unions were slow to counter the effects of globalization. But he says the global economic system itself favors corporations by allowing them to downsize and move to countries with less stringent labor laws and lower standards of living.

"We're back to a 19th century kind of economics where employers are trying to keep wages down to as low as possible and they're not worried about maintaining the demand for their products because their markets are worldwide. Because of the rules of the modern globalized economy, capital is free and mobile, whereas labor is stuck," says Faux.

What is needed, many experts say, are new kinds of unions. Economist Michael Yates says some countries are already experimenting with new models. "In Venezuela, for example, they [i.e., some companies and unions] have been pushing workers to run some of the factories and have more community and worker control over the factories. A model along those lines that takes into account these unemployed, casual sector workers [and] full time workers in one bigger, kind of political and economic organization probably is going to be the only way to fight back," says Yates.

But that, according to Yates, requires global cooperation, with unions in one part of the world supporting unions in another.

Going Global

Stephanie Luce of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says this kind of cooperation is not going to be easy, but it is the only way to revitalize the labor movement.

"I believe it's a necessity because right now, the way that world trade is organized and global capital is organized, I just don't see any way for unions to really succeed without making a comparable globalized working class movement. It will be an uphill battle. In many countries, including the U.S., workers basically have no policy options and no protections. And they're losing any protections they have if they're out of work. So their main policy option is protectionism. And that is a difficult impediment to trying to build a global movement," says Luce.

For unions to survive, many analysts say, they will have to do what companies did years ago: go global. By collaborating with labor organizations across the globe, unions will have greater power to get worker rights and protections written into bilateral and international trade agreements.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.