How does a union fight a tough employer who demands concessions before he negotiates in good-faith bargaining for a contract? Frankly, the union has only three options, none of them attractive: it can exist without a contract; it can make some concessions, keeping them to a minimum, or it can take its members out on strike.
This dilemma is virtually the same for unions around the world, who are each struggling for much the same goals: the right to join a union, job security, decent wages and benefits, better health and safety laws improvements in pensions, education and living standards. They are all fighting governments, whose proposed new laws hurt, rather than help working people.
Unions in other countries resort to strikes much more frequently than their counterparts in the United States, with this important difference: their strikes are shorter and less costly for their members, and they control the duration of the strike. This gives them a tactical advantage over their employers.
If Foreign Workers Are ‘Unhappy,’ Bosses Get the Message
In Germany, for example, unions use the “warning strike,” which may last a few hours or a day or two. This informs the employers that their workers are unhappy, and that larger and more prolonged strikes may take place unless there is a fair settlement of outstanding issues between the parties.
Then there is the “roving strike,” used against major employers. Here the strike is conducting in waves, as it moves from city to city to carry the union message. Strikes can be as short as two or four hours or a day or two, but there are strikes that can go on for weeks or more. The important point is that the union calibrates the size and duration of the strike, with the employer not knowing what to expect.
Recently, Italian unions staged a one-day national strike in opposition to government reforms. In Chile, 400,000 public sector employees stayed off the job for two days. Workers in Brazil, South Korea, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Malaysia and other countries use the “quickie” strike to emphasize their views.
Unlike most Americans, when foreign workers are laid off, they don’t leave quietly. Especially if they’ve worked on the same job for 10 years or more, they feel they own the job. Many occupy their workplace and continue their sit-ins until they get the attention of government officials. In Morocco, a group of blind, unemployed workers occupied government offices for three days to demand they be given jobs.
More than thirty female garment workers threatened to jump off the roof of their workplace in a mass suicide, unless the government considered their demands. Hunger strikes have also been used to draw public attention to workers’ concerns.
Two weeks ago, eight French unions were able to bring more than one million people (even by police count) together to join in a nationwide march and rally to protect jobs and living standards. Wouldn’t it be great if the AFL-CIO and Change to Win could mobilize one million union member to a giant rally to promote the Employee Free Choice Act?
We’ve got a lot to learn from unions on other continents, and they from us. You can learn more about them by reading the weekly column, ”The World of Labor” on our web site, www.laboreducator.org
Article 11 on “Labor's Voice for Change” will deal with “Unions as Investors.” It will be posted on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009