Innovative U.S. union strategies help European labor unions

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the Never Work Alone Conference in Hamburg, Germany
Taking part in the Never Work Alone Conference in Hamburg, Germany, this April, are, left to right, Juergen Reinke, a member of ver.di, one of Germany's largest unions, which hosted the conference, ILR senior extension associate Lee Adler, a labor law expert, and Professor Lowell Turner, chair of International and Comparative Labor at the ILR School. The Europeans have learned about innovative U.S. union organizing strategies during the Trans-Atlantic Social Dialogue between labor scholars and practitioners from the United States, Germany and Britain, now in its third year.

Even though the labor movement is stronger in Europe than in the United States, trade unionists in both places have plenty to learn from each other because it's becoming tougher to protect workers' rights on both sides of the Atlantic.

"European countries are so strong institutionally that they [European unions] never had to actively recruit members or fight for influence -- until recently," said Professor Lowell Turner, chair of the international and comparative labor department at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR).

"Now the social partnership concept is in trouble [in Europe], and European trade unions are looking to the American unions for strategies on fighting back," said Lee Adler, senior extension associate at the ILR School.

Because U.S. unions have had to contend with weakened collective bargaining laws, "in the 1990s they began to develop new, innovative strategies for organizing campaigns that were a complete break from union strategies of the past," said Turner. The European unions, similarly affected by the outsourcing of jobs overseas, diminished membership and concerns that Europe's integration was making them too inward looking, wanted to learn from those U.S. labor union strategies, Turner said.

Three years ago, German labor leaders Reiner Hoffman of the European Trade Union Institute and Nikolaus Simon of the Hans Boeckler Foundation contacted Turner, Adler and others at the ILR School and suggested a "trans-Atlantic social dialogue." "They wanted to hear from scholars and practitioners from both sides of the pond," said Turner.

He and Adler invited U.S. labor leaders, while Hoffman and Simon brought in trade unionists from Germany, Britain and elsewhere. The different groups have been meeting and talking ever since -- at Cornell, in Brussels, in Hamburg this April, hosted by ver.di, one of Germany's largest labor unions, where "Never Work Alone" was the theme, and in Berlin this May, hosted by IG Metall, Germany's metalworkers union.

One example of an innovative strategy Turner and U.S. union organizers shared at the Hamburg meeting that "rattled the walls a little," he said, was Justice for Janitors, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) campaign for better wages and benefits for workers who clean offices. The campaign attracted massive community support.

But the idea of a living wage, or even a minimum wage, doesn't sit well in Germany, where well-paid workers fear that bringing the lowest wages up might bring the highest wages down, explained Adler. "At the meeting in Berlin, we discussed living-wage campaigns in the U.S. and contrasted them with struggles inside and out of German trade unions for a minimum wage law," he said. Unlike the United States, Germany doesn't have one.

Debate is the order of the day at the Trans-Atlantic Social Dialogue gatherings, as is sharing of information on how trade unions are responding to multinational corporations in different countries, said Turner.

One action spurred by the ongoing dialogue: After last year's meeting in Brussels, members of the GMB, one of Britain's largest unions, picketed a retail chain in London in a show of support for an organizing drive of retail workers in New Jersey by the U.S. union UNITE-HERE! The action had its origins in a conversation between a GMB labor leader and Cornell ILR alumnus and trustee Bruce Raynor '72, general president of UNITE-HERE!, in which they discovered both their unions sought to organize low-paid retail workers.

The meetings also offer an opportunity to share small victories and lend support. For example, Adler, a labor law and policy expert, was interviewed by German media in front of Hamburg's largest Wal-Mart following a German court ruling that found the company in violation of the country's labor laws by not involving the employees' works council in the management decision to implement Wal-Mart's "code of ethics." By law, works council members -- who are elected by their co-workers -- must take part in management decisions.

These conferences contribute to a growing international unionism, which is a good thing, said Turner, because, "It's going to take a global coalition to take on mega international companies like Wal-Mart."

Turner is co-editor of a book that discusses the recent innovative strategies by U.S. trade unionists, "Rekindling the Movement: Labor's Quest for Relevance in the 21st Century" (Cornell University Press, ILR Press imprint, 2001). Other co-editors are ILR Dean Harry Katz and ILR Professor Richard Hurd, who also contributed chapters, along with other ILR faculty. The book grew out of a conference at the ILR School in 1998.