First steps in creation of transatlantic ‘super-union’
In April 2007, two UK general trade unions, Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union, announced proposals to merge with the North American United Steelworkers trade union. Such a move would create the world’s largest trade union. This marks a new stage in the process of union consolidation and internationalisation, given that the two UK unions themselves merged in May 2007.
On 18 April 2007, two UK general trade unions, Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G), announced plans to merge with the North American-based United Steelworkers (USW) union. USW is the largest industrial trade union in North America with 850,000 members. With a total membership of over 3.4 million workers in the US, Canada, the Caribbean, the UK and Ireland, the merged international trade union would, union leaders claim, be the largest in the world.
On 1 May 2007, the two UK unions, Amicus and T&G which together have around two million members, formally merged to form Unite, concluding a merger process underway since 2005 (UK0612019I; IE0704059I).
International merger exploration
Representatives of the three trade unions met at USW’s Canadian National Policy Congress in Ottawa on 18 April 2007 to sign an accord setting up a merger exploration committee. The committee will facilitate a regular exchange of senior officers in order to coordinate activities. Furthermore, the committee will study the legal frameworks, constitutions, rules and structures of the participating trade unions with a view to integration. The objective is to establish a legal merger within one year.
The ‘Ottowa accord’ – Exploring a global union for the 21st century (264Kb PDF) – builds on a ‘strategic alliance’ signed by USW and Amicus in 2005. It specifically commits the parties to:
- provide resources for international solidarity projects. Examples include support for Columbia’s trade union movement; capacity-building with partner unions in Africa; solidarity work with Indian ship breakers; and the ‘joint exploration of transnational corporations in China’;
- develop common approaches to collective bargaining in sectors and multinational companies where the participating unions have members.
Further expansion to include other trade unions around the world is also planned in order to build ‘a true global union’.
Reasons for merger
The ‘Ottawa accord’ argues that ‘global capital requires a global response’. A major reason for the proposed international merger is the rising concern about the growth of multinational companies and their power to outsource operations to low-cost locations around the world. The General Secretary of Amicus, Derek Simpson, stated that: ‘One of the main reasons for the merger between Amicus and T&G was our desire to create an international trade union that would be able to deal with multinational companies on an equal footing ... Multinational companies are pushing down wages and conditions for workers the world over by playing one national workforce off against another. The only beneficiaries of globalisation are the exploiters of working people and the only way working people can resist this is to band together.’
When announcing the plans to merge with USW, the General Secretary of T&G, Tony Woodley, said: ‘This is an historic step for global trade unionism, and will help working people to look even the biggest employer in the eye. Closer working and agreement with North American trade unionists forms a crucial part of our global organising agenda, designed to stop bosses playing off workers in one country against those in another.’ USW International President, Leo W. Gerard, commented: ‘Workers in this new century need a transatlantic union to tame the exploitation of global corporations, international banks and world trade organisations. The time for global unionism has arrived. We need cross-border organising strategies to protect workers against the mobility of capital that knows no borders. Workers want their unions to develop labour contracts that encompass global employers.’
The move to create the first transatlantic trade union is surprising, as no UK trade union has previously merged with any other union outside the British Isles, and important questions remain about how such a merged union might be financed and organised. However, it does mark a new stage in the process of union consolidation (UK0410105F) and internationalisation. Amicus has previously signed cooperation deals with the International Association of Machinists in the US, as well as with IG Metall in Germany which indeed has been linked to the transatlantic merger proposals (EU0702019I). T&G has developed working relationships with US labour organisations such as the Teamsters union and the SEIU services sector union. USW, for its part, operates across the US, Canada and the Caribbean, and is itself the product of mergers – most recently with the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE) trade union in 2005. Yet, for the UK unions at least, a full merger will represent a major step beyond any previous efforts at developing closer international cooperation.
James Arrowsmith, IRRU, University of Warwick