First steps towards creation of global super union

In a move to address the problem of social dumping at international level, two of Europe’s largest trade unions, Amicus in the UK and the German Metalworkers’ Union, along with the US trade union organisations, the United Steelworkers and the International Association of Machinists, have signed an agreement which could lay the foundations for a global super union within the next 10 years. With this initial agreement designed to encourage closer working relations between the four trade unions, the planned global super union could eventually represent around 7.6 million members.

Planning beyond national borders

In a move designed to secure the long-term future of trade unions, two of Europe’s largest unions, the German Metalworkers’ Union (Industriegewerkschaft Metall, IG Metall) and Amicus in the UK, have announced their intentions to develop a global super union, teaming up with two organisations in the US. Together with the US trade union organisations, the United Steelworkers (USW) and the International Association of Machinists (IAM), IG Metall and Amicus have made a commitment to developing this new structure within the next decade. The proposal came after all four trade unions signed solidarity pacts, which are committed to assuring minimum labour standards.

The notion of a supranational trade union is not a new concept. In fact, the former Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union in the UK, Amicus’s predecessor, mooted the idea of merging with IG Metall in Germany back in the 1990s. As was the case then, this latest move represents an attempt to address organised labour’s rather traditional character. In the face of the increasing mobility of multinationals, trade unions are required to develop processes which are no longer restricted to national settings. In light of two very public events in 2006 – namely the announced closure of Electrolux’s AEG plant in Nuremberg in Germany (DE0603039I), as well as Volkswagen’s plan to cut up to 4,000 jobs at its Forest plant in southern Brussels in Belgium – this latest attempt to raise trade unions’ international profile does not come as a surprise. The General Secretary of Amicus, Derek Simpson, noted: ‘By establishing more positive links and working arrangements with trade unions abroad, we can work together to prevent labour standards being eroded by ruthless global companies who show a ruthless disregard for their workers in the pursuit of even greater profits.’

Proposed structure

The 10-year timeframe being discussed by the parties to the agreement is not surprising. At present, Amicus is in the process of merging with another UK trade union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G). With members of both British trade unions expected to vote on the merger in May 2007, leading eventually to a new union representing over two million workers in the UK, this move is designed to streamline the resources of both existing unions, in an attempt to improve the recruitment of new members. Beyond Amicus’s existing priorities, the proposed timeframe for establishing the global union appears to be the result of an acknowledgement that the foundation of a new global super union will involve a steep learning curve. Industrial relations developments, specifically in Germany and the UK – such as the respective development of open clauses and the arrival of works councils – may suggest a degree of convergence of the two national systems; nevertheless, the different representative traditions and histories of all trade union structures necessitate that the process should not be rushed.

Already, the key players in the negotiations appear to have taken the important decision regarding the eventual structure of such a global super union. Mr Simpson has indicated that any future body is likely to be organised along federal lines. Such a structure would have the benefit of offering a degree of centralisation, namely a common approach to multinational companies, while at the same time respecting the various national traditions of each trade union.

Consequences for European industrial relations

The proposed super union will potentially raise some interesting questions for European industrial relations. At one level, such a move would offer increased credibility to the idea of a ‘European industrial relations system’ – a view that remains highly contentious in some quarters. The main issue, however, concerns what direction such a European industrial relations system is likely to take as a result of such a development. With supranational employee federations lacking the necessary mandate to enter into European-wide negotiations, the development of company agreements appears to represent the obvious option for organised labour if it is to have a collective voice internationally. Already, recent developments such as the signing of framework agreements and the increasing profile of some European Works Councils (EWCs) suggest this is the case. Therefore, the question arises as to whether unions, whose very existence is dependent on industrial-level collective bargaining, would be willing to support the expansion of ‘micro-corporatism’ – cooperating more with employers on a range of flexibility issues at workplace level.

Commentary

Although this latest move to establish a global super union represents a veritable Pandora’s box, the designated timeframe, as well as the proposed federal structure, indicate that the key players in the negotiations are conscious of the obstacles they face. Moreover, the statements released in relation to the proposed merger demonstrate how trade unions are increasingly unable to represent their members in a world where undertakings have long ceased to recognise national borders.

Michael Whittall, Technical University Munich

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