April 8, 2005

World Labor Leaders Discuss Union Issues at ILR Panel

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As a part of the School of Indsutrial and Labor Relations’ Union Days program, four influential leaders of the labor movement met yesterday afternoon to discuss organized labor’s role in the newly developing global economy.

Panelists included Union Days’ keynote speaker, Tony Ehreneich, regional secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU); Eric Dirmbach ’92, UNITE HERE coordinator of apparel, distribution, and retail industries; Neil Falcone, United Auto Workers (UAW) area director of Region 9 in New York; and Jim Blau ’91, a senior research analyst at Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Discussing the apparel industry, Dirmbach painted a bleak picture of worker conditions in developing countries, where wages can run as little as 30 cents in Nicaragua, 20 cents in China and 14 cents in Bangladesh. Dirmbach continued, focusing on the Swedish based-clothing retailer, H&M, which Dirmbach said “built its empire on a foundation of misery.”

Two years ago, Dirmbach said, an H&M factory in New Jersey and one in Connecticut were found to be exploiting workers with low wages and inadequate healthcare. When confronted by UNITE HERE, the company responded to their concerns by showing workers anti-union propaganda.

Dirmbach said that this reaction has “a chilling response on the workers and often causes them them not to unionize. This strategy is not an accident but a deliberate business strategy. Again, there is nothing accidental about this.”

After much deliberation, UNITE HERE reached a neutrality agreement with H&M, and was able to successfully organize with its workers. However, Dirmbach said that problems still exist with the H&M company abroad. While UNITE HERE has successfully thwarted sweatshop labor in Thailand, they are still working to unite all groups of H&M workers.

Dirmbach said they are working “to bring a global union [and] decent working conditions to tens of thousands [of] H&M workers,” saying that this accomplishment “would be unprecedented in the apparel market.”

Blau also spoke of underpaid workers in the United States, saying “wherever you are, there are people who are greedy and will take advantage of their workers.”

Blau said that the goal of SEIU is to find a way to unionize companies without putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

In order to combat the difficulties often faced when confronting companies with unionization, Blau said, “We want to be seen as a little crazy but rational. We want [the company] to know we are going to spend a lot of money to make their lives miserable … We have to be flexible … have to be persistent and have to be visible.”

Blau discussed “comprehensive campaigns” where SEIU attacks the company from all angles through cooperation with other unions. Blau supported Dirmbach’s notion that international support is necessary in order to gain legitimacy with a company. Blau said, “you have to be aggressive, there is no other way.”

Falcone talked about the importance of gaining international union support in solving domestic problems. In his discussion of Nissan, Falcone showed how vital calling on the Japanese Auto Workers Union, unions from France and International Metal Federation had been to solving worker inequities in Tennessee.

Later in his presentation, Falcone echoed Dirmbach’s sentiments on companies’ intimidation tactics geared towards workers who want to unionize, discussing the prevalence of companies showing anti-union messages to workers directly before union elections.

In order to end these practices, Falcone said people need to recognize “the importance of solidarity and a global economy. It is clear it is in the interest of employees to do so.”

Ehrenreich spoke about how, due to the nature of capitalism, “experiences of workers around the world are so similar.” He also said that “labor rights are as fundamental as human rights and the job of a democratic country is to protect both.”

Ehrenreich said the greatest problem unions confront is “the pressure to reduce cost all the time. Clearly, there has to be a response, and we need to be global in how we conceptualize and global in the actions we take.”

Ehrenreich spoke of how there needs to be a global code of standards so that companies are not able to take advantage of places in which more lenient labor laws exist. Ehrenreich said that Mercedes Benz’s recent threat to cut workers’ benefits in Germany and move their factories to South Africa was an example of this need.

Ehrenreich said that while South Africa has a struggling economy which could benefit from increased jobs, the South African people did not support Mercedes’ intentions. Instead, workers feared this move due to the global precedent it would set. Ehrenreich said, “it is absolutely essential that unions respond to the environment and shape the environment.”

Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, ILR, who headed the Union Days planning committee, said that the topic of global economies was chosen due to “the way in which corporations are now multinational, and regardless of where they are headquartered, are all seeking cheap labor.” She said she “learned so much [from the panel], especially how many different strategies shared similar goals.”

Jordan Wels ’07, president of Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA), was particularly impressed with the discussion of pattern bargaining, in which a union is able to organize various companies in a region at once, so a company does not lose out. He referred to Ehrenreich’s approach to international solidarity as “forward thinking” and vital, because “global capitalism inevitably puts workers on the defense” so such solidarity is necessary in order to create a united front.

Julia Donahue ’07, who moderated the panel discussion, said the event “went really well,” and “it was really great to have so many important union leaders.”

Archived article by Lauren Hirsch
Sun Contributor
and Jacquelyn Nastri
Sun Staff Writer