The possible globalisation of trade unions

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Apr 14 2007, 05:30am hrs
Trade unions in India have traditionally been organised along the lines of trades, professions, industries and provinces. A national level federation, however weak as a network, is a symbol of major expansion. Linkages with newer segments or amalgamations have been resisted for one reason or the other, and they have continued to be a hash of tiresome rhetoric and fragile existence. Most unions have hardly any assets, and sustain themselves with pamphlets, noise, political and management patronageif there are any surpluses, they go in search of political causes. With dwindling membership ratios and increasing apathy, the slide is discernible, as in the case of many other countries.

Breaking away from such a bleak outlook, an interesting possibility is being heralded by Amicus in the UK, which has reportedly begun talks this month with another union in the US and Canada for a possible merger. If the talks succeed, the result would be a cross-border trade union of over three million members with the attendant benefits of fresh knowledge, experience, policies, tactics and methods. This is perhaps the first time ever that an international merger among trade unions is being attempted. Amicus is indeed the result of a chain of amalgamations over a decade or so. It has an international vision, and proudly states that it has created more European work councils than any other union.

Fearing their decline, many unions around the world have started reinventing themselves. The Chinese and Russian unions were ridiculed for long by the American unions as pawns in the hands of managements and the party. Surprisingly, after over 50 years of meek existence, the All China Federation of Trade Unions took on Wal-Mart and made the latter recognise unions and collective bargainingmuch against its well-known non-union preference. The Chinese federation, which lacks experience in grassroots organisation, is turning to experienced unions in the West for advice.

Would unions consider cross-border mergers Marx would be relieved that even if workers of the world have failed to unite, at least the unions might
The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), with a recent success in making McDonalds recognise it, is looking at newer ways of strengthening itself amidst declining prospects. The Japanese Trade Union Federation (RENGO) and Germanys Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB), among others, are also thinking anew to fight decline, just as their counterparts in the US and UK.

Will these unions take a cue from Amicus and consider cross-border amalgamations, advisory services or even offshore unions leveraging their experience If they conceive themselves as brands with an embedded mass of knowledge on professional union methods, they may indeed win a market for themselves.

Many of these international unions have brand appeal and a slew of policies and methods that are considered mature by workers as well as employers. If that were to happen, then Marx would be relieved that even if workers of the world have failed to unite, at least the unions of the world slowly might. Some believe that international mergers of unions are the way forward. Doubtless, there are innumerable dangers in this version of globalisation, and there is no need to list them (union leaders will do that eminently). But such a potential threat may indeed improve the quality of Indian unions just as global competition has promoted efficiency in the business sectors.

Thus far, Indian trade unions have been distinctive in their politicisation, scant service to members, fragmentation, inter and intra union rivalryand despite their decline, would rather run them as fiefdoms than consolidate and improve internally. If laws were to explicitly permit cross-border union amalgamations, it would be no surprise if US, UK, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and German unions line up for suitors. Even if this would leave our union leaders incensed, the employees may find it attractive to be part of a better brand. They may even be prepared to pay premium membership fees. Many employers may also be happy to have Japanese-style employer-friendly protests than our noisy gheraos and dharnas. One should not be surprised if international unions start offering franchises for local unions and free membership for workers in emerging markets. Any other ideas