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Unions propose global action

Merger eyes up multinationals

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IT union Amicus is discussing a merger with the United Steel Workers (USW) union to create a force able to take on multinational corporations.

Along with the Transport and General Workers Union, with which Amicus has already agreed to merge in the UK, the combined force would number nearly 3 million members in Canada, Ireland, the UK, and US.

Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson said in a statement: "Multi national companies are pushing down wages and conditions for workers the world over by playing one national workforce off against another...the only way working people can resist this is to band together."

USW International president Leo Gerard told a press conference that it would be the first transatlantic union and the first step towards a global movement.

Asked whether the merger was designed to protect US and UK jobs against the shift of jobs to less developed countries, Gerard said: "We aren't doing this just for ourselves. If we don't raise the working conditions of workers in the developing world they will be used as canon fodder against us," he added.

Gerard spoke of "international solidarity" and providing "material support" for fledgling union movements in China, Columbia, and India, but also said the intention was to prevent the "de-industrialisation of our countries".

A global movement might be more attainable in the USW's home industries: steel, mining, forestry and related. It already has strategic alliances in Australia, Brazil, and Mexico.

But it might be harder to break the global IT industry - indeed, it looks like the horse may have already bolted. Union Network International has helped establish a professional association for IT workers in India, for example, but competition for jobs makes unionisation unlikely.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has noted the difficulty in raising labour standards of the IT industry in the southern hemisphere when there is so little union cover. Nevertheless, it said in recent reports, international competition was pushing down labour standards in the southern hemisphere just as a bias for trade over social welfare was pushing them down in the north.

It suggested that multinational corporations should carry the responsibility and managed to get bigwigs from across the industry to discuss the matter at a conference in Geneva this week.

It was urging them to consider how they might "adhere to recognised [labour] standards throughout their supply chains".

Despite the immaturity of the industry and the clamber in the southern hemisphere for some of its spoils, the unions and the corporate social responsibility movement might think this will be easy to pull off (even when you count that at $1.1 trillion, the annual trade in IT goods alone exceeds that of agriculture, textiles and clothing combined).

The reason, as outlined in the ILO report to the conference, is that the IT hardware and electronics industries are incredibly concentrated. The top 10 exporters accounted for 72 per cent of global ICT exports and over 98 per cent of all exports from less developed countries.

Still, a global union's cause might be harder to fight if it failed to get the representation in the southern hemisphere, to chase the jobs south.

And as the ILO has noted, northern firms are being snapped up by burgeoning manufacturing conglomerates from China, Taiwan and India - firms that have no union representation.

They might have to find different ways to pressure the multinationals. Amicus and the USW said that's what they would be discussing from now to next spring when a merger might take place. ®

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