By Christy Hoffman, UNI Global Union General Secretary
International Workers’ Day is time to celebrate our achievements and look to the future. Earlier this week, UNI Europa held its conference, themed “Forward Through Collective Bargaining.” There could have been no better topic for this moment.
Some of you from outside of Europe may ask: “Why should European unions focus on bargaining? Doesn’t their bargaining coverage represent the gold standard?”
Well, yes. But like almost everywhere else in the world, workers’ gains are at risk.
Although European countries differ, they generally have the highest levels of collective bargaining coverage in the world, especially in Western Europe where many have sectoral or multi-employer bargaining regimes in place. But these models — and the worker power they have built — are being chipped away. And a growing number of workers are falling through the cracks, often because they have no permanent or formal employment relationship. Additionally, employers like Amazon in Germany are eroding standards by simply refusing to negotiate with workers.
As our European unions recognize, it is time to reverse these trends.
Our bargaining strength is core to our role as trade unions. During the pandemic, unions with bargaining relationships have done the heavy lifting to protect workers in every continent. Unions have been — and remain — central to safe work and a safe reopening, to recovery and to resilience.
While unions were advocating for PPEs, hazard pay, and safe practices, those without collective bargaining were left to fend for themselves. So many workers have no union protection, or access to a safety committee. Many were terrified during COVID to go their jobs, and many were abandoned by their governments when it comes to safety at work. Some of these workers stood up to protest unsafe conditions. Far too many were fired in retaliation.
And as these crises played out on a global scale, journalists and politicians discovered a new interest in workers and unions.
It is as if the world had just discovered that grocery store workers did not get paid very much. Or that any number of essential workers who kept us fed, safe, or cared for did not earn enough to feed a family, including those who delivered our packages or answered our calls in contact centres. The world is shocked that Amazon warehouse workers must pack, stow or move 300 pieces an hour even during the period of social distancing.
In order to disguise their unbridled greed, the global elite had created a narrative that bargaining is not modern, unions were good for our grandparents but not for us. In fact, the millionaire and billionaire class invented entire employment systems — so called gig work for example — based on an assumption that traditional employment norms are outdated and individual choice reigns supreme.
The pandemic has shown this narrative to be a fraud on working people. It has exposed the weaknesses of extreme power imbalance, too little social protection, and wages that barely stretch from week to week.
All of these forces have come together to create a shifting tide. In February, US President Joe Biden aimed a message to Amazon workers organizing in Alabama — that a vote for or against a union should be the worker’s decision. Anti-union propaganda should not play a role at Amazon or anywhere else. No US President has ever said “NO!” to union busting. It was a historic decision reflecting a pro-union vibe, unmatched in recent times. There are other very positive noises in Europe.
We must convert this positive recognition of our contribution into concrete and long-lasting results. Let us use our political and institutional power to change the rules and make new ones at the same time as we mobilize workers to demand change.
We should fight for conditionalities and incentives relating to government spending, such as the procurement reform under discussion in Europe and other measures under consideration in the US. Our governments should not give contracts to those without agreements. We must make sure that public money is spent for the public good.
We should demand transparency. Companies should have to disclose where they have bargaining and how many workers are covered. And the truth for many of them is that outside of Western Europe there is very little indeed.
Globally, every company, and in particular every multinational, should know that their workers will be able to engage in collective bargaining no matter where they are in the world. And that there are consequences for failure to respect those rights. If companies learn that union busting is not acceptable anywhere, that’s a game changer.
We must fight to change the global rules through mandatory human rights due diligence laws; stronger, enforceable OECD Guidelines; and other steps to enable workers to exercise their rights to bargain.
We cannot sugarcoat the reality we live in. We have so many employers who want to restructure us out of existence, destroying our traditional membership bases. Or they want to create workforces without any connection to a collective identity, to the union, or even to employment. We will have defensive battles to fight. We must resist the calls for austerity which inevitably will follow from the recovery spending. And unemployment must be addressed through social protection and spending on jobs.
We must also stand up to the governments which aim to roll back union rights, and, of course, to the brutality of the coup in Myanmar.
But through all of this we must continue to build our power. We must stand together with a laser focus on emerging from this crisis stronger as a global trade union movement. Together we can do this! Solidarity to all of you.