- Global Unions, Local Power: The New Spirit of Transnational Labor Organizing by Jamie K. McCallum
“How can local unions build local power?” (3). This is Jamie McCallum’s main question in this book focused on global framework agreements (GFA). “GFAs are nonbinding contracts signed between [global labor federations] and transnational corporations that attempt to secure labor standards through a company’s operations and, in some cases, its supply chain” (37). Promoting GFAs became a transnational labor organizing strategy in the last decade through the work of the US-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Union Network International (UNI). UNI was crucial to SEIU’s global efforts, as it “is the largest of nine global union federations … representing some twenty million skills and service workers in nine hundred unions worldwide” (69). McCallum first covers more general problems, identified as theoretical, and then examines particular examples in practice, including case studies on organizing GFAs in South Africa and India.
McCallum is optimistic that this new approach to union organizing has “facilitated new organizing” and believes that drawing a “negative assessment of global agreements [GFAs] may be premature” (45). “GFAs are nonbinding contracts signed between transnational corporations and global union federations” (like UNI), and these federations seek to “attempt to secure labor standards throughout a company’s operations” (37). The word attempt is crucial to understanding the complexity of this approach and the severe limitations of GFAs given that these agreements are nonbinding and do not have protection under local or national laws of the countries in which the agreements were made. The GFA strategy is an alternative to existing trade union organizing of the last decades in the United States and Western Europe that tried to use labor legislation to protect trade union rights. It is also an alternative to the US-oriented organizing approach based on the National Labor Relations Act, which requires a majority win in representative workplace elections in order to gain certification for bargaining rights with an employer. SEIU pioneered the initial version of this strategy with its Justice for Janitors campaigns in the United States, bypassing the National Labor Relations Board and instead putting direct pressure on employers, along with mobilization of workers and communities to publicize employer abuses. McCallum focuses on the role of SEIU in broadening this strategy internationally through unions and federations in the United Kingdom, Germany, a number of African countries, and, finally, the two substantial case studies on India and South Africa. He emphasizes the shift from a “rights”-oriented organizing approaches aimed at securing union-employer agreements on wages, hours, and working conditions to one that is focused on “governance struggles,” directed more toward workers’ voices and direct interaction with employers while bypassing government-based labor laws and [End Page 97] restrictions (13). This approach requires initial research into the corporation to find vulnerabilities to publicize before actual organizing that then builds on this information.
SEIU’s involvement in the global campaign arose from its organizing in the security-guard industry in the United States, in part because one corporation, G4S based in Sweden, dominates this labor market globally. A majority of the corporation’s American workers are minorities and low paid. The union discovered that this sector was dominated heavily by European companies contracted by US corporations, so it became crucial to extend the campaign to Europe to garner support from unions there. The campaign then extended even further into Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, where there has been an explosive increase in security-guard employment, far greater than in the United States. G4S is the second largest corporate employer in the world, after Walmart, with the vast majority of G4S employees based in Asia and Africa.
The outcomes of these many national and local campaigns have been mixed, and in some cases they have failed. Political differences with SEIU emerged in the Indian campaign in Kolkata, where local unions are affiliated with the Communist Party (Marxist), whereas there was better success in Bangalore, where...