WASHINGTON - Union leaders from 20 countries are gathering here this week to co-ordinate efforts to deal with the aggressive globalisation strategy of the US-based multinational giant, General Electric Company (GE).
They are also pushing the adoption by GE of a code of corporate conduct
that would require the one of the world's 10 biggest companies to respect
basic labour rights, including the rights to organise and bargain collectively.
The meeting, sponsored by the International Metalworkers' Federation
(IMF), is the latest in a series of efforts by labour unions to organise
themselves across national borders in order to cope with the increasing
mobility of capital.
They want to ensure that multinational corporations (MNCs) like GE are
less able to play off one country's workers against those of another in
what many critics of economic globalisation call a "race to the bottom."
"Anyone who has studied GE knows they are past masters at playing off
workers in one country against another," said Fred Higgs, head of the
International Chemical Workers (ICEM) here. "This is a starting point to
bringing that to a stop."
For now, according to the delegates, co-operation will be confined mostly to exchanging information about GE's operations and plans in countries in which it is active, a task that is made more difficult by the pressure the company has put on its sub-contractors to follow it abroad in search of cheaper labour. Participants will also discuss tactics taken by unions to make the giant manufacturer accountable to workers and communities.
But, in the long run, the IMF and its national affiliates have far greater ambitions. "We really need to have worldwide collective bargaining," said Edward Fire, of the International Union of Electronic Workers (IUE), the union which will be negotiating with GE for a new three-year contract at the end of June.
This week's meeting takes place against a backdrop of growing cross-border co-operation among unions trying to keep pace with MNCs, which have been the principal beneficiaries of global economic liberalisation. As barriers to trade and investment have been lowered virtually everywhere, companies have found it increasingly profitable to move their operations to countries with low labour costs.
GE has been a global leader in that respect. Only 15 years ago, some 300,000 of its 370,000-person global workforce were employed in US-based operations. Now, only about half of a total global workforce of about 300,000 work in the United States. Some 10 percent of its workforce are now employed in Mexico, a favourite destination since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994.
GE, which is active in more than 100 countries worldwide, currently has plants in Canada, most of Western Europe, and many middle-income countries, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Hungary, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, Venezuela, as well as Mexico. GE also employs at least 10,000 workers in China and 15,000 in India, according to labour sources.
In addition, GE has put enormous pressure on many of its US suppliers to also re-locate abroad, particularly to Mexico, in a bid to cut costs and increase profits. According to a memo obtained by Business Week from one supplier's officials about a meeting last year with GE executives, "GE set the tone early and succinctly: 'Migrate or be out of business ... We expect you to move and move quickly."
With global assets of over 400 billion dollars and revenues of more than 110 billion dollars in 1999, GE, which manufactures everything from light bulbs to aeroplane engines and other highly sophisticated equipment, is considered one of the world's most successful corporations. It became the first US company in history to make more than 10 billion dollars in profits last year, and its chief executive officer for the last 19 years, Jack Welch, has become an icon in US business.
Welch has been an outspoken exponent of moving operations into cheap-labour countries. "Ideally, every plant you own would be on a barge," he has said - an image that confirms the worst fears of workers here about GE's willingness to pull up stakes in the search for profit. In a membership survey taken late last year, some two-thirds of GE's unionised workers said they felt their job "wasn't secure at all."
But it isn't only US workers who are feeling insecure about GE's migratory practices. Last year, when workers at a GE plant in Hungary baulked at receiving two dollars an hour, the company threatened to move the jobs to India, according to one union official here.
"What we are afraid of is Welch putting our plant on a barge and taking it to Vietnam," said Gopal Vejaragavan, general secretary of the Electrical Industry Workers' Union in Malaysia where GE employs about 800 people at one plant. "We share that fear with our brothers in the United States," he added.
"The problem is there are no obstacles to the companies moving around," said Douglas Meyer, research director for the IUE. "Our interest with workers (in developing countries) is how we prevent globalisation pressures from forcing all wages down to the lowest possible level."
"It is the continuous mobility (of GE) that is a threat to all workers,"
he added, acknowledging at the same time that there are "inevitable conflicts of interest (between national unions) in competing for jobs."
The timing of the current meeting -- the largest assembly ever of international unions linked to GE -- is related to the upcoming negotiations between the US unions and GE in June. Among other initiatives, meeting delegates intend to set up mechanisms for exchanging information quickly in ways that could favour the union side.
"The fact is that we don't know everything GE is doing around the world, and
this is a way to just get that information," according to Laura Asher, IUE Communications director.
Other kinds of help may also be in the offing. "If there is a need for any campaign or industrial action anywhere in the world, then we are going to do that," said Marcello Malentacchi, IMF general secretary.
The unionists here also intend to present the proposed code of conduct to GE at the bargaining, according to Fire. It was rejected by GE three years ago, but delegates hope GE may take a new attitude, particularly if a shareholders' resolution calling for the adoption of a similar code - to be considered at the company's annual meeting in Virginia next month - gains substantially more than the eight percent of the vote it received last year.
The code requires GE and its contractors to ban child labour and forced labour, respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, bar discrimination and intimidation in the workplace, and ensure that all wages and benefits paid will be sufficient to meet basic needs of workers and their family. Malentacchi said the IMF is asking 15 other global companies to sign on.
The rights to association are considered especially important in many developing nations where workers are not permitted to organise independent labour unions.
"Over the last few years, GE has ruthlessly turned its back on thousands of workers throughout the world by laying them off and by exploiting them in countries where internationally recognised labour standards are neither recognised nor enforced," according to a resolution to be approved by the delegates here.
In Malaysia, for example, Vejaragavan's union has been barred by the government from organising the GE plant, with the result that the workers there have little bargaining power.
"Without meetings like this and international support, the workers at GE in
Malaysia would become modern-day slaves," he said, noting that one workinterest (between national unions) in competing for jobs."
er representative, Sanali bin Dahlan, was denied permission by the local company
to attend this week's meeting until Malentacchi intervened personally with Welch.
The US unions, with substantial support from the largest US union federation, the AFL-CIO also intend a major drive to publicise the exodus of GE jobs from the United States, as well as job losses among its suppliers.
Welch also will likely become a specific target. Last year, he was paid a total of 164 million dollars in salary, bonuses, benefits, and stock options, while GE workers averaged between 40,000 and 45,000 dollars in earnings.