Building a New Globalized and Diversified Labour Movement for the 21st Century – Leo W. Gerard, International President – United Steelworkers

Union representation in the 21st century is evolving and changing. And the United Steelworkers union is at the forefront of a ‘New Labour Movement.’

The last century was characterized by large-scale industrial organizing in industries that employed thousands of people in a single workplace. There are few of these concentrations of workers left in today’s decentralized, yet global, economy. Those that are left are mostly already unionized.

In Sudbury, there are still two such large groups of workers. For them, the biggest change in the nickel-mining industry has been the takeover of Canadian companies by large foreign-based corporations.

The new Brazilian-owned Vale-Inco has yet to be tested in collective bargaining with our union — in Sudbury, at least. But, at the time of writing this, members of USW Local 6166 in Thompson, MB, were in negotiations with Vale-Inco over familiar issues, such as pensions, wages, control over contracting out and health and safety. They are also working to protect the nickel price bonus, negotiated by the union in both Thompson and Sudbury, more than a decade ago and protected in every set of negotiations since.

More than ever, negotiations in Thompson are critical to our success in Sudbury. Of course, solidarity among workers employed by one company in two provinces is nothing new. What is new is an expanded solidarity that, for the United
Steelworkers, now spans the globe in practical and concrete ways.

In an age of globalization, no union can afford to be isolated, or pretend what they do in Ontario, or Canada has no bearing on the issues faced by workers employed by same company or industry in Europe, Asia or Australia. Global unionism is the way of the future.

How is it developing? Well, back to Vale-Inco, last year a global union meeting was held in Sudbury to link more closely with unions in South America, Africa, New Caledonia, Norway, Australia and Indonesia, whose members also
work for this growing corporate giant. The meeting ended with a Unity Accord, forming the basis for a world-wide union network and a united front in dealing with Vale. This summer, Brazilian sisters and brothers from this group traveled to Thompson in August in a show of solidarity with members of USW 6166.

Another important step on the road to global unionism took place at our union’s International Convention in July. In fact, with more guests and delegates from more countries than ever before, it was the most ‘international’ International Convention the union has ever had.

The convention included the premiere of a real TransAtlantic union, first considered in 2007 and negotiated over 15 months between the USW and the UK-based Unite-the Union. The result is now Workers Uniting — the Global Union. This new labour organization will exchange staff and share activism on a huge range of common objectives. It isn’t just an idea any longer. It is a union — a global union.

Corporate globalization has brought with it many challenges, which a global union must stare down. And that takes resources. Steelworkers in North America have endorsed a new dues structure aimed specifically at bolstering the union’s Strike and Defence Fund, a fund that will mean increased strike pay when a picket line has to go up around an intransigent employer, a fund will better prepare the union for that struggle, including being able to mount more sophisticated and comprehensive strategic campaigns that could avoid the need to strike.

No conversation about the United Steelworkers’ ‘global union’ response to changing times would be complete without a nod to a significant change in the ‘pale, male and stale’ leadership of the union. A new vice-president position has been created, which will ensure that a woman will be among the top officers. For now, that position is by appointment and that woman is a bilingual Canadian activist, Carol Landry. She has been the president of one of the union’s largest mining locals is Western Canada. She is an experienced negotiator and deeply committed to the union and to the
advancement of women within the leadership.

This is the kind of new union we are building for the 21st century — diverse, innovative, evolving and growing. Happy Labour Day.