Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Workers of the world, globalize? That's the question broached by the writer of the Times article on Andy Stern.
At first, this global vision sounded a little dreamy to me, as if Stern might have been watching too many ''Superfriends'' reruns. Then he invited me, just before Christmas, on a one-day trip to Birmingham, England. The occasion was a meeting of Britain's reform-minded transportation union. Tony Woodley, the union's general secretary, flashed a broad smile and threw his arm around Stern when Stern arrived, after flying all night, to give the keynote address. Two S.E.I.U. employees were already on hand; it turned out that Stern had dispatched them to London temporarily to help Woodley set up an organizing program.
As we drank coffee backstage, Stern and Woodley told me about the case of First Student, a company that in the last few years had become the largest, most aggressive private school-bus company in the United States. The company had become a target of S.E.I.U. locals in several cities because it wouldn't let its drivers unionize. ''We keep seeing these things about them in the union newsletter,'' Stern said. ''And it starts nibbling at your brain. I said: 'Who are these people, First Student? What's going on here?' And then we do a little research, and we find out what idiots we are. This is a major multinational company. They're 80 percent unionized in the United Kingdom. So we write a letter to the union here, and we say, 'Can you help us?' ''
Woodley sent British bus drivers to Chicago to meet with their American counterparts. Then the American bus drivers went to London, and lobbyists for the British union took them to see members of Parliament. They also held a joint demonstration outside the company's annual meeting. Woodley told me that First Student -- known as First Group in Britain -- was now making a bid for rail contracts there, and his union intended to lobby against it unless the company sat down with its American counterparts in Florida and Illinois.
I asked Woodley, who looks like Rudy Giuliani with more hair, why he would use his own union's political capital to help the S.E.I.U. He nodded quickly, in a way that suggested that there were a lot of people who didn't yet understand this. He explained that it worked both ways; his union was suffering at the hands of multinationals, too, and Stern would be able to return the favor by pressuring American companies doing business in Britain. Moreover, Woodley went on to say, if European companies get used to operating without unions in America, it might be only a matter of time before they tried to export that same mentality back to Europe. ''I don't expect miracles,'' Woodley said. ''I don't expect international solidarity to bring huge companies to their knees overnight. But we've got to do a damn sight more than we're doing.''

Click here to read the entire article.


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