Newspapers in both Britain and the United States have reported in recent days that two major labor organizations are preparing to announce the creation of the first trans-Atlantic union. The merger will bring together the United Steelworkers, the leading U.S. union in manufacturing and heavy industry, and Unite, the mega British union formed by the joining of Amicus and the Transport & General Workers Union last year.
The step does not come as a surprise, since the unions created a strategic alliance in 2005 and announced their intention to wed about a year ago. But the formal marriage of the organizations will, nonetheless, represent a milestone in labor history. For decades, large corporations have been operating across national borders and in recent years have increasingly formed international mergers and joint ventures. Unions have expanded their international solidarity efforts but have largely remained tied to single countries. The Steelworkers-Unite initiative will be a major step toward the globalization of labor organizing. In its report, Britain’s Telegraph said the combined entity could be named the United Global Workers’ Union, which sounds like something out of science fiction.
The current scope of the 850,000-member Steelworkers is illustrated by the fact that a global search of 10-K filings with the SEC reveals that more than 100 publicly traded companies report having North American workers represented by the union. These include industrial giants such as Dow Chemical, Alcoa, International Paper and Goodyear Tire & Rubber that all do a substantial amount of overseas business. Dow Chemical, for example, derives 66 percent of its revenue from outside the United States. Unite is also a highly diversified union that represents workers at the UK operations of global companies such as Airbus, BP, British Airways, Michelin, Shell and Unilever. Steelworkers President Leo Gerard told the Wall Street Journal that among the organizing targets of the combined union could be India’s Tata Steel Ltd., part of the Tata Group conglomerate.
It will be interesting to see how labor relations change once one union, at least, can start to match giant employers in its global reach.