Outsourcing Worker Power?

Ideas and Issues Labor Organizing

Shreveport     The other day a small piece in The New York Times quoted Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, in an intriguing — and controversial — way under the title — “outsourcing the picket line” from a piece that ran in The McKinsey Quarterly.  

On the plus side he was quoted as saying that he envisioned a worldwide labor federation which “would bring to bear cross-border union leverage to organize entire industries rather than individual companies, thereby lifting the living standards of workers.”   Sounds right!

On the minus side he seems to have given the impression that one might be able to outsource job actions by saying, “If workers are ready to go on strike in the United States, and we are ready to pay them to strike, it would be very costly, but paying workers in Indonesia or India or other places to go on strike against the same global employer isn’t particularly expensive.”  Huh?  Brother Stern couldn’t be saying that workers in unions in other countries are “for hire” for job actions?  He knows better than that, and he could not have meant that.

I believe Stern is imaging a more muscular form of worker power on a truly international scale than has been common for labor leaders to envision.  In the SEIU global union program much work has been done in Poland, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere to try and build real links, assist — and create — organizing programs, and target common companies for mutual organizing success, particularly thus far in the security area. 

With the Organizers’ Forum (www.organziersforum.org) we have visited with many union leaders in places like India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil.  They share the constraints of leadership everywhere — members only move when they believe in what they are doing, when they understand the program, and when they support their own leadership and the process.  Union members are not one way in the United States and then simply robots ready for the order elsewhere.  Unions in India are still strategizing about the results of their last call for a general strike and the level of participation.  Strikes are not easy anywhere, nor are they as ubiquitous in other countries as once might have seemed the case. 

It’s a big world.  Stern understands this completely and has been in it.  Solidarity works.  Mutual action works.  Self-interest works.  This is the program SEIU has been leading around the country.  It’s not rent-a-worker.  That doesn’t work here, and it won’t work in the rest of the world either.

Andy Stern, President of Service Employees International Union (SEIU)