It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of old-fashioned “resistance.” Indeed, without resistance (e.g., pushing back, taking an aggressive stand, demonstrating that you’re willing to fight, etc.), things can get out of hand very quickly, whether we’re talking about international relations, social intercourse, basic economics, children or adults.
Take the typical school yard bully for example.
The thing that keeps these bullies going is that no one resists them. No one is willing to fight back—either by instantly reporting them to a teacher, or (taking matters boldly into their own hands) by punching them squarely in the nose. And experience has taught us that when you appease a bully, two things happen, both of them bad: the bully continues his dominance, and his bullying tends to become more frequent and ambitious.
On Sunday, April 7, the Los Angeles Times ran a disturbing front-page story on the topic of worker victimization. The article pointed out that employers now believe (especially since the recession) that they are firmly in the driver’s seat, that the economy has become such a lopsided “buyer’s market” that they can now pretty much force their employees to do anything they wish. After all, who or what is going to stop them?
It’s sad to report, but businesses have won. They’ve increased their production demands, they’ve extended employees’ work hours (after having laid off a number of them), they’ve taken to issuing ultimatums (If you don’t like it here, quit), and they’ve done all this while, simultaneously, having kept wages relatively stagnant. As for traditional benefits such as pensions, bonuses, sick leave and paid vacations, forget about it. Most of those have been abolished.
Clearly, things have shifted dramatically. Companies are now running roughshod over their employees—not those in upper management, mind you, and not those who hold computer science degrees from Stanford University, but the regular folks, those with high school diplomas who just want to work for a living and are fully cognizant that they have “jobs” rather than “careers.”
Welcome to the underbelly of technology. Companies electronically time your potty breaks, they electronically measure your output, they spy on you with cameras, they force you to attend indoctrination meetings and film you as you listen, and they send out emails threatening to fire you if you show up late to work. Things have shifted so dramatically, management now expects to run the table every time they pick up a pool cue.
Which brings us to the role of labor unions. It’s no accident that this draconian work environment coincides with the precipitous drop in union membership. It’s no accident and no coincidence, because the one thing a labor union brings to the workplace is resistance—resistance in the form of worker representation and adult supervision. It’s that school yard dynamic all over again.
A union contract requires a company to follow certain rules. Despite all their squawking, if management didn’t fully understand the rules and didn’t see the basic wisdom and fairness in them, they wouldn’t have signed that contract. I’ve personally negotiated five contracts, and believe me, only a stupid or wildly reckless management team is going to shoot themselves in the foot.
Yes, union jobs offer about 15-percent higher wages and benefits, and yes, union safety programs are infinitely superior to non-union programs, and these by themselves are tremendous advantages to becoming a union member. But a union also offers something less tangible. A union contract provides an employee with dignity—with the expectation of coming to work and being treated with respect. And that is no small thing.
If anyone is able to name another institution that can provide America’s working class with the built-in dignity and economic advantages a union can, I’d love to hear it, because it ain’t the federal government and it ain’t philanthropic organizations. This is all about resistance. Without resistance, workers have no leverage. Resistance is everything. And without labor unions, the bullies will continue to win.
- Have It Your Way… at McDonald’s (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Business executives representing nearly 50 US companies are in Egypt this week, the latest of a series of international trade delegations to visit the country. Foreign investors are a vital part of the current administration’s economic strategy — the hope is that they will provide the jobs and capital to lift the country from its economic malaise.
But labor activists Egypt Independent spoke to have drawn attention to multinational corporations’ patchy records on union rights. Cadbury, Schlumberger, Pirelli, Henkel-Persil and Suzuki, among others, are accused of union busting and punitive sackings.
These violations are not out of step with the general trend in the private sector here, but they raise questions about the commitment of corporations headquartered in countries with nominal trade union freedoms to preserve those freedoms in their international operations. They also raise questions about the government’s willingness to turn a blind eye to workers’ rights, when investment is at stake.
The confectionery giant Cadbury, a subsidiary of the Kraft Foods conglomerate, has been reaping in hundreds of millions of pounds worth of profits since its establishment in the country in 1992.
Located in 10th of Ramadan City and in Hanovil, Alexandria, Cadbury Egypt employs more than 1,500 people. Despite resistance from the administrative board, Cadbury workers managed to establish their independent trade union on 28 April.
Led by their union, these workers launched a two-day strike on 27 July during which they demanded the 15 percent wage increase decreed for the public sector by President Mohamed Morsy on 1 July.
On 8 August, five of nine trade union leaders in the company were dismissed by Cadbury Egypt on charges of instigating unrest within the company.
Mohamed Hassan, president of the union in Alexandria, says that last year, the union was able to generate profits for the company amounting to LE267 million.
“Nevertheless, the administrative board sacked us for demanding our rightfully earned pay raises.”
He argued that the company’s managing director, Gawad Abaza, “doesn’t want a workers union in the company or anybody else to hold him accountable for our exploitation and the violation of our most basic labor rights.”
Depending on experience and seniority in the company, workers at Cadbury Egypt earn between LE1,500 — LE6,000 per month (US$250 — $1,000), well above the national average. Hassan claims that “administrative board members earn a monthly average of LE15,000 ($2,500), while Abaza earns a large percentage of the profits each month.”
Hassan says Cadbury Egypt’s board dismissed them without first resorting to negotiations with the Manpower Ministry, in violation of labor laws.
“We ourselves engaged in negotiations with the Manpower Ministry’s bureau in Alexandria for 21 days,” Hassan says. “We strive to take our case to the labor courts.”
Hassan pointed out that similar union-busting actions have recently been undertaken by Cadbury in Tunisia.
Late last month, the five unionists dismissed by Cadbury Egypt received letters of support and solidarity from the Swiss-based International Union of Food Workers. Similarly, Kraft workers from various other countries also sent letters of support, demanding their reinstatement.
Established in France and headquartered in Texas, Schlumberger is the world’s largest oil field services company and employs some 115,000 people in 85 countries.
Schlumberger Egypt directly employs about 1,000 well-paid workers and professionals in 10 different sites across the country. Schlumberger Egypt’s profits in 2011 amounted to an estimated $30 million. On average, an Egyptian engineer might earn LE9,000 per month ($1,500) working at the company, while a manual worker at an oil rig might earn LE5,000 ($833) per month.
However, this company apparently does not respect the right to organize. Against the administration’s will, employees there established their first union committee in May 2011.
The administrative board responded by punitively sacking four workers from the company between June and July 2011, including three unionists and one union organizer.
Mohamed Abdel Rahman, secretary general of the Schlumberger Egypt Workers Union, says the company’s France branch sought to compensate them for their dismissals.
“Yet we don’t want monetary compensation,” he says. “We demand our jobs back and we demand the right to organize within the company.”
Abdel Rahman, one of the unionists who were sacked, says Schlumberger officials from France and the US visited Egypt last week to investigate the dispute.
He also says the unionists filed a complaint to the Manpower Ministry last year.
“Ministry officials told us that we did not violate any laws and that we were in the right,” Abdel Rahman says, adding that he and the other unionists who were fired had lodged a legal appeal before the Labor Court in September last year. Their next court hearing has been adjourned to 12 September.
Similarly to the Cadbury Egypt unionists who had been fired, those who had been fired from Schlumberger Egypt have received letters of solidarity from the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Union and its affiliated unions in Canada and Norway.
The unions demanded that Schlumberger Egypt reinstate the four unionists and refrain from union busting.
Headquartered in Dusseldorf, Germany, industrial giant Henkel-Persil — which produces detergents, cosmetic and beauty care products, and adhesive technologies — operates in 75 countries worldwide, with a labor force of some 47,000.
According to its website, Henkel employs 830 workers at its detergent production plants in Port Said. Media reports say Henkel Egypt generated profits of LE1.2 billion in 2011.
Workers at the company launched a strike on 28 August. Hundreds of workers demanded full-time contracts, increased wages, healthcare facilities and parity with Henkel workers in other countries, in terms of incomes, bonuses, profit sharing and paid holidays.
Like Henkel Egypt’s workers, Heinz Egypt’s 400 workers launched protests at their company in 6th of October City last month. Workers at this condiment company demanded an increase in their meager wages, full-time contracts for full-time work, periodic bonuses and profit-sharing payments, among other demands.
Suzuki Motor Corporation, managed by the Seoudi Group in Egypt, has also been involved in union busting. Workers at this company in 6th of October City established an independent union in June 2011, against the will of Seoudi Group.
According to a report issued by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, five unionists and three other workers were dismissed from Suzuki Egypt between June and October 2011. These workers have not yet been reinstated.
The Italian global rubber and tires giant Pirelli dismissed five unionists from its company in Alexandria in July, after some 2,000 workers at the company went on strike the previous month. However, the Italian multinational company agreed to reinstate the five unionists and offered other concessions following intervention from the IndustriALL Global Union and Egypt’s General Trade Union of Chemical Workers.
The state of investment
Fatma Ramadan, executive board member of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, argues that “both corporations and the Egyptian state are responsible for increasing labor violations.”
Many workers at multinational companies, she continued, “earn only between LE600 to LE1,000 (about $100–166) per month, rarely more.”
Ramadan says about 130 laborers, primarily union organizers and strike leaders, have been punitively fired since the 25 January revolution for striking or organizing within their workplaces — private and public, domestically and internationally owned.
Tallal Shokr, a secretary of the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress, puts the number at 155.
Trade union rights are generally better protected in public sector companies, Shokr says, and protected worst of all in the “free zones” designed to attract investment, where regulation is largely suspended. He thinks the petroleum sector is among the most aggressive in dealing with its workers.
“Under the pretext of attracting investment, foreign or domestic, all labor violations are legitimized,” Shokr says. “Investors know that the state won’t hold them accountable for violations of labor standards.”
- British workers join Turkish Airlines showdown (morningstaronline.co.uk)
- Assault on Colombian Trade Unions Continues Unabated (ipsnews.net)
- Solidarity action for sacked Turkish aviation workers (itfglobal.org)
In its 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights released June 6, 2012, the International Trade Union Confederation found that Latin America remains the most dangerous region of the world for trade unionists, with Colombia again leading the world, followed by Guatemala.
The ITUC says 29 trade unionists were reported murdered in Colombia in 2011, with 10 more in Guatemala, together accounting for a bit over half of the 76 trade unionists reported murdered in 2011. Colombia’s share of total murders dropped significantly, however, reflecting a decreased in 2010 murders of 51, representing 55% of the 92 trade unionists murdered in 2010.
Ironically, Colombia and Guatemala are also the two countries in Latin America that have been at the heart of U.S. policy on worker rights and Free Trade Agreements, with the Obama Administration pushing forward with implementation of the Colombia FTA in mid-May despite insufficient progress on worker rights while continuing to deal with a CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) labor complaint on Guatemala filed over four years ago that has yielded little progress even as violence against Guatemala unionists has escalated.
In a welcome and some say historic development, the conservative Guatemalan agribusiness sector has called on its own government to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the violence that has been directed at the country’s largest union, Sitrabi, which represents Del Monte banana workers and is a filer of the CAFTA labor complaint. Sitrabi reports that seven members of its union members have been murdered since April 2011. The Camara del Agro released its remarkable letter [ English translation here] in late May; no response from the government has been reported as yet.
- Colombia: Obama’s Bloodiest Betrayal? (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Progress or Promises? Free Trade and Labor Rights in Colombia (alethonews.wordpress.com)