Translating Solidarity

After a decade working for food concessions operated by the French multinational Sodexo at Ohio State University sports arenas, 58-year-old Marcia Snell decided she and her fellow workers -- including more than a dozen of her extended family members -- needed a union. And she has done more to get a union than just join and sign up her co-workers.

Up against a company that employs 380,000 workers in 80 countries, she went global, like her employer. She marched down High Street in Columbus last April with British and French union supporters, then got arrested for blocking the street. She traveled to France for the January shareholder meeting, where European unions publicly supported her cause.

Sodexo, which says that it "has always recognized and respected trade union rights," is fighting Snell's attempt to organize a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Human Rights Watch concluded that the company's U.S. operations had frequently violated the same international labor standards it observes in Europe, and unions in Colombia and the Dominican Republic report Sodexo fired workers who protested violations of pay laws.

Sodexo touts that it's "a great place to work." But on her part-time hours and low pay ($9 an hour or less until recently, after she began organizing and got a raise and a full work week), Snell had to raise her five children with the help of Medicaid, food stamps, and public assistance. When her Medicaid coverage ended, she could not afford Sodexo's insurance or her heart medicine and then needed bypass surgery.

French Sodexo union leaders Jean-Michel Dupire and Gerard Bodard say that after visiting Columbus last spring, they were shocked by differences between the lives of Americans like Snell and French Sodexo workers -- and the difference between Sodexo's self-image and reality. In France, anyone can easily join a union, and everyone in the food services is under union contracts. Most French Sodexo workers earn the minimum wage (about $12 an hour), but they have comprehensive public health insurance, a much more generous public pension, full work weeks, and six weeks paid vacation. (Snell will get her first few vacation days next year.)

"I think we'll help each other," Bodard says, "because we're working for a global company, and the only way for us to go is to build global power. In France, we've put pressure on Sodexo and given publicity [to U.S. conditions] so everyone in the sector knows about it."

Reflecting the growing worry that multinational companies will bring U.S. labor standards to Europe, Bodard adds, "What I'm going for is equal treatment, but it's also important to bring everyone to the top, not the bottom."

"The French workers stood by us and want to help us get a union," Snell says. "They actually cried when we told them our stories. ... By workers from other states and countries going together, it shows we really want a union."

Such tangible global solidarity will be key to developing global union power that can counterbalance the expanding influence of multinational corporations. SEIU Executive Vice President Tom Woodruff, director of Change to Win's Strategic Organizing Center, believes unions must unite across borders to organize, because union membership as a fraction of the workforce is declining nearly everywhere. "Only if unions build organizing across borders can workers get a fair share from their employers," he says. "More U.S. unions and unions in other countries are involved, but global campaigning is really an underdeveloped technology."

With its own global campaign exposing Sodexo's human-rights failings, SEIU is trying not only to pressure the company to make it easier for workers in the United States to form a union but also to help develop that "technology" to organize Sodexo workers around the world. The union's comprehensive campaign combines short strikes, efforts to cancel or block new catering contracts that the company seeks (with school districts, the Marines, and the 2012 London Olympics), legal challenges, generating unfavorable publicity for Sodexo, and lobbying politicians, investors, and other influential figures to pressure Sodexo to sign a strong global framework agreement (GFA). SEIU wants a compact that will guarantee unions' unimpeded right to organize Sodexo workers more concretely than earlier agreements that just reiterated abstract rights.

In 2004, SEIU signed agreements for plants in just the United States with Sodexo and the two other giant "multiservice" or food-service and facility -- management companies, Britain-based Compass Group and U.S.-based Aramark. The agreements, which expired in 2009, helped organizing in some worksites but greatly restricted where and how fast the union could organize. Working through the International Union of Food Workers, a global union federation, SEIU sought a stronger, unrestricted GFA.

It's often hard to win good global frameworks, and then it's hard to enforce them. SEIU expects Sodexo to deliver a global agreement by the end of the year, but negotiating details of processes to be used in the U.S. will be difficult. It may get more complex because UNITE HERE, recently in a bruising battle with SEIU, also has jurisdiction over the food-service industry in the U.S. and is waging its own drive to organize the big three. UNITE HERE wants assurances the new agreement treats all unions equally.

Framework agreements have helped SEIU organize about 15,000 security guards and 20,000 multiservice workers, SEIU officials estimate, though UNITE HERE says the real total for multiservice workers is much lower.

The Sodexo campaign stems from SEIU's decision at its 2004 convention to undertake serious global organizing. Much of its work in health care and other industries still focuses on domestic employers and regional markets. But building-service companies, which employ such workers as janitors and security guards, are increasingly global in their financing, ownership, clients, and workforce.

SEIU's decision is one part of a change underway since the 1990s in labor's approach to global issues, which had been characterized by charitable solidarity support mixed into a Cold War strategy that complemented American foreign policy. Then communism and the Cold War collapsed, and many U.S. unions began recognizing the paramount threat of global corporations.

In the late 1980s, the cross-border campaigns of some American unions -- such as the former Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers' recruitment of European help to battle the German chemical giant BASF at the company's plants in the U.S. -- shook up the often staid world of union international diplomacy. In a new twist, U.S. unions were asking European unions for help. The Europeans usually complied but occasionally resented the combative style of some U.S. unions that endangered their carefully nurtured relations with employers. Although U.S. unions now act in a significantly more sophisticated fashion, initially union leaders in Europe saw some of the Americans (like SEIU representatives) as brash, culturally insensitive, and interested mainly in one-way relationships that helped the U.S. unions. At the same time, the Europeans often did not understand that, as International Union of Foodworkers General Secretary Ron Oswald says, "the United States probably has the most brutal labor-relations system in the industrial world."

SEIU's engagement in global organizing grew out of its building-service organizing, especially the pivotal Justice for Janitors strike at Century City, during which police clubbed picketers of the key cleaning contractor, a Danish multinational. Although threats of retaliation by SEIU's big New York janitors' union helped bring about a settlement, Justice for Janitors architect Stephen Lerner also credits influence of a Danish trade union delegation.

Increasingly, building-service organizers confronted the dominant private-security multinationals, Securitas (which is Swedish) and G4S (British). These multinationals had grown by consolidating local or national companies (Securitas had bought the Burns private-security company in the U.S.) but failed to instill the labor-friendly style of Swedish managers.

As Justice for Janitors succeeded, organizers turned to the poorly paid, mainly nonunion commercial-building guards. Then in 2003, a Swedish Transport Workers Union delegation visited the United States. The delegates talked with Securitas workers and SEIU organizers and publicly reported back to Sweden about the labor-rights outrages they found. Swedish managers were so upset with the group's publicity that then-CEO of Securitas Thomas Berglund promptly flew to the United States and negotiated a framework to ease U.S. organizing with SEIU Vice President Tom Balanoff.

The agreement granted SEIU recognition as bargaining agent if a majority of workers signed up, but it covered only 10 cities, and the union had to organize a majority of guards in each market before contract talks could begin (to prevent exposing unionized contractors to nonunion competition). In the meantime, UNI (another global federation of service workers) and the Swedish union negotiated a GFA with Securitas in 2006. It guarantees that organizers will have management's cooperation gaining access to the workers, that managers will respect workers' right to form a union, and that workers can gain recognition through the "minimum legal requirements" (typically majority card checks in the U.S.). In their regularly scheduled talks about implementing the agreement, Securitas CEO Alf Goeransson assured SEIU and UNI officials in September that the global agreement applies to the United States. But Securitas managers in the U.S. do not fully agree on which rules prevail, and as a result, those managers in many cases are reverting to their customary hostility.

Securitas guard Ken Parkison, a 45-year-old Army veteran in Denver, discovered that the hard way. Last April, after meeting two SEIU organizers, he signed up six of the 11 guards at his workplace. "Then the company found out," he says. Shortly afterward, he was fired for using a computer that the company claimed he was not authorized to use.

Angry at the company for breaking its own rules, he agreed to join a delegation of Swedish unionists in Cincinnati helping American co-workers present petitions for recognition of a union. The Swedes were also helping themselves. "There has to be solidarity between colleagues," says Susanne Bergman Israelsson -- a guard, shop steward, and union branch chair in Sweden. "If conditions get worse in one country, what's to say it won't undermine you?"

The Swedes were "appalled" at how Securitas treated Parkison -- -and them. As the American-Swedish delegation stood outside the Cincinnati office, the manager opened the door, and Bergman Israelsson -- also an employee representative on the corporation's board of directors -- stepped forward and identified herself. The manager "ignored me and slammed the door in my face," she says. "I'm used to talking with management at all levels with respect. I'm not angry. I feel sad. You don't treat people that way." The Swedish Transport Workers are committed to pressuring Securitas, and Balanoff, also president of UNI's property-services division, feels confident that Goeransson will enforce the GFA in the U.S. eventually.


In October 2003, inspired by what then seemed its easy victory at Securitas, SEIU turned to pursuing an agreement with the Danish security company Group 4 Falck and its American arm, Wackenhut. Soon afterward, however, the company merged with the British firm Securicor. British managers took control of what became known as G4S, and SEIU faced a more formidable challenge. The company is the second-largest private employer in the world, with 600,000 employees in more than 100 countries. Its British management, despite its expressed commitment to labor rights and unions, seemed less willing to reach an agreement than the Swedish managers of Securitas.

The harder fight with G4S taught SEIU organizers several important lessons. It also pushed them beyond a campaign to help organize at home toward more global organizing, both as an end in itself and as a means to winning rights for American workers.

First, SEIU organizers found that talking about human rights worked better in Europe than in the United States, says Christy Hoffman, then SEIU's European leader on G4S and now UNI deputy secretary-general. In the United States, SEIU devoted more attention to criticizing Wackenhut's quality of performance, issuing reports on "how the Wackenhut Corporation is compromising America's nuclear security."

But the European press, public, and investors were interested in violations of human rights and sometimes acted on them: One Norwegian pension fund divested its G4S holdings. SEIU's organizers were gradually learning more about cultural differences that make it unwise to uncritically transfer American strategies overseas. "SEIU had to learn that people are still embarrassed in Europe to be seen as anti-union," Hoffman says. "I think the degree of that embarrassment has declined. American culture gets a little stronger every year."

SEIU also found that it could both strengthen its human-rights case and tip the balance of power toward unions by supporting organizing in as many countries as possible. Working with UNI, SEIU supported G4S workers organizing in countries such as South Africa, India, Uganda, Morocco, Nepal, Panama, Ghana, and Mozambique. In Malawi, 10,000 workers won both union recognition and a "wage theft" lawsuit against the company. Panamanian workers fired for speaking out won reinstatement or severance pay. A group of Polish emigres in Chicago went to Warsaw to help organize security guards, and the non-emigre Poles, who had just won their own organizing rights through the international campaign, traveled from Warsaw to London to help organize janitors there.

"If you were fighting a contractor in one country, and it operated in 30, you're going after a small piece of the company," Lerner says, "but if you campaign in many countries, it totally changes the ground rules."

Although global unions -- for which Lerner advocates -- will not be viable soon, the work of SEIU, the global union federations, and other unions shows that loosely coordinated global organizing can work under certain conditions. "United States unions campaigning for organizing rights can't go it alone for a long time," Hoffman says. "It's important to build a global campaign and not just be about organizing rights in the U.S."

By December 2008, the multidimensional G4S fight had led to both a U.S. agreement and a global Ethical Employment Partnership between G4S and UNI. The deal with SEIU identified four types of workplaces in nine cities that could be organized, guaranteed management would not interfere with organizing, and provided that a union would be recognized through the method workers chose in the designated workplaces. The global framework is more general but less restrictive. Today, however, SEIU leaders argue that their initial framework agreement, which seemed to them the best possible at the time, is no longer acceptable, since such an agreement does not enforce the rights of all of a company's employees to organize.

SEIU's "global organizing partnerships" go beyond the original goal of helping American workers organize to encouraging and helping unions everywhere organize. Although it cooperates with the global union federations, SEIU independently works with unions that seem most committed to organizing. Woodruff convenes a "global alliance" of such unions. Both SEIU and Change to Win have staff in Europe and, at times, elsewhere who train other unionists in organizing strategy and tactics. SEIU also occasionally follows the lead of others. In a campaign that is global from the start, the Brazilian bank workers' union proposed that they (along with the Communications Workers of America) organize workers at U.S. offices of Sovereign Bank, now owned by Grupo Santander, the big Spanish-based multinational bank. In Mexico, as an outgrowth of its advocacy on behalf of immigrant workers, SEIU is working with unions and other local partners both to defend workers' rights and improve the quality of jobs in Mexico.

"SEIU's campaigns don't yet constitute global unionism," says Lerner. "Through global agreements, however, episodic campaigning may move toward a much-needed, institutionalized power capable of challenging global capitalism systematically." In any case, it is an important step among many that unions are taking to build both their endangered domestic base and more meaningful global power.