South African unions are rightly disturbed at prospects that anti-union retail giant Walmart will move big time into their country. Walmart executives have announced a $4.6 billion bid for South Africa’s Massmart, an important, unionized company. Massmart Holdings Limited operates more than 290 stores in Africa, most of them in South Africa
"We will oppose the setting up of any Walmart stores in the Western Cape," a spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) said. "These companies are notoriously anti-union and anti-workers' rights."
Probably thinking of the three weeks of tumultuous strikes that recently swept the country, Massmart leaders hastened to reassure COSATU that its intentions, and the intention’s of Walmart, were strictly on the up and up with regard to its employees and their union. In this context, the company placed the following statement on its website:
We are committed to the principles of freedom of association for our employees and regard union membership as an important indicator of this commitment .… We have no doubt that Walmart will honour pre-existing union relationships and abide by South African Labour law.The statement cited the comment of a Walmart vice-president, who said that his company hoped for a “continuation of the relationship that Massmart has with relevant unions in the country."
The new Albert Shanker Institute-supported report, The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, released on Labor Day by the human rights organization Freedom House, has received some notable attention in the press, both here and around the world. One photo essay in Foreign Policy, titled "Labor Day in Hell," illustrates 14 of the worst-offending nations, among them Belarus, North Korea, and Sudan (see the screenshot below).
Indeed, the report, which examined the state of labor rights in the world for the year 2009, found serious violations of workers’ freedoms in all parts of the world except Western Europe. Countries were ranked on a five-category scale of Free, Mostly Free, Partly Free, Repressive, and Very Repressive.
The United States was rated as Mostly Free—the same rank accorded to Bolivia, Mongolia, Romania, and Zambia—less free than all of Western Europe and such nations as Australia, Canada, Chile, South Africa, and South Korea. As the report notes, although American law recognizes core labor rights, the U.S. political environment is "distinctly hostile to unions, collective bargaining, and labor protest." So not Hell, but not Heaven either.
How can unions regain strength in a political and economic environment that has been hostile for decades? What can unions accomplish for working people in the dismal current economy?
These are tough questions that unionists grapple with every day – not just on Labor Day – and there’s probably no simple answer. One line of thinking is the coalition-oriented view that unions must embrace a "social movement" approach, and connect with other progressive groups that focus on "social identity, the environment, and globalization" (see here). Indeed, according to a recent article in The Nation, unions and environmentalists in New England are doing just that, and enjoying some success. Groups whose primary focus is teaching people how to save energy have joined with unions and community groups in coalitions that seek both to promote environmental stewardship and to create "high road" green jobs. According to activists, these will be good union jobs in sustainable, green industries. By recognizing shared interests and overlapping constituencies, they maintain, traditional tensions between unions and environmental groups have been overcome to the benefit of both.
This social movement model is founded on three essentials: "deep coalitions, policy research, and political action." It’s an approach in which the article’s author, Amy Dean, has a wealth of experience, and which she describes in a book she recently co-authored. (Full disclosure: The Albert Shanker Institute provided some support to Ms. Dean for the writing of this book.)
So does social movement unionism really blaze a grassroots trail to a union renaissance? That’s impossible to say with any certainty, but I have a few related points.
In a previous post, I criticized articles in the USA Today and elsewhere (all citing data from the conservative Cato Institute), which claimed that federal government workers earn almost twice as much as private sector employees (including salary and benefits). I argued that en masse comparisons of public and private sector workers don’t tell us much, since the jobs that comprise the two sectors are very different.
For a more useful comparison, we need to understand not only that most public sector workers are professionals, but also that they tend to be more experienced, and more quickly promoted, than the typical private sector employee. For example, a lead research scientist will earn more than his or her staff scientists, whether they are working in the public or the private sector. So, if public sector employees in a given occupation tend to be more experienced or have more authority or responsibilities, they will appear “overpaid” even though they are not.
So, how does the public/private wage gap look when we compare professionals in the two sectors by both occupation and experience/responsibilities?