Every day, we are reminded that we live in a global marketplace. Our neighbors and friends lose their jobs to workers in other countries and companies close shop and move entire operations overseas.
Throughout the United States, we’re losing jobs that were once the very foundation of the American middle class. These stable employment opportunities upon which proud people could raise their families are rapidly disappearing, and are, in limited numbers, being replaced either with jobs which require incredibly specialized training and advanced degrees, or jobs which bring low pay, scant benefits and little hope for the future.
Despite what some right-minded politicians proclaim, private industry is not the job creation sector; it is the profit seeking sector. If more profits can be generated with fewer employees or by sending jobs to cheap foreign labor markets, corporate leaders will certainly consider pursuing those avenues. One of the primary roles of organized labor is to convince employers that such easy fixes may prove to be financially harmful to the company and the economy over the long haul.
Union leaders and members have staged rallies and marched in protests of the effects of globalization. However, the responsible role of labor leaders is also to offer sensible solutions. Organized labor must seize upon this opportunity to demonstrate to all American workers that strong union representation is their best means of combating the loss of jobs to globalization.
While organized labor does not profess to prevail in every argument for every job or win every case against unfair trade agreements, it is only through labor unions that employees can speak with a common voice. While individual employees have little say in the decision affecting their jobs, unionized workers have the freedom to speak out and engage management in discussions to develop smarter business decisions. And while individual workers have little hope of having their voices heard in City Hall or in the Halls of Congress, unionized workers realize the power in speaking to political leaders through the collective voice of their unions.
This reflects organized labor’s two-pronged strategy in fighting the trend of employers sending jobs to cheap overseas labor markets. One part of this strategy can be viewed as wholesale, the other as retail. On the wholesale front, the union movement must deal with the problem of unfair trade agreements. On the retail side, the unions must tackle the issue of global outsourcing employer by employer and job by job.
First, the union movement must continue to address the issue of unfair trade agreements. With very few allies at its side, the labor movement is the major organized force that is advocating for fair trade agreements that defend the rights of workers and seek to protect the environments of participating nations.
Many of our nation’s workers have jobs that depend upon the interchange of goods and services with other nations. Therefore, we cannot be opposed to global trade. However, we must firmly maintain the position that any trade agreement must guarantee the citizens of all participating nations a livable minimum wage, protections against child labor and prison labor, responsible environmental protections, and the guarantee the freedom for all workers to organize themselves into labor unions.
On the second major front, the unions’ role is to disprove the shortsighted notion that seeking out the cheapest labor market is always in the employers’ best interest. This could be labor’s most difficult yet most critical undertaking. Labor leaders must not only demonstrate the value of the work their members perform, but further, that the work must continue to be performed at its current locations. For example, IFPTE-represented engineers and designers at General Electric encountered several obstacles in the quality of work outsourced to cheaper markets. Some of the obstacles included language barriers, a lack of proficiency in English within the cheaper markets, and translator programs ill-equipped to handle technical terminology. These obstacles lead to increased costs, low morale for U.S.-based workers, and a high turnover within the cheap labor market. Eventually, work initially outsourced to cheaper markets was returned and fixed by U.S.-based workers.
Most importantly, the union must enlighten the employer to the financial and strategic ramifications of giving away its technology and its knowledge base. In many instances, the work sent out had taken incredibly talented workers generations to develop. Once lost, the expertise may never be regained. Management may soon discover that the decision to send work overseas was ill-conceived and that the talent pool that once existed back home may no longer be available. Bringing back the work may no longer be a viable option.
Regardless of an individual union’s strength, there is little likelihood that its bargaining team will be able to convince the employer to agree to contractual provisions that would prohibit the employer from sending work overseas. Instead, unions should be prepared to engage their employer counterparts in ongoing and meaningful dialogues to examine the decisions affecting the retention of each job. Boeing was preparing to send the technical writing of its Maintenance Engineering Manuals to a facility in Chile. Our union had some of its members on the employer’s implementation team charged with this task. The union was able to raise enough legitimate concerns to cause the employer to rethink it decision. As a direct result of the union’s involvement, Boeing decided to keep the work in its Puget Sound facilities.
Unions must educate politicians about the economic impact of globalization and the need for responsible trade agreements on everyday Americans. Unions must also alert local business communities to the potential decline of wage earners and the subsequent loss of consumer spending. Unions must educate their employers of the financial ramifications of moving jobs overseas. Finally, unions must inform the general public that globalization is an issue affecting the welfare of every citizen.
By continuing to challenge the merits of unregulated globalization both on wholesale and retail levels, unions can prove their true worth. Individual employees, with nowhere else to turn, can be made to understand that through the collective voice provided by a union, workers can strive to address the future of their employment opportunities and ultimately survive in the global marketplace.
Greg Junemann is president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.