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Salma Soliman reviews 'Global Unions, Global Business', by Richard Croucher and Elizabeth Cotton. Engaging with key themes such as the challenges for trade unionism presented by the growth in 'informal' employment, Soliman lauds a leading work on the central question of how imbalances between multinationals and employees can be redressed to the benefit of workers around the world.

This new book makes important reading for all those interested in social justice in Africa and indeed the world. Brief, concentrated, clearly written, authoritative and well-documented, it is the first book for a generation to look in detail at the workings of a little-known and therefore widely misunderstood level of trade union activity, the Global Union Federations (GUFs), and their relations with activists on the one hand and the corporate world on the other. It is all the more valuable for building on the authors’ practical experience of working with them for many years.

The authors engage directly with vital questions by discussing a wide range of relevant labour issues such as the massive growth of ‘informal’ work and its meaning for trade unionism. As Anibel Ferus-Comelo recently argued in her review for the Journal of Economic Geography, the book ‘makes a valuable contribution to the vast body of literature on globalisation and labour by engaging insightfully with subjects rarely touched upon by proponents of labour internationalism’. The authors suggest relevant ways in which trade unionism can be developed within an international framework that are potentially very positive for currently weak and embattled African unions. More widely, they suggest ways that international organisations may work to maximise involvement from constituent organisations from the developing world.

The book is structured and argued as follows. There are three sections: ‘contexts’; ‘the work of the internationals’ and a one-chapter conclusion. The first section consists of Chapters Two and Three. In Chapter Two, the context in which unions and the internationals operate is outlined, showing why national unions are increasingly turning to the GUFs for assistance and illustrating the considerable extent of the demands on them. In Chapter Three, the GUFs’ history is explored, showing the distinctive legacy they draw on to sustain themselves, and the significant new opportunities created by the end of political divisions, symbolised by the recent creation of the global union coordinating body, the ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation). These divisions previously played a major role in dividing the African trade union movement.

The second section comprises the bulk of the book, has five chapters and is about the current position of the internationals both internally and in relation to companies. In Chapter Four, the internationals’ resources and governance are analysed, explaining the twin problems of an internal balance of forces weighed towards developed country unions, and major current financial issues. Chapter Five examines their role in international collective bargaining. This shows that the International Framework Agreements that currently play such a large role in their strategy are useful, but are generated by processes that reflect the power relationships described in the previous chapter and hamper their effectiveness. Chapter Six examines the company and regional industrial networks established through the GUFs and suggestions are made for how they may best be built.

Chapter Seven is concerned with trade union education and is central to the book’s argument. It proposes that the specific forms of trade union education form an important, polyvalent area of work that supports all of the other activities outlined previously. Importantly, it has a democratising effect by raising levels of participation in union affairs and could usefully be expanded. The argument therefore rejects the common suggestion within the internationals that the GUFs’ main task should be international collective bargaining. Chapter Eight is intended both to illustrate and integrate the argument. An extended case study, it shows how one GUF (the International of Chemical Energy Mineworkers and General Unions) succeeded in building dialogue with a major multinational company, combining GUF discussion with senior management with organisation from below, strongly facilitated by educational work in both Africa and Latin America. This chapter will be of particular interest to those concerned with fighting the HIV-AIDS scourge in Africa. It demonstrates how the Ghana Mineworkers’ Union linked with its well-known counterpart in South Africa to work with the company and greatly improve the take-up by miners of company-based diagnosis and treatment. At the same time, it shows how the unions pushed, with the help of the Global Union Federation, for improvements in company treatment of miners. The chapter is a selling point of the book, drawing on the authors’ experience to build an unusual and graphic illustration of their themes.

The third section consists simply of the conclusion. It accepts that developments in the global political economy offer prospects for the internationals in building more multifaceted forms of unionism. It argues that this is best done using the educational approach, which should be developed, partly funded by devolving fundraising to regions. This educational work can most effectively be carried out by small groups of countries operating together on a ‘minilateral’ basis within the internationals’ wider multilateral framework. It shows how the necessary resources may be obtained from external sources. The conclusion is also presented as an internal challenge to the internationals’ membership: to raise their material contribution to the internationals, despite the current trend in the opposite direction. The key players are the unions of the developed world, and the issue is whether they are able to make the political case to their own membership to intensify their commitment to internationalism.

Central to the work is a detailed explanation of how carefully constructed and maintained alliances between unions in the developing world and the Global Union Federations can operate to the benefit of workers. Indeed, it opens an exciting new window on the ways of dealing with the crucial yet resilient problem of how to redress the balance between multinationals and employees everywhere. The subject will need careful monitoring in the future if social justice is to be served both in Africa and more widely.


* Richard Croucher and Elizabeth Cotton, 'Global Unions, Global Business', 2009, pp. 146, ISBN: 978-1-904750-62-8. Available from Middlesex University Press at £19.95.
* Salma Soliman is a research executive at Open Cities and a PhD candidate at Middlesex University Business School.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.