Labor Seeks International Reach

Workers strengthen links across borders to keep up with spreading multinational companies. GLOBAL UNIONS

AS more and more companies go global, unions are trying to keep up. The past few years have seen stronger and stronger labor links across national borders. Unions share information and, at times, have made coordinated attempts to put pressure on multinational companies to bargain in good faith or recognize a particular union as the bargaining agent.

The latest entrant in this global unionism is the Brussels-based International Federation of Chemical, Energy, and General Workers' Unions. It announced last week during a series of meetings in Miami that it would coordinate organizing campaigns at major chemical, pharmaceutical, and rubber-producing multinational companies.

The federation's first targets: Michelin, the world's largest tire maker headquartered in France, and Procter & Gamble, the US consumer-products giant.

``The potential of this has been recognized, particularly in North America,'' says Michael Boggs, the federation's general secretary. ``We are going to pursue this vigorously and I think we will see some results in the next few months that will be very interesting indeed.''

Already, a few Scandinavian multinationals have agreed not to oppose organizing efforts at their operations in North America, Mr. Boggs adds. ``In fact, one or two of them have said they would welcome unionization.''

Past international efforts have had decidedly mixed results.

``The labor movement has been trying to do this for 20 years without any great success,'' says Howard Gospel, industrial-relations professor at the University of Kent in Britain.

For example, a much-ballyhooed campaign to organize IBM internationally has not gotten off the ground, notes Richard Rowan, a professor of industry at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a longtime observer of the federation. He surmises that the US member unions pushed the international federation to take a strong stand in Miami in support of their own organizing efforts.

A few labor campaigns involving international action have met with success. Mr. Boggs points to the settlement earlier this year of a strike at a Goodyear plant in Turkey and the settlement 10 months ago of a nearly five-year strike at a BASF Corporation plant in Geismar, La. BASF, the German multinational, came under severe pressure from its German union to settle the strike in the US, but BASF claims the public pressure played no role in its decision.

Although international campaigns are difficult, analysts say the federation has made it doubly hard by picking the Procter & Gamble and Michelin.

``I would have thought they would pick a German company,'' Professor Gospel says, because the German unions wield more clout than US and even French unions.

Michelin announced on Thursday it expected to lose at least $458 million this year, because of overcapacity in the tire industry. The company cut 2,260 jobs in June and analysts expect it will make more cuts.

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