WHEN members of the largest telecommunications union in the United States sit down to negotiate contracts this spring, Japanese telecommunications workers will be paying close attention. So will their counterparts in Germany and Brazil.
It's all part of the international bargaining strategy of the Communications Workers of America. The CWA plans to enlist the support of telecommunications unions around the world if its negotiations with AT&T or one of the regional telephone companies go sour.
``If the trade-union movement is going to be effective in the future and deal with multinationals, we will have to deal with them wherever they show up,'' CWA president Morton Bahr says.
Increasingly, the US labor movement is adopting a global strategy. If US companies are shifting their operations abroad, union presidents ask, why can't unions? This shift onto the world stage was especially evident here last week, during the midwinter meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council.
Frontlash, the youth organization of the AFL-CIO, announced it is working to highlight the abuses of child labor by third-world toy manufacturers. The group plans to get in touch with student groups at the 500 largest universities in the US and make union leaders available to speak out on the issue.
The AFL-CIO, which represents most unions in the US, released a report about toxic pollution caused by US manufacturers operating across the border in Mexico, the so-called ``maquiladoras.'' US unions are helping their Mexican counterparts as they try to organize workers in those plants.
The United Steelworkers of America is pressuring Congress to extend voluntary restraint agreements in steel, which expire this year. The US government signed these agreements in 1984 with other countries to limit the amount of steel they exported to the US. The domestic industry has rebounded sharply while these agreements have been in effect.
The steelworkers' effort has been a common response by unions as foreign competition heated up this decade.
Meanwhile, the US labor movement under AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland has become increasingly active in political and financial support of struggling unions overseas. AFL-CIO statements of solidarity with trade unionists in Poland and South Africa have become routine.
But the kind of direct international pressure envisioned by the CWA and a few other trade unionists is a big step forward in labor's globalization.
`I AM fascinated by this possibility,'' says Stefan Nedzynski, general secretary of Postal, Telegraph and Telephone International (PTTI). This international labor federation, based in Geneva, represents about 4 million communications workers in 100 countries. The CWA has been a longtime member and supported many PTTI unions over the years, says Lou Moore, international affairs director for the CWA. ``They are more than happy to return the favor.''
Labor officials are still studying the possibilities. These range from messages of support from foreign unions to actions that could hurt the US company's overseas business. Foreign workers might be able to stage a slowdown when the company's overseas calls came through. Or they might simply persuade the companies they work with to seek business from other telephone companies while a strike was on.
It is unlikely such actions will lead to a ``workers of the world unite'' movement, economists caution. Unions compete with each other to get jobs and that often forces them to fight each other, says Audrey Freedman, a labor economist with the Conference Board, a business-backed information service. ``If we cannot even in this country have enough solidarity among unions ... can you imagine that it would happen between unions across international borders?''
Nevertheless, this year's communications negotiations in the US suggest unions can find common ground. After decades of feuding, the CWA has joined forces with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to coordinate their bargaining talks with AT&T.