In the world of grocery stores, trucks come and go all day, delivering bread from the baker, milk from the dairy, and orange juice from the squeezer.
So last January, the truckers union was surprised to learn that a Northeastern supermarket chain, Tops, planned to introduce a new delivery system that might eliminate 80 percent of the jobs hauling perishables.
When leaders of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters tried to find out more information, they discovered they had to deal with a parent company thousands of miles away in Zaan Dam, the Netherlands.
As it turns out, the Teamsters - who flew to the offices of Royal Ahold - are not alone. In an era of globalization, where managers in Europe or Japan may be calling the shots, American union leaders increasingly jet off to foreign cities to press their case.
Some labor analysts say the tactic stems partly from frustration.
"The unions are not very successful here, so they are trying to find any possible pressure point that they can put on an employer," says James Bennett, director of the John M. Olin Institute for Employment Practice and Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Members of the United Steelworkers traveled to England to lobby British Steel and to Tokyo in a dispute with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., whose US headquarters is in Nashville.
In June, the United Paperworkers picketed the Indonesian Embassy in Washington. The dispute involved an Indonesian businessman who owns Trailmobile Corp., a maker of tractor-trailer bodies in Charleston, Ill. The union says its pickets prompted Indonesia's ambassador to get involved, and the issue (over wages) was settled to its satisfaction.
When the Teamsters met recently here in Philadelphia for a boisterous 100th quintennial convention, a small group of delegates gathered to discuss ways to deal with global corporations. They pondered how to organize non-union workers and how to respond to managements armed with the latest communications systems.
"If you look at what's going on now, you have to ask how do you exist? How do you become a player?" says Andy Banks, who works in the Teamsters department of strategic campaigns.
The labor movement's answer is to take its "corporate campaign strategy" overseas. The goal is to find ways other than striking to put pressure on companies. This includes winning the support of women's and religious groups and grass-roots activists.
For example, in April the Teamsters found themselves in frigid Helsinki, home of Hutamaki, one of the world's largest candymakers. Their protest against a plant shutdown in Centralia, Ill., was joined by a local Lutheran minister, a civil rights leader (the company was considered a model in hiring black workers), plus the police chief.
Pay Day candy bars - a mixture of peanuts and caramel - had been made in Centralia since the 1930s (but owned by Hutamaki only since 1988). The plant is one of the largest employers in Centralia. In a few cases both husband and wife work there. Warren Browning, mayor of the town of 14,400 people, says many of the workers "have no real skills. It's a bad situation."
Finnish trade unions told Mr. Banks that the chairman of Hutamaki, Timo Peltola, would never speak to them. But, right before Hutamaki's annual meeting, Banks held a press conference with the Centralia leaders. The union ran an ad in a Helsinki newspaper. Some big investors took the workers' side at the shareholder meeting, and finally Mr. Peltola agreed to let the union conduct its own study using company data.
"If they could come up with something totally new that would change the economic assessment, then we would be willing to listen to that," says Kelly Trimble, a spokeswoman for Hutamaki's Leaf North America division in Amsterdam.
THE Teamsters had a similar experience with Ahold, owner of the Tops chain of Buffalo, N.Y. Using the kind of bar-codes scanning used at check-out counters, Ahold has perfected a "just-in-time" delivery system for perishables. Trucks from the producers arrive on one side of a giant delivery dock and the food is quickly transferred to trucks heading to individual stores on the other side of the dock. The system, called "cross docking," eliminates scores of deliveries and in Dutch stores has cut delivery time from producer to grocery store shelves from 36 hours to less than 18 hours.
The Teamsters figure Ahold could lay off 130 to 140 of 200 Teamster drivers at Tops. Since Ahold is the No. 2 supermarket owner east of the Mississippi, the shift could ultimately mean a loss of 10,000 to 11,000 jobs. And, for the industry, the job losses could add up to 30,000 to 40,000 workers, many of them Teamsters.
The union made a critical decision. It would not fight the new technology.
"Our history of being able to shut down a new technology is not very successful," Banks says. Instead, members flew to Amsterdam to convince Ahold they were not the "big, bad Teamsters" but sophisticated people interested in preserving jobs. The union hopes workers' skills can be put to use elsewhere in the company. Banks says Ahold has viewed the discussions in the right spirit: as a problem to be solved, not as a negotiation.
It's too soon to say if the union strategy will work. As of press time, Joel Dant, a human-resources official at Hutamaki's Leaf unit, says the firm intends to close the Pay Day plant. As required by US law, it has given the 300 workers notice that layoffs will occur between Aug. 30th and October. And Erik Muller, an Ahold spokesman, says the company intends to go ahead with its cross-docking plans - at all its stores. "It's unavoidable," Mr. Muller says.
Some outside observers believe the unions are taking the right steps by traveling abroad. "These are problems that can't be solved by staying at home and walking a picket line," says Michael Belzer, a labor expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
But Mr. Bennett says the tactics won't work. "Basically, in my view, it's a marginal strategy," he says.
For the unions, it may be the only option.