Trans-Atlantic union merger may lack mettle

| Thursday, April 19, 2007

The success or failure of a planned merger between the United Steelworkers union and two large unions in the United Kingdom will depend on the details of how the proposed alliance is structured, says a local expert.

Under a plan unveiled Wednesday, the United Steelworkers union, based in Pittsburgh, would unite with Amicus, which has more than 1 million British workers, and is finalizing a merger with U.K.-based Transport and General Workers Union and its 800,000 members. The Steelworkers represent about 1.2 million members in the United States and Canada, including about 850,000 active workers.

The triumvirate would create the first trans-Atlantic labor union, representing more than 3.4 million members in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Ireland. Union officials said it will the the world's biggest union and would be expected to attract other union organizations throughout the world into membership.

"This is truly a very exciting day for working people in America and the U.K. When global capital flexes its muscle, we need to build a counter force," said Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, during a conference call from Ottawa, Canada, yesterday.

Marick Masters, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business, said the devil is in the details of the merger.

"A union under an umbrella title would be nothing more than a federation. ... It remains to be seen what a merged union would look like," Masters said.

He cited the proposed blockbuster merger of the United Auto Workers, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the United Steelworkers of America, which was first unveiled in 1995 and collapsed six years later.

"It (the merger) may satisfy the need for unions to respond globally to the movement of capital, but it doesn't address the bottom-line reality of declining union membership. I don't think it's a bad idea, but they're stapling together three unions, which in and of itself, is by no means a cure-all," Masters said.

Details that need resolution include how to fund the new organization, legal and administrative issues, choosing a governing board and bridging communications over the Atlantic Ocean.

The Steelworkers gained about 275,000 members in 2005 and became the largest industrial labor union in North America by virture of its merger with the Nashville-based Paper, Allied, Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union. Earlier this month, the USW added the 1,150-member Independent Steelworkers Union in Weirton, W.Va., to the fold.

"Multinational companies are pushing down wages and conditions for workers the world over by playing one national work force off another. The only beneficiaries of globalization are the exploiters of working people. The only way working people can resist is to band together. If not now ... when?" asked Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus.

Representatives of the three unions signed an agreement to set up a merger exploration committee, which is charged with laying down a foundation for a legal merger within one year.

During the process, the unions will engage in coordinated campaigning and common approaches to contract bargaining with multinational companies.

Gerard said it was premature to say where the new union would be based, or how its governing board would be structured.

"I'm not sure the name would be as important as the structure and commitment. But we will be thoughtful and creative," Gerard said.

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