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Worldwide unions

Labour & Employment
|Written By Henry Dinsdale and Jeff Goodman
Worldwide unions

The emerging joint global strategy of domestic unions and their international counterparts promises to be increasingly consequential for North American companies.

One of the labour movement’s developing objectives is to expand the scope of industrial relations by introducing international dimensions. If successful, this strategy could lead to a system of international collective bargaining. International framework agreements are a key building block for this global strategy. IFAs are written agreements between global union federations and multinational corporations, seeking to establish parameters for a dialogue relating to workplace conditions across a multinational’s global operations. The union strategy is an incremental one beginning with a mere statement of joint principles, capitalizing on international employment policy handbooks and the corporate social responsibility movement. While the content of individual IFAs differs, certain principles are common to most agreements.

All IFAs make reference to International Labour Organization standards regarding the right to join a union, collective bargaining, and non-discrimination in employment. Many IFAs establish minimum terms and conditions of employment that relate to working time, wages, or health and safety. An increasing number contain language committing the signatory multinational to apply the agreement’s terms to its subsidiaries and, in some cases, its suppliers or contractors. IFAs, it seems, are greatly concerned with reach. Using the international platform as a doorway into a multinational’s global operations, unions seek to exert their influence broadly and deeply.

The primary impediment to expanding IFAs beyond mere statements of principle is the question of enforcement. Consistent with the incremental nature of this strategy, however, “enforcement” provisions are appearing more frequently. These come in many forms: IFAs requiring the multinational to establish monitoring mechanisms to ensure the terms of the agreement are complied with; incorporating IFAs into the multinational’s internal audit process; or even requiring attornment to the jurisdiction of a named domestic court.

The number of agreements has grown rapidly since the first IFA was signed in 1988. During the 1990s, only one or two agreements were signed per year. After 2000 this rate increased dramatically; between six and 10 IFAs have been entered into annually since 2001. Today, there are about 80 IFAs in operation.

Despite the growing number of agreements, very few non-European multinationals have been persuaded to sign an IFA. This is especially true in North America, where only one American and one Canadian multinational have entered into agreements with global union federations. North American multinational reluctance to sign IFAs clearly poses a problem for the labour movement’s global strategy.

To be sure, IFAs are already beginning to penetrate North America as European multinationals expand their North American presence and purchase American and Canadian businesses, but a gradual approach is not likely going to be sufficient to satisfy the union movement for long. As a result, it is likely domestic unions and global union federations will seek to develop proactive strategies to bring pressure to bear upon North American multinationals to accept IFAs.

Updated versions of the traditional “corporate campaigns” led by unions against employers could become an important union tactic in this respect. The labour movement’s participation in highly publicized protest actions in recent decades has proved to be an effective tool for exerting public pressure on corporations to “do the right thing.”

We witnessed this in the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s, where a wide variety of protest actions played a role in convincing some companies to cease or reduce the use of labour intensive production facilities in countries with poor records of employee protection. The 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Copenhagen demonstrated how sophisticated these tactics have become. Indeed, the corporate social responsibility movement has provided international unions with a logical platform upon which to advance IFA principles.

The labour movement’s comfort with Internet-based technologies will play a role in the ongoing strategy to persuade multinationals to enter into IFAs. Domestic unions and global union federations are both using the Internet as a forum through which to communicate with, and convene, domestic and international constituencies. 

The Internet has transformed the international dimension of these movements and will surely continue to be used to leverage IFAs in the North American context.

Henry Dinsdale and Jeff Goodman are labour and employment law partners at Heenan Blaikie LLP in Toronto.