Internationalising labour union battles
11 / 2002
When representatives of the American labour union « Unite! » looked into the working conditions in the Brylane plant in Indianapolis, they were far from imagining that this battle was going to lead to a major innovative international campaign.
Unite! is the largest textile and laundry labour union, representing nearly 250,000 workers in the United States and Canada. Alerted by the situation in the Brylane plant, Unite! discovered a jobsite accident rate 18 times higher than the national average, working conditions that didn’t respect standards and no labour union representation. Unite! then launched a labour union membership drive in October 2001. In spite of the large number of members, management refused to authorise the creation of a labour union. Instead it hired legal advisors to conduct an anti trade-union campaign in the plant (anti labour union video, training of supervisors to combat labour union organising actions, intimidation of Hispanic workers and threats of being sacked). In the face of plant management’s systematic refusal to dialogue, Unite! launched a large-scale action against Brylane’s parent group: the French multinational PPR (Pinault Printemps La Redoute). The Brylane situation is even more surprising in that group’s other plants in the United States allowed salaried employees to freely create their labour union.
To combat Brylane’s intimidation campaign towards its employees, Unite!’s leaders launched a vast movement with other activists that brought together not just labour union activists, but also associations (cleanclothes and behindthelabel), ethnic community representatives, religious personalities and elected officials. This strategy of long-term alliances with civilian representatives was a first for Unite! and proved exceedingly effective.
In Brylane’s case, Unite! focused its actions on the PPR group’s brands, especially its luxury brands like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. Actions were carried out in collaboration with local associations and labour unions to inform Gucci clients about the PPR group’s social policy in the United States and its refusal to create a labour union at Brylane. Members of the alliance sent more than 51,000 protest faxes to the group’s management. The objective was to put pressure on PPR by acting on the group’s brand image.
From local to world action
On an international level, Unite!’s action for Brylane spread around the world to PPR’s other brands and plants. In Europe, the PPR group’s store and plant labour unions were contacted and affiliated with the campaign. Demonstrations were organised in France (FNAC), Germany and Belgium with local company representatives and Brylane delegates. In Europe, representatives of the civil society network’s members were mobilised to join the movement.
Starting from a traditional action around the Brylane plant, Unite!’s action spread to a world protest against the PPR group’s industrial relations policy (plants in Romania, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan). Unite!’s research revealed that in spite of the PPR group’s ethics charter, the working conditions imposed in some group plants around the world were against international standards (wages below the legal minimum, child workers, no contributions to social security systems, excessive working hours and refusal of labour unions). The attack strategy against PPR included several fronts: world demonstrations, sending of faxes and emails, harassing directors, informing the media and raising group employees’ awareness. Unite! also turned to PPR’s investors and shareholders. They were sent a detailed report specifying the various infringements of labour rights in the group accompanied by systematic telephone follow-up. In street actions, Unite! uses the « Peek-a-boo » method. At entrances to group stores, students, association volunteers and labour union activists maintain a discreet, but constant, presence to create pressure and demonstrate that attention remains focussed on PPR. In particular, Unite! threatened to carry out significant actions during the sale period and around Christmas.
In PPR’s European Works Council, which brings together staff delegates from PPR’s European Union companies, the delegates have attempted to answer Brylane’s appeals. Unite!’s actions are passed on via the European Works Council and have led to coordinated actions (e.g.; at FNAC). However, due to the European Works Council’s makeup (some delegates are appointed by their company), it cannot be a real coordinating centre for the labour unions.
This action is innovative on several levels. An action that started in an American plant has ended up implicating a French multinational. (…) Actions in support of demands are now coordinated by a group that is acting on several geographic and thematic fronts. (…) The situation in Brylane hasn’t been resolved yet, but dialogue has commenced. (…)
Interview was realised during the European Social Forum of Florence, Italy, from 6 to 10 November 2002. Contact : Noël Bealsey, Unite!!, International Vice President, Manager Midwest Regional Joint Board, 333 S. Ashland Avenue, 2nd Floor, Chicago, Illinois 60607, United States - Tel 312 738 6212 - Fax: 312 738 6211 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.uniteunion.org - www.behindthelable.org
Interview with Noël Bealsey