Despite President Trump’s proposed labor-friendly trade policies, the prevalent view is that labor will be on the defensive during the Trump administration. However, that view may not fully account for the development of a contractual and, for lack of a better term, philosophical international regulatory regime that lays the foundation for broader union success.

Focusing only on the US, evidence of labor’s decline seems overwhelming:

  • Labor’s securing of “quickie elections” from the NLRB? It hasn’t produced the success the unions anticipated as union membership in 2016 fell. Missouri just dealt another blow to labor by becoming the 28th state to pass “right to work” legislation.
  • President Trump’s trade positions may seem friendly to organized labor, but Thomas Perez and David Weil are gone, along with the union dream of massive top-down organizing of employers.
  • With the majority of states under Republican control, gains beyond organized labor’s existing strongholds (California and New York, by themselves account for two-thirds of union membership) likely will be marginal. And now, a Republican-controlled Congress has introduced a National Right to Work law.

Yet, undercurrents misunderstood or not observed have a way of changing the inevitable. If numbers alone can illustrate labor’s decline, how does one explain union power in France, where membership at 8% is lower than the 10.7% in the United States?  Simple: union membership numbers is yesterday’s game, union power is tomorrow’s.

About the time Y2K doomsday scenarios were in vogue, unions began rallying around the theme “Solidarity without Borders.”  Back then, the SEIU worked with global union federations to create Union Network International, now UNI Global Union (UNI).

UNI proposed to use the aggressive campaign tactics of the US to expand and enforce the emerging “social dimension” of Europe. To many it sounded like another grand-sounding theme for whatwould in the end amount to nothing more than the same letters and statements of support that historically passed for cross-border solidarity.

Fast forward to 2017: UNI has changed and so too has its approach: “labor rights are human rights.” Now, many middle-class workers in a routine labor dispute are labeled “human rights victims” and Human Rights Watch gives the corporate targets of unions the same treatment formerly reserved for dictators.

The United Nations Global Compact and its Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights elevate local organizing and bargaining disputes to rarefied heights.  The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises validates these views, and adds an enforcement mechanism.  The International Labor Organization’s Conventions 87 and 98 have newfound meaning.

Unions now have the power to offset changes within the US by bringing pressure to bear outside the US. Whether it’s the soft law of the UN Guiding Principles’ obligation to audit and resolve potential human rights impacts or hard law such as the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act and EU Directive 2014/95 on nonfinancial reporting, the game has changed.

The IUF/Colsiba-Chiquita Framework Agreement in 2001 was the first watershed moment; its supply chain provisions a harbinger of things to come.  No longer would unions be satisfied with the undefined aspirational statements.  Unions demanded concrete commitments.

The second moment is taking place now.  Union pension funds control $5.2 trillion, according to the AFL-CIO’s Investment Trust Corporation.  Global coordination is leading to a much more effective use of these funds in labor’s “Capital Strategies.”  The dream of “Pension Fund Socialism” from the 1970s could find full expression in tomorrow’s global union campaigns.

Other strands (beyond the scope of a blog post) are converging to create an international impact that is less and less affected by shifts in national law like those being forecast for the Trump Administration.  Audi’s 2017 Super Bowl ad on income inequality is a reflection of the influence of that international trend and an example of its post-Trump potency.

Equal pay is a favorite wedge issue for global unions.  Trump may ultimately reverse the EEOC’s proposal for disclosures of wage equality in annual EEO-1 statements, but businesses with global operations are being pushed in the opposite direction.  That could be the hidden significance of Trump’s electoral victory: an incentive to unions to accelerate the transition to globalism.