How Nestle Learned Global Labor Solidarity Is Alive and Well

This article appeared in In These Times.

To some, trade union internationalism may seem to be a very old-fashioned notion, even quaint.

One might imagine that in some of world’s leading corporate boardrooms the use of the word “solidarity” might prompt a condescending smile.

But as the world’s largest food corporation, Swiss-based Nestlé, has recently discovered, global labour solidarity can be very real and very powerful.

Our story begins last October when several dozen union members working at the Nescafé factory in Panjang, Indonesia walked out on strike over a bargaining deadlock.

The strike ended and both sides reached an agreement to return to work.

But when the workers came back to their shifts, they were met by riot police.

Nestlé managers began arbitrarily sacking them. Not all the strikers were sacked, but all those who were sacked were union members who had participated in the strike.

It was a clear message to others not to be “troublemakers”.

In doing so, Nestlé was picking a fight with unions around the world, and making a serious miscalculation.

Leaders of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), whose Geneva headquarters is a short train ride away from the Nestlé offices in Vevey, intervened in the dispute.

The IUF is a global union federation uniting nearly 400 unions in 120 countries. Founded in 1920, it is one of the most effective campaigners in the international trade union movement.

The IUF asked Nestlé to explain what it had done, and how this fit in with the company’s well-publicized “ethical” image and its commitment to “corporate social responsibility.”

After all, Nestle says on its website that “For us, caring about the wellbeing of others and the environment is integral to our promise of improving the quality of life through good food and beverages everywhere. Our commitment to great tasting and trusted products has and always will be tied to our respect for the environment and the people we work with, including the farmers who supply us, our employees, our consumers and the communities where we operate.”

How does “respect for … the people we work with, including … our employees” fit in with the operations of Nestle managers in Indonesia?

The IUF was given four different explanations of what had happened. “Nestlé has a different explanation for this action,” say the IUF, “depending on who is asking the question. No one is told the real reason: the workers are being punished for attempting to assert their rights in a country where such efforts are not well received by company bosses and HR managers unaccustomed to challenges to their supreme authority.”

As Nestlé was refusing to back down, the IUF decided to launch a global campaign called “We are the 53” to build support for the sacked union members in Indonesia.

At its recent world congress in Geneva, IUF affiliates stepped up to the plate to show their support for their fellow union members. They did this not by passing resolutions and sending protest emails — though that may well be part of a campaign. Instead they raised money, lots of money, to sustain the workers during what is turning out to be a long and bitter dispute.

Throughout the congress, the chairperson would make periodic announcements as unions made pledges of thousands of dollars.

At one point, the IUF’s General Secretary, Ron Oswald, announced that rank and file workers at a Nestlé factory in the U.K. had raised £1,000 for their brothers and sisters in Panjang.

If Nestlé thought they could get away with quietly intimidating union members in a far away corner of the world, they were sorely mistaken.

Though international trade union solidarity may sound like a thing from the past, the IUF announced its campaign on the web, Facebook and Twitter.

After less than two weeks, the following appeared on the IUF website:

“The IUF and Nestlé welcome the settlement of the dispute at Panjang, Indonesia, around the status of 53 employees whose employment was terminated on October 5 and 6, 2011. Throughout the entire dispute dialogue was maintained and Nestlé Indonesia has now offered the 53 former workers the opportunity to be re-employed under the same conditions with no negative consequences to the workers concerned. This brings the labour dispute in Panjang, Indonesia, to a conclusion. The IUF-affiliated SBNIP will sign the Collective Bargaining Agreement with Nestlé Indonesia, and both local parties have committed to seek to resolve future challenges in a respectful and constructive manner.”

Trade union internationalism, it seems, is alive and well, as Nestlé has learned.