Cornell University

November 17 2008

Electing for a New Deal?

In fresh context, Transatlantic Social Dialogue continues Berlin conversation

As part of the ILR School's ongoing Transatlantic Social Dialogue, two German labor leaders are visiting Ithaca this week to discuss union strategies in the current economic crisis.

Implications of Barack Obama's election on transatlantic economic, labor and social relations will also be discussed with ILR colleagues, along with ideas about reform possibilities for global governance.

The financial crisis requires major policy innovations, with openings now for a national and global "Green Deal," according to Lowell Turner, ILR professor of International and Comparative Labor.

German unions have helped develop such ideas in their own country, he said, with policies linking creation of good jobs to investment in renewable energy, green construction and manufacturing, and economic revitalization.

"In this regard, we have a great deal to learn from German government, business and labor," said Turner.  In a new political and economic context, what seemed far-fetched a few months ago seems within reach now.  A comprehensive energy policy could build on the kind of joint efforts of labor and environmental groups that have been actively promoted by the ILR School's Global Labor Institute, Turner said.

Since 2003, annual meetings of the Transatlantic Social Dialogue – co-sponsored by ILR, the Hans Böckler Foundation, and the European Trade Union Institute -- have rotated between Ithaca, Berlin and Brussels.  Dozens of European and American researchers and union leaders are expected to attend the 2009 conference May 8-10 in the ILR Conference Center.

Nikolaus SimonConference organizers include Lee Adler of the ILR Extension, Lowell Turner of ILR's resident faculty, and Maria Jepsen of the European Trade Union Institute, along with this week's visiting labor leaders. They are Nikolaus Simon, director of the Hans Böckler Foundation, and Wolf-Jürgen Röder, director of the Otto Brenner Foundation.

Wolf-Jürgen RöderRöder is a long-time executive board member of the German Metalworkers Union (IG Metall), representing 2.3 million members of the metalworking and electronics industry. Röder is also a member of the board of directors of Daimler Corporation.

The global context has changed dramatically since the May 2008 meeting of the Transatlantic Social Dialogue in Berlin.

An economic crisis started in the United States and is spreading worldwide.  

Barack Obama is America's president-elect.

At ILR this week for a series of meetings with students and faculty, Röder and Simon will be eager – among other things -- to hear how American labor helped mobilize voters, Turner said.

"They are very impressed at the role unions played in the elections and enthusiastic about the president-elect," he said.

U.S. Congressman Danny Davis, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, attended the Transatlantic Social Dialogue last summer and versed Röder, Simon and a German audience of 200 on Obama, race and the American elections.

While American unions have much rockier relations with business than does German labor, unions in the United States have developed stronger capacities for social, economic and political mobilization, Turner said. 

German labor leaders have come to understand that they have a lot to learn here, Turner said.  "Surprisingly, they are looking to us for new ideas."

American unions have already endured a decades-long crisis in falling membership, he said. "We got clobbered sooner and have been forced to innovate." Grassroots organizing strategies have reinvigorated American unions and helped elect Obama, he said.

Likewise, Turner said, "we have a great deal to learn from them."

Germany, the number one export nation in the world, has a "high-road economy," Turner said.  It offers good-paying green jobs in industries such as solar power and retrofitting buildings. German labor shares an explicit Earth-friendly orientation with business and government.

German labor has demonstrated, Turner said, that the environment, business and labor can all gain from a comprehensive, collaborative set of policies and strategies. "High-end environmental technologies and production have become widely shared common interests" in Germany, he said.

While at ILR, Röder and Simon will also help plan the 2009 conference and will discuss shared research projects with ILR.

The public is invited to hear them speak from 10:10 to 11:25 a.m. Monday in 211 Ives Hall and on Tuesday from 11:40 a.m. to 12:55 p.m. in 305 Ives.