Rising developments within labour challenge the conventional progressive wisdom that neoliberal globalisation has been an unprecedented disaster for workers, trade unions, and the labor movement. As argued in my new contribution to the Great Transition Initiative, the obstacles to labour organising, of course, do pose serious challenges. Increased mobility of capital has led to a sharp increase in relocation, outsourcing, and offshoring. Multinational corporations can wield the threat of plant closures against workers’ requests for better wages or states’ efforts to raise taxes. Executives at multinational corporations can even pit their own plants against each other, going back and forth between them to get local managers and workers to underbid each other in a race to the bottom. At the same time, the increased mobility of labour has led to increased migration, which can be seen as a threat to wages and working conditions if migrant workers are introduced into a settled labour force. Corporations can then stoke divisions among their workers across racial, ethnic, and linguistic lines to undermine the foundation of solidarity necessary to organise.
Labour faces these and myriad other obstacles in our rapidly changing, interconnected world. However, fixating on obstacles creates a facile pessimism. Globalisation may have opened as many doors as it closed. At the most basic level, the globalisation of communication has countered one of the most formidable barriers to global action. With email, social media, and other online platforms, workers enjoy better tools to organise across countries—imagine trying to organise a transnational strike a century ago. Moreover, globalised communication fosters solidarity as workers are able to see, hear, and share each other’s stories. Looking ahead, improvements in translation software could help bridge the language divide, thereby opening new paths to transcultural dialogue. Globalised capitalism may have created the basis for a new global working class, not only in material conditions but also in consciousness.
Transnational unionism can take many forms. It can operate among union executives or on a grassroots level, while organising can be workplace-oriented or based on collaboration with NGOs on issue campaigns. Successful transnational unionism has the capacity to navigate complexity and operate on multiple levels. In particular, transnationally oriented unions have used globalisation to their benefit by organising transnational labour actions, forming new transnational structures, and fostering solidarity with migrant workers at home.
When a transnational corporation spreads production nodes across countries, thus distributing the workforce, the geographic expansion also increases the possible leverage points for organising against the corporation. The workers of Irish budget airline Ryanair understand this well. Since Ryanair’s foundation in 1984, CEO Michael O’Leary had been a vocal opponent of union organising, but workers chose not to listen. In mid-2018, they went on strike—starting in Ireland before spreading across the continent—for pay increases, direct employment, and collective labour agreements that comply with national labour laws. Management, which had used its transnational status to play workers against each other, was confronted by a united cross-national organised labour force.
Labour has also showed strength by partnering with allies at different points along the globally dispersed production chain. A campaign against sweatshops in the apparel industry showed how direct action by students in the US can support organising by workers in Honduras. Garment workers in global production chains are usually considered weak compared to hypermobile, high-profit companies like Nike. But such corporations are vulnerable to boycotts. Transnational union resources focused on a particular industry or country have considerable power to deny market share and thereby bolster demands at the point of production.
Besides enabling specific actions, the new economic landscape has given rise to new organising structures, as labour unions realise that old methods of operating can no longer suffice. In the 1960s, the International Trade Secretariats (today known as Global Union Federations, or GUFs) began to respond to the expansion of multinational corporations (MNCs) through the formation of World Company Councils. First established by the United Auto Workers and the International Metalworkers’ Foundation, the World Company Councils coordinated the activities of the various national trade unions across a multinational corporation’s operations. However, they proved unable to create the stability and continuity needed to achieve the transnational collective bargaining power the unions hoped to develop.[
By the 1990s, the international union strategy had shifted from the promotion of voluntary “codes of conduct” with MNCs and the introduction of “social clauses” (including labour rights) into trade agreements, to the more ambitious and comprehensive Global Framework Agreements (GFAs). An expression of transnational labour solidarity, GFAs bind a company’s global operations to the labour standards of the headquarters, usually based in Europe. Thus, gains won where labour is stronger can spread to where it is weaker. By 2015, 156 Global Framework Agreements had been signed around the world, focused mainly on core workplace conditions and the right to collective bargaining.[
Developments like GFAs grew from the realisation that relying on old national-level collective bargaining had turned into a dead end. Labour needed new strategies, tactics, and organisational modalities. With “business as usual” organising modes no longer adequate, many trade union leaders began calling for global solidarity. They called into question labour’s “special status” alongside the state and employers—the famous tripartite modality of the International Labor Organisation. If capital now organised itself predominantly as a transnational player, so, too, would the international trade unions need to “go global.”
A significant manifestation of this shift is the emergence of global unions. In 2008, the workers of the United Steelworkers in the US merged with Unite the Union, the largest labour organisation in Britain and Ireland. The new union, Workers Uniting, represented almost 3 million workers at its founding in the steel, paper, oil, health care, and transportation industries. Oil conglomerate BP and steel behemoth ArcelorMittal are both transnational; now, their workers are transnational too, refusing to be pitted against each other in negotiations. Maritime workers, who have a built-in internationalism, have taken similar steps. In 2006, in response to the globalisation of the shipping industry, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers in the UK developed a formal partnership with the Dutch maritime workers’ union Federatie van Werknemers in de Zeevaart, renaming themselves Nautilus UK and Nautilus NL respectively. Two years later, workers took the partnership a step further, voting to create a single transnational union: Nautilus International. In 2015, the United Auto Workers in the US and IG Metall in Germany joined forces to create the Transatlantic Labor Institute focusing on auto worker representation issues at the US plants of German auto manufacturers. In a decade’s span, transnationalism has entered the trade union mainstream as leadership catches up with the objective possibilities opened up by globalisation.
Notably, the smartest unions are treating migrant workers not as a threat but as an opportunity. By making common cause with migrant workers, trade unions have deepened their democratic role by integrating migrant workers into unions and combating divisive and racist political forces. In Singapore and Hong Kong, state-sponsored unions have recruited migrant workers, to mutual benefit. In Malaysia, Building and Woodworkers International, a GUF, recruits temporary migrant workers to work alongside “regular” members of the union. Through such positive, proactive outreach, unions can counter the divide-and-conquer strategy on which anti-union management thrives.
Despite such bright spots, many contradictions and pitfalls impede the forward march of transnational labor organising. The mismatch between the unlimited scale and complexity of the challenge and the limited resources available remains a chronic problem. Also, successfully organising new layers of workers may reduce the capacity of unions to take action due to the difficulties of mobilising an informal or precarious global labour force. These problems are not insurmountable for a nimble and strategic labour movement, but they must be addressed head on.
In the formative stages of the labour movement, unions engaged actively with the broader political issues of the day, in particular, the call for universal suffrage. There is no reason why such larger concerns cannot again move to the center of labour’s agenda, and a very good reason—the interpenetration of a host of economic, social, and environmental reasons—why they should form its backbone. In contrast to the later tradition of craft unionism, the early labour organisers did not recognise divisions based on skill or race. This tradition of labour organising known variously as community unionism, “deep organising,” or “social movement unionism” has been making a comeback. Its spread could open a new chapter in labour’s ongoing struggle against capitalism.
This post first appeared on Great Transition Initiative