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Globalization and the possibility of transnational actors

– the case of trade unions

The market driven and intensified globalization of the present epoch is often depicted as the product of impersonal forces and processes, irreversible and inevitable. However, it is clear that free trade is not descending upon us; it is consciously promoted by powerful agents, governments and transnational corporations, for instance through World Trade Organization. Hence, globalization is no natural law; it should rather be conceived as a deep trend promoted by these agents. It might not  disappear lightly, yet it is open to influence from countervailing forces. Globalization, as an historical and spatial phenomenon, is thus the outcome of dynamic social relations. This raises the question of agency: To what extent are there social and political actors able to ‘upscale’ from a national to a transnational level and thereby act as a new ‘historical subject’?  To what extent are transnational organizations able to address and counter adverse aspects of globalization?  – In the proposed project these questions will investigated through the case of the trade unions; reasons for this choice will be given below.


Globalization – or globalizations in the plural – is a multilevel phenomenon, processes comprising expansion and interweaving of markets, communication and transport technology, spatially mobile capital and labour, international and supranational institutions, diffusion of a dominant (Western) culture, an ideology of ‘globalism’ underlining its positive effects – and, according to some, also a kind of cosmopolitan consciousness. Globalization cannot be explained mono-causally; yet it seems reasonable to identify the major driving forces – a particular economic use of the opportunities offered by new technology, backed by a shift from a nation-centred, ‘organized capitalism’ to a neoliberal political agenda.[1] At the core of this process are the TNCs, transnational corporations, controlling ca. 70 per cent of world trade. Their number is growing and approaches 80 000 in 2008; in the early 21st  century 51 of the 100 largest economies of the world were corporations; 49 were countries.[2] Trade unions might constitute possible counterparts to TNCs; this is a first argument for choosing them as a case. Precisely because unions were among the first citizens’ organizations to be concerned about the growth of TNC’s, regional integration processes, and global free trade regimes, they might have developed a sensitivity concerning the need for transnational collaboration before other organizations.[3]

            Globalization is a process – or processes – involving among others the following dimensions:[4]

1)     A tendency towards deterritorialization and time-space compression,

i.e. decreasing importance of physical distance. However, this does not mean that the localization of people and activities does not matter, nor is this trend a law. Truly virtual phenomena are few.

2) Chains of interdependence and interconnectedness reach out across geographic and political borders; decisions made in one place have an impact across space, on far off institutions and destinies. Integrated global markets form a prime example. There are also examples of selective trade union industrial action that may paralyze operations in globally integrated corporations.[5]

3) An increased speed of social activity; fast flows and movements of people, information, capital and goods.

4) Although historically derived differences in social formations still matter; the ‘compression’ of space links agents across space and tends to homogenize phenomena in various countries.

However, the development is uneven, due both to spatiality and temporality. Globalizing tendencies have thus to varying degrees impact upon different sectors and parts of the world, and in different ways. In addition to the divide between a global North and South, there are also ‘varieties of capitalism’ both within North and South. It is, for instance, possible to discern a ‘Nordic model’ from a liberal Anglo-American model.[6] Due to globalization being an uneven process, national unions come to different conclusions regarding aims and strategies. Unions in the North generally favour free trade, whereas southern unions argue for protection, at least in a nascent phase of national production. On the other hand such historical trajectories may have less impact, while space gains importance. There are forces that point towards a greater degree of homogenizing, producing ‘commonalities of capitalism’ – world market competition, transnational corporations putting their stamp on activities in various corners of the globe, a certain decline in Western economic performance and hegemony and a rise of new economic powers such as Brazil, China and India.

Globalization thus offers certain possibilities, such as the spread of ideas. In its present unfettered neoliberal form it also produces problems and challenges. One may list a catalogue; here only two are mentioned.

Globalization produces winners and losers, necessitating redistribution and protection against deteriorating conditions. Inequality between and within nations is on the rise.[7] The current global financial crisis is a prime example of uneven distributions of benefits and tolls. We have now arrived at the second argument for choosing trade unions as a case – they try, with varying degrees of success, to counter inequality.

Some issues that were historically addressed primarily within the nation state, are now intrinsically transnational, although they still very much affect local conditions: climate change, world market competition and industrial relations. Others are addressed both on a local, national and transnational level – such as migration.  A third argument of our interest in unions thus stems from their engagement within national spaces while at the same time striving to organize transnationally.

A fourth argument for choosing trade unions as a case for investigating transnational organizing, is their capacity for action. Unions still have a relatively robust organization, despite losses in membership in parts of the world. Among the various movements responding to market-driven globalization unions probably have the greatest capability. [8]

Then a fifth point:  Unions display a manifold of approaches: Their political orientations span from those who are sympathetic to globalization to  those who very much oppose it. And as unions organize both in the global North and South, studying them may capture both the potential of the old social movements and the new, as southern trade unions often are combative and have links to other kinds of social movements.[9]

Sixth and final point: The international trade union movement contains within itself the contradictions and tensions that need to be overcome if transnational organizing is possible.

Impact of globalization on labouring men and women

The economist Samir Amin has conceptualized a divide in the urban population in the world, between ‘stabilized popular classes’ and ‘precarious popular classes’.[10] The first have a relatively secure job, relying on qualifications and their ability to organize, and still form a majority in the North. The category of precarious popular classes – working- part time, short time etc. – encompasses one third in the North, and a majority in the South. In the latter it is augmented by proletarianized peasants seeking to manage in the informal, unregulated sector of the growing urban economy (street vendors, rag pickers etc.) [11] Sweatshops and clandestine employment are present also in the North. Crises and economic restructuring put wage earners in the North in a less privileged position than before, relative to wage earners in the South. These tendencies, thus put pressure on the ‘stabilized’ and the ‘precarious’ alike, although not in an identical way. Although ‘smart’, post-Fordist and technologically innovative products find niches in the market, industry shrinks and contributes to higher levels of unemployment also in the North.

            Labour markets have changed dramatically with the most recent phase of globalization. To an increasing extent, MNCs divide up their production, outsource and set out parts of the production process to subcontractors. A growing tendency amongst multinationals to concentrate on core activities has been combined with the increasing use of the informal sector employment, labour brokers, part-time work and casual labourers. Together with ‘just in time’ principles in the assembly and transport systems, this has put increasing pressure on labour organization while simultaneously opening up new spaces for organizing and interaction. Such corporate ‘spider webs’ may seem difficult to penetrate, but have opened up new pressure points and vulnerabilities. If transport systems are targeted, for example, chains of production and corporate profits may be hampered.

Market integration and competition affect various sectors in different ways.[12]

Within manufacturing traditional sources of union strength, both their structurally

derived power through work place bargaining and position in the labour market, and associational power, both of which were adequate within a national framework, are being eroded. In  parallel with the time-space compression, capital has become more mobile, although this should not be exaggerated. Yet, much production does not have to take place at any particular place, not even near the centre of decision. Competition creates a pressure to lower costs, a pressure which is transmitted down the line to local producers and subcontractors: through threats of relocation, formal competition between plants in the same corporation (for instance auto industry), or between potential subcontractors  (for instance in the garment industry) employing workers from low cost countries. These strategies are further facilitated by the vertical disintegration of corporations, i.e. various parts are produced separately, often by separate companies in different locations, and then assembled.

            Private sector services – buses, cleaning, ware houses etc. – are normally relatively immobile and anchored in place. However, as TNCs expand, information technology facilitates outsourcing  of for instance call centres or accounting, and workers may be imported, often through the use of an opaque chain of labour market intermediaries.

 In the field of social reproduction – education, social care, health – globalization manifests itself through establishment of local branches of TNCs and privatisation and free trade (WTO).            Now, among the stabilized classes wage earners certainly may profit from being employed by winners in the global competition. Yet there is a pressure on, and the share of precarious, insecure work seems to be on the rise, producing also working poor, having so low income from work that they do not reach above the poverty line.[13]


The international trade union movement and its challenges

Trade unions are faced with a double task – to organize both at a national and a transnational level. However, the national contexts vary radically, from for instance India, where movements are split along communal and political lines, via a series of post-colonial contexts, such as South Africa, where the trade union movement bought into the struggles for independence and now is close to or even a part of the ruling elite, USA where the anti-communist tradition has dominated the labour movement over and above grass root-organizing, to Brazil where the unions were avant-gardes in the struggle for democracy.[14]

Nationally unions have to recruit new members – or at least to stall membership decline. In particular they face the challenge of transforming themselves from unions tailored exclusively to the needs of the ‘standard’ or ‘stereotypical’ worker of the Fordist phase – a male worker, fairly well paid and a breadwinner, in secure work fully employed and often staying in the same firm or in public employ for life. They now have to reach out to the precarious popular classes – the third of labourers working at the margin, often proletarianized women, young people, immigrants and minorities.

Unions will need to combine several strategies – collective agreements, alliances with political parties or movements and industrial action. However, although combined approaches are likely, they may have to make a choice with regard to their basic strategy.

A typology of trade unions may be useful for heuristic purposes. According to Richard Hyman we may discern three classical, ideal types of European trade unionism, each associated with a distinctive ideological orientation: “In the first, unions are interest organizations with predominantly labour market functions; in the second, vehicles for raising workers’ status in society more generally and hence advancing social justice; in the third, “schools of war” in a struggle between labour and capital”. [15] Another typology is business unionism, opting for cooperation with management to become world market winners, a politically orientated unionism, demanding state protection, and finally social movement unionism, militant towards employers, while engaging actively in civil society, seeking alliances with other social movements.

The proposed project will address the following questions pertaining to the national scale: Under which circumstances do national trade union movements see an interest or moral obligation to upscale, i.e. strengthening transnational trade union federations, and thus ceding some of their own autonomy to another body? Which learning experiences may lead to such decisions?

            Then there is the question of transnational action and organization proper.[16] A set of questions relate to the unity of international confederations, i.e. the international organizations of national centres. May the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) join forces more firmly with regional organizations such as ETUC, the European organization, and/or with the Global Unions? And, although the Cold War may be ended, are there other political tensions that may hinder transnational trade union unity?

            We propose to focus on the Global Unions, being both transnational and yet keeping relative close contacts with its membership base.[17]

By focusing on the Global Unions we shall also be able to look into issues connected to transnational grass root union cooperation. This may take place within a single transnational corporation, under the umbrella of global framework agreements, or through utilizing the potential of the so-called work councils, promoted by the EU. Cooperation may also develop along global commodity chains or by comprehensive campaigns involving several civil society actors.[18]


Constraints and possibilities to transnational organizing[19]

What are the major barriers and opportunities to upscaling union strategies towards and building transnational solidarity?[20]

            1) An initial problem is the fact that trade unions are non-existent or weak in several countries or on the decline nationally in former stronghold countries.[21]

2) Practical-technological challenges exist – workers being dispersed, speaking different languages, lacking resources. Even the bigger trade internationals, the global unions, have no more than 15 to 50 employees, several fewer – and are supposed to deal with states and corporations.

 3) Capitalism is uneven, creating huge differences and strategic positions among the working classes of the world. The leverage of unions is conditioned by complex geographies of opportunity and constraint. To a local union it is difficult to relate to divergent sets of problems. One problem is to keep on organizing the above-mentioned steadily employed old-style ‘core proletariat’; another is to cope with challenges related to organizing and defending casual workers.

4) Not only are there differences; there may exist conflicts of interest, at least in a short term perspective. The unions of the North proposed and were largely in favour of the inclusion of so-called social clauses inserted in the WTO agreements. Many unions from the South argued that this was protectionism, trying to stop capital flight, denying the South its presumable strongest competitive advantage. Short-term conflicts of interest may also rise between workers in different plants within the same company, all striving to make sure that their own plant secures future investments by engaging in concessionary bargaining.

5) There are cultural and ideological tensions. Traditions and modes of engagement and strategies, “how we do it here”, differ. An old evolutionist and paternalistic arrogance has survived in the West, an idea that we know how a real trade union ought to be run. Furthermore there are still political tensions from the cold war, the International Confederation of Free Trade unions, had a tradition of ‘trade union imperialism’, in particular in Latin America. Hindering communists to organize was more important than organizing, consequently hampering internal, independent union building. Moreover, there is also the possibility that unions may lapse into the ‘withdrawal to the ethnic niche’-stance.

6) The differing models or basic strategic approaches that are sketched in the typologies above constitute a problem for unified action. National traditions are likely to continue. South African COSATU criticizes the present ITUC, International Trade Union Congress, for being led by US, British and German unions, which according to COSATO see their main responsibility in protecting capitalism – preferably a ‘socially reformed’ capitalism without its excesses.

7) Although there are organizations such as ILO, there is a lack of effective international institutions with mechanisms that may ensure enforcement of labour standards,  along the lines of national labour inspection authorities,

8) In the analysis of constraints one must include the field of power relations in which movements are embedded – the conscious efforts on the part of  trade unions’ adversaries are somewhat under-communicated in the scholarly literature. Also so called liberal democracies have curtailed union power; efforts that may be stepped up in the face of the financial crisis.

            What then favours transnational organizing? Speaking first of motives, we may list the following:

1) The challenge of bettering the plight of the workers is international and has to be met at this level.

2)  The opponents, transnational corporations or intergovernmental organisations, are international.

3) The opponent effectively blocks national action, there is a need for allies.

4) Previous experiences with establishing previous contacts has provided unions with some lessons and increased knowledge, more insight and effective strategies, may encourage the establishment of new contacts.

5) A feeling of transnational unity may foster actions, and the movement itself, once established, furthers a global identification.

            Then: possibilities. As has often been pointed out; there is a dialectic relation here – globalisation also fosters the means for its opponents.

1)     Information and communication technology, including transport. The internet is

used both for information exchange within a network or movement, for finding and dispersing information and for cyber-activism, such as petitions or ‘bombing’ certain e-mail addresses with mails, planning actions, and also used for addressing the general public.[22]

2) Then there are elements that may constitute political opportunity structures. Maybe there is an emerging international or a transnational public sphere.[23] Expanding on the ideas of Jürgen Habermas some even claim that such a sphere exists, allowing a global opinion, with a shared global morality and assertion of universal norms.

3) A future potential is migrants, bringing in new ideas to the place of arrival and carrying ideas back to the place of departure..

4) There are social logics that are inherently transnational.  The very structure of a transnational corporation and its subcontractors tells its employees and their unions where to look in order to build contact networks.  The networks of capital may be used to knit wage earners closer together, to develop solidarity. This does not happen automatically, but it is an option.[24] Global commodity or value chains, from raw materials to marketed product, offer opportunities for organizing along the chain, linking also with other social movements.[25]

5)  Previous networks are utilised for new purposes, both drawing on lessons and by activating old contacts.

6) Targets suited for transnational rallying exist – transnational and supranational institutions, UN conferences etc. – although as mentioned, they lack proper power of enforcement.

7) Changes in global power relations matter. The disintegration  of the East Bloc from 1989 onwards left only one super power; on the other hand it offered a possibility for a fresh start.  US hegemony has produced a common enemy to many, otherwise rather diverse forces.

8) Globalized markets and capital have also become more vulnerable. Production is now geographically dispersed (cf. outsourcing, piecemeal production lines, global commodity chains and “just in time” delivery system). This renders corporations more vulnerable to work stoppage, for example in transport or infrastructure.

            It is tempting to depict a dialectic historical process – the need for local combinations created  

in the 19th century local trade unions; then the struggle was upscaled to the national level as an answer to national states and national markets becoming more integrated, and now we are in a reformative phase of collective action, this time answering to the various globalisations. If such a grand synthesizing theory is to be built, it has to be linked to these shifts in capitalism. But we do not know for sure. The Stand der Forschung is such that more knowledge, investigating new examples presently seems to be the most fruitful strategy.


Research questions and hypotheses

The overarching question is: What has hampered and furthered the possibilities for transnational organizing?

More specifically this will be investigated on three levels:


Level 1: Why, under what circumstances, may national unions be willing to cede some of their autonomy and resources to transnational federations? Why do they opt for internationalism? Self interest and/or moral and ideological obligations? Is an eventual willingness dependant on a relative strength or weakness? Is the inclination linked to the prevailing national traditions and historical choice of basic societal strategy (cf. the suggested typologies)?

A central hypothesis: 1 National unions have to see a self interest before they will engage heavily in scale shift and transfer substantial resources and authority to transnational federations. ‘Moral internationalism’ in itself will not induce them to change. In order to define their own interest this way, unions in the North may have to experience setbacks due to the operation of TNCs and supranational economic and political organizations. The more unions loose national exit options, the more they may consider transnational action.[26]


Subproject 1. Andreas Bieler: Trade unions, free trade and the problem of transnational solidarity”.

Trade unions have generally the aspiration to act in solidarity with labour movements elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, transnational solidarity is not automatic. In relation to free trade policies, European trade unions organising workers in export sectors are generally supportive, as they hope that this will lead to new markets for products of their companies and, thereby, secure jobs in their sectors. At the same time, trade unions in the Global South tend to be opposed. Free trade policies, they argue, often lead to deindustrialisation and job losses, since their sectors cannot compete with European expert sectors and their higher productivity levels.

               This project has the task to analyse trade unions’ positions on free trade in more detail with a particular focus on the trade strategy by the European Union as reflected in its 2006 Global Europe strategy.[27] and the 2010 Trade, Growth and World Affairs strategy.[28] In particular, the variety of positions will be related to the different locations of the various trade unions in the underlying transnational capitalist social relations of production. Capitalism is characterised by uneven and combined development and trade unions in Europe are in a rather different location in the production process from trade unions in the Global South. Nevertheless, here too structure does not determine agency. Trade unions always have different strategies at their disposal and it will be analysed what the conditions could be, which would allow European trade unions to co-operate with labour movements from the Global South in the resistance to neo-liberal free trade policies. The co-operation by trade unions from Northern America with trade unions from Latin America in the resistance to the Free Trade Area of the Americas provides a positive example in this respect.[29] Methodologically, documents of the various trade unions and social movements will be analysed with additional material being collected through semi-structure interviews with key players in the trade debate. Initial contact has been established with Bruno Ciccaglione, the European co-ordinator of the Seattle to Brussels Network, as well as with John Hilary, Director of the British NGO War on Want.


Subproject 2. Roland Erne: Explaining transnational union action – Lessons from the European integration process”.

Whereas European trade union regionalism is hardly an adequate response to the challenges posed by economic globalization, the EU integration process has provided a rare opportunity to examine competing explanations regarding the possibilities of transnational union organizing. In European unions, I concluded that neither diverse national backgrounds nor technocratic EU governance structures rule out transnational action (Cornell University Press 2010 and 2008). However, economic globalisation and Europeanization per se do not trigger transnational union cooperation either, because of the difficulties to reveal the social relations that constitute markets. Successful transnational mobilizations occurred only in cases were unions were able to politicize economic integration processes. Thus, transnational union action may be related to the degree of centralisation of TNC decision making, to the decision-making power of supranational organisations, and to the degree of cross-border mobility of migrant workers; hence, to factors that all limit the autonomy of domestic trade unions.

            At the CAS, I will compile a database of all cases of transnational union action in Europe since 2000; using electronic newspaper, scholarly journal, and trade union databases. This compilation will provide the basis for a systematic assessment of the economic, political, and cultural factors that have been used to explain transnational union action. In so doing, I will be inspired by the Comparative Qualitative Analysis method that allows making causal inferences on the basis of a small number of cases. Finally, I intend to confront our preliminary findings in several encounters and workshops with colleagues across Europe and North America with whom I have been engaged in numerous collaborative endeavours over the past years.


Subproject 3. Liv Tørres: “New ways of organizing – new alliances in the global trade union movement?”

There is little doubt that the international trade union movement today is markedly different from the bureaucratic cold war machinery that many unions in developing countries are critical of. The ITUC now has its first female secretary general, and it has mobilized heavily to include a better representation of workers in the south. Moreover, the global trade union movement has made considerable progress achieving global framework agreements with multinational corporations and getting child labour and forced labour on the agenda for negotiations with both international institutions and corporations. At the same time, the trade union movement is loosing members and face marginalisation in many countries. While many would argue that the international trade union movement should become more democratic, responsive and campaign-oriented, there are also strong counter-active forces. I will look closer at the forces of power at the international level: what are the sources of authority and power? To what extent have the changes in the global economy over the past decade, with increasing fragmentation of production processes over several countries, contributed to new organisation and alliances in the labour movement at the international level? I stay in close contact and cooperation with labour researchers in the south, linked to NALEDI in South Africa and DIIESE in Brazil.

Level 2: How do transnational federations – in particular Global Unions – transform and reorganize  to be able both to cater to a diverse base in the national unions and to handle the new reality of globalized capitalism? Will the European unions still be one/the major player?  Can transnational federations be democratized in order to open up for the experiences unions in the South? [30] How do they manoeuvre with respect to international institutions, such as ILO and EU?[31]

            A central hypothesis: Interpretation, organizational models and strategies will differ from one Global Union to another. Variations are due to a particular combination of temporality and spatiality. On the one hand there are the actors, in particular the historical national trade unions that form the transnational union. On the other hand there is the kind of social and material space where the unions’ struggle takes place (industrial sector, technology, vulnerability of TNCs, physical distance between plants etc). Put differently: The forces that hampers and furthers transnational organizing will produce different results from one ‘battle field’ and from one Global Union to another.



Subproject 4:  Ann Cecilie Bergene : “Temporary work agencies and Global Union strategies”.

The growth in the number of temporary work agencies and in their power poses the trade union movement nationally and globally with some new challenges, both when its comes to the effect of their operation on regularly employed workers and to the conditions under which work is performed by workers engaged through such agencies. First and foremost, the presence of temporary work agencies in the labour market substitutes the traditional employer-employee relationship for a triangular relationship between workers, temporal work agency and client company in which both employment and commercial contracts are involved. In addition, temporary agency workers might also prove more difficult to organize, and they must be specifically guaranteed the right to join a union.

            Policy positions on temporary work agencies differ somewhat in the trade union movement, locally, nationally and globally. While some unions press for a total ban on such agencies, others propagate strict regulation. Still, the Global Unions have reached an agreement on certain views. In the proposed project, research will be undertaken on the strategies the Global Unions have devised in relation to temporary work agencies, with a particular focus on UNI, which is meant to organize temporary agency workers.


Subproject 5: Idar Helle: “Precarious work and the question of transnational union action”.

In most capitalist societies there is a tendency to use hired and temporary employed instead

of a regular work force in the overall production of goods and services.  Corporations tend to opt for a higher profit strategy by reducing the salary part of the production costs. Regional trade areas as the NAFTA and the EU / EEA have increased de facto social dumping, as free movement of labour implicates the possibility to pay lower wages to non-unionized and often foreign workers.

The risk of ‘precarisation’ of working life should be approached from two angles. First, how do local and national unions in Western Europe try to relate to workers in temporary employment, which often is the fate of labour immigrants? Second, to what degree have the unions mobilized their organizational structures on a regional and global scale to counter the tendency of precarious employment? Partly because of the surge of labour migration and precarious work in the member states since 2004, the trade unions of the EU / EEA will constitute the objects of this sub-study. In particular, the question of public resistance against or silent accept of important EU policies, like the Services directive, the Temporary workers directive and certain labour law decisions of the EJC in this period, should be explored. Possible agents to be studied: Fellesforbundet, Arbeidsmandsforbundet, IG Metall, Unison / Unite, the European Metall Federation


Level 3: At the local or grass root level: Why, under what circumstances has there been success in furthering the rights of wage earners in TNCs, be it through agreements, industrial action or campaigns? Have unions entered alliances with transnational social movement networks with transcending ambitions? And: How have unions conceptualized and tried to reach out to a base – particularly with respect to labour migrants, immigrants and minorities, those representing the ‘globalization within’? Are there signs of a ‘new unionism’, tailored to the needs of those in precarious work and in the informal sector, those who do not match the standard worker of the mass production, regulated, ’Fordist’ phase of capitalism? Or may we observe lapses into a nativist stance?


A central hypothesis: Crucial to building a strong union, a ‘class unity’, is the ability of unions to reach out to migrant workers and labour migrants and to recruit from various ethnic groups. If not unions may develop into a policy of national and ethnic containment, against both the ‘other within’ and wage earners in other parts of the world.


Subproject 6. Sabina Stan: “Organizing Eastern European migrant workers across Europe: the challenge global care chains”.

One of the most important effects of the current wave of globalization on female labour market participation is the constitution of “global care chains” that bring women from less developed parts of the world into employment in care services of more developed countries. In the last decade, Eastern European women have increasingly participated in this movement, albeit at a mainly European level. This has also contributed to balancing off east-west migration patterns in Europe, which initially have mostly concerned men working in the construction sector. Eastern European care work migration traditionally involved low-skilled services (housekeeping, cleaning), but it also increasingly affects skilled labour (nursing, medicine). Thus, Eastern European female migrants pose to trade unions in host countries the multiple problem of organising labour that is female, many times informal, and displaying varying levels of sectorial labour mobilisation.

The project will look at trade unions’ strategies to mobilize Eastern European female migrant workers in Europe. Thus, the project will address the question of host countries’ trade union attempts at organizing East European migrants by taking into consideration the gender dimension. Its premise is that this dimension is important not only because women now constitute an important part of East European migration in Europe, but also because, given the latter’s reliance on a pattern of family migration, male and female trade union activism are related. The project will compare trade union response to Eastern European female migration in two countries, Ireland and Norway, as this case mix will permit multiple comparisons (in terms of different degrees of concentration of Eastern European female migration; of ratios between formal and informal work, between skilled and low-skilled labour; of different national legislation regulating migration and services work, etc.). The study will also seek to articulate trade union responses to care work migration with migrant women’s own perspectives on labour mobilisation. It will do so by taking as a case study Romanian female migrants, as well as by looking at Romania’s changing patterns of labour mobilisation – in particular the combination of high levels of post-socialist trade union activism with changing gender relations (such as increased traditionalism).

The project will aim to bring colleagues from other universities and research centres working on East European migration and trade unions for workshops and research visits to the Centre for Advanced Studies in Oslo. I envision to invite to these exchanges colleagues who are already part of my personal research network, such as: Gianni D’Amato (Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland), Oscar Molina Romo and Fausto Miguelez Lobo (Centre d’Estudis Sociològics sobre la Vida Quotidiana i el Treball (QUIT), Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain), Swanie Potot (Unité de recherche « Migrations et sociétés » (URMS), Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis, France), Ronaldo Munck (Dublin City University, Ireland), Umut Korkut (Caledonian Business School, Glasgow, UK), Jane Hardy (University of Hertfordshire, UK), Torben Krings (Johannes Kepler Universitat Linz, Austria), Guglielmo Meardi (Warwick Business School, UK), Nicola Yeates (Open University, UK).


Subproject 7. Knut Kjeldstadli: “Labour migrants and the response of the unions of the constriction workers”.

The relation between labour migrants and national and transnational organizing, may be seen as an example of ‘globalization at home’. Have unions overcome obstacles presented by an ethnically divided wage earning class? If so, how? Have unions in the global North been able to shed ideas about superiority? Do labour migrants carry new ideas about the way to organize or take them back if they remigrate?  The case to be studied in depth is the Norwegian construction workers’s unions. Based on the idea, “we are unions for workers in Norway, not “unions for Norwegian workers”, they have been fairly successful in reaching out to new groups of labour migrants, in particular Poles and Lithuanians coming to Norway under the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement. The project shall trace  the development  from ca. 2000, investigating opportunity structure, ‘framing’ of the question and practical work. Comparisons will be drawn to historical parallels, to the Norwegian general workers’ union organizing in the cleaning business (cf. Stan’s project) and among others to the German IG Bau, which seems to have taken a more restrictive stance. Cooperation will be sought with Jane Wills, Queen Mary, University of London, who has confirmed her interest in shorter stays in Oslo.



Methodological considerations

This is basic research, in the sense that it is driven by our curiosity, it is not commissioned work, and there are not strings attached. The research is however guided by a certain horizon of problems, it may thus be dubbed strategy basic research.[32]

The proposed project will bring together case studies of success – and illuminating failures. As mentioned a ‘grand’ synthesis is far too early. This approach is the same as pursued in state of the art books.[33]

            The investigation is anchored in the tradition of contemporary history, in the sense that it studies processes still in the making and stresses context. History offers antidote to myopia and also against to sweeping generalizations. Along with history insights are derived also from social sciences, in particular human geography, political science, economy and anthropology. This will hopefully further a more structured, theoretically organized examination, avoiding an empiricist source effect, where one concentrates on those dimensions that are most easily seen in the material.

Scientific merits from the project

The scientific merit of this project is not to present the great, final construction, the grand theory, but to deliver building blocks towards a better understanding of premises for successful transnational organizing. This applies directly to unions. However, as argued, they are chosen as a case that may have relevance for other efforts to bridge various parts of the world.  As mentioned sampling cases seems most apt, given Stand der Forschung.

            For the national scene the value will be the inspiration from specialists from abroad, and also the possibility to test one’s own ideas. Furthermore, although there are Norwegian researchers, foremost at FAFO and at the University of Bergen, who have done some work on transnational organizing, the efforts are scattered. This project may give younger Norwegian researchers an opportunity to develop their competence further, hopefully as a step towards more energetic and continuous research in the field.

            My own previous research has (along with urban history, general societal history and theory and method) dealt with work life, labour movements and other social movements and migration. This project represents an effort and a unique opportunity to bring together and distillate themes that I have pursued through most of my professional life, and most intensely in the last 15 years.


[1]Technology only offers opportunities; technological determinism should  be avoided in explanations of globalization, Robert Went: Globalization, Neoliberal Challenge, Radical Reponses, London and Sterling 2000

[2]Andreas Bieler and Ingemar Lindeberg (eds.): Global Restructuring, Labour and the Challenges for International Solidarity, Oxon and New York,  2011, Manfred B. Steger: Globalization, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford 2003

[3] Roland Erne: European Unions. Labor’s Quest  for a Transnational Democracy, Ithaca and London 2010

[4] Went 2000. William E. Scheuerman : Globalization, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010

[5]See Andrew Herod: Labor Internationalism and the Contradictions of Globalization: Or, Why the Local is Sometimes Still Important in a Global Economy, in Peter Waterman & Jane Wills (eds.): Place, space and the New labour Internationalism, Oxford 2001

[6]Colin Crouch and Wolfgang Streeck: Political Economy of Modern Capitalism, Mapping Convergence and Diversity, London 1997.  Peter Hall and David Soskice: Varieties of Capitalism. The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage, Oxford 2001. Jon Erik Dølvik,  Tone Fløtten, Gudmund Hernes, Jon M. Hippe (eds.) Hamskifte. Den norske modellen i endring, Oslo 2007

[7] Went 2000. Andreas Bieler, Ingemar Lindberg and Devan Pillay : The future of the global working class. An introduction, in Andreas Bieler, Ingemar Lindberg and Devan Pillai (eds.): Labour and the Challenges of Globalization. What Prospects for Transnational Solidarity? London, Ann Arbor and Scottsville, South Africa 2008

[8] Due to the dual character of unions, movement and apparatus, insights may here be derived from efforts to combine theories on social movements and more formal organization theory, see Gerald F. Davis, Doug McAdam, W. Richard Scott and Mayer N. Zald (eds.): Social Movements and Organization Theory, Cambridge 2005

[9]Ronaldo Munck: Labour in the Global. Challenges and Prospects, and Sarah Ashwin: International Labour Solidarity after the Cold War, in Robin Cohen and Shirin M. Rai (eds.): Global Social Movements, London and New Brunswick 2000

[10] Samir Amin: Foreword: Rebuilding the unity of the ’labor front’, in Bieler, Lindberg and Pillay (eds.) 2008

[11]Leah G. Vosko, Cynthia Cranford and N, Zukewich: Precarious Jobs? A New Typology of Employment, in Perspectives on Labour and Income, Vol 15 (4/2003). Arne Kalleberg : Precarious Work, Insecure Workers. Employment Relations in Transition, in American Sociological Review (Vol. 74, 2009)

[12] Ingemar Lindberg : Varieties of solidarity. An analysis of cases of worker action across borders, in Bieler and Lindberg (eds.) 2011

[13] According to ILO labouring poor constitute one half of the international labour force; Liv Tørres; Bak fanene, Oslo 2010

[14] These national varieties and accompanying challenges to global unity, are highlighted in relevant chapters in Ronaldo Munck and Peter Waterman (eds.): Labour Worldwide in the Era of Globalization, Alternative Union Models in the New World Order, Houndmills and New York 1999,   Bieler, Lindberg and Pillay (eds.) 2008 and in Tørres 2010

[15] Richard Hyman: Understanding European Trade Unionism. Between Market, Class and Society, London, Thousand Oaks and Delhi 2001. Other classifications exist. Richard  Hyman: Five Alternative Scenarios for Western Trade Unionism, in Munck  and Waterman (eds.) 1999

 suggests five types or scenarios, based on various focuses of action, key functions and ideal type organizing: 1) An occupational elite seeking exclusive representation through a guild, 2) an individual worker seeking service in a mutual benefit, friendly society, 3) management seeking a productivity coalition through a company union. 4) government seeking political exchange with the union as a social partner, and 5) mass support for campaigning within a social movement.

[16] This is of course not new; the history of labour internationalism is as old an divese as the movement itself; see historical overview in Marcel van der Linden: Labor internationalism, in Marcel van der Linden: Workers of the World. Essays Towards a Global Labor History, Leiden and Boston 2008

[17]This is the research strategy followed in Anne Cecilie Bergene: Preaching in the Desert or Looking at the Stars? A Comparative Sudy og Trade Union Strategies in the Auto, Textile and Garment, and Maritime Industries, Oslo 2010

[18]On campaigns, see Kate Bronfenbrenner (ed.): Global Unions. Challenging Transnational Capital Through Cross-Border Campaigns, Ithaca and London 2007

[19] On the possibility of transnational actions  in social movements in general, see Jackie Smith and Hank Johnston (eds.): Globalization and Resistance. Transnational Dimensions  of Social Movements, Oxford 2002, and Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow (eds.): Transnational Protest & Global Activism, Oxford 2005, in particular introduction and conclusion.

[20] This passage draws on Knut Kjeldstadli: “Arbeidere i alle land, foren dere!” Også i dag?, in Arbeiderhistorie 2010

[21] I 1995 only in 14 countries the share of unionized workers (outside agriculture) was more than 50 per cent of the work force. Ronaldo Munck (ed.): Labour and Globalization. Results and Prospects, Liverpool 2004.One reckons that  13 per cent of 1,300 millions workers are organized, Dan Gallin: Propositions on Trade Unions and Informal Employment in Times of Globalization, in Peter Waterman and Jane Wills (eds.): Place, Space and the New Labour Internationalism,  Oxford and Malden, five per cent are organized if the informal sector is included. The trade unions are on decline also where its previously was strong. One out 15 in private sector in the US is unionized. German trade unions have lost 1/3 of their members since 1990,  TUC in Great Britain 2/5 since 1980.

[22]An example of use of internet, is the news service Labour Start.

[23] John A. Guidry, Michael D. Kennedy and Mayer N. Zald (eds.): Globalizations and Social Movements. Culture, Power and the Transnational Public Sphere, Ann Arbor 2000

[24] Jane Wills: Uneven Geographies of Capital and Labour: The Lessons of European Works Councils, in Peter Waterman and Jane Wills (eds.) 2001

[25] Gary Gereffi and Miguel Korzeniewics & Roberto P. Korzeniewics (1994): Introduction: Global Commodity Chains, in: Gary Gereffi and Miguel Korzeniewics (eds.): Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism, Westport, Connecticut/London,1994

[26] Incidentally, the strong Swedish unions did not adopt mobilisation strateegies in any of the cases Erne studied in European Unions. By contrast, all cases of successful transnational trade union moblisation were triggered by continental unions that could bnot rely anymore on national strength.

[27]European Commission (2006) Global Europe – competing in the world. A contribution to the EU’s Growth and Jobs Strategy. Available at: http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2006/october/tradoc_130376.pdf; accessed 29/05/2009.

[28]European Commission (2010) Trade, Growth and World Affairs: Trade Policy as a Core Component of the EU’s 2020 Strategy. Available at: http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2010/november/tradoc_146955.pdf; accessed 13/03/2011.

[29]Ciccaglione, Bruno (2009) Free Trade and Trade Unions of the Americas: Strategies, practices, struggles, achievements. Vienna: Chamber of Labour. 

[30] Of particular interest are those organized within SIGTUR, Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights, among them CUT in Brazil and COSATU in South Africa.

[31] On European union strategies in relation to EU, see Corinne Gobin: L’Europe syndicale. Entre désir et realité. Essay sur  la syndicalisme et la construction européenne à l’aube du 21e siecle, Brussel 1997 and Erne 2010.

[32] See Knut Kjeldstadli; Akademisk kapitalisme, Oslo 2010

[33] See in particular Bieler and Lindberg 2010.