Trade unions as transnational actors?

Globalisation has put national labour movements under severe pressure due to the increasing transnationalisation of production and informalisation of the economy. A new research project on Globalization and thePossibility of Transnational Actors: The Case of Trade Unions, led by Prof. Knut Kjeldstadli at the Centre for Advanced Study in Oslo, investigates to what extent trade unions may be able to develop into transnational actors in order to counter these pressures successfully.

Centre for Advanced Study, Oslo

Globalization is a comprehensive process taking place on several societal levels, yet with an increasingly interwoven economy as prime mover. The process is driven by conscious actors, states and transnational corporations. Among the 100 largest economic units, 51 are corporations, 49 are states. The result is huge differentials of power and distribution of goods. The problems cannot be handled within national state frames alone. This raises the question whether there are actors that may be a counteractive force, a ‘historical subject’. The project shall investigate the international trade union movement, as this is most directly facing the corporations and has the relatively strongest organization among present social movements.

Questions to be addressed by the project are: 1) Under what circumstances may national trade unions transfer resources and authority to a supernational federation? Is internationalism governed by interest and/or by an internationalist ideology? What role do national traditions of organizing and policy play? 2) How are global unions reorganizing themselves in order to tackle the new global capitalism? Do traditions from the global North linger on, or are there openings for the new movements in the South? 3) Which factors have made transnational organizing on grass root level possible, within corporations or via comprehensive campaigns where other civil society organizations participate? Have trade unions been able to reach out to new groups, such as immigrants?

The various subprojects deal with the construction and health sectors in Europe, two sectors which are heavily affected by migrant labour and the challenges this poses for labour movements. They look at the pressure on national collective bargaining systems, the increasing precarisation of the economy and the role temporary work agencies play in these processes. The exploration of novel, progressive forms of labour agency, which go beyond the traditional discussion of trade union agency, includes the Norwegian building workers’ union’s efforts to recruit migrant workers, the Southern Initiative on Globalization and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR), a novel international organization made up of trade unions of the Global South, as well as the Rights to Water alliance. Overall, the main ambition is to move beyond individual case studies and to start conceptualizing the necessary conditions for successful resistance by labour understood in a broad sense.

The project members include Roland Erne from University College Dublin, Sabina Stan from Dublin City University, Andreas Bieler from the University of Nottingham as well as the Norwegian human geographer Ann-Cecilie Bergene, and historians Idar Helle and Knut Kjeldstadli.

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
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15 September 2013