Transnational actors — the case of trade unions!

During the academic year 2013/2014, Prof. Knut Kjeldstadli leads the research project Globalization and the Possibility of Transnational Actors – The Case of Trade Unions at the Centre for Advanced Study in Oslo/Norway. In this guest post, he outlines the purpose of this collective research project.

In 1990 workers at a metal sheet factory in Ravenwood in West Virginia in USA were fired. Scabs were brought in. The answer of the local steel workers’ union was a campaign which came to last for two years. The target was the international corporation — owned by a Swiss billionaire —that owned the factory. The union and their supporters succeeded in mapping his property network. They campaigned at the local level, activated the work security authorities (Arbeidstilsynet) and pressed his customers in USA not to buy his products. They also linked up with trade unions in Switzerland, his bank and hindered him in buying property elsewhere. In all there were campaigns in 28 countries. In 1992 the Ravenwood steelworkers won. Others have not been that successful.
Transnational campaigns and trade union action are both part of, and an answer to, the phenomenon we call globalization. Or maybe we should speak in plural about globalizations, as these processes of interweaving take place at several levels with different logics as, for example, supranational institutions, culture industry etc. Yet at the core is the economy and technology and at the core of the core are transnational corporations or TNCs in globalist lingo. In 2008 they were close to 80000, controlling more than one fourth of world production and 70 per cent of world trade. We reckon that among the 100 largest economic units in the world 51 are corporations, 49 are countries.
Photo by transnationalinstitute

Sometimes globalizations are understood almost as a subject of — not history or social sciences — but of geology — huge long term processes that are impersonal, inevitable and irreversible — and almost impossible to act upon — or against. And certainly there is this deep trend. However, these developments have not appeared from nowhere. They have been consciously promoted by powerful agents, governments and corporations.  Yet, from the point of view of individuals, they seem so overwhelming that they appear as impersonal structures.

This raises the question: Is transnational action possible for those who are not in power? Or more optimistically put: Under what circumstances is collective transnational action possible? This goes to the heart of the matter of what we deal with in our CAS-group.
There are several transnational institutions, networks, organizations and movements that might have been focused upon. We have chosen trade unions as our case, for several reasons:
1) Trade unions are the most immediate counterparts or adversaries of the corporations.
2) They try — at least to a certain extent — to counter national and global inequality.
3) They work at several levels — from local to global, and are engaged within a national space while striving to organize transnationally.
4) Unions still have — despite of backlashes — a relatively robust organization. Among the movements that react to market driven globalization unions probably have the greatest capability.
5) Unions display a manifold of political approaches, from those who rely on being the winners in the global market competition to those who very much oppose it — such as the Ravenwood workers.
6) And then the last part of the six-pack: The international trade union movement contains within itself contradictions and tensions that have to be overcome if effective collective action is to be successful.
Photo by transnationalinstitute

The challenges, hindrances and problems are obvious — ranging from practical issues of communication to suppression and conflicting interests among wage earners. How does a local shop steward act when a car producing company such as Volvo stages a competition between its plants about which one produces not only in the most effective way, but also at the lowest costs due to acceptance of shrinking pay and less social benefits? Shall this shop steward resign and accept the new terms? Shall he or she accept the closure of the factory? Shall he or she try to reach out to colleagues in the plants in other branches of the company? This logic also works between countries and the competition over who offers the most business friendly conditions. Sometimes the problems and counter forces seem overwhelming.

Yet there are important instances of agency, even several instances of successful actions and policies. This will be pursued in our group:
Political scientist Roland Erne — from Switzerland and Dublin — works on a more generalizing theory of trade union transnational action, building on available case studies. Under what circumstances has such agency been possible?
Political economist Andreas Bieler, from Germany and Nottingham, deals with cooperation between trade unions and other social movements over the issue of access to clean and drinkable water, as well as with cooperation between trade unions in the Global South, such as COSATU in South Africa and CUT in Brazil.
From Norway Oslo comes human geographer Ann Cecilie Bergene. She works on one particular challenge to unions — temporary work agencies. While the standard worker in the North is still the type that has a permanent, full-time contract with benefits, in the South two thirds are more or less casually employed as opposed to one third in the North. Looking at Eastern and Southern Europe there are reasons to speak about an element of the global South in the global North.
Also from Oslo, historian Idar Hellewill work on the stance of unions towards this kind of work — precarious, temporary, and often vulnerable. He will partly compare how national unions have tackled this and partly study those instances of transnational actions that do exist.
Now — globalization also involves people who move, the majority of today’s ca. 250 million migrants being labour migrants. These labour migrants come from a varied background and enter a variety of professions. Social anthropologist Sabina Stan, from Romania, Canada and Dublin, handles the theme of global care chains. Women from the South and East leave their family, sometimes their children, to take care of other families’ children. They are hushjelper in Norway, the badanti of Italy, maids, sometimes camouflaged as au pair. The global care chain also comprises nurses and other health personnel, both publicly and privately employed. The last may grow, due to privatization. She will investigate trade union reactions to this development.

Photo by China Supertrends
Construction workers have been at the forefront among those who have had to face the erosion of standard work, temporary work, etc. Historian Darragh Golden, from Ireland and Dublin, studies labour migration within the European Union with a particular focus on the policies of construction workers’ unions in Italy and Ireland.
Unions and immigrants — in Norway, maybe Scandinavia — is the theme of Knut Kjeldstadli, Norway, Oslo, historian and group leader. The Norwegian Fellesforbundet, mainstay of the male industrial working class, has formulated the motto: “We are a union for workers in Norway, not only for Norwegian workers”. Here there are historical lines to be drawn. In 1912, strikers in the company town of Rjukan protested against evictions of foreign workers: “We stand together with our comrades, who accidentally — accidentally – are born in another country”.
Finally, some have queried whether trade union are really a topic to be studied through basic research, considering the Centre’s name here in Norwegian is Senter for grunnforskning. There is an implicit dichotomy — on the one hand there is basic research, which is curiosity driven, which is initiated by researchers, which is free, which may be abstract, which is not expected to have any immediate practical use. On the other hand, there is commissioned or applied research, undertaken at the request of employers or customers, where questions are predefined, which is not free, and immediate and profitable results are expected. Now this dichotomy does not exhaust the possibilities. To my mind our group is engaged in what I shall call strategic basic research, strategisk grunnforskning — meaning that it is researcher driven and defined, it enjoys the fantastic freedom CAS offers — and yet our questions address a certain horizon of problems defined by a societal interest, and are legitimized more by their social use value than their academic exchange value.
[This post is based on Prof. Knut Kjeldstadli’s project introduction at the Centre for Advanced Study, Oslo, on 5 September 2013.]