Solving the Double Coordination Problem: How Shared Strategic Outlooks and Union Capacities Help Unions Exercise Power on the International Scale

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
OLD.2.22 (Old Building)
Marissa Brookes, University of California, Riverside, CA
Transnational trade unionism makes it possible for workers to exercise power on the international scale. Nevertheless, unions cannot effectively exercise power in transnational campaigns unless they coordinate both internally (within their own organizations) and externally (across national borders). This paper thus investigates the “double coordination problem” that must be solved before unions can successfully use transnational strategies to influence the behavior of employers.

First, unions from different countries must actively cooperate with each other across national borders. I refer to this cross-border coordination as inter-union coordination. The promise of economic globalization was that better transportation and communication technologies would facilitate more effective cross-national coordination for all economic actors, and to some extent, today’s transnational unionism is a product of this enhanced mobility and connectivity. Yet unlike transnational corporations (TNCs), which are by definition international actors, unions still operate primarily at the national and subnational scales. Moreover, in some ways the globalization of production has actually made it more difficult for workers to coordinate internationally. Widespread deregulation and privatization, corporations’ constant restructuring, and the actual or threatened relocation of worksites by highly mobile TNCs have rendered workers increasingly vulnerable to dislocation. These competitive pressures encourage workers to embrace protectionism and other inward-looking strategies that exacerbate international divides. Given the state’s diminished capacity to regulate capital and provide social safety nets, workers’ heightened sense of vulnerability can just as easily breed intra-class distrust as it could incentivize transnational cooperation.

Even when workers are not competing for jobs, a union seeking to enlist the support of labor activists located elsewhere can encounter resistance if the union is viewed as an outside actor imposing its strategic vision without soliciting input from the local workers it is supposedly trying to help (McCallum 2013: 3; Anner 2011: 53). The historical legacies of colonialism and the Cold War further complicate inter-union coordination, as workers in the global south have good reason to doubt the intentions of unions from the global north. It also does not help that some transnational union campaigns appear to serve only the unions that initiated them. American unions in particular have been criticized for forming “ad hoc” and “peculiarly asymmetric” alliances in which they are “interested in obtaining support for their struggles from foreign unions, but have offered precious little support in return” (Hyde and Ressaissi 2009: 16). Such “last-minute, one-way-solidarity” tends to be “merely tactical and short-lived” (Greven 2008: 6) and is not to the mutual benefit of all of the unions involved. Ideological differences exacerbate these problems. The “class-based and anti-capitalist orientation of left-oriented unions” can clash with the ideology of conservative or moderate unions who prefer social partnerships with employers over more confrontational tactics (Anner 2011: 15). Hence, even after unions form a transnational alliance, one or more of those unions might favor tactics that are at odds with the ideological orientation of other union alliance members. Moreover, because inter-union coordination entails the ability of unions to sustain active cooperation over time, it possible that even after unions formally commit to transnational cooperation, those unions still might not fully cooperate because there is an incentive to free-ride on each others’ efforts.

Inter-union coordination therefore requires unions to overcome conflicting material interests, collective action problems, and issues related to the different institutional environments in which they are embedded. This paper argues that unions achieve inter-union coordination by emphasizing a shared strategic outlook that emphasizes long-term interests over short-term gains. I further argue that unions can accomplish this even when they lack an established history of international solidarity.

The second part of the double coordination problem is that each union must coordinate internally – that is, mobilize individuals within the union itself – in order to take concrete action. This internal type of cohesion – which I refer to as intra-union coordination – is what enables unions to exercise power in the first place. Most studies of transnational trade unionism recognize the need for unions to coordinate with each other across national borders yet take for granted the internal cohesion of the unions themselves. Yet because every transnational campaign relies on concrete actions carried out in actual cities, towns, and neighborhoods, as opposed to some abstract “international arena” (Lillie and Martinez-Lucio 2004: 176), it is essential that workers coordinate among themselves locally, within their own organizations, at each site of action. A transnational trade union alliance is a collective actor, but so is each individual union comprising that transnational alliance. Each union therefore faces its own internal coordination challenges that must be resolved before it can behave as a collective actor.

This paper argues that unions achieve intra-union coordination primarily by developing what Lévesque and Murray (2010) call “union capacity.” Union capacity consists of both resources – “fixed or path-dependent assets that an actor can normally access and mobilize” (335) ­– and capabilities – “sets of aptitudes, competencies, abilities, social skills or know-how that can be developed, transmitted and learned” (336). These resources and capabilities – including common identity, leadership, learning, and material resources – afford workers the capacity to act collectively through their own organizations. Union capacity is the difference between a union that merely exists and one that is capable of collective action.

Finally, after explaining the double coordination problem and illustrating its solutions, this paper argues that these two types of coordination are crucially linked to the exercise of power. Specifically, I show how both inter- and intra-union coordination facilitate the exercise of the three types of power that workers have in the global economy: structural power, institutional power, and coalitional power (Brookes 2013). I conclude that transnational trade unionism cannot succeed absent one or the other type of coordination. This paper draws on original research, including interviews and case studies, for evidence to support these arguments.