What Can We Learn from a New Generation of Multi-Level Union Campaigns?

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
OLD.2.22 (Old Building)
Gregor Murray, Université de Montréal, Montréal, QC, Canada; Université de Montréal, Montréal, QC, Canada; CRIMT - Interuniversity Research Centre on Globalization and Work
In the context of an increasingly transnational organization of production and services, bargaining over collective agreements seems not quite up to the task of dealing with the challenges of a labour regulation deficit in global firms. The international integration of production networks, the weakening or re-articulation of state regulation, the decentralization of bargaining structures and, in many cases, weakened confidence in the instrumentality of territorially embedded local union organizations are just a few of the factors at play. 

In response to this increasingly uneven arena for conflicts over jobs, working conditions and social justice, there has emerged over the last couple of decades a new generation of transnational unions campaigns and an expanding literature on such initiatives (Anner 2013, Fairbrother et al. 2013, Greer and Hauptmeier 2008, Greven and Russo 2006, Helfen and Fichter 2013, McCallum 2013, Pulignano et al. 2013, Turnbull, 2006). Multi-level campaigns in which union and civil society actors look to articulate space and scale and activate multiple pressure points in order to advance their agenda are one example of such transnational union campaigns. For example, the United Steelworkers Union has sought to develop its capacity to pursue transnational campaigns. Yet, for many local unions, the dynamics of such multi-level campaigns are challenging because they require a different way of approaching collective bargaining and different types of resources and capabilities.

This paper explores three North American case studies of such multi-level union campaigns in the commodities sector in order to draw out a number of lessons for transnational trade union action as regards local conflicts with multinational companies. The commodities sector presents a number of interesting features for thinking about scale and space in transnational union action. The geographical focus of commodity production and the huge sunk costs of the infrastructural investments mean that production is not so easily displaced, though growing concentration of ownership and the multiplication of sites of production mean that production can often be replaced in the context of labour conflicts. Technological change and the possibility to organize work around fly-in and fly-out shift arrangements potentially contribute to the fracturing of identities and of solidarity.   The mono-industrial nature of commodity production and its impact on the environment also raise complex considerations with regards to the relationship between unions and their communities. There are clearly no magic bullets for transnational union action. Some campaigns are top-down, few are bottom-up (though the take-up from the local level can be energizing), many are simply serendipitous. But such campaigns appear promising inasmuch as resilient local unions are able to draw on and develop strategic agility to exploit multiple pressures points, narrate the experience in their union's deliberative forums and beyond, deepen deliberation around their strategies and, critically, integrate any lessons into regular practice. The integration of such campaigns into regular practice, which is all about the replication and sustainability of transnational multi-level campaigns over time, no doubt poses the greatest challenge for labour activists seeking to reverse the transnational labour regulation deficit.