New Coalitions in International Employment Relations: Why Transnational Corporations Support Labor Activists Abroad

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
202 South Hall (South Hall)
Marissa Brookes, University of California, Riverside, CA
Transnational corporations (TNCs) often locate abroad to take advantage of flexible labor markets and lower labor costs. It is therefore puzzling when TNCs openly support the efforts of employees in host countries to organize, bargain collectively, and strengthen labor rights. Why do some TNCs support host-country labor activists, contrary to their economic interests? Neither IPE theories of global value chains, which emphasize TNCs’ pursuit of low wages and labor control, nor CPE theories centered on national institutional frameworks, which treat the international economic context as exogenous, can explain these transnational cross-class coalitions. Combining insights from IPE and CPE with international relations theories of transnational advocacy, however, can explain this phenomenon. I argue that a transnational cross-class coalition forms when labor activists reach out to the union representing employees in the TNC’s home country in a process akin to the boomerang model of transnational activism (Keck and Sikkink 1998). Nevertheless, the home union can only convince the TNC to support labor activists abroad if it is embedded in national-level institutions that afford it access to top management and direct input on corporate practices (Hall and Soskice 2001). Moreover, home unions will be resistant to assisting host-country workers unless transnational labor activists convince the former that doing so does not threaten their material interests. A comparative analysis of four successful and unsuccessful attempts to create transnational cross-class coalitions between 2000 and 2015 supports this argument. This paper speaks to ongoing debates across IPE, CPE, and IR about the transformation of employment relations institutions, transnational activism, international cooperation, and labor power in the global economy.