Rowman and Littlefield International

Labour and Transnational Action in Times of Crisis

Published on Monday 07 Sep 2015
178348277XFrom August 2013 to June 2014, the trasnational labour project group came together in Oslo to work on the project Globalization and the possibility of transnational actors: the case of trade unions. One of the key publications resulting from the project, the edited volume Labour and Transnational Action in Times of Crisis, has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield International. In this post, I want to draw out briefly the two main common themes underlying the various contributions as well as highlight a number of key findings.


The volume includes 14 individual chapters plus Introduction and Conclusion. It is divided into four main parts: (1) class formation, (2) transnational action – past and present, (3) power and strategy, and (4) varieties of internationalism. Each part comes with its own introduction. While the individual contributions vary in their particular empirical focus, there are two main themes which underlie them, an emphasis on how to theorise transnational labour as well as a focus on the possibilities of agency in resisting capitalist restructuring.

Theorising transnational labour

All contributors were asked to reflect on how to conceptualise transnational solidarity and thereby understand better the possibilities of, but also obstacles to, establishing relations of solidarity across borders. In a way, this is the area of potential academic contribution to concrete labour struggles. Not in order to ‘tell’ trade unions what they should do, but to highlight aspects of ongoing struggles for trade unions, which allow them in turn to assess their own situation when reflecting on which strategies forward to pursue.

There is no unifying theoretical approach underlying the various individual contributions, nor is it attempted to develop a unified theoretical approach in the Conclusion. It would have been impossible as well as counterproductive to force every contributor into one theoretical straightjacket. There are a range of different perspectives including a Marxist focus on production and class struggle, an emphasis on ‘power resources’, as well as engagements with various institutional perspectives. What is significant, however, is that every individual chapter does include conceptual considerations, therefore assisting us in understanding empirical developments more clearly.

The Importance of Agency

When conceptualising labour as an agent, contributors to the volume define it broadly. Hence, agency by labour includes but is not limited to institutionalised trade unions. Other groups such as community groups working with migrant workers or social movements organising precarious workers are also included.

The emphasis on agency does not imply that structure is overlooked. Marcel van der Linden in Chapter 1 points to the doubling of the global workforce to 3 billion since the late 1970s with the integration of China, India and Russia into the global economy. Nevertheless, larger numbers do not imply more power. He also demonstrates that labour’s power as reflected in the organisational power of trade unions and social democratic/labour parties has declined. In fact, the increase in the global working class points to a fundamental structural change in global capitalism. The transnationalisation of production has depended on capital’s ability to land on more workers elsewhere. Importantly, agency is ultimately always conditioned by structure within which it takes place and cannot be analysed independently of it.

Nonetheless, the focus on agency is essential as unlike in structural studies, emphasising the limits of resistance in overbearing structures, the emphasis of the book is on continuing as well as new possibilities of labour movements to contest capitalist exploitation. This is central to Part III and its focus on workers’ power resources, but also underpins the other contributions to the volume.

Labour and the Challenge of Migrant Workers

With the increasing crisis of migration across the world, but especially Europe, there is the danger for trade unions to be drawn into protectionist solutions limiting migration in order to protect jobs for national workers. Chapter 6 by Knut Kjeldstadli analyses a different approach by the Norwegian construction workers’ union, which adopted the slogan ‘we are a union for workers in Norway, not only for Norwegian workers’.

There are difficulties, tensions over maintaining such a strategy, but it remains nonetheless essential from a labour perspective not to succumb to a vision, which fragments the working class along national, ethnic or gender lines. Such a strategy is often used by employers in times of crisis to divide the working class, but trade unions are not automatically immune against it either.

Labour’s potential new power resources

Chapters 8 to 11 on new power resources are significant for the book’s overall focus on agency, since they make clear that workers are not only victims of globalisation. There are also new weapons, new power resources at their disposal. I want to mention two here, logistical as well as symbolic or moral power. In times when production is increasingly organised in production networks across borders, capital has become highly dependable on being able to move parts freely from one country to another. Hence, it has become potentially easier to disrupt large production networks by only interrupting one specific part in the global commodity chain. There is still, of course, the issue of why workers in one country would go on strike to support workers in another country, but if transnational solidarity can be established, then workers have a powerful weapon at their disposal to put pressure on employers.

In turn, symbolic or moral power, i.e. discourses over right versus wrong, can be mobilised by outing the super exploitative working conditions in the Global South in the clothing industry, for example, in efforts to unite pressure by consumer organisations with trade unions’ struggles representing these workers. An example in this respect is the huge international outcry in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, when a factory collapse resulted in the death of more than 1000 workers. Trade unions and consumer groups together forced big global brands into compensation payments and an increased emphasis on better working conditions for workers.

The weakness of the left and its potential future

Nevertheless, the emphasis on agency and the possibilities of resistance, at the heart of this book, should not make us overlook the current, perhaps historic weakness of labour movements across Europe and the wider world. Recent developments in Greece are a clear example of this weakness; not only, because of the way the Greek government was forced to agree on a new bailout agreement entrenching austerity further, but also because nowhere in Europe did the left succeed in mobilising pressure on their respective governments in support of Greece. Not in Germany, not in Finland, nor elsewhere.

Ingo Schmidt in Chapter 2 provides a realistic and, at the same time, still optimistic assessment of the situation of the left and its potential future. While the left is currently weak in Europe as a result of the continuing offensive by capital reflected, for example, in austerity policies, and labour has not yet really emerged as a European force to be reckoned with, the current fragmented and often disjointed moments of resistance may, and the book provides many examples in this respect, provide collective memories and, thus, the seeds of a much larger and united movement of resistance in the future. In other words, as weak as the European left is at this point in time, we may actually witness the start of the formation of a European working class, very similar to how the defeated movements in England such as the Luddites, Chartists or the Owenites, analysed by E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), provided the seeds for the strong British labour movement, which had successfully fought for change in the late 19th and then over the 20th century. It is the collective experiences in these current struggles, often ending in defeat, which may, nonetheless, result in the formation of class consciousness sustaining this emerging European working class.

Perhaps, this book constitutes another seed in these struggles towards the formation of a European working class? This question, of course, can only be answered by the reader.

Prof. Andreas Bieler, Professor of Political Economy, University of Nottingham.


This post is from a blog which originally appeared on Andreas Bieler’s blogspot