Breaking through or Locked in? Global Unions and Their Institutional Articulation with Trade Unions in Asia

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 11:00 AM
Room: Booth 41
Oral Presentation
Michele FORD , Department of Indonesian Studies, University of Sydney, Australia
Michael GILLAN , Management and Organisations, The University of Western Australia, Australia
Both leading labour geographers and theorists of transnational activism have noted that there is a weak understanding of the articulation between global institutions and networks, institutions and social formations at other geographic scales. As Tarrow (2005) has suggested, what is lacking more generally in discussions of globalisation and civil society is recognition of the specificity of ‘the mechanisms necessary to confront the concrete experiences that mould discontent into specific grievances against specific targets’ and the ability to ‘negotiate boundaries’ between ‘domestic political settings, national governments and international institutions’.

This paper takes up these concerns with regard to the articulation between the Global Union Federations (GUFs) and trade unions in Asia. The GUFs have all grown over the last decade in in terms of affiliated unions, members and geographic coverage. However, this formal increase in global representativeness has not always translated into legitimacy and meaningful influence with affiliates or externally. GUFs have coordinated many effective multi-scalar union-building organising and campaign initiatives – something their status as ‘global’ coordination bodies affords unique opportunities to do. However, it is also evident that the scope, form and intensity of GUF interventions are defined by their own institutional capacity and limitations (including resource constraints), leading to an uneven and opportunistic implementation of strategies and goals.

This paper analyses the complex interaction between the development, durability and effect of global/regional labour networks and campaigns and the institutionally embedded character of unions and workers at national and sub-national scales. It argues that, in Asia, such an analysis requires deep consideration of varying institutional and political landscapes as well as unions’ forms, repertoires of action, understandings of labour internationalism and articulation to the state and politics at geographic resolutions including, but moving beyond, the national scale.