Global Unions, Local Power: Evaluating Labor Transnationalism from North America to the Global South

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 10:30 AM
Room: Booth 41
Oral Presentation
Jamie MCCALLUM , Sociology, Middlebury College, middlebury, VT
This paper explores recent campaigns led by global union federations and evaluates different strategies these institutions have employed. The central findings reveal a paradox. Though global unionism is typically concerned with creating parity and universal standards across borders, I show that the local context can either undermine or empower the intentions of global actors, creating varied and uneven results. The question posed here is simple: How can global unions build local power?

 This research compares three global framework agreements (GFAs) in different national-industrial contexts in an effort to assess the varied ways they are “implemented” locally. I look at private security in South Africa, contract cleaning in India, and telecommunications in Brazil. GFAs have been studied from a variety of perspectives. The insight offered here is to view them as part of a long-term industrial strategy for national unions, or a component of what Marshal Ganz calls “strategic capacity.” This paper demonstrates how GFAs are used use in different ways depending on local circumstances. In so doing, I focus on the local sphere as a bellwether for evaluating global unionism.  The research is based on about 50 in-person interviews in nine countries, but specifically compares outcomes among unions in South Africa, India, Brazil, and the US. 

The process of transnational collaboration promotes grassroots mobilization in South Africa; legal changes in India; socio-cultural transformations within the union in Brazil. The point is to re-direct our attention to the local arena of transnational unionism, still the place it matters most. Focusing on the local arena also offers an insight into the way that specific contexts help determine the varied outcomes. Rather than a universal global process, I uncover varied local approaches to transnationalism that simultaneously complement and contradict each other at different times.