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May 8, 2012 / Sian Moore

New paper on labor transnationalism at General Motors Europe

Ian Greer (Greenwich University) and Marco Hauptmeier (Cardiff)

Why, despite well-known difficulties, do some trade unionists operate across national borders?  This is a question that we have been exploring for a few years now.  Our paper that has just come out in Industrial Relations examines this question by examining more than a decade of solidarity actions in General Motors Europe.

This is an unusually well developed example of labor transnationalism, where cooperation is not just a matter of meetings and declarations of solidarity. In the context of a European Works Council, trade unionists have challenged management’s restructuring policies through Europe-wide days industrial action and collective agreements.  These have included plants in Western Europe (mostly Germany, the UK, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal) as well as lower-wage locations to the east (Poland and Hungary).

Most writers on international industrial relations claim that this kind of work is unlikely, because in these kinds of restructuring situations there are conflicts of interest within the workers’ camp. If management wants to close a plant in one country, workers in another country will be supportive, because they might receive more investment as a result.

Our task was to explain why trade unionists at General Motors behaved differently, where such conflicts of interest were especially intense. We came to the conclusion that interest-based explanations simply could not do justice to what the EWC was doing. We draw on the sociological literature on social movements to argue that trade unionists were engaging in ‘identity work’.  The EWC leadership influenced union activists’ ideas and motives by working to:

  • reframe interests (as a shared interest in retaining investment);
  • reframe problems (as a common threat from a particular management strategy);
  • develop shared norms (e.g. international solidarity as a good in itself);
  • develop shared goals (combating management whipsawing);
  • build trust within the EWC through repeated meetings and learning a shared language (English);
  • repeatedly mobilize workers in an internationally coordinated fashion.

The implication of our study is that even in difficult circumstances, trade unions can creatively work across borders, but that this requires changing some fundamental perceptions about what their goals are and who they are.

Ian Greer and Marco Hauptmeier. 2012. “Identity Work: Sustaining Transnational Collective Action at General Motors Europe.” Industrial Relations. 51:2. April. Pp. 275-297.

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