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Global Unions, Global Business: Global Union Federations and International Business By Richard Croucher and Elizabeth Cotton, London: Middlesex University Press, 2009, 146 pp., ISBN 978-1-904750-62-8.

  • Geoffrey Wood

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  • Geoffrey Wood
    University of Sheffield, UK

Article body

This book explores the role of international trade union federations vis-à-vis multinational companies (MNCs). This incorporates a critical assessment of how unions might strengthen their position in relation to the latter. The volume opens with an important reminder: despite their difficulties, unions remain the largest membership organizations in the world, and, unlike most NGOs, often have democratic internal structures (p. 4). And, global union federations retain an important role in coordinating responses, assisting local unions in rectifying great imbalances of power at the workplace.

The authors correctly note that whilst often vigorously fending off unionization drives, MNCs often attempt to improve their public image through adhering to various standards or submitting to monitoring by a chosen NGO. However, despite the latter, “there is a persistent pattern of rediscovery . . . showing that in fact . . . problems have not been resolved” despite this (p. 5). The authors conclude that the most effective mechanism for protecting the interests of local workers is unionization. Yet, unions have had to contend with many years of decline, reflecting neo-liberal ideologies, changes in the law, changing forms of work organization and the rise of informal work, and the greatly weakened bargaining position of organized labour as a result of outsourcing.

Global union federations unite national level unions across industry; such federations cover a wide range of sectors from education to metal. Meanwhile, national union federations are united under the International Trade Union Confederation. The role of both is often underreported and misunderstood. This reflects both media hostility and the need to work in often difficult environments: hence, internal democracy is prized over external transparency (p. 9). Indeed, as discussed in chapter 2, there are constant challenges to rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining in a wide cross-section of national contexts. And, most workers in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America work in the informal sector. The authors introduce their discussion of MNCs with a caveat: they still only employ some one percent of the world’s workforce (p. 16). Nonetheless, they wield a disproportionate power; the fact that they often pay more than local firms does little to offset the prominent role of many in aggressively lobbying for relaxations in labour standards in the different countries in which they operate. New financial actors, such as private equity, place pressure on firms to maximize returns, whilst the rise of agency working places further downward pressure on labour standards.

Chapter 3 provides a brief history of changes in the nature and structure of the international labour movement, and present challenges, such as relations with the state controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions. Whilst part one of the volume (the first three chapters) provided valuable – albeit at times limited – background information, the second half focuses on the present work of the global unions. Chapter 4 looks at governance and resource questions within the international union associations. This includes a series of excellent maps, which depict the spatial distribution of union internationals’ governance structures; the regional distribution of executive positions and staffing are tabularly depicted. All this provides a valuable resource for future researchers. The following chapter looks at international collective bargaining. The authors conclude that union internationals would be better advised to concentrate their efforts on helping local unions to operate technically and politically within multinationals. This is followed by a chapter exploring the operation of networks focusing and coordinating union efforts in specific sectors and firms. The authors argue that working in small groups and focusing on education are the most effective mechanisms for coordinating union efforts (p. 79).

Chapter 7 looks at the importance of education, an issue often overlooked in the literature on union renewal. Yet, funding constraints often limit activities in these areas. Resource constraints on unions in the developed world mean that they are less able to provide resources for international education. Chapter 8 provides a case study on the interactions between a global union federation and a multinational firm, Anglo American. Whilst of great interest, the selected firm has a relatively liberal reputation compared to some of its peers in the mining sector – not to mention other sectors; this means that the lessons that can be drawn from this example are constrained. The concluding chapter summarizes the importance of global unions in promoting decent work worldwide. It also highlights the challenges of resource limitations, which require a stronger commitment by unions in the developed world if only to shore up their own chances of survival. This is an important and valuable book that redresses a major gap in the contemporary literature: on the operations, and the strategic and policy options open to international organized labour. As such, it will be of great interest to both academics and activists. My only concern is that the book is somewhat lacking in detail at times; one hopes that the authors will continue their work in this area in order to add further depth to this fine study.