Labor Revitalization: Global Perspectives and New Initiatives: Volume 11


Table of contents

(13 chapters)

Labor movements have played a central role in promoting democracy, the expansion of welfare states, and improvements in working conditions in many regions of the world during the last century (Jose, 2002). Despite the central social, political and economic role of labor movements, labor union memberships have declined in many world regions during the last quarter-century. Labor union memberships have declined with increasing global economic competition and capital mobility, the advent of neo-liberal macroeconomic policies, privatization of public services, changes in production technology, the substitution of casual, flexible and contingent employment arrangements for formal, bureaucratic internal labor markets, the restructuring of national economies from manufacturing to services, and mounting employer resistance to unionization (Clawson & Clawson, 1999; Cornfield & Fletcher, 2001; Griffin et al., 1990; Jose, 2002; Olney, 1996; Western, 1997, 1998).

In recent years, the long-declining U.S. labor movement has refocused in new and promising ways on rank-and-file mobilization, in organizing drives, collective bargaining conflicts and political campaigns. Such efforts are widely viewed as the best hope for revitalizing the labor movement: breathing new life into tired old unions, winning organizing drives and raising membership levels, increasing political influence, pushing toward the power necessary to reform labor law and ineffective labor institutions. The stakes are high and the goals ambitious: to close the “representation gap” at the workplace, reverse growing economic and social inequality, and build new coalitions for expanded democratic participation in local, national and global politics.

The organising model of trade unionism, developed in the United States since the early 1990s, has been subject to a good deal of scrutiny. Accounts stemming from the AFL-CIO, or those close to it, are, unsurprisingly, enthusiastic and largely uncritical (Mort, 1998). On the left of American social thought, there are critics who contend that the changes wrought by the new leadership of the Federation are of little significance and charges that older forms of business unionism and class collaboration still dominate practice (Moody, 1999; Slaughter, 1999). Between these poles are a number of writers who are supportive, but have criticisms and concerns about aspects of the programme being developed by the AFL-CIO and amongst unions more generally. These issues range from union attitudes towards the Democrats (Brecher & Costello, 1999), through the lack of innovative tactics adopted to gain certification (Bronfenbrenner, 1997), to the absence of internal democracy (Benson, 1999). Questions have also been raised about the very adequacy of the organising model to address the problems facing the working class of America as a whole (Eisencher, 1999a).

As trade unions have continued to decline in membership and influence across the developed economies, so academic attention has turned to the prospects for renewal and a search for the conditions under which it might plausibly occur (Fairbrother, 2000; Martin & Ross, 1999; Turner, 1999). One leg of this search has been directed towards the changing context which unions face and has resulted in the prescription that unions must change their policies, structures and culture to accommodate a “new workforce” (Cobble, 1994; Heckscher, 1988; Wever, 1998). A second leg has been directed within unions themselves and has been concerned more with the internal processes through which renewal can take place (Fiorito et al., 1995; Hurd, 1998; Pocock, 1998). In the U.K., two distinctive theories of change in trade unions have emerged along this second line of inquiry, one of which, the “rank and file” model, holds that significant change occurs from the bottom-up and requires the mobilisation of members against a conservative leadership (Fairbrother, 1996). The other, the “managerial” model, claims the opposite is true and that renewal is conditional on effective systems of union management and occurs from the top–down (Willman et al., 1993). Both theories are venerable and in Britain their roots can be traced on the one hand to the Webbs and their conviction that effective unions required professional leadership and on the other to the apostles of industrial syndicalism (Fox, 1985, pp. 66, 256–260). They continue to structure debate, however, and the purpose of this article is to provide an empirical examination of each with regard to an issue, which seemingly is critical to the internal renewal of unions, the development of organising activity.

Spring 2001: negotiations between unions and the Dutch Railroad Company (in Dutch: Nederlandse Spoorwegen, NS) were becoming increasingly difficult. At stake were management proposals to change the order of divisions of routes for engine drivers and conductors: in order to enhance efficiency they should be allocated to distinct sections instead of working throughout the whole country. The workers opposed these proposals, referring to them as “rounds around the church,” by which they indicated the loss of variation in their work. Strikes were called and the public transport system was severely hindered for several days in a period of four months. The clients, as well as their employers, complained about the reliability of the system. The conflict encroached deeply on social life not only because of the failure of public transportation. It also illuminated severe weaknesses of the Dutch system of labor relations, especially the position of unions. Behind the content of the conflict some crucial labor relations came under pressure. This was not only the case for the relations between management and unions who were not able to reach an agreement with enough support of both parties. Also at stake were relations within the unions. Rank and file members no longer felt represented by the union officials. The centralized policymaking in the union blocked discussion, disconnecting union policy from the daily problems of the members. Collective groups organized both union and non-union members and made their own policy. The organization rate of the greatest union in the company for instance dropped dramatically from 24,000 in the seventies to 8,000 members in the late nineties to 3,000 in May 2001.1 In the end, the union dismissed itself from negotiations and admitted its failure in its own core business. The work council came to represent workers on this point. Internally, union officials stopped discussion with their radical members. Union members had to choose between their union membership and their participation in the collective groups. The combination of the two activities led to the exclusion of the union. Traditional union organization reached rock bottom.In our opinion, this case exemplifies the situation of traditional unionism in our country, a position we will explain in this contribution. That does not mean we reject the idea of the revitalization of labor movement. On the contrary, we think that the labor movement has new chances, but that these chances are not necessarily to be found within the existing unions. We see in our country an upheaval of organizational forms without the unions, as illustrated by the collective groups in the railroad company we mentioned above. These groups seem to shed light on a new development of the union movement in the Netherlands.

Ten years ago, Resende was a peaceful town near a well-known mountain resort in the State of Rio de Janeiro and housing the famous military academy through which many of the military elite of Brazil have passed. Near the border of the State of São Paulo and beside the main road linking the cities of Rio and São Paulo, Resende seemed doomed to a slow existence with no bright future ahead. This paper draws upon on-going research into the social impacts of new developments that took place in Resende, after the inauguration of two big vehicle assemblers – Volkswagen’s bus and truck plant in 1996 and the Peugeot/Citroen car assembly plant in 2001. In the case of VW, the plant was also presented as a major development in vehicle assembly. The unique feature of the plant’s production system rests on the relationship between the assembler (VW) and its component suppliers. At Resende, these were involved in a joint enterprise to establish a “modular consortium” of production. In this system, the component suppliers finance a part of the factory and organise the assembly of their components on site. As such, few of the production workers are employed by VW whose main role in the process is to co-ordinate production and market the vehicle.

Industrialization in capitalist societies ushered in the growth of trade unions and the development of union activities of industrial workers. In the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries in the West when unionism began, trade unions took diverse forms. These forms varied by society and were significantly influenced by the country’s specific historical background and socioeconomic and cultural conditions. Yet such diverse union structures began to merge into “industrial unionism” in the late nineteenth century, which embraced all types of workers within the boundaries of an industry. Industrial unionism has been considered the organizational form that most effectively ensures the collective power of trade unions and their sociopolitical sway over contending forces, notably, the state and employers’ associations, and thus has remained a prototypical union system. Accordingly, nonwestern societies and latecomers to unionism in the West have modeled their unions on the basis of the industrial union structure.

Revitalization or regeneration has become an increasingly urgent task for Australian unions. This is largely due to the longer-term chronic decline in membership of organised trade unions and the increasingly hostile political and legal climate faced by Australian trade unions. Pessimistic scenarios presented by neo-liberal politicians and commentators have trade unions dissolving into obscurity over time as their relevance in an advanced post-industrial society declines. More optimistic scenarios, in part based on the recent experience of labor movements in the U.K. and Canada, see the difficult current climate as an opportunity to re-evaluate union strategies, structures and policies.

The results of the elections of July 2, 2000 that defeated the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) for the first time in history may open a new stage in the relations between trade unions and a state ridden with uncertainties. This is evidenced by the behavior of some of the main trade union leaders in Mexico after July 2: erratic behavior; attempts at alliances that would have been unthinkable in the past; and flirting with the presidency. It is the leadership, the strength of the confederations, which is at stake. The powerful may weaken and those who have been marginalized may enter the fray. Other actors, the workers, however, have remained in the background for years. Attention must be paid to them. For the workers, since the early 1980s, neoliberalism has meant reductions in wages and contract benefits, large personnel cut-backs, the disarticulation of the “old working class,” and the emergence of a “new working class” in the maquila. In other words, labor has been restructured in part through modernizing production.

The July 2, 2000, electoral victory of Vicente Fox of the opposition National Action Party (PAN) as president of Mexico marked an historic turning point in that country’s political development. The ouster from power of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after seventy-one years promised to rupture the long-time alliance between organized labor, the state, and the PRI. A transition to a democratic political regime would create new opportunities for the struggling independent labor movement in Mexico. More importantly, a political transition would make possible for the first time a shift away from an authoritarian-corporatist system of industrial relations toward a democratic model of labor governance.

This chapter addresses the political process of Venezuelan industrial relations and the consequences of this process for the worker’s movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, Venezuela was considered an emblem of political stability and consensus among the elite (Ellner, 1993, p. xvii). These were times of 90% electoral participation and growth of the labor movement. In the 1990s, however, signs of dissension among the elite and substantial growth of poverty began to appear, and the decade ended with the bloodiest popular explosion in the modern history of the country, known in Spanish as the “sacudón” or “caracazo.” This event left the country traumatized after witnessing exceptional violence toward public and private property by the poorest citizens, eventually leaving a balance of more than a thousand lives lost after the intervention of the army, called to quell the vandalism that had overflowed to civil and police forces.

Alice Rangel de Paiva Abreu is Director of the Office of Science and Technology of the Organization of American States in Washington DC, and Professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For three years she was Vice President of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). She is also a member of the Executive Committee of the International Sociological Association and President of RC30 Sociology of Work. Her research interests include industrial restructuring and gender and work. Graciela Bensusán is a professor/researcher at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco, and is also affiliated with FLACSO in Mexico City. She is the author of numerous books and articles on comparative labor policy, organizations, and institutions, including Trabajo y Trabajadores en el México Contemporáneo (co-editor, 2000), which received the Latin American Studies Association Labor Studies Section award for best book. Leni Beukema is Assistant Professor of Labor Studies in the Department of General Social Sciences at the University of Utrecht. Her research activities and publications have – beside matters concerning labor movements – focussed on quality and organization of work, network-organizations and time management, and globalization/localization at work. Bob Carter is Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department, the University of Leicester, UK. His original interests were focused on the class position of white-collar workers and the nature of their organizations. He has taught trade unionists, has written on labor process theory and the distinctiveness of public sector employment, and is currently developing research on comparative US/UK union strategies. Harry Coenen is a Professor of Social Sciences (labor studies) in the Department of General Social Sciences at the University of Utrecht. His research activities and publications include among others the theories of structuration and the risk-society, citizenship and social participation, union movements and labor relations and the research methodology of action research. Maria Lorena Cook is associate professor in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University. A political scientist, she has published widely on Mexican labor politics, labor reform, regional integration, and transnational movements. Professor Cook is writing a book on labor law reform and union responses in Latin America. Rae Cooper teaches industrial relations in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney. Rae’s research addresses organising and membership renewal strategies of Australian unions. In 2002, she edited a special edition of Labour History on union organising and mobilisation in Australia and New Zealand. Rae is an active union member and the Chair of the New South Wales Working Women’s Centre. Daniel B. Cornfield is Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University and Editor of Work and Occupations. His research has addressed the growth, decline and revitalization of labor movements, the wellbeing of immigrants, changing workplace social organization, the employment relationship, and work & family. Among his recent publications is his volume co-edited with Randy Hodson, Worlds of Work: Building an International Sociology of Work (Kluwer/Plenum, 2002). Rick Delbridge is Professor in Organizational Analysis at Cardiff Business School. His research interests include the changing nature of work and organizational innovation. He is author of Life on the Line in Contemporary Manufacturing (Oxford University Press) and co-editor of Manufacturing in Transition (Routledge). Peter Fairbrother is a Professorial Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, Wales. He researches in the area of trade union and labour studies. This work includes work on changes in public services, international trade unionism and labour rights and the impact of globalisation and de-industrialisation on labour. He has published broadly in these areas and has made a major contribution to debates about trade union renewal. Enrique de la Garza Toledo is former Visiting Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor in the Graduate Program in Labor Studies at the Metropolitan University of Mexico, and Editor of the journal Trabajo. A prolific writer on labor and work in Latin America, he was recently awarded the National Prize for Labor Research for his work on productive restructuring, firms, and workers in México in the beginning of the 21st century. Edmund Heery is Professor of Human Resource Management at Cardiff Business School. His main research interests are trends in union organising and union representation of workers with non-standard contracts. Professor Heery is an editor of the British Journal of Industrial Relations and an academic advisor to the New Unionism Task Group of the Trades Union Congress. Russell D. Lansbury is Professor of Work and Organisational Studies and Associate Dean (Research) at the University of Sydney. A Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences, his recent publications include After Lean Production: Evolving Employment Practices in the World Auto Industry, with T. A. Kochan and J. P. McDuffie (Cornell University Press, 1997) and Working Futures: The Changing Nature of Work and Employment Relations in Australia, with R. Callus (Federation Press 2002). He is joint editor of the Journal of Industrial Relations. Héctor Lucena is Professor of Labor Relations and Coordinator of the Doctoral Program in Social Science at the Universidad de Carabobo, Valencia, Venezuela. He has written widely on processes, institutions, and transformations in labor relations in Venezuela and Latin America. Holly McCammon is Associate Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University. Recently she has studied the changing strategies of the U.S. labor movement, particularly its shift from strike activity to legal mobilization. Her interest in collective strategies has also led her to study the U.S. women’s suffrage movement and its use of various tactics and arguments. José Ricardo Ramalho is professor of sociology in the Graduate Program of Sociology and Anthropology of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His main research interests have been related to the sociology of work, trade union and working class movements, and development studies. John Salmon lectures in industrial relations and Japanese management at Cardiff Business School. He is Joint Coordinator of the Asian Pacific Research Unit at Cardiff. His research interests have been largely associated with workplace relations. Currently, he is involved with empirical research of union organising campaigns in both Britain and Japan. Rachel Sherman is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Yale University. Her dissertation, “Class Acts: Producing and Consuming Luxury Service in Hotels,” is an ethnographic investigation of inequality in interactive service work. Melanie Simms is a lecturer in industrial relations and human resource management at Canterbury Business School, which is part of the University of Kent. Her research interests focus on trade union renewal, specifically attempts to organize groups of workers who are under-represented in the trade union movement. David H. Simpson is a Lecturer in Industrial Relations and Director of the Trade Union Research Unit at Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University. His main interests centre on trade unions, particularly in South Wales, and has conducted research projects for the GMB, GPMU, UNISON, UNIFI and NAHT amongst others. He is currently a member of the ACAS Single Panel of Arbitrators. Doowon Suh is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of International Studies of Korea University in Korea. His research areas of interest cover social movements, historical sociology, sociology of work, and modern Korean society. His current research project addresses the issue of how social movements influence democratic transition and consolidation in the Third World. Lowell Turner is professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University, in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Among his books are Democracy at Work: Changing World Markets and the Future of Labor Unions (1991) and Fighting for Partnership: Labor and Politics in Unified Germany (1998), along with several edited volumes including Rekindling the Movement: Labor’s Quest for Relevance in the 21st Century (2001). Kim Voss is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century and is co-author of Inequality By Design, Des Syndicats Domestiques, and the forthcoming Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement. Her current research is focused on social movement unionism in the U.S. and elsewhere, on the life history of labor activists, and on the impact of participatory democracy on civil society. Mark Westcott is a lecturer in the School of Business at the University of Sydney. His research interests include union structure and activity within workplaces as well as the effects of corporate structure and strategy upon the management of labor.

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Research in the Sociology of Work
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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