In Dubious Battle: a case Study of the New Labor Transnationalism Abstract

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Jamie K. McCallum Dissertation Proposal V.2 January 5, 2009

In Dubious Battle:

A Case Study of the New Labor Transnationalism
This dissertation revisits the widely-held assertion that neoliberal globalization necessarily undermines the power of workers. While increasing economic integration clearly presents challenges for organized labor, it also offers new opportunities that are generally overlooked. The present study examines a case study of transnational union organizing in the property services sector, coordinated jointly by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Union Network International (UNI). Throughout this complex campaign, workers engage in collective bargaining, transnational information-sharing, corporate campaigning, strikes, and international framework agreements. In this case, workers employ different strategic repertoires to organize, and take advantage of different opportunity structures. I draw on existing research and original fieldwork to explain the variation in labor strategy based on industrial setting, the available political and economic opportunity structures, and the institutional prowess of the various unions. The case considers both the obstacles and possibilities that workers and unions face in the global economy today. This research develops a model for labor transnationalism that contributes to a growing sociologic literature on labor movement strategy in the global era.


This dissertation is about the ways in which workers cooperate across borders to exercise power against multinational employers. While it is often asserted that the power of labor necessarily declines as economic globalization advances and corporate power expands, this study provides evidence to the contrary. Through a case study of the property services sector (security guards), this dissertation examines the emergence of a new labor transnationalism. I consider a campaign that spans multiple countries, coordinated jointly by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Union Network International (UNI). I evaluate the factors that condition strategic worker choices in different contexts in order to develop a general theory about how labor is able to challenge global capital.

Labor transnationalism is by now a well-documented phenomenon. The activities of the “international labor movement” have fascinated social scientists for decades. Early studies examined the institutions of international unionism in Europe, and the foreign policy of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) (Lorwin, 1957; Armstrong, et al. 1988; Gordon 2000). Much attention has also focused on the cooperation of unions and non governmental organizations (NGOs), and the industrial relations dimension of post-Maastricht Europe (Armbruster-Sandoval 1995; Anner and Evans 2004). Following the explosion of anti-sweatshop activism on college campuses and the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in the late nineties, scholars began assessing a new global justice movement in earnest, much of which involved struggles for international unionism and solidarity with new social movements (Waterman 2001; 1999). The focus on global institutions and movements also produced academic work on the social clauses of trade agreements. Most recently, a few scholars and labor researchers have described the beginnings of an inchoate world-wide union movement, a perspective that has gained support with the recent merger of the American, Canadian, and British steelworkers (Bronfrenbrenner 2007). In this formulation, transnational cooperation and institutional interdependence among unions has yielded a “new frontier” of industrial relations--global unions for the global age.

The present study represents a logical step forward because, despite a recent surge of interest in transnational union cooperation, few studies have undertaken a close analysis of service sector workers. By placing recent examples of labor transnationalism in the context of a changing global economy and an emerging international union movement, this research will explain not only the sources of worker power today but also the variation in the ways they exercise it.

In particular, this dissertation addresses four related questions:

1. How do service sector workers exercise power against transnational employers?

2. Why do some groups of service sector workers choose different strategies over others?
3. Why do some strategies work better than others in different political and economic contexts?
4. How do national organizing outcomes and agendas influence the viability of transnational campaigns?

Background and Literature Review:

A wide body of research suggests that labor’s power to organize diminishes as capital becomes ever more global.

Indeed, there is much to recommend this view. Late twentieth century capitalism presided over the precipitous decline of labor movement densities across the globe (Galenson 1994; Western 1995). Statistics also show a decline in union militancy (Moody 2007) and power at the bargaining table, leading to a global “crisis of unionism” (Freeman 1989).

The present study suggests, nevertheless, that neoliberal globalization1 has opened up new opportunities for workers to exercise power across borders, which are rarely considered. By examining new modes of transnational labor relations, this study will provide empirical research to support a fledging theory of labor power.

The popular idea that globalization decreases workers’ power is tied to three interrelated claims: (1) a global “race to the bottom” inevitably pits national working classes against one another; (2) the historic transformation of the labor process has undermined the traditional basis for strong worker organization; (3) and the decline of the national state increasingly leaves workers unguarded against the global market.

The first claim holds that the hypermobility of capital allows corporations to move around the globe with the perfunctory credentials of foreign diplomats, in search of cheaper labor and lower operating costs. This continual search drives down wages and deters unionization worldwide. In this line of argument, union densities, wage controls, and corporate taxation levels disappear under a worldwide labor arbitrage as workers are forced to compete with one another in the global marketplace (Roach 2006). The entry of China into the global economy, and the subsequent “downward pressure on the world's wages,” is the most recent and obvious example of this phenomenon (Costello, Smith, and Brecher 2006).

The second explanation for the decline of workers’ power deals with changes in the labor process under neoliberal restructuring, and the concomitant transformation of class dynamics. In his classic study of Taylorism, Braverman explains that his investigation into scientific management will help illuminate "the structure of the working class and how it has changed" (Braverman 1974). The transition to post-Fordism is important today for the same reasons. In this new environment, subcontracting, temporary work, and the massive tendency toward informalization have undermined the bases by which workers have traditionally built power, resulting in a “structurally disaggregated and disorganized working class” (Silver 2001). As Aglietta puts it:

Since the coherence of the Fordist mode of regulation lay in the relationship

between productivity and distribution in a national context, there is a feeling

that the institutions which monitored these adjustments are in disarray.

Indeed, real wages and productivity increases have been disconnected,

weakening unions and emptying the content of collective bargaining.

(Aglietta, “Capitalism at the Turn of the Century: Regulation Theory and the Challenge

of Social Change” 1998)

The third, and closely related, argument also has widespread traction today: that capital mobility has undermined not only workers’ bargaining power but also state sovereignty. From this perspective, states that guarantee their citizens certain welfare provisions will be overlooked by corporations looking for the highest return on their investments. Social provisions, welfare policies, and environmental standards fall victim to a kind of regulatory arbitrage, as states in need of investment roll back social provisions to attract and accommodate capital. The growing power of the supranational governance structures in the nineties—the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and World Bank—lent credence to this view. As wage controls and protective policies were consistently ruled unfair barriers to trade, states became subject to the rule of multinationals. By the time of the new millennium, many scholars had declared the Westphalian system all but dead (Linklater 1998; Hardt and Negri 2001).

The three theses listed above represent the orthodoxy in the literature on economic globalization and would seem to answer the question of labor’s chances quite definitively. However, there are alternative interpretations to the prevailing wisdom.

The most obvious challenge to the race-to-the-bottom thesis is that the map of foreign direct investment (FDI) continues to show much more intra-North flows (where wages and costs are relatively high) than flows to cheaper labor areas (UNCTAD 2007). This would contradict the hypothesis that transnational corporations necessarily seek out low wage locations over others. The race-to-the-bottom thesis also inevitably includes the promise of global class convergence. This view holds that the North-South divide, among others, is increasingly irrelevant (Held 2003; Hardt and Negri 2000). William Robinson (2000), following Marx, has tried to demonstrate that economic globalization has given life to a “transnational working class,” a class-in-itself, though not yet a class-for-itself. Empirical evidence, however, does not support such a homogenous community of fate. A recent ILO report confirms other research that says while income inequality is rising within countries, it is also still rising among them (ILO 2008).

This is not to suggest that capital’s spatial fix has not transferred production and displaced unions on a large scale.2 Even the threat of plant relocation, has been the ne plus ultra of bargaining chips to force concessions and deter unionization, especially in the fiercely competitive garment industry. But there is reason to question the supposed unidirectional impact of that phenomenon. In her analysis of workers movements since 1870, Beverly Silver (2001) describes a historic dialectic between recurring instances of labor militancy and capital flight, “…a kind of déjà vu pattern in which strong labor movements emerged in each new favored site to which the industry relocated.” While labor was weakened where capital fled (North America), new strong “strategically located” working classes appear wherever it lands (the Global South).

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels write of the industrial worker “modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him of every trace of national character.” This was perhaps true of mid nineteenth century Europe, but does not square with the overwhelming nationalism of working class organizations today. In this case, Zolberg’s question is more apt for modern times: “If capitalism is of a piece, why is the working class it has called into life so disparate?” (Zolberg 1986)

Though often overlooked, issues surrounding control of the workplace and its process innovations have been at the core of some of the most dramatic confrontations between capital and labor (Metzgar 2000). But the effects are not as one-dimensional as they may seem. Historically, Fordism was originally viewed skeptically by pro-labor commentators. The de-skilling tendencies of continuous flow production were originally predicted to weaken workplace bargaining power by allowing droves of transposable laborers to replace skilled craftsmen. Only after high rates of unionization were won in the mass production industries of the West was it seen as conducive to labor organizing. We should expect the same skepticism toward post-Fordist changes, and indeed, the vast majority of the literature concludes that the “technologic fix” of capital and the white-collarization of the economy is inherently labor-weakening.

However, many researchers (Herod 2000, 2001; Silver 2001; Gallin 2002; Piven forthcoming) have demonstrated that certain elements of lean, post-Fordist production schemes actually enhance the ability of workers to exert control. For example, Herod documents the 1998 strike at two Flint, Michigan General Motors (GM) plants. Because GM relied on just-in-time production systems, and the two Flint shops supplied crucial parts for their most profitable lines, the strike crippled the ability of all North American GM workers to build more cars. In this way, a local dispute became a hemispheric problem very quickly, suggesting that the Toyotist production model to be even more vulnerable to worker action than the Fordist one preceding it.

Finally, in the social science literature, debates about the relative decline of state sovereignty have been waging for decades. In the nineties, several commentators forecast the state’s redundancy under the excesses of hypermobile capital and global governance regimes (Naisbitt 1994; Ohmae 1995). This position sees neoliberal globalization as a “politics by other means,” supplanting the role of governance and deterritorializing national decision-making power. These critiques provoked a series of rebuttals and refutations insisting on the continued primacy of the state in the realm of political affairs (Hirst and Thompson 1996; Zysman 1996; Panitch 2000; Wood 2005). Saskia Sassen (2008) has elaborated a theory by which the state is fractured by globalization, and some branches of the state expand (in sovereign terms) at the expense of others. Theories of declining sovereignty tend also to imply a convergence of national economic systems. On the contrary, the varieties of capitalism literature has found that economic globalization affects states unevenly, noting the persistent divergence among liberal market economies and coordinated market economies (Hall and Soskice 2001).

The point most relevant to this discussion is strangely overlooked in much of the literature. While strong states have been historically linked with strong national working classes, they are negatively correlated with instances of labor transnationalism. The emergence of international labor solidarity in the late nineteenth century has not been continuous. Rather, it was suddenly shattered with the outbreak of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, when workers abandoned a common international cause to defend a national flag, and killed one another by the million on the battlefields of Europe (Lorwin 1957).

Since 1945, scholars have pointed to an inverse relationship between the capacity of workers to win strong gains from nation-states and their subsequent interest in transnational activity (Waterman 1998). As unions found their respective states more accommodating to wage and benefits concessions, their will to internationalism was muted. As Wills (2002) writes, “As long as nation-states offered a route to trade union influence and achievement, internationalism tended to be a paper exercise with little grassroots support.” If the national priorities of the state are giving way to global corporate ones today, does this possibly encourage transnational labor cooperation? It is to the question of new possibilities for transnational labor organizing that we now turn.

Is Another Labor Transnationalism Possible?

The themes discussed above are integral to the debates about prospects for the formation of a global labor movement. In fact, many scholars have argued that some of the same forces that were the undoing of national labor movements are actually the material preconditions for the birth of a truly transnational one. Might the increased threat of whipsawing workers in one part of the world against those in another part stir them both to coordinated solidaristic action? If the nation state primarily serves an international corporate agenda, might workers not also reach across borders and shed their historic nationalism? Will the vulnerabilities of new globalized production processes yield workers more opportunities to disrupt business-as-usual capitalism?

Labor internationalism is an old cornerstone of revolutionary praxis. Is there anything new to say about its modern variant? For as long as workers have been organizing, there has been a strong normative presumption that since capital is global, so should be the working class. However, history has shown that nationalism and internationalism are both viable yet contradictory responses to the globalization of production (Wills 1998). It is safe to say that national-protectionist responses are in fact most common. Indeed, this response is often considered the only option. The structural changes in global capitalism have been accompanied by a discursive shift as well, represented by Margaret Thatcher’s famous TINA proclamation (“There Is No Alternative).” The erosion of Marxism as a mobilizing ideology, and the failure of a sustainable Keynesianism, gave way to the acceptance of the demobilizing neoliberal counterthesis. The only viable answer, then, to Lenin’s what is to be done? question, for firms, nations, and workers, is to attract multinational capital and be as competitive as possible. When an alternative strategic opposition has been thereby “reduced to a whisper, the globalization thesis can be argued to reflect the ideological triumph of free market capitalism” (Wills 1998).

However, the present case study contributes to an emerging literature documenting instances where workers have acted against the fatalism of the neoliberal consensus, with coordinated transnational action, through institutions that promote rank and file participation.

Yet even as workers do choose to engage in transnational activity, myriad practical obstacles either stymie them along the way or force a complete retreat. Most of these have been extensively studied: renewed working class nationalism (Harvey 1989); divergences between local and national institutions (Streeck 1992); the time to coordinate international solidarity is too long to be effective (Ramsay 1997); lingering Cold War ideologies (Moody 2007); difficulty overcoming cultural barriers (Eichengreen, Ulman, and Dickens 2003); defense of particularist union goals that trump global ones (Lillie 2004); and the power of multinational corporations (Gordon and Turner 2000). Some commentators are even pessimistic about prospects for building a transnational union movement at all (Mahnkopf and Altvater 1995; Eder 2002).

But what about factors that may enhance the power of labor or even promote transnational cooperation? For Marx, the revolutionary potential of the industrial proletariat (relative other classes) has to do with the leverage it could potentially apply to transform the capitalist mode of production. A theory of power is useful in this dissertation because it can help to explain how workers exert pressure employers or how they are vanquished by large corporations. In other words, who has power and how do they exercise it?

Wright (2002) uses the term structural power to describe the power derived by workers’ strategic location in the process of production. Much research on labor transnationalism has focused on the relative strength or weakness of the structural power of manufacturing unions. While most argue that unions have been weakened, some, like Silver and Piven, see other possibilities. That particular groups of workers have objectively more power than others by dint of their location in the production process has been advanced by a variety of economists and labor scholars for decades (Dunlop 1944; Herod 1998; Wright 2002; Silver 2003; Womack 2004). In Silver’s estimation, for example, the power of autoworkers is substantial not only because continuous flow production lends itself to disruption, but because of the auto industry’s trophied position as the leading industry of twentieth century capitalism. I argue here that the importance of structural power, while theoretically sound, is overstated in the literature and often not reflective of reality. First, the idea tends to ascribe power to workers who may not be organized in a position to exercise it. Secondly, as mentioned above, globalization has eroded some of the power of workers, including industrial leverage. Lastly, occupying a particular structural position within a complex division of labor does not necessarily encourage workers to action. Power is not, as Piven (2006) cautions, “there for the taking,” and grievances in themselves do not lead to action. For example, transnationalism in the auto industry most often takes the form of information-sharing and codes of conduct (see Greer and Hauptmeier 2008), not the militant exploiting of a strategic position that Silver documents. This suggests that even in sectors where workers supposedly hold a beneficial structural position, their primary source of power lies in their ability to build a strong campaign across borders via political opportunity structures or institutions. Unlike mass production workplaces, the ability for capital to exit in the service sector is often limited or impossible. Therefore, this case study can bracket a few questions related to globalization processes (capital mobility, outsourcing, offshoring, etc) and worker power because of the geographic fixity of the labor process in the service sector.

Nevertheless, because it is not immediately clear why unskilled security guards would have any strategic/structural advantage whatsoever, it is logical to ask what kind of power they actually do have. What explains UNI’s ability to negotiate more contracts than any other global union, and to win gains against G4S, the largest employer in the world? I argue here that transnational campaigns can be successful when workers utilize comprehensive strategies that exploit an interdependent relationship, even when their objective structural position would not be considered powerful. For example, few expected such monumental success stories to come from SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles (which involved international pressure), yet it represents a recent watershed victory in US labor struggles. How does this happen? Piven’s conception best identifies the way service workers orchestrate transnational campaigns: they exercise interdependent power.

Since the 1960s Piven and Cloward developed their concept of interdependent power to explain the way those with limited access to typical power resources (money, political clout, the credible threat of force, etc) nevertheless have the capacity to exert pressure on elites. This concept argues that power is a dialogic relationship of cooperation and social contribution, and that the source of power “from below” is the ability to disrupt interdependent social relationships. For Piven, the logic of interdependent power requires that workers recognize their potential as embedded in a variety of social relationships, and they seek to maintain those relationships in order to maintain that source of power.

The strategic choice to build toward an IFA makes sense, then, given that it strengthens the ties between workers and management and helps to maintain the relationship. The campaign to win the IFA in the UNI case was the work of many smaller campaigns, each with its own contingencies and interdependent relationships. One goal of this dissertation is to investigate these various interdependencies as they play out in the case study. I now turn to a discussion of the pragmatic strategies that workers use to exercise interdependent power that are highlighted in this dissertation.

Variation of Labor Transnationalism in the Service Sector

As stated above, there has been a recent explosion of writing on labor transnationalism. According to most scholars, the growing intensity of economic globalization and the increasing power of large multinationals have been the primary catalysts for building global unionism (Gordon and Turner 2000; Harrod and Obrien 2002; Munck 2002; Bronfenbrenner 2008; Lerner 2007). These accounts describe the push and pull of a society in the throes of transformation, the double movement that Polanyi (1944) saw in the struggles to discipline the emerging self-regulating market. This case presents different union strategies, often used in unison, that workers employ to challenge transnational companies in what the organizers call a “comprehensive campaign”—collective bargaining, strikes, international framework agreements, transnational information sharing, and corporate campaigning. This dissertation is an anatomy of the campaign, in order to advance a model of labor transnationalism that contributes to a growing literature on labor power in the global era. Specifically, I will study four related questions about transnational organizing: (a) to understand how service sector workers exercise power against transnational employers; (b) to understand the basis for the varied strategic choices made by workers and unions (c) to determine why some strategies work better than others; and (d) to explain the interplay of national and transnational modes of collective action.

Property Services

This case study examines transnational union organizing of security guards, a multi-faceted campaign that spans the globe--from India, Poland, Malawi, and Indonesia, to the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States--jointly organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Union Network International (UNI). UNI is one of ten Global Union Federations (GUFs), formerly known as International Trade Secretariats (ITSs). These are transnational membership organizations, each linked to specific industries. UNI’s focus, like SEIU’s in North America, is on service sector workers. Five years ago UNI began a campaign to organize the largest security services employer, Group 4 Securicor (G4S). Largely, these workers are security guards, cash-transfer personnel, and sometimes heavily-armed, quasi-military guards. In December 2008 they finally negotiated an International Framework Agreements with G4S, including a side agreement that lays out organizing rights in North America with the Wackenhut corporation, a subsidiary of G4S. SEIU originally approached UNI in order to join forces, as its isolated domestic campaign against Wackenhut was going nowhere. Since then, the two unions have operated in concert to pressure G4S to sign an agreement. SEIU is largely credited with globalizing the campaign, and by introducing US-style tactics and strategies that UNI had not previously considered.

The primary objective of unions seeking IFAs is to secure an agreement that forces global corporations to respect core ILO labor standards.3 They are essentially the evolutionary successors of the codes of conduct that NGOs began negotiating in the early nineties. Hammer (2005) distinguishes between different logics of agreements (rights vs bargaining): the former expand the terrain for workers to organize; the latter tend to shore up a variety of ILO conventions and are continually renegotiated. IFAs have been studied closely by scholars wishing to understand the real-life impact that voluntary agreements have on labor/capital relationships. A variety of case studies have reached predictably mixed results, and the literature reveals a great deal of confusion over the theory and utility of such a strategy (Gordon and Turner 2000; Riisgaard 2005; Descologne 2006; Stevis and Boswell 2007). Steven Lerner (2007), for example, has expressed deep disdain for IFAs in writing, though the union (SEIU), for which he is a chief strategist, has actively pursued them in practice. UNI has made the negotiation of IFAs its main strategic goal.

In Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal, Gorz (1964) lays out the concept of non-reformist reforms. These are not once-and-done alterations to the conditions of capitalism but rather reformist policies which leave open the potential for deeper social transformation. At their best, IFAs may represent a good example of what Gorz had in mind. To date, GUFs have negotiated sixty two such agreements with different transnational companies.4 The stronger ones include neutrality clauses that allow workers the right to organize for representation without a boss fight. According to the Federal Trade Commission, corporate mergers and acquisitions increased dramatically in the 1990s, a practice nurtured chiefly by the globalization of production and deregulation of financial markets (FTC Statement 1998). As corporate power has become increasingly consolidated, IFAs have become more popular as a foot-in-the-door mechanism to win modest gains, where a more militant tactic might be impossible.

There are a host of reasons to be critical: many IFAs have little regulatory power, they may act as a “public relations triumph,” and may sabotage deeper union collaboration (Stevis and Boswell 2008).5 In its campaign against G4S, however, UNI negotiated a stronger agreement that included organizing rights. In contrast to Moody (2007), who sees the recent upsurge in security personnel and guard organizing as happening in a non-strategic sector, this case study emphasizes the enormous role of the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) infrastructure of the global economy (see Krippner 2005). Due to massive deregulation over the past twenty years, private security firms play a larger role in property services. In Malawi, for example, private security guards have largely replaced police at government buildings, and in India G4S workers help guard the National Palace.

The campaign to successfully negotiate a strong IFA with such powerful companies involved a variety of transnational union strategies. This dissertation will examine these different strategies in order to understand why they were chosen over others, and to assess their relative successes and/or failures.

For example, European G4S employees are part of a European Works Council (EWC). Largely a response to corporate restructuring during the development of a European common market, the EWC directive allows workers in European multinational companies with more than one thousand employees the right to organize associations for purposes of information sharing and enforcing codes of conduct. Since 1994, almost fifteen million workers in eight hundred multi-national companies have participated in EWC dialogues (EIRO 2008). Here I build on other research on the Europeanization of industrial relations (DØlvik 1997; Rehfeldt 1999; Martin and Ross 2000; Golbach and Schulten 2001; Marginson and Sisson 2006). EWCs are regarded here as transnational opportunity structures (della Porta and Tarrow 2004). Preliminary research has shown these structures function poorly in this particular case, though many other workers and their unions have used EWCs to successfully leverage demands from employers. UNI has even had prior success with EWCs in other security firms. I plan to explore the factors that condition the success or failure of these structures in this campaign

According to lead researchers and organizers at UNI and SEIU, the most decisive weapon against G4S was strategic research that targeted its investors. Juravich (2007) notes that so-called “corporate campaigns”, or “air wars” are increasingly used against large companies as leverage in transnational campaigns. This strategy involves teams of union researchers that pressure investors in the target company to divest if certain labor and human rights are not respected. Claire Parfitt, assistant director of the Property Services Division at UNI, says that the strategy was much more effective in Europe and in the developing world than in North America, even though it was a tactic imported from SEIU, who relies on it extensively in most large campaigns (interview by author, 2008). Why is this the case? Many factors contribute to these differences, but legal differences may shine above the rest. Laws governing the obligations of corporations vary widely place to place. Unlike in Europe, US legal statutes protect the fiduciary responsibility of corporations and their shareholders or beneficiaries. This makes it almost illegal for a corporation to limit its profit-making capacity, which weakens the ability of unions to leverage demands based on social issues (Hinckley 2002).

The campaign also required the coordination of different labor movements and the mobilization of contending working classes. As might be expected, this was not always smooth either. Research has shown that in-firm competition sometimes leads to destructive forces in transnational campaigns. Koch-Baumgarten (1998), for example, sees the successful campaign for a global minimum wage in the maritime sector as the imposition of high wage norms on the Global South, an area where unions may be otherwise inclined to capitalize on their comparative advantage in order to attract more contracts for their members. Others have pointed to the breakdown of solidarity in motor manufacturing (Anner, Greer, Lillie, Hauptmeier, and Winchester 2006 ). UNI’s experience is similar: In Great Britain, the GMB openly promoted the reputation of G4S while Indonesian workers were striking against them, and while UNI was in the process of settling an OECD complaint (Parfitt, interview by author). I will explore the multiple successes and failures of the different mobilizations that contributed to the signing of the IFA.

Much of the literature considers labor a factor of production, but rarely does it appear as an agent in the regulation of the global economy (notable exceptions being Block et al 2001; Sobczak 2004). This case study shows that IFAs expand the terrain for transnational industrial relations and worker organization, and significantly alter the behavior of some of the world’s largest corporations. As Papadakis (2008) correctly surmises, the importance of IFAs is not only determined by the strength or weakness of the agreement language: “their actual significance is not on paper, but in the strategic use of the paper.” This campaign is complex and diverse, in terms of geographic location, the outcomes in different national contexts, and the repertoires of strategic action that it calls into play. G4S employs security guards in over 100 countries. The IFA technically covers all of them, but for practical reasons of scale will be implemented in “batches” of countries over time. The implementation process will not be universal, but rather will vary according to the needs of the local contexts. This dissertation will uncover the explanations for these variations and differences.
Research Design and Methodology:

This dissertation follows a case study methodology, and draws on insights from sociology, political science, and industrial relations. Case studies are an appropriate qualitative method for developing sociological theory (George and Bennet 2005). Moreover, it is particularly fitting in this context, as I seek to gather “multiple sources of evidence—converging on the same set of issues” in order to analyze “both a particular phenomenon [labor transnationalism] and the context [the service sector] within which the phenomenon is occurring” (Yin 1993).

I have identified a case that incorporates multiple union strategies in a variety of geographic locations, in order to understand the varied approaches that different groups of workers take to achieve similar goals. Case studies, which focus narrow attention on a broad subject, have been viewed skeptically by some social scientists (Njolstad 1990; King, Keohane, and Verba 1994). This case, however, endeavors to illuminate a general model of labor transnationalism for service sector workers. As a model of a single case study approach, I have examined Ravenswood (Bronfenbrenner and Juravich 1999), which details the international campaign of locked-out steel workers to win a long battle against their employer. My case study fills a critical void in the literature on labor transnationalism, as the vast majority of research in this field has focused on industrial workplaces, transportation, and other manufacturing industries. This is despite the fact that the service economy is showing explosive growth, and that service sector unions have made headway whereas many industrial unions are in considerable disarray.

Based on preliminary research into the field, and consultation with my committee, I am confident I have selected a case which is representative of larger trends. This is due to a number of factors: (1) SEIU’s recent influence on other transnational service sector campaigns involving other unions has been great; (2) this campaign is similar in content and form to previous transnational campaigns against security firms, and (3) the comprehensive nature of the campaign and its wide geographic scope means that it lends itself to comparisons with many other transnational campaigns who face some of, though not necessarily all, the same challenges.

Data Collection and Analysis:

Background research into the case study has already begun. Data from semi-structured interviews will create the bulk of the original research content in the study. I plan to conduct approximately seventy five interviews with union staff, rank and file workers, labor movement experts, corporate representatives, and managers. Some of the field research will take place in India, Malawi, and Germany, where the recent IFA will be implemented first. Other research will happen in Washington DC, where SEIU’s Global Strength department and the head of UNI’s property services campaign is located. If I am able to secure face-to face interviews with G4S corporate staff, those interviews may happen in London, but I also plan on interviewing local managers and employers where the active campaigns are. I will spend one year in New York City to write and edit my final draft. The union staff interviews will largely stem from the Global Strength division at SEIU, UNI, and local Indian and German unions, who are members of UNI, and are organizing the ground campaigns there. The Indian context has consistently had the most mobilized workforce in the countries that are active in the campaign. I have been assured generous access to Indian and German workers and union officers who speak English. Others will include staff at the General Workers Union (GMB) in the UK and the International Transport Federation (ITF), which helped negotiate of the IFA. I will also draw heavily on published material related to debates on labor power and globalization generally, with attention to work that focuses on transnational campaigns and service sector workers.

Semi-structured interviews will familiarize me with the aspects of the campaign that cannot be ascertained by the literatures and other source materials (documentary evidence, archives, files meeting minutes, etc), and establish a baseline understanding for how my research subjects view their sources of power. Based on the contacts I have developed over the years as a labor organizer, informal discussions with the lead staff members of this campaign, and the significant familiarity of my committee members with labor organizations, I am confident that I will have sufficient access to rank and file workers and professional staffers. In each case I plan to interview union staff first, in order to get an outline of the theory and strategy behind the campaign as they see it. Then I will interview rank-and-file workers to understand the campaigns from their perspective. Interview questions with workers will have two primary objectives: (1) an analysis and understanding of their specific roles in the campaign and (2) their ideas associated with labor transnationalism (cooperation across borders, cross-cultural linkages, movement strategy, etc).

Additionally, snowball sampling – whereby respondents recommend additional potential interviewees – will be used to identify policymakers and other staff members of GUFs to interview. Therefore, specific sampling decisions regarding policymakers and GUF staff will evolve during the research process itself. All interviews will last approximately sixty minutes, with most interview questions reflecting both the particular area of the subject’s expertise, and general knowledge or interest in broader concerns. For interview questions that are broader and more open-ended, sequencing will flow logically from one set of ideas to another (Kvale 1996). Though I do not undertake a study guided completely by grounded theory, some of my research questions have no obvious hypothesis and are more open-ended than others. These include questions related to the effectiveness of different strategies and the interplay of national and transnational activism and structures. Methods associated with a grounded theory approach will also help organize my material and aid the writing process. Each interview will be coded for overlapping themes related to both general viewpoints on labor transnationalism and particular ideas about the case under study. In this way, interviews will contribute to both the conceptual/theoretical and the local/ethnographic dimensions of the dissertation.

Where possible, I will observe meetings that relate to the implementation of the IFA agreement. Often these meetings include representatives from multiple trade unions, rank and file workers, and corporate representatives. Observation in day-to-day settings, at different times and in different locations, will provide a rich picture in situ (Becker 1996; Blumer 1969). My hope is that ideas about power and labor movement strategy will emerge from my subjects during interviews and participant observation. This information will be an invaluable addition to the refined theoretical and journalistic accounts of the contemporary relationship between labor and capital.

Material from interviews and observations will be triangulated with an analysis of additional sources of data. These documents include, but are not limited to: meeting minutes, annual reports and regular white papers by the ILO, the World Labor Group Database on global labor unrest, reports from regional Solidarity Centers affiliated with the AFL-CIO, World Bank development indicators, and regular reports from think tanks and research centers such as the Global Union Research Network.

All subjects will be asked to sign a consent form prior to the interview, and for those under the age of 18, parent/guardian consent forms will be obtained as well, abiding by Institutional Review Board standards.

The full timeframe for this study will be two years. January 2009 through May 2009 will be spent collaborating with my committee in New York City, applying for funding, conducting background/historical research, and refining theoretical concepts. May 2009 through November 2009 I will spend collecting data on the case study. I will take an additional year to write the full dissertation, with an estimated defense date of December 2010.


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1 Globalization means different things to many people. Here it is expressed as the increased transnationalization of production, the deregulation of labor markets, and consolidation of global financial markets.

2 Brecher (2002) has convincingly argued this phenomenon describes the fiercely competitive garment industry.

3 For an complete list of ILO labor standards, see their website:

4 These agreements account for almost $35 billion in sales and 5.3 million employees (Papadakis 2008)

5 Ten years ago The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) announced a moratorium on IFAs due to their perceived weakness. Debates around the effectiveness of such agreements are not trivial. Some claim it is better to have no agreement at all, than to have one which locks workers into a weak position vis a vis giant corporations. In the US, disagreements over worker-management pacts like the Alliance Plan in SEIU’s nursing home division are currently threatening to splinter one of the country’s most dynamic unions.

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