The debate on international revitalisation of labour.
Daniel Fleming & Henrik Søborg
[email protected] [email protected]
Department of Society and Globalisation, RUC
NWLC2012 paper abstract.
Workshop: Revitalisation of labour and international solidarity? Global neo-liberalism, CSR, the Nordic
Model and union strategies.
The paper will critically analyse the current discussion between positive and negative views on the
possibility of international revitalisation of labour and trade unions. Some of the main arguments in favour
of a revitalisation are delivered by Peter Evans and Edward Webster et al. They see the new social
movement unionism in the South (e.g. South Africa, Brazil) in alliance with global pro labour NGO networks
as a strong ‘counter hegemonic’ force to neoliberal exploitation. Michael Burawoy, on the other hand, finds
international labour in a defensive position without any counter hegemonic potential against capitalism.
Alliances must build on broader issues for ecological sustainability according to Burawoy.
These and other theoretical positions regarding labour mobilisation and strategic possibilities will be
discussed from the following thematic view-points and empirical evidence:
1) Data on manufacturing industry jobs off-shored/outsourced/established in China and emerging
markets – China alone has more manufacturing employees than G7. Cases of labour action related
to the ‘race to the bottom’ thesis versus higher minimum salaries and labour standards in the
South. Composition of labour: Women and migrant workers in manufacturing South. Reduction in
manufacturing jobs due to automation, ‘white-collarization’ of labour.
2) Strength of macro-economic Industrial Relations versus company based human resource (HR) and
management-labour relations (Bruce Kaufman) in the South.
3) The potential power of labour and unions in global value chains (Gereffi). Will possibilities for
upgrading and training in GVC production networks give management or unions influence?
4) Potential labour counter offensive to anti-union neo-liberalism in the North in historical perspective
(Silver et al). Reduced or stagnating salaries for majority of employees in the US and UK.
5) The strong media, NGO and academic focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a voluntary
company path to international solidarity and sustainable production.
6) The changing international media and academic discourse from labour and working class (often
even eliminated in statistical data) to middle class (and creative classes) versus poor and
marginalised but still with a work-fare agenda. Top and middle management, including HR, stronger
role in individualising working life, competences, training and compensation in both public and
private sectors. Solidarity discourse and concept based on the rich’s charity to the poor not on class
7) The Nordic model of tripartite labour market regulation versus the EU free labour market model
related to emerging labour market competition.
Conclusion. Both the revitalisation thesis (Evans, Webster et al) and the negative labour and union thesis
(Burawoy) are black and white simplifications. Both need more substantive theoretical elaboration and
empirical evidence.
Bruce Kaufman (2004) The global evolution of industrial relations.
Global Labour Journal No 1-2, 2010 (Peter Evans, Michael Burawoy, Webster et al).
Edward Webster et al (2010) Grounding Globalization: Labour in the age of insecurity.

The debate on international revitalisation of labour. Daniel Fleming