This piece reports on recent research around the relationship between trade unions and internationalisation in the context of globalisation. It argues for a more open, less pessimistic view than the dominant one. This view builds on the experiences of the 1970s and is cognisant of the depth of the current crisis.
Unions and the workers they represent have always been part of a transnational system of labour relations. Capital has always been mobile and the capital/wage-labour relation has never been hermetically contained within national boundaries. However, until quite recently, the dominant system of industrial relations had been confined, almost exclusively, within a national frame. In the 1970s, a ‘new’ international division of labour emerged as the ex-colonial countries began to industrialise and the multinational corporations became central players in the neo-colonial global system. This period saw a major flourishing of transnational labour activity and the hope, soon dashed, that union internationalism could act as a ‘countervailing power’ to that of the multinationals.