The realities of global production are often in conflict with establishing responsibility and accountability of transnational businesses. This holds especially for work and employment, because labour is relatively immobile in comparison with capital, leading to a globalization – driven by large multinational firms, free trade agreements, and national austerity policies – which has put workers and their organizations in an inferior position to defend their rights and the standards of their work. The Covid pandemic makes this perfectly clear, for example in global garment supply chains where order cancellations’ extreme bullwhip effects hit local suppliers disproportionally hard and leave many textile workers in extremely vulnerable positions to earn a living (e.g. Anner, 2020).
Within the literature on global commodity chains (GCC), global value chains (GVC), and – to a lesser extent – global production networks (GPN), considerations about work and employment have remained implicit for large parts; with the rule-conforming exceptions of mentioning workers’ skills and labour force availability as being part of suppliers’ assets. As a response, inquiries into labour’s place in global production have been undertaken for the purpose of linking the analysis of value production back to the sources of that value (e.g. Taylor, Newsome, Bair, & Rainnie, 2015; Wright & Kaine, 2015, Coe & Jordhus-Lier; 2011; Rainnie et al. 2011). Even if we put aside the debate about who and what produces value in the economy (for an extensive treatment of the value issue see Mazzucato, 2019), it seems implausible to avoid an explicit discussion of work and employment as one important source of how value is to be added, captured, or enhanced in global production (e.g. Rainnie, Herod & McGrath-Champ, 2011). In addition, workers are “sentient actors” (Rainnie, Herod & McGrath-Champ, 2011: 161), i.e. they bring their consciousness, knowledge, capabilities, habits, social ties, and history to the workplace, and they also may want to have a say on their position and role in global production as such (e.g. Levy, 2008). For understanding work and employment in GPN, one needs to distinguish between how local and national spaces are connected through global production and what this implies for single GPN’ units at the shopfloor level and the workers’ scope for collective action in industrial relations.
Focusing on global production, the global division of labour within a GPN influences the labour process by positioning the local work process within a larger structure, while at the same time impinging upon how work is performed and regulated locally (Cumbers et al., 2008a). Hence, all sorts of labour-related institutional settings such as vocational training systems, welfare institutions, or the labour law mediate the outcomes of the relationships within GPN between core firms, suppliers, service providers, and sub-contractors. Of course, also diverging labor control regimes along the state-market dimension situate workers and their labour within broader political structures of societies (e.g. Anner, 2015). Even more so, as global production and transnational economic activities more generally are marked by multi-scalar phenomena in a “variegated capitalism” (Peck & Theodore, 2007) with its parallel and simultaneous occurrence of influences across institutional levels (local, national, regional, global), organizational domains (workplace, local firm, multinational corporation, sector) and dimensions (culture, politics, markets).
Analytically and theoretically, labour is a distinctive and integral element of GPN, yet the scope and impact of workers’ agency on shaping GPN is often limited due to the lack of power resources in practice (e.g. Silver, 2003; Coe & Jordhus-Lier; 2011). And despite the reality of workers being made directly and indirectly the subject and object of supply chain management, and hence being situated in the fabric of global production, workers may become excluded at the same time by extreme forms of societal fragmentation within denationalized, but globally connected arrangements. For example, Sassen has outlined the idea of expulsion meaning that people are excluded from the economy and from society, in and through global macro orders such as global finance, the international division of labour, the global extraction of natural resources or cross-border migration and displacement (Sassen, 2014). Materializing in local contexts, Sassen observes a basic trend in the current global economy running from “incorporation” into a globally integrated managerial capitalism organized around mass production towards an expulsion organized around value extraction and appropriation (Sassen, 2014). Offshoring and subcontracting are indicative of this transformation of local economies into zones of value extractions: “Outsourcing involves complex and costly logistics, but it is worth it to gain those cents on each work hour because it translates into additional value for a firm’s shares in financial markets, and hence additional profits for shareholders and executives” (Sassen 2014: 126). At the same time, such expulsions go along with a polarization of labour markets on a global scale: within high-income economies by a simultaneous growth of highly-paid professional services and low-income services (e.g. Autor, & Dorn, 2013; Palier, 2019), and between high-income and low-income countries by an even stronger polarization between informal and formal sectors (e.g. Scherrer, 2018).
By contrast, the potentialities of labour agency may be conceived through the lens of the “local labour control regimes” in which work is and becomes (dis-)embedded (Jonas 1996: 325). A Local labour control regimes (LLCR) has been defined by Jonas (1996: 325) as a “historically contingent and territorially embedded set of mechanisms which coordinate the time-space reciprocities between production, work, consumption and labour reproduction within a local labour market”. For understanding the capacities of labour actors to shape GVC and GPN, these local regimes are important for analyzing how the business-driven governance of inter-firm networks is permeated through the social, cultural and historical relations of local production (e.g. Rainnie, Herod & McGrath-Champ, 2011, Herod, 2012). These local conditions include a relatively long list of aspects from technical requirements of production (e.g. availability of natural resources, infrastructure), the collective organization of the workforce (e.g. unionization), educational systems (e.g. skill development), the regulatory environment (e.g. welfare politics) to political developments (e.g. local movements) and local consumption (e.g. market size and tastes). Thereby, acknowledging LLCR allows to see a more differentiated picture in which different localities, once invested in, provide labour with power resources that may be multiplied by the operational requirements of global production such as process time and quality requirements as well as an increase (or lower) the opportunity costs of shifting locations or devising a certain market strategy. Seeing local firms not just as being connected to the GPN, but also as embedded in a LLCR leaves analytic room for coming to terms with the considerable variation between different locations within the same GPN, for example. Unions then might exploit these differences by focusing on “resonant spaces” such as the central hubs of GPN, for example global ports in logistics and transport (e.g. Anderson, 2015).
With an eye on GPN’s core firms, a downward spiral has been discussed widely according to which Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) use their cross-border activities strategically to source from a larger labour supply, thereby, saving on labour costs and bank in a greater share of the network’s value added (e.g. Chan, Ngai & Selden, 2013; Lüthje & Butollo, 2017). However, MNCs also enlarge their markets in and through their GPN. This allows an expansion of value creation for single firms as well as the other network participants such as suppliers and service providers. In some special cases, such as foreign direct investments or alliances and joint ventures between firms operating in high-income countries or in some high-tech or capital-intensive industries, there is also a qualitative value enhancement by combining labour force potentials allowing strategies of product differentiation with high employment standards and working conditions (e.g. Coe & Yeung, 2015). Similarly, the emergence of GPN has been associated with corporate restructuring and job losses at the MNC headquarter locations where foreign engagement and subcontracting coincide with a precarization of peripheral workforces (e.g. Kalleberg, 2009); the affected workers experience uncertainty and job instability whereas core workforces might benefit. On the flipside, the relocation of production in other countries brings jobs to countries and regions in which otherwise labour demand would be too low to sustain well-paying jobs. And, multiple sourcing from different sites may not always lead to management whipsawing of the labour standards in headquarter country locations (e.g. Greer & Hauptmeier, 2016), but to locational competition among the sites in peripheral states, stabilizing employment and working conditions in the core, at least relatively (e.g. Jürgens & Krzywdzinski, 2009).
Seen from the local shopfloor level, the accompanying simultaneity of positive and negative consequences of globalized production in cross-border value creation networks also includes the crossing of boundaries in work arrangements which are neither wanted nor advantageous for employees. For example, cross-border labour market intermediaries engage in posted work of different varieties while offering their services in a transnational no man’s land of labour law and industrial relations with negative consequences for the level of working conditions (e.g. Andrijasevic & Sacchetto, 2016). Also, sub-contracting in GPN has been shown to have negative impacts on contractors of various sorts in the Global South, stretching regularly beyond the limits of formality in various industries and countries (e.g. Barrientos, 2013; Palpacuer, 2008). At the same time, the fragmentation and fissuring of workforces into various core and peripheral groups changes working conditions such as pay and working time, but also the employment status and job profiles as well as mobility demands, occupations and career paths.
Compared to well-known, but increasingly insufficient national and local institutions of collective bargaining and union representation, industrial relations in GPN are marked by very demanding complexities (Sydow & Helfen, 2016). These emanate from the multiplication of relationships, if compared to the bilateral nature of the traditional employment relationship. Lead firms, suppliers, service providers, their complementors and business partners, and different union organizations all have divergent goals and ambitions in the GPN depending on their position in the GPN (for a mapping of these connections between employment systems and buyer-supplier relationships, see Lakhani, Kuruvilla, & Avgar, 2013). At the same time, the network is characterized by multiplex relationships and unintended consequences resulting from control deficiencies and paradoxical network effects. In the GPN’s variegated locations divergent industrial relations’ systems are brought into connection with each other across space and organizational boundaries. This is especially problematic for unions as political organizations, because representation domains become redrawn, constituencies get separated from each other, and new groups need to be integrated (e.g. Helfen & Fichter, 2013). As a result, unions’ domains and jurisdictions may overlap to a certain degree, especially where various industries and sectors are brought together in a GPN; or white spots emerge in representation depending on contractual forms and location in the GPN. While the former may lead to unproductive competition between unions, the latter might feed union weakness and disorganization, especially in smaller units or service providers for which unionization is comparatively lower than in larger manufacturing units. In lead firms, core workforces may get under pressure as their unionized jobs might be put into competition with non-unionized ones in the GPN’s periphery. For collective negotiations, the GPN also complicates the identification of the most relevant negotiation partner on the management side. Even where there is a centre of control in form of a strong lead firm this does not necessarily imply that the lead firm is able or willing to take responsible for distant network partners and suppliers. This holds where there is plurality of coordination arrangements within and across the GPN. Last, but not least the divergent industrial relations in a heterogeneous set of countries combines distinct cultures of representation as well as power resources. Here, global federations of unions face problems to define their domain. In short: The problems of unions to meet the challenge of GPN are difficult to handle, especially because unions build on local representativeness in a global context of production.
One influential idea to restitute labour collectively in GPN is to spark and sustain coordination, cooperation and collaboration among unions themselves, also to win back some of the terrain lost through globalization in the national and local arenas of labour politics (e.g. Davies, Williams, & Hammer, 2011). Meanwhile, a considerable literature has discussed this type of networking among unions under various terms such as “global inter-union politics” (Anner et al. 2006), “cross-border union alliances” (Levesque & Murray 2010), “transnational union networks” (Helfen & Fichter, 2013), “global justice networks” (Cumbers et al. 2008b) or “networks of labour activism” (Zajak, Egels-Zandén & Piper, 2017). Despite divergence in theoretical explanations and the scope of union collaboration discussed, all these concepts see union organizing in an inter-organizational or cross-border network perspective.
Global inter-union politics. One of the earlier contributions by Anner and colleagues tries to map out the limits and possibilities of “global inter-union politics” (Anner et al., 2006) in dealing with capital mobility. Although the term “network” is present as a background idea, the network concept is not used directly for characterizing the inter-organizational politics of unions. Following a rather structural view of politics, the authors entertain a view of networks which carries more a connotation of “social networking” rather than the idea of a strategic network which is prominent in the GPN literature or the managerial supply chain literature. Although the authors do not define inter-union politics explicitly, the basic idea conveyed is that cooperation between unions of different countries and positions in global production is justified for “improving working conditions, wages and union strength in less developed countries while lessening downward pressure and ‘whip-sawing’ in the North” (Anner et al., 2006: 23). Based on case studies of clothing, maritime shipping, and car manufacturing, the authors identify a couple of “push-and-pull factors“ (Anner et al., 2006: 8) that might either facilitate or hinder collaboration among unions. Among these are a global competition between different sites of the multinational corporation, “new inter-, trans-, and supranational regulatory structures”, opportunities for labour strategizing in new arenas within the multinational firms by leverage points, and network- and institutions building within global union structures such as global union federations.
Cross-border union alliances. In discussing “cross-border union alliances” in international union networks, Levesque & Murray (2010: 313) examine the inter-organizational coordination among unions as organizations. Using the NAFTA region as the context, Levesque & Murray (2010) examine inter-organizational coordination between US and Mexican unions, i.e. a context in which trade arrangements are in place that lack supranational institutional support for inter-union collaboration. On these grounds, they discuss several institutional, organisational and agency factors which are either conducive or detrimental to single workplace unions’ participation in international coordination. They identify three varieties of how workplace unions approach cross-border alliances: defensive isolation, risk reduction, and proactive solidarity (Levesque & Murray, 2010: 319). The network formation and governance itself remains largely implicit in Levesque & Murray (2010)’ development of the interactive dynamics influenced by home and host country institutions, and unions’ power resources. However, from a workplace union’s perspective, Levesque & Murray (2010: 316) identify external embeddedness in networks beyond the workplace as one of the critical capabilities for participating productively in inter-union alliances alongside capabilities such as internal solidarity or strategic and discursive capacities. Also, Levesque & Murray (2010) identify qualitatively a couple of important network-related phenomena: (1) diverse connections to multiple networks (p. 323), (2) the distinction between vertical and horizontal networks (p. 324), (3) the distinction between passive and active connectedness, and (4) the need to resourcing the network (p. 330).
Transnational union networks. One way to open the black box of how to govern and manage union networks can be built on the idea of „Transnational Union Networks” (TUN) (Helfen & Fichter, 2013). TUN “may be defined as a network consisting of at least three collective actors from a larger set of actors comprised of GUFs, their national affiliates, works councils, and possibly non-union supporters. TUNs are rarely global in reach but are transnational in that they transcend localities and national borders to bring organized labour from diverse institutional settings to interact. A TUN is built across a cross-border economic network structure of different firms, i.e. a GPN.” (Helfen & Fichter, 2013: 554) A distinct property of a TUN, at least as compared to strategically led GPN is that it explicitly lacks a centre of hierarchical authority to achieve the collective ends of the unions’ collaboration as well as to manage the contributions and resources of the participating actors without their voluntary consent to do so. Similarly, as political organizations TUN cannot coordinate via economic incentives or market coordination but need to build on the mechanisms of political participation and democratic representation. Hence, although connected to a GPN, their governance structures and management differ from their business counterparts’ networks and embodies different strategic choices to become effective. Of these the connection between unions with diverging political orientations, representation cultures, but also power resources emanating from differences in local labour control regimes becomes relevant.
Global justice networks; Networks of labour activism. Taking the idea of networks one step further and linking back to the idea of external connectedness, especially within the context of linking various local labour regimes independently from the business-driven GPN, the idea has been developed that the relevant networks of labour politics are even much broader than just the connections between unions and workplace representatives. Therefore, in the idea of “Global Justice Networks” (GJN) (Cumbers et al. 2008b) also include CSO activism of various sorts. Cumbers, Nativel & Routledge (2008b: 194) define GJN as “a series of overlapping, interacting, and differentially placed and resourced networks (…) [connecting] different place-based movements (..) to more spatially extensive coalitions with a shared interest in articulating demands for greater social, economic and environmental justice.” Such GJN, then, operate largely through the various forms of political campaigning, for example by making public labour standard violations, but also by organizing for changing the institutional orders of the global labour process. Within GJN, forming around economic injustices, the issues and goals are even more diverse, than within TUN or cross-border union alliances, because different civil society actors such as environmental groups, feminist movements or agricultural co-operatives are involved too (Cumbers, Nativel & Routledge, 2008b: 194). Zajak, Egels-Zandén & Piper (2017) have echoed and reiterated this idea of extending the network horizon towards an inclusion of CSOs. These authors understand “Networks of Labor Activism as being characterized by the interaction of different types of organizations joining forces in complex strategizing vis-à-vis multiple targets.” These networks are characterized by “cross-organizational networking” and “cross-border strategizing” in which actions or campaigns of labour policy relate to a “multitude of actors, including local and global trade unions, self-organized workers’ groups, labour rights NGOs, student movements and grassroots community organizations” (Zajak, Egels-Zandén & Piper, 2017: 905)
In summarizing, this overview on GPN and labour illustrates why and how work is paramount for understanding global production, networked and otherwise. Through workers and their labour, global production and global markets are connected to the human life world in various ways; global production is societally, spatially, and institutionally embedded. These connections are important to understand, not least for enforcing and lifting labour standards locally and globally. Against that background, the independent, but networked collective action of workers within and beyond the transnational spaces of global production seems to be paramount for achieving better work. However, union networks are necessary but not sufficient in accomplishing that goal. True, strategically networked unions can initiate campaigns, lobby legislators, and also sometimes negotiate global framework agreements. However, even networked unions cannot overcome all the obstacles that originate within GPN. As a consequence, network collaboration and cooperation is needed that connects the local with the global level of unionization, as well as finds additional allies in civil society organizations, state authorities, international organizations, consumers, and MNCs in social dialogue resulting in a multi-stakeholder policy mix (Weiss, 2013). For example, union networks could collaborate with consumer initiatives and other CSOs in campaigns for holding MNCs accountable to their CSR promises (e.g. Egels-Zandén, 2017; Lund-Thomsen & Lindgreen, 2014). Likewise, unions could engage with other NGOS in a joint social dialogue with MNCs (e.g. Locke, Rissing, & Pal, 2013, Donaghey, Reinecke, Niforou, & Lawson, 2014). And lawmaking and standard-setting international organizations and state agencies on different scales could be activated to push for establishing joint liability for the diversity of forms in third-party employment such as agency work, sub-contracting, franchising and others (e.g. Davidov, 2015; Anner, Bair, & Blasi, 2013). Of course, this sort of collaboration extends also the law-making initiatives such as mandatory due diligence legislation or the reform of labour inspection. In all these initiatives, unions and their global, sectoral as well as regional federations can play the role of a facilitators for coordination, cooperation, and collaboration among their constituencies with other actors by setting up their own variety of network organization. Seen this way, cross-border union networks can contribute to the enforcement of global labour standards by widening the scope of transnational labour politics.
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