Trade Unions in Transformation

Trade unions do have power!

Our project “Trade Unions in Transformation” shifts the narrative about trade unions. Moving away from the standard depiction of unions as victims of globalization, we highlight that unions do have agency and power - even as the labour movement is under attack all around the world.

However, trade unions are neither helpless nor passive! Unions change, innovate and pursue new strategies! By doing so, they achieve material and political gains for the workers they represent - and demonstrate how labour can and already does shape globalization. All 26 stories collected here demonstrate that numerous unions succeeded in mobilizing and making use of their power resources.

The Power Resources Approach (El planteamiento de los recursos del poder) distinguishes four types of power unions can draw from and serves as the conceptual framework of our case studies. Their short versions can be found in our new publication: Trade Unions in Transformation - Success stories from all over the world

We hope that the stories of “Trade Unions in Transformation” will inspire workers to rediscover your union’s power resources and help to mobilize them!

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The Four Power Resources Explained

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Stories of Successful Labour Struggles

The 25 stories we present here show how unions have innovated and how they were successful in their struggles. They cut across sectors, continents, levels of engagement and types of organizations and thus display the richness and variety of trade union action. Each story comes with a link to download the original, full-length case study on which it is based.

These are the main topics, along which the stories are organized:

  • Crossing the divide between the formal and informal
  • Facing global capital
  • Political and social alliances
  • Transforming unions towards new horizons

Crossing the divide between the formal and informal

The stories collected here show how workers in non-standard forms of employment were or are organized. In the process of including “informal” workers, new types of organizations have emerged, organizations that are “hybrid” in that they cater to both formally employed workers and workers in informal or precarious work arrangements. Combined with organizational flexibility, a more inclusive understanding of solidarity and of who is a worker enabled unions to approach workers in informal arrangements, bring their strength into the equation of a struggle, and come up with innovative ways of collaboration and interest representation.

These stories strongly indicate that a new expression of labour as agents actively shaping the world of work is about to emerge.

Transforming transport unions through mass organisation of informal workers in Uganda

Developing and utilizing power resources: The case of Kenya National Private Security Workers' Union

A case study of the National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria

Towards a better deal for street vendors in India: The case of NASVI

Rebuilding workers' power beyond corporate boundaries in South Korea


Facing global capital

Unions take on multinational companies and parts of their value chain. The exposure to global capital may leave workers vulnerable, but at the same time opens up new strategic opportunities.

For example, unions make use of their structural power by taking advantage of the time-bound nature of globalized production, including in auto assembly lines or deadlines to finish World Cup Stadiums. Attacking the corporate image of a garment brand or a coffee chain makes use of societal power, especially when people’s sense of justice is evoked successfully. As the Chile case highlights, leverage increases if institutional power such as the OECD Complaint Mechanism can be thrown into the equation. In all cases, associational power is a pre-condition for success and has to be mobilized both at the local and the transnational level.

Building alliances beyond the worksite and across borders adds complexity but opens the chance to escalate the conflict. In sum, a common sense of purpose and solidarity, sharing of responsibilities and a long-term strategy are indispensable elements of building up power.

Mega sporting events in Brazil: Trade unions’ innovative strategies for the construction industry

An inspiring case of union organising in a formidable context: The case of TÜMTIS in Turkey

Shifting powers in Russia's employment relations? Alternative trade unions challenging transnational automotive companies

Transnationalizing Unions: The case of the UAW (USA) and the IG Metall

Central American textile workers - Building power in global networks

Organising and innovating – the winning strategy of Argentina’s pharmaceutical trade union

The power of aviation unions in South America: The ITF LATAM union network

United Aviation Workers Land a Victory
Short Story by Dina Feller and Teresa Conrow

The Power of Aviation Unions in South America: The ITF LATAM Union Network
Full-length Study by Dina Feller and Teresa Conrow

The rookie union that took on the coffee behemoth and won: The case of Starbucks Chile


Political and social alliances

Unions and union confederations in Brazil, Uruguay, Tunisia, South Africa and Indonesia have built sometimes complex alliances with a broad set of social actors, including social movements and NGOs, or long-term relations with political parties to achieve their goals. Both types of alliances are crucial for building up societal power, for extending unions’ spheres of influence and for making progress in different political arenas.

The stories provide insights into what capabilities unions need to build successful alliances and make them last. One recurring issue and success factor is that unions should be autonomous vis-à-vis their partners.

The CUT's experience during the Workers' Party's (PT) governments in Brazil (2003-2016)

Trade unions in transformation – Uruguay: Building trade union power

Trade union power and democratic transition in Tunisia - The UGTT: A unique story, an unprecedented experience

South Africa: An assessment of NUMSA's attempt to develop its political and organisational independence, 2012-2016

Trade union movement and democracy in Indonesia: 2010, 2014, and beyond


Transforming unions towards new horizons

Internal political processes are changing unions and enable them to embark on previously uncovered territory.

The story of the Brazilian National Confederation CUT makes yet another compelling argument for women empowerment, which make unions stronger and more relevant to society. The stories of the ASEAN Service Employees Trade Union Council (ASETUC) and the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) show how unions represent the interest of their members at the regional level. Furthermore, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) are working on deep structural changes that, if successful, will reshape the face and identity of the unions. Malaysia’s MTUC has also opened a new chapter by representing migrant workers’ interests. In Honduras, the deepening of internal democracy allows the teachers’ union to withstand political repression and stay true to its mission.

Building trade union power with gender equality: The case of the Unified Workers’ Central of Brazil

Institutionalizing labour's voice in ASEAN: The ASETUC initiative

New horizons for the hemispheric trade union movement: The Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA)

Enhancing and mobilizing structural and organisational power to better protect the rights and interests of workers in Vietnam

Forced Into a Complicated Transition
Forzados a una transición complicada
Short Story by Dong Xuan Hieu, Pham Tuan Phuc and Erwin Schweisshelm

Enhancing and Mobilizing Structural and Organisational Power to Better Protect the Rights and Interests of Workers in Vietnam
Full-length Study by Dong Xuan Hieu, Pham Tuan Phuc and Erwin Schweisshelm

Towards a powerful value chains trade union: South African NUMSA’s expanded scope

Organizing migrant domestic workers in Malaysia: Challenges in revitalization

Honduras: Teachers’ union fights to preserve its rights through labour reform

How a public campaign may become the turning point for Czech unions’ strength

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