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 distinguishes four types of power unions can draw from and serves as the conceptual framework of our case studies.

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!

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.

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.

Brazilian construction workers in preparation of the FIFA World Cup

Turkish Transport workers in DHL and other logistics companies

Russian automotive/Hinz

UAW automotive automotive workers

Central American textile workers

Pharmaceutical workers in Argentina/Dobrusin

South American airline workers/Latam

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

Starbucks employees in Chile/Labra

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.

Union confederations in Brazil


UGTT Tunisia

South Africa


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.

CUT Brazil story



VGCL 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

NUMSA in South Africa

Malaysia’s MTUC

Honduras teachers’ union

ČMKOS' Public Campaign

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