Global Policy Forum

Trade Unions and Globalisation: Enlarging Agendas

World Economy and Development
November 22, 2007

Improved alliance-building, international collaboration and the promotion of the adoption of international labour standards are strategies the trade union movement has developed against the backdrop of globalisation. A new book (see reference) examines some of the crucial issues facing the trade union movement. Verena Schmidt, the editor of the book and coordinator of ILO's Global Union Research Network, explains in an interview how the new policies are being shaped.

"Enlargement" of the overall trade union agenda seems to be one of the key responses to globalisation. How have trade unions gone about this process?

Increasingly trade unions are enlarging their agendas to include issues such as engaging with international organizations in order to influence their policies and organizing global campaigns and extending and deepening their cooperation at the transnational level. The Global Unions, consisting of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Global Union Federations (GUF) and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC), are engaging with large international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank Group, the United Nations and their programmes and funds, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization to promote a fair globalization.

For instance, since the late 1990s, global union leaders have lobbied for inclusion of the ILO core labour standards in World Bank lending and procurement practices. This action has paid off. In May 2006 the International Finance Corporation (IFC) started requiring that all enterprises borrowing from the IFC abide by the core labour standards. Then in December 2006 the World Bank announced that it would extend the core labour standards requirement to public works projects financed by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association. The World Bank started including the core labour standards requirement in its procurement contracts in May 2007.

In what ways is the trade union movement working to expand its network and alliance building?

Building networks between trade unions along global production systems is an example of transnational cooperation. Unions have to deal with sophisticated and often anti-union human resource management strategies at a local level within global production systems and respond to difficult representational situations as a result of sourcing decisions. However, the concept of value chains also presents some opportunities for labour. To benefit from these opportunities, unions are developing strategies with a view to organizing and bargaining collectively along the value chains. Organizing along supply chains could be a way to move beyond existing North-South cooperation arrangements.

At the same time, one potential conflict of interest exists between workers of the global North and the global South when it comes to off-shoring and outsourcing. Indeed, there is a need for active labour market strategies in the global North to avoid workers in the North bearing the cost of outsourcing. It is also important to stop a race to the bottom, especially between countries of the global South. Here, the ILO has an important role to play.

How are trade unions addressing issues of governance and accountability as a result of globalisation?

The enhanced coordination of productive activity between countries by multinationals highlights how the strength of corporate governance has increased in recent years despite the greater dispersion of production. In contrast, the impacts on labour of these value chain strategies, combined with the reduced relevance of national labour legislation in many countries, has left gaps in labour rights. As unions are confronted with the growing influence of the private sector, many are concerned that, in some cases, voluntary corporate codes of conduct are not accompanied sufficiently strongly by measures of "accountability".

The increasing integration of national economies in a single global market and the appearance of new world production systems are demanding stronger coordination of national and international trade union agendas. This is a big challenge for trade unions that traditionally organize within a national context.

Where do International Framework Agreements fit into the picture?

International Framework Agreements are a key tool used by a number of unions to lay down the rules of conduct for transnational companies. Since they are negotiated jointly by national trade unions and GUFs and companies, they are an important instrument for dealing with some of the issues raised by globalisation.

For example, this new framework of global governance enables the unions to intensify efforts to integrate sustainable development practices within their policy, both by lobbying international institutions and by building alliances with non-governmental organisations. If a multinational violates social and environmental norms, the GUFs can either react by initiating demonstrative action or they can take proactive steps by making an offer to negotiate with the corporation on relevant agreements.

What is the role of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and international labour standards in achieving a fair globalisation?

International labour standards are an important catalyst in improving working conditions. While core labour standards must be respected in all member States of the ILO regardless of whether they have been ratified by the countries, the reality is very different. The international labour movement is mobilising the international community to put pressure on those countries which do not respect the core Conventions to make the necessary changes. For example, the issue of private equity and hedge funds has been addressed recently by the international trade union movement. The Global Unions are calling for governments and international organisations to ensure proper regulation, taxation and transparency concerning the activities of private equity and hedge funds.

The book showcases a number of examples of how trade unions have improved the situation of workers by enlarging the labour agenda and cooperation at international, transnational and national levels, as well as through their alliance-building with other civil society groups. The challenges of globalisation can only be met if the trade union movement continues to address new issues and adapt its organisational structures accordingly.


Verena Schmidt (ed.), Trade Union Responses to Globalization: A review by the Global Union Research Network, ILO: Geneva 2007. Available at:



FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.