Skip to content
Main menu hidden.

Trade Unions, Globalisation, and Environmental Degradation

Research project Trade Union politics towards the North-South divide and environmental degradation are studied across five countries: Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, India.

Head of project

Nora Räthzel

Project overview

Project period:

2008-01-01 2010-12-30


Finansår , 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

huvudman: Nora Räthzel, finansiar: FAS, y2003: , y2004: , y2005: , y2006: , y2007: , y2008: , y2009: , y2010: , y2011: , y2012: , y2013: , y2014: , y2015: , y2016: , y2017: , y2018: , y2019: , y2020: ,

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences

Research area


Project description

Trade Unions facing the dual challenge of globalising work division and globalising environmental degradation. An interdisciplinary comparative case study:

1. Formulating the problem and the aim of the project

“… Rich nations tend to focus primarily on its sustainability issues, while the others tend to focus primarily on development. For this reason, trade unions have urged a focus on poverty elimination and employment.” “Since workplaces are centres of production, as well as major consumers (…), it follows that they must be assigned a central role in any strategy for (…) change. This situates the debate on sustainable development directly in the historical objectives of trade unions (…)” (Gereluk/Royer 2001: 13f, 2f).

In this publication of the International Labour Office in Geneva (ILO) the authors provide a concise argument for linking the issue of environmental degradation with a transformation of the forms of production and consumption, including the need to address the “North-South” divide.

Since the beginning of modern concerns for the environment in the seventies it has been argued that environmental threats are global. These global effects have been reinforced by the accelerated globalisation of industrial production, which carries its environmental threats across the globe together with the potentially negative impact of industrial products. The aim of globalising production is to make the labour process more flexible in terms of space and time and to increase revenues by saving salaries. What has been less discussed is that such relocations also save costs to adjust production to environmental standards (see the Bhopal case, where production occurred on low safety standards, which would not have been allowed in the West).

We suggest that global environmental degradation and the global division of labour are to be seen as effects of the overarching process of economically driven globalisation. It increases the “North-South” divide as well as the divide between poor and rich within individual nations . It sets workers of the “South” and the “North” in competition against each other and thus hampers a politics of international solidarity. Since globalisation is driven by transnational corporations, trade unions as the traditional and, in spite of their weakening, most powerful defenders of workers’ rights are the most likely social actors interested in challenging its negative effects.

Our project aims to investigate the ways in which trade unions in the “North” and the “South” respond to the dual challenge of a globalising work division and globalising environmental degradation. We want to examine whether and under which conditions trade unions perceive and address these issues as connected and when and why this is not the case. The question of global work division and the question of environmental degradation seen in a “North-South” perspective may appear to be disparate issues, but they can be regarded as reformulations of the formula of “sustainable development”, which incorporates economic, social and environmental sustainability: Global work division, and the widening “North-South” gap are the social aspects of the economically driven globalisation process, which impacts on the environment as its third dimension. Globalisation changes national and international industrial relations: While globalising corporations are forming what Sklair calls a new international historical bloc in power (2001), trade unions are lagging behind in unifying their efforts, which weakens their position within the capital-work partnership.

To be able to investigate these dimensions in depth we want to examine predominantly one significant case: The Metalworkers unions in Brazil, South Africa, India, and Sweden, and the International Metalworkers Federation. In addition, we need to study the ITUC since it is vital for setting environmental sustainability on trade unions’ agendas and the social dimension of sustainability on the agenda of the international debate on sustainability.

2. Our previous research: the emergence of a research question

Our concern for trade union politics towards the environment and the “North-South” divide has developed from observations we made during our study of the everyday lives of Volvo workers in Sweden, South Africa, Mexico and India (VR project DNR 2004-2003, ending in 2007, Räthzel et. al.): Intra-company competition, for instance about where parts are produced and where they are only assembled sets workers in different countries against each other. However, the unions of the respective plants had no contacts with each other. Volvo promotes its products as environmentally friendly but as our findings suggest, less efforts are invested in environmentally friendly workplaces to protect workers from dangers related to working materials and machines. Transnational corporations are spatially mobile but workers are stuck in their localities, unable to escape health and environmental dangers resulting from production processes. Since our previous research focused on the everyday lives of Volvo workers, we were unable to follow up on the politics of the trade unions. Reviewing the literature on environmental sustainability on the one hand, and trade union politics on the other, we realised that both questions are rarely analysed in their relation to each other. Also, there is hardly any analysis that looks at the connection between the globalisation of work division and global environmental threats in the context of the “North-South” divide. Because of their relevance for the lives of workers in- and outside the factories (as producers and consumers) we want to investigate these relationships.

3. Theoretical background

a) The globalising division of work: Local place and global space

There can be no uncontested definition of "globalisation". The purposes for which the concept is used and the evaluations of the processes described vary substantially (Gibson-Graham 1996). What is mainly disputed is the significance and meaning of globalisation and whether it represents a qualitatively new phenomenon. World system theorists suggest that transnational capitalism is producing a new historical configuration (Shannon 1992, Wallerstein 1992).

This includes a new production system and a new international division of labour grounded in the practice of transnational corporations to relocate their labour intensive operations in order to benefit from cheap labour in countries of the “South”. UNCTAD (1994) has identified more than 200 000 such transnational corporations (for a further analysis see: Petras & Veltmeyer 20001, Cowie 2001, Castells 1998, Sklair 2001, Dicken 2003). Another crucial factor of the new form of globalisation is the development of new information based technologies and means of communication, to achieve temporal and spatial flexibility of the labour process. What this amounts to is a new mode of capital accumulation and regulatory regime defined as post-Fordism by some authors (Amin1994, Buroway 2000). As its essential feature we can identify the globalising division of work: while manufacturing recedes in the countries of the “North” it concentrates in the countries of the “South”.

This “spatial fix” Silver (2003), has led scholars to talk about the end of work (Rifkin 1995, Gorz 1982, 1999), the replacement of material work by immaterial, knowledge work, leading to the concept of the information society. While capturing an aspect of these transformations, these analyses are predominantly undertaken from a “Northern” perspective (Sennett 2006 acknowledges this), disregarding that we are not witnessing a replacement of one kind of work by another, but rather a displacement of labour intensive production into the “South”.

Doreen Massey (2005) addresses this problem when she criticises the concept of globalisation as “aspatial”. Defining globalisation as being about flows, openness, free movement, obliterates the necessary “spatial fixation” on which movements depend: While capital can move freely, those at the margins are put under some pressure (Free Trade agreements) to open their borders, while told to stay where they are (Massey 2005: 86f). Boltanski/Chiapello (2005: 362ff) argue similarly, defining the mobility/immobility relation as the new form of exploitation in what they coin a “connexionist” world. Other authors have sought to theorise the relationship between the global and the local using the term “glocalisation” (Robertson 1992, Bauman 1998).

Trade unions need to be locally rooted in the workers’ everyday lives and have a profound knowledge of the societal conditions determining their work. At the same time, trade unions and workers worldwide are thrown together into a common global space, particularly when employed by the same company. What then becomes necessary is to turn this “throwntogetherness” (Massey 2005) into active negotiating power. Researchers have analysed the difficulties of unions to respond to global challenges (Burbach 2001, Mulinari & Neergaard 2004, Neergaard 2000, Cowie 2001, Waterman 1998, Sjölander 2004, Nyström 2000). Confronting a transnational corporation, unions need to defend the rights of local workers. Defending easily becomes defensive (see the analyses in Beukema/Carrillo 2004:201).

Capital will tend towards deregulating and eroding workers’ rights, which in turn locks trade unions into an often futile battle of preserving what has becoming obsolete, since the locality of these achievements is forever lost. Success in defending workers’ rights depends on creating new international alliances and integrating new issues. As Silver points out (2003) the ground for a necessary new internationalism is undercut by the tremendous gap between workers in wealthier countries and workers in poorer countries. This might explain why one recent significant step to more unified trade union policies occurred between unions of “North”: Amicus, the biggest union for workers in manufacturing in the UK is discussing to merge with the United Steel Workers Union based in the US and Canada. The attempt is to “challenge the might of multinationals” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6531749.stm , accessed April 07, 2007)

In general, national unions of the “North” and “South” tend to compete against and among each other for jobs (what is called the race to a “competitive bottom”), rather than develop common strategies that could benefit workers in all countries (Chan & Cross 2003, ILO 1998, Hyman 1994). However, since the globalisation process is mainly driven by transnational corporations, trade unions seem to be the “natural” social actors capable to challenge its negative effects. They have to become “global players” as corporations are already. One way of doing this is to tighten the relationship between international and local unions. To analyse such processes, we suggest a third concept be added to the concepts of local/global, mobile/immobile, namely object/agent. We want to ask how unions, thrown into a global space not of their making, can become active agents within this space while maintaining their local roots. The adaptation of national unions to the challenges of globalisation have been predominantly investigated within “Northern” countries (Traxler et. al. 2001), and without paying attention to environmental issues.
We want to shift this focus to the relationship between unions of the “North” and the “South”.

This also constitutes a difference from developmental studies, which concentrate mainly on the “South”. Such a relational approach reflects more closely the effects of globalising sustainability issues.

b) Trade Unions and the challenge of global environmental degradation

We principally discuss environmental sustainability because social sustainability, though under a different name, is the cause of Trade Unions’ existence, while concern for the environment is often said to stand in the way of their interest in protecting workers’ rights.
Two sets of relationships have to be considered when we think about unions and the environment: a) the way in which environmentalists and the literature on environmental sustainability relate to the area of production in general and to unions specifically; b) the way in which unions relate to environmental sustainability. Considering the first, Dickens (2004:120) notes that it is consumption that is for many environmentalists at the heart of the environmental problem.

This was not the case in the beginning of the debate, when the main aim was to fundamentally transform production, consumption and life styles in the West. One of the most influential books was entitled: The limits to Growth (Meadows et. al.1972, see also Schumacher 1974, Hirsch 1978, Bookchin 1980). At the World Conference in Rio 1992 the term “ecodevelopment”, was replaced by “sustainability” (Dobson 1996 discusses the many meanings of the concept). The United States had opposed the term ecodevelopment as it questioned free trade and unlimited economic growth. Widely accepted, this conceptual shift asking that the needs of the present generation should not compromise the needs of successive generations, has gradually led to a shift of attention from production to consumption, and from social actors to individual consumers: research and policies focus now on ways in which individual “consumer behaviour” can be changed to become “sustainable” (the most comprehensive work in this respect is Gardner/Stern 2002). What has been pushed to the margins is the fact that what is consumed has to have been produced first. This might also be due to opposing approaches of environmentalists and trade unions: the latter argue from an anthropocentric perspective, while the former argue from an ecocentric perspective.

This dichotomy has been criticised arguing that humans are part of nature and the “metabolism” between humans and their “external” nature is a vital process of life (Dickens 2004: 58ff). Castree (2001, 2005), Redclift (1996), and Harvey (1996) have insisted that nature is socially produced and that therefore any politics to halt environmental destruction has to take into account the specific social relations within which a specific nature is produced. Bruno Latour (1993) traces the separation of natural sciences and social sciences to the debate between Hobbes and Boyle, the latter arguing on the basis of experimentally created facts, the former on the basis of theories of the social (ibid. 29f).

Latour maintains that ‘things’ and the ‘social’ co-constitute each other and thus have to be studied in relation to each other. These insights reinforce the argument that unions – and workers in general – are in a privileged position to transcend the dichotomy between an anthropocentric and an ecocentric view since workplaces as the centres of production and major consumers of natural resources are the places where nature is transformed to produce our “second nature”. Trade unions are social actors oriented towards changing the social conditions of production and thus, their contribution to challenge environmental threats is indispensable. However, only few studies examine union engagement with environmental questions internationally and nationally (Silverman 2006, Penney, 2001, Heins 2004, Hyman 1999). Our contribution to this debate is to examine the relationships between international, national, and local unions’ politics regarding “green issues.”

4. Empirical background – the research field: Trade Unions’ policies

There does exist a tradition of trade union engagement in “green issues”, predominantly on the international level (Silverman 2004). But also national trade unions, especially in Canada and Australia have committed themselves to environmental goals. Over the last years engagement has been spreading fast: in July 2006 a new Sustainable Development Unit was launched by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), GURN, Sustainlabour and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC): “It took more than a decade for trade unions at the United Nations to obtain acceptance of social factors as intrinsic to sustainable development, along with environmental and economic factors.

This acceptance took place at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)” (Workbook 2006: pp.3.). To address the often stated argument that environmental concerns lead to job losses, a Workers’ Initiative for a Lasting Legacy (WILL) has been set up, based on the belief that “a commitment to employment transition will radically convert potential worker resistance to climate change measures … that can have a major impact on environmental protection and climate change.” (Workbook 2006: 14) The ITUC is vital for setting environmental sustainability on trade unions’ agendas (http://www.gurn.info/topic/susdev/index.html , accessed April 17, 2007) and social sustainability on the agenda of international organisations like the Commission for Sustainable Development of the United Nations (CSD). While the international Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) sees sustainability as an integral part of union objectives, only few national unions join the international organisations on sustainability politics. (Silverman 2006:205). Local trade unions are said to experience environmental questions as forcing them into the alternative: either jobs or the environment. Our research aims to understand the gap between international trade union engagement with sustainability and the reluctance of local unions and partly also national unions to share this engagement.

5. Specification of research questions

What we want to understand can be summarised as a set of interdependent relationships. The “North-South” divide, understood here specifically as the way in which transnational companies relocate their labour intensive production into countries of the “South”, which try to make themselves attractive for foreign investments, constitutes one relationship, the mobility/immobility relation. The negative effect of these relocations on working conditions and on environmental standards (“race to the bottom line”) in all countries constitutes another one: the local/global relation. Finally, there is the relationship of workers within and between “North” and “South” set against each other, but also depending on each other in their need for secure and healthy employment and a healthy environment: the object/agent relation. All of these relationships need to be addressed by trade unions locally, nationally, and internationally.

To investigate these relationships we need to analyse globalisation in a socio-spatial context: local places are transformed through transnational corporations acting as place making actors, not only transforming the physical places they occupy, but equally the local social relations, predominantly industrial relations. But here again, one has to think relationally, since corporations are also made by the places they occupy. Simultaneously, a ‘thirdspace’ (Soja 1996), the global space of the transnational corporation, is created into which workers are “thrown together”. Empirically, the social and spatial dimensions of these processes are inseparable, but they must be separated analytically for the purpose of investigation.

The guiding questions for the whole project will be:

- What are the socio-spatial and social transformations effected by the transnational corporation and how does it have to adapt to local socio-spatial and social conditions?
- What are the relations between union politics oriented towards working conditions and environmental issues (the question of social and ecological sustainability)?
- What are the barriers and possibilities for international co-operation of unions between and within the “North-South” divide and among international, national and local trade unions (the question of globalising trade unions)?
- What possibilities and barriers occur when one trade union faces one employer in different national contexts representing different social positions in the global hierarchy (the question of “throwntogetherness” vs. agency)?
- What lessons can be learned from successful politics in all these areas?

6. Gender and Ethnicity

Due to the diversification of the workforce in terms of gender and ethnicity, diversified interests and positions of workers also manifest themselves in the issues we want to investigate. Family and gender relations are among the social transformations effected by transnational corporations. Naturally, we will analyse such effects and possible interest conflicts between different groups of the workforce and its influence on trade union politics.

7. Empirical basis – Access

To be able to examine the multiple dimensions of our research area it is useful to use a case study approach. The case must be significant enough to yield results that can be theorised to understand other cases. It must stretch across countries of the “North” and the “South” to make comparison possible and its analysis must be extendable to include its embeddedness in local, national and global political, social, and economic structures (Burawoy 1998).

- Unions: The Metal Workers’ Union is one of the biggest Unions on different national levels as well as internationally. It organises manufacture workers and employees in high-tech industries, which are affected differently by the processes under investigation. The ITUC and its longstanding engagement with sustainability needs to be included into the research.

- Companies: The comparative aspect of our project will be facilitated by choosing mainly one transnational company, whose workers are organised by the metal union and which is present on all continents: Volvo has its headquarters in Sweden, produces in countries of the “North” and the “South” and allows us to explore a variety of national contexts. In the selected countries we will also examine trade union politics in one company of the IT sector, to identify possible differences related to different technologies and forms of production.

- Countries: Countries are chosen according to their different forms of insertion into the globalising process: Sweden as a country of the core, Brazil as a country of the semi-periphery, India as an emerging economy, (with Bangalore as its fastest growing area), South Africa because it has the highest level of integration in Africa. In addition, COSATU is a very active union on environmental issues.
Access: Through our previous research at Volvo we have established links to the respective unions and gained information about the four countries. This knowledge will make our research more viable and improve its quality. L. Royer and W. Gereluk at the ITUC, have agreed to support our research since, as they wrote to us, it asks questions that are central to their work.

8. Methods

- Qualitative Interviews: We will conduct in-depth individual and focus group interviews with members and high officials of the International Metalworkers Federation and the respective Metalworkers Unions in all four countries as well as with members of the ITUC. They will serve a double purpose: they will provide the basis for the design of a questionnaire and they will be analysed in their own right as ethnographic material using contextualised discourse analysis (Räthzel 2006).

- Participant Observation: We will attend conferences and meetings of the International Metalworkers Federation, national unions, and the ITUC.

- Quantitative Questionnaire: Professor David Uzzell, Environmental Psychologist at the University of Surrey, and visiting Professor at the departments of Sociology and Psychology in Umeå, has agreed to construct and undertake a sample survey among 1000 unionists in each of the four countries asking for their opinions on the issues presented in this proposal. He will design this survey based on his research in Surrey and our co-operation on issues of place and sustainability. The questionnaire will be distributed via the respective trade unions.

Document Analysis: We will examine the archives of the international and the national unions to understand the historical process of politics in our areas of interests.


Amin, A. (1994) Post-fordism. A reader. Oxford. Blackwell.
and production: Final report to the United Nations Environment Programme. Paris.
Bauman, Z. (1998) Globalazation. New York: Columbia University Press
Beukema, L. and Carrillo J. (eds.) (2004) Globalism/Localism at work. Amsterdam: Elsevier
Boltanski, L.,Chiapello, E. (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London: Verso
Bookchin, M. (1980) Toward an Ecological Society. Montreal: Black Rose Books.
Burawoy, M. (2000) Global Ethnography. Berkeley University of California Press.
Burawoy, M. (1998) ‘The extended Case Method’ In: Sociological Theory 16:1 pp. 4-33.
Burbach, R. (2001) Globalisation and Postmodern Politics. Pluto Press. London.
Castells, M. (1998) End of Millennium. Oxford. Blackwell.
Castree, N. (2005) Nature. London and New York: Routledge.
Chan, A., Ross, R. (2003) "Racing to the bottom. International trade without a social
clause". Third World Quarterly . Vol 24. No. 6. pp. 1011-1028.
Cowie, J. (2001) Capital Moves. RCA`s Seventy Years Quest for cheap Labor. New York: The New Press.
Danford, A. Richardson M., Upchurch, M. (2003) New Unions, New Workplaces A study of Union Resilience in the Restructured Workplace. London. Routledge.
Dicken, Peter (2003) Global shift. Reshaping the global economic map in the 21st century. New York: Guilford Press.
Dickens, Peter (2004) Society and Nature. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gardner, G. T., Stern, P. C. (2002) Environmental Problems and Human Behavior. Boston: Pearson.
Dobson, A. (1996). Environment Sustainabilities: an analysis and a typology, Environmental Politics, 5, 3, pp. 401-428.
Gereluk, W., Royer, L. (2001): Sustainable Development of the Global Economy: A Trade Union Perspective. International Labour Office, Geneva.
Gibson-Graham J. K. (1996) The End of Capitalism. (As we knew it). London: Blackwell.
Gorz, A. (1982) Farewell to the Working Class, London: Pluto Press
Gorz, A. (1999) Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Harvey, D. (1996) Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell
Heins, B. (2004). The role of labour unions in the process towards sustainable consumption
and production: Final report to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Paris, France.www.ecologic.de/download/projekte/1850-1899/1883/1883_study.pdf
Hirsch, F. (1978) Social Limits to Growth. London: Routledge and Keagan Paul.
Hyman, R. (1994) Changing Trade Union Identities and Strategies. In: Hyman, R., Ferner, A. (red) New Frontiers in European Industrial Relations. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hyman, R. (1999) An emerging agenda for trade unions: Geneva: International Institute for Labour Studies.
ILO (1998) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
Latour, B. (1993) We have never been Modern. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester.
London and Washington: Pinter.
Massey, D. (2005) For Space. London, Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Meadows, D. H., D. L. Meadows, J. Randers, and W.W. Beherens III (1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.
Mulinari, D., Neergaard, A. (2004) Den nya svenskaarbetarklassen: rasifierade arbetares kamp inom facket. Umeå: Boréa.
Neergaard, A. (2000) Fackföreningsrörelsen: mellan 'globalisering' och 'individualisering'." In Politiskt inflytande, A. Neergaard and Y. Stubbergaard (eds.). Lund: Studentlitteratur.
Nyström, Ö. (2000) Mellan anpassning och motstånd. Facket och det nya arbetslivet. Atlas.
Penney, J. (2001). Work in progress: Major unions in Canada are pushing for a win-win
scenario. Alternatives, 27(1), 18.
Petras J., Veltmeyer, H. (2001) Globalisation Unmasked. London: Zed books.
Räthzel, N. (2006) Kön och rasism i diskurser. In: Mulinari, D., Sandell, K. (ed.) Feministiska interventioner. Berättelser om och från en annan värld. Stockholm: Atlas. (pp. 321-358)
Räthzel, N., Molina, I., Tollefsen, A., Mulinari, D. Everyday lives of Volvo workers. (Manuscript)
Redclift, M. (1996) Wasted. Counting the Costs of Global Consumption. London: Earthscan
revolutionen, svenska Metall och Ericssonarbetarna i Colombia. Växjö: Universitet.
Rifkin, J. (1995) The end of work. New York: Putnam
Robertson, R. (1992) Globalization: Social theory and global culture.
Schumacher, E.F. (1974) Small is beautiful. New York: Random House.
Sennett, R. (2006) The Culture of the New Capitalism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Shannon T. (1992) An introduction to the World System Perspective. New York: Westview
Silver B. (2003) Forces of Labor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Silverman, V. (2004). Sustainable alliances: The ideology of international labor environmentalism. International Labor and Working Class History, 66, 118–135.
Silverman, V. (2006) in: Organization & Environment, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 191-213
Sjölander, J. (2004) Solidaritets omvägar. Facklig internationalism i den trejde industriella
Sklair, L. (2001) The transnational capitalist Class. London: Blackwell Publishing.
Traxler, F., Blaschke, S., Kittel, B. (2001) National Labour Relations in Internationalized Markets. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
UNCTAD (1994) World Investment Raport. New York and Geneva: United Nations.
Wallerstein, I. (1980) The Modern World System I. Burlington: Elsevier.
Wallerstein, I. (1992) The West, Capitalism and the Modern World System. Review 15. (4) pp. 651-620.
Waterman, P. (1998) Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms. London: Cassell.
Workbook, The (2006) Labour and Environment. Collective Commitments for sustainable Development. http://www.global-unions.org/pdf/ohsewpO_6h.EN.pdf , accessed April 7, 2007.

Latest update: 2024-04-02