(Re‐)Locating the Local and National in the Global: Multi‐Scalar Political Alignment in Transnational European Dockworker Union Campaigns

Publication Date01 September 2017
AuthorKaty Fox‐Hodess
Date01 September 2017
British Journal of Industrial Relations doi: 10.1111/bjir.12222
55:3 September 2017 0007–1080 pp. 626–647
(Re-)Locating the Local and National in
the Global: Multi-Scalar Political
Alignment in Transnational European
Dockworker Union Campaigns
Katy Fox-Hodess
Labour activists have called for greater international co-ordinationamong trade
unions in response to the assault on organized labour by global capital, but such
co-ordination faces many hurdles. Under what conditions can unions overcome
those barriers and co-ordinate eectively to achieve campaign goals? I examine
this question through a comparison of European-level international solidarity
with Portuguese, Greek and English aliates of the International Dockworkers
Council involved in labour disputes.The divergent outcomes of otherwise similar
cases reveal the critical role of politics and strategy at dierent scales and
sites of union organization in determining the successful exercise of labour
1. Introduction: the challenge of building an international labour movement
At least since the 1848 publication of The Communist Manifesto,withits
famous last line ‘Workingmen of all countries unite, you have nothing to lose
but your chains’, activists seeking to advance the struggles of working people
haveadvocated for and sought to build internationalorganizations of workers.
But as Marx himself learned from the failed experiment of the International
Workingmen’s Association, international labour organization is easier said
than done. While exploitation is most tangibly experienced by workers at
the local level, and workers’ collective power in the economic system stems
from their disruptive power at the point of production, capital itself is
always embedded in an international system of accumulation. Maintaining
labour organization solelyat the local and national level, therefore, can never
Katy Fox-Hodessis at the Department of Sociology, University of California
2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
(Re-)Locating the Local and National in the Global 627
be sucient. But ‘scaling up’ labour organization poses a separate set of
challenges: first, workersmust become aware of the interconnectedness of their
struggles across borders; and second, they must find strategies for pressuring
capital in a context where increasing scale takes labour organization further
and further away from the shop floor. Successful struggle by workers against
exploitation, therefore, would seem to involve organization at the shop-
floor, national-political and international levels. But what form should this
international organizationtake and how might workersovercome their myriad
national dierences while not straying too far from the shop floor? In other
words, what are the conditions and strategies that enable unions to overcome
barriers and co-ordinate eectively atthe international level? These questions
continue to complicate eorts to build an international labour movement
The small number of successful examples of contemporary labour
internationalism point to the inherent diculties of organizing
transnationally. Examples of successful campaigns tend to come either
from cases of shared and immediate self-interest — in which workers share
common transnational employers or common transnational governance
frameworks — or from cases in which workers engage in one-o acts of
solidarity in campaigns with limited scope. My research instead examines
an exceptional case: a non-mainstream and non-bureaucratic global union
organization, the International Dockworkers Council (IDC), that has
sustained and developed itself from a single one-o solidarity campaign
for the Liverpool dockworkers in the 1990s to a broad network based on
principles of rank-and-file collaboration and mutual aid today. My study
of the IDC therefore provides an analysis of an institutionalized form of
rank-and-file internationalism, providing an important model to union
activists interested in building labour internationalism ‘from below’.
Using interviews with key union activists and union archivalmaterials, this
article examines three cases of international solidarity among workers located
at the heart of the global economy: dockworkers. The structural position of
dockworkers in the world economy — their central role in the circulation
of commodities and accumulation of capital and the very high degree of
international interconnectedness inherent in their work — suggests that if
eective labour internationalism is to make a decisive contribution to dispute
resolution among any group of workers, it should do so among dockworkers.
Yet, among the European dockworker cases in my study, there was significant
variation in outcomes of internationalco-ordination. The divergent outcomes
of otherwise similar cases reveal the critical role of politics and strategy at
dierent scales and sites of union organization in determining the successful
exercise of labourinternationalism. Fundamentally, I argue that wherepolitical
conditions and ideological traditions allowed the building of concrete and direct
linkages between workers at local worksites, labour transnationalism has a
positive impact during labour struggles.
Eectiveness depended on co-ordinatingstrategy at three levels.At the local
and transnational levels,dockworkers succeeded by tying togetherstrong shop
2017 John Wiley& Sons Ltd.

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