Transnational Collective Agreements and the Development of New Spaces for Union Action: The Formal and Informal Uses of International and European Framework Agreements in the UK

AuthorMiguel Martínez Lucio,Stephen Mustchin
Publication Date01 Sep 2017
British Journal of Industrial Relations doi: 10.1111/bjir.12244
55:3 September 2017 0007–1080 pp. 577–601
Transnational Collective Agreements
and the Development of New Spaces for
Union Action: The Formal and Informal
Uses of International and European
Framework Agreements in the UK
Stephen Mustchin and Miguel Mart´
ınez Lucio
Transnational collective agreements (TCAs) are an important development in
the international dimension of industrial relations. This article compares four
case studies of multinational companies in the UK covered by TCAs. Findings
show that while the formal influence of TCAs was limited, they were invoked
around particular disputes and could strengthen union influence in a context
otherwise characterized by limited union rights. Such influence depended on
the co-ordination of workplace- and firm-level industrial relations institutions,
union access to management at headquarters level and union receptiveness to
and outward engagement with transnational activity. The formal but also the
informal dimensions of these dynamics played a significant role.
1. Introduction
The internationalization of labour relations is a growing area of study.
Transnational Collective Agreements (TCAs), encompassing International
Framework Agreements (IFAs) and European Framework Agreements
(EFAs) constitute a new set of co-ordinating mechanisms and institutions in
the international regulation of employment. This article examines how trade
unions at various levels within the UK use and reference such agreements,
both inwardly facing (how these agreements impact on industrial relations
within multinational company (MNC) subsidiaries) and outwardly facing
(how UK-based unions engage with wider internationalcampaigns supported
by international trade union organizations).
Stephen Mustchin and Miguel Mart´
ınez Lucio are at the University of Manchester
2017 John Wiley& Sons Ltd.
578 British Journal of Industrial Relations
Our analysis focuses on four cases of transnational industrial relations in
the UK: Volkswagen-Bentley, Santander, G4S and Unilever. Representing
dierent sectors (manufacturing and services) and forms of ownership
(UK and non-UK headquartered), each features some degree of union-
management engagement and collective agreement at transnational level,
but demonstrated diering outcomes dependent on the receptiveness of
unions to transnational agreements, their levels of outward engagement with
transnational networksand the interaction between workplace- and firm-level
industrial relations institutions, company headquarters and international
unions and campaigns. The cases with more co-ordinated workplace- and
firm-level level industrial relations institutions,Volkswagen-Bentley and G4S,
featured more unified union organizationin the UK with stronger formalized
links with European Works Councils (EWCs) and Global Union Federations
(GUFs) and more robust, formalized IFAs, whereas multi-unionism, weaker
agreements and less formalized engagement with international employee
representation featured in the less co-ordinated cases of Santander and
Unilever. A key dierence was whether unions had indirect forms of access
to headquarter management via international networks, EWCs or GUFs (as
in Volkswagen-Bentley and Santander), or direct (as in G4S and Unilever).
The cases demonstrate how the influence of labour, or its capacity to
persuade or force employers to act in ways that they otherwise would not
(Brookes 2013: 182), could be strengthened by TCAs in contexts otherwise
characterized by limited union rights. This was evident at specific junctures
when elements of apparently dormant TCAs were invoked and referenced.
In all the cases, TCAs served as a tool, albeit in varying and often informal
ways, for strengthening union influence; however, unions were more able to
derive leverage from these agreements where they derived additional power
resources from workplace- and firm-level industrial relations institutions and
had access to headquarter management.
Most TCAs make reference to generalized rights established through
international labour standards including International Labour Organization
(ILO) core conventions. The vagueness of such formal commitments
may mean that their support for direct, enforceable rights is limited, as
is their relevance to day-to-day industrial relations processes (Niforou
2012). However, more informal engagement with union and management
networks within MNCs, and the invocation of rights established through
otherwise dormant transnational agreements within specific local disputes,
demonstrates the potential for TCAs to strengthen collective rights and
rule-making processes (McCallum 2013: 13). The UK is a useful context
for examining these dynamics, as collective agreements generally have a
non-binding nature and informality (Clegg 1976; Terry 1977), freedom
of association and the ability of unions to organize are demonstrably
constrained, and breaches of labour standards and anti-union strategies are
relatively common (Gall 2013).
The findings demonstrate how, superficially, a dismissive view of such
agreements may be justified, with rights deriving from TCAs dicult to
2017 John Wiley& SonsLtd.

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