Globalization and the Power of Local Unions: A Case Study of Mexico’s Automobile Industry
HEC Montreal - Department of Human Resources Management
March 15, 2003
Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations, Vol. 58, No. 1, 2003
It is commonly held that the increasing globalization of the economy leads inexorably to the weakening of local union power. But if globalization is rightly associated with new constraints, such constraints do not automatically determine the outcomes of local union action. Union power remains indeterminate, essentially a function of its own power resources and the context in which these powers are mobilized. There is considerable evidence to suggest that union power does not automatically decrease. The capacity of local unions to regulate changes at the workplace level appears closely linked to three power resources : strategic capacity, which refers to the ability of local unions to shape and put forward their own agenda ; internal solidarity, which relates to the mechanisms developed in the workplace to ensure democracy and collective cohesion among workers ; external solidarity, which refers both to the capacity of local unions to work with their communities and to build horizontal and vertical coordination with other unions, and to the building of alliances among unions, community groups and social movements.
Drawing on seven case studies conducted in the automotive industry in Mexico, this paper seeks to examine whether this power resource approach to local union action applies to the Mexican institutional context where globalization has exacerbated the imbalance of power between union and management.
Three major conclusions emerge from the case studies. First, even if the factories in our sample are highly integrated into the world economy, there is little evidence of either a unidirectional or of an undifferentiated decline in local union power. On the contrary, there is a high degree of variation, and local unions adopt quite different positions with regard to workplace changes. While some local unions are simply excluded, others are highly involved in various forms of joint regulation and appear able to exert an influence on outcomes. The deterministic view of globalisation should have led to the reversed situation, namely an increasing convergence of change for which the predominant pattern would be union exclusion. To that extent, and despite the obvious pressures in the context of globalization, local actors appear to have a margin of freedom to choose among a range of possible options and strategies.
Second, and this lends considerable support to our central theoretical proposition, local union power resources appear to exert a considerable structuring effect on patterns of union involvement in workplace change. In workplaces where the local union is unable to mobilize its potential power resources, it is by and large simply excluded from the change process. It does not appear to be a credible interlocutor for the employer. Inversely, in workplaces where the local union is able to mobilize its power resources, it tends to play a more active role in the change process. More importantly, in order to achieve joint regulation of workplace change, the local union must be able to activate three distinct power resources. First, it must have a range of mechanisms in place that reinforce internal solidarity and democracy within the local union. Second the union must be embedded in external networks and be able to draw on expertise and information from those vertical and horizontal networks. Third, it must be able to formulate and put forward its own vision of change.
Finally, management approach towards the union also has considerable effect on union involvement in workplace changes. In workplaces where the management has a pluralist approach, two patterns of union involvement stand out : a consultative pattern and a joint regulation pattern. In workplaces where the management has a unitary labour relations approach (i.e., the employer does not countenance the existence of competing interests between workers and their firm), the union is either excluded from the change process or its participation is contested. In these factories, management would only tend to accept union proposals if such proposals conform to its competitive logic. Otherwise, union involvement is not welcome. In such a context, the pursuit of an autonomous agenda by the local union tends to be perceived as an attack on management prerogatives. Thus, union involvement is a subject of open conflict between union and management. These results highlight the complexity and the contradictory nature of management strategies. Indeed, a unitary labour relations approach, which promotes cooperative labour-management relations, creates exactly the opposite effect : conflict and tension over union involvement in the change process.
Overall, it seems clear from these results that local union power resources do make a difference. The intent is certainly not to deny the impact of globalization on local union action but to show that in such a context, unions must mobilize their resources of power in order to ensure their influence in the change process. Thus, the power resources framework presented in this article is meant to identify some of the avenues of renewal for local unions.
JEL Classification: J51, L62Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: August 24, 2010
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