Research Handbooks in International Law series
Edited by Adelle Blackett and Anne Trebilcock
Chapter 2: Global organizing and domestic constraints
Despite the long history of trade unions operating across borders, unions’ global engagement reached a peak between about 2004 and 2008, only to be scaled back dramatically after companies and states mobilized to contain them. The demise of these global initiatives, launched precisely because state protections for workers were eroding, was perhaps surprisingly brought about at the level of national laws and national legal institutions and took place outside the framework of labour law. A piece published by Atleson in 2004 captures the spirit at the beginning of the age: unionists expressed tremendous optimism about the potential for global labour organizing. But US unions faced a volley of civil litigation, brought under racketeering legislation enacted in 1970, as their global campaigns were still being conceptualized. Aspirations toward building a global union were interrupted when efforts to begin building a transatlantic union, beginning in 2008, failed to materialize in a full merger. Global agreements, such as the global framework agreement, have still not produced noticeable traction on key international labour issues. Nor has mobilization and resistance in the Global South paved the way for international worker engagement. In the years since 2008, union strategies have changed sharply, becoming more attentive to domestic legal frameworks. Unions have not eschewed global engagement, but rather their approaches and claims have become more modest, and – like the companies and states that acted to contain the earlier experiments in global labour strategy – have looked beyond the realm of labour law.
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