The International Handbook of Labour Unions

The International Handbook of Labour Unions

Responses to Neo-Liberalism

Elgar original reference

Edited by Gregor Gall, Adrian Wilkinson and Richard Hurd

Since the 1970s, the spread of neo-liberalism across the world has radically reconfigured the relationship between unions, employers and the state. The contributors highlight that this is the major cause and effect of union decline and if there is to be any union revitalisation and return to former levels of influence, then unions need to respond in appropriate political and practical ways. Written in a clear and accessible style, the Handbook examines unions’ efforts to date in many of the major economies of the world, providing foundations for understanding each country.

Chapter 17: A Future for the Labour Movement?

Lowell Turner

Subjects: business and management, human resource management, organisational behaviour, social policy and sociology, labour policy


Lowell Turner INTRODUCTION By any measure, prospects for labour unions in the current era do not look good. In a context of neo-liberal globalisation, unions in many countries have been beaten down by 30 years of pressure from employers and states. When the economic logic of neo-liberalism collapsed in the crisis that began with financial meltdown in the US in 2007–8, weakened influence dampened the voice of unions in contemporary debates aimed at policy reform. On the other hand, the crisis has opened up an historic opportunity for proponents of sweeping reform. In this chapter, I suggest that prospects for unions are closely linked to broader long-term battles for sustainable society, and can be best understood in the tension and interplay between relative union weakness and the opportunities afforded by deep economic crisis. Wolfgang Streeck (2009), who once explained German economic success with a virtuous circle that included strong worker representation, high wages, and up-market manufacturing, now builds on Karl Polanyi to show how markets over the past 30 years have increasingly escaped from social regulation. The result, he argues, is an incrementally growing disorganisation that has finally added up to neo-liberal transformation, even in Germany. Capitalism has come back to trump apparently stable institutions of coordination and regulation. After picking apart the cross-national institutional analysis of the varieties of capitalism literature for its emphasis on equilibrium, Streeck concludes the book as follows: Every new generation seems to have to devise its own answers to the puzzles posed by...

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