Sub-theme 02: (SWG) The Role of Organized Labour in and around the MNC

Graham Hollinshead
University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom
Christoph Dörrenbächer
Berlin School of Economics and Law, Germany
Mike Geppert
Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany

Call for Papers

There is now a growing recognition on the part of more critical scholars that MNCs constitute inherently political institutional entities. Socio-political studies are now drawing long overdue attention to the primacy of a concern with the interests, ideologies and identities of actors entangled within the power relations of the MNC, as well as outside its formal boundaries (Geppert & Dörrenbacher, 2014). However, narratives on MNC organization from both academic and practitioner viewpoints have been prone to regard labour as a somewhat passive and homogenous ‘input’ (Taylor, 2008), rather than as being constructed and utilized within particular social institutions and power relations at the level of the firm, society or international economy (Clarke; 1980; Burawoy, 1985; Lee, 1998). Bringing organized labour to the fore of the debate on MNC organization is bound to reveal, in a stark fashion, fundamental asymmetries in modes of international production and service delivery, workforces frequently being highly atomized and relatively replaceable in the corporate rush to capital accumulation (Fichter, 2013), while capital itself may be shifted expeditiously across borders with little warning.
It may be argued that the need to gain finely- tuned and empirically informed insight into the role of labour and labour organizations in and around the MNC is becoming increasingly pressing as a logic of ‘industrial peace’ discernible across countries and organizations until the mid-1980s has given way to a dominant logic of competition driven by economic globalization (Frege & Kelly, 2013, Frenkel & Kuruvilla, 2002). Such developments are associated with the emergence of a transnational capitalist class (Caroll, 2010; Murray & Scott, 2012), the rise of a pervasive agenda of financialization of capitalist societies, and a related hardening in international management styles and strategies. In the wake of ‘globalization’, trade union movements in many countries would appear to have been in retreat, suffering, in particular, significant reductions in trade union membership and withering capability to bring countervailing pressure to bear on unmitigated employer power through collective bargaining.
A fruitful trajectory of investigation in seeking to cast light on the challenges confronting labour in the new global economy is to explore, in a critical fashion, employer strategies which impact fundamentally on the employment relationship in the new global economy. A particularly insidious practice from the perspective of organized labour is the ability of the MNC to undertake ‘benchmarking’ or ‘coercive comparisons’ across its subsidiaries. This constitutes a form of internal competition in which factors such as cost effectiveness and quality of output may be cross- compared between sites with an ultimate threat of closure or capital -switch being wielded by HQ. More generally, evidence is mounting that resistance to union organization is becoming more widespread in both developed and developing economies (Bronfenbrenner, 2008), this coinciding with the likelihood that ‘low road’ employment strategies are gaining ground in emerging economies such as India and China, while ‘high road’ strategies are tending to subside in advanced regions (Kuruvilla & Lakhani, 2013).
It should also be acknowledged that the form and structure of international capitalist organization is subject to transmutation. In particular, Global Production Networks (GPNs) and related configurations of international supply chains through which MNCs project systems of governance to control and coordinate networks of production across socially embedded and regionally dispersed organizational units have proliferated in recent years. Such networks are frequently characterized by their ‘footloose’ spatial characteristics and organizational fluidity, this presenting new and austere challenges for organized labour in seeking to deal with issues arising from growing precariousness and feminization of internationally dispersed labour forces (Barrientos & Kritzinger, 2004).
Serious consideration is also required of the role of workers, and their representation through trade unions, in seeking to offset or resist the most detrimental effects of ‘neo-liberal’ inspired agendas emanating from the MNC centre on their security and employment. In the modern international enterprise, expression of conflict may not necessarily be overt, but rather passively and subtly manifested, as has been documented in Indian software outsourcing industry (Upadyha, 2009). Attention needs to be directed, therefore, towards patterns of trade union resistance and renewal, as well as retreat. We would note also that the resilience and oppositional power of trade unions is determined, to an extent, through the institutional environments in which they are embedded. In the coordinated market economies (CMEs) of Western Europe, there is evidence that mechanisms for employee involvement and participation, such as works councils, have retained robustness and credibility despite environmental turbulence, in contrast to the withering away of employee rights in liberal market economies (LMEs) such as the US and UK. Drawing upon such instances of comparative trade union strength, possibilities for collaborative trade union action to establish an international floor of rights for workers, for example through Framework Agreements, need to be considered in order to counter the most adverse strategies and practices of MNCs (Riisgaard & Hammer, 2011).
Of course, the dynamics of the employment relationship within the international enterprise are profoundly influenced by the actions and policies formulated by important extraneous actors. To be noted, in particular, is the role of government, which, across countries, has become increasingly ‘employer friendly’ as a concomitant of globalization (Karavilla & Lakhani, 2013). Undoubtedly a vital function for governments in the ‘global South’ has been to ensure the ‘flexibilization’ and cost effectiveness of labour resources. In certain regions, including China, such statutory re-engineering and re-institutionalization of labour forces has begun to be met with contestation and resistance. In such circumstances, where an ungainly ‘race to the bottom’ may appear to be inevitable in a highly financialized world, regulative possibilities to offset the transcendent power of capital at the expense of labour through, for example, the provisions of the Global Compact, require fresh scholarly consideration.
Based on the above considerations we highly welcome empirical and conceptual contributions that encompass but are not restricted to the following theme areas and themes:
General themes:

  • The changing employment relationship
  • Transnational labour institutions (ILO, European works councils, global compact, etc.)
  • HRM and Industrial relations in different institutional context (countries, sectors)
  • The cross-border transfer and hybridization of HRM and production models
  • Multinationals and core labour standards

Employer strategies:

  • Labour relations in specific types of MNCS (born globals, private equity MNCs, emerging market MNCs, family-owned MNCs, state-owned MNCs etc., Virtual MNCs)
  • Labour implications of production relocation, intra-firm competition and outsourcing
  • Flexible employment strategies (incl. the use of posted and leased workers)
  • Benchmarking and coercive comparisons
  • Anti-union policies

Responses from organized labour:

  • Cross border labour solidarity
  • Trade union strategies and union renewal
  • European works councils
  • Labour relations at the subsidiary level
  • HRM/IR and headquarters-subsidiary relationships



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Graham Hollinshead is Reader in International and Comparative Human Resource Management at Hertfordshire Business School, University of Hertfordshire, UK. His research interests include employment practices in MNCs, organizational transition in Central and Eastern Europe, international sourcing of business services and critical international management studies. He has published in journals such as ‘Human Relations’ and ‘Journal of World Business’; currently, he is joint editor of pending special issues of ‘Human Relations’ and the ‘European Journal of Industrial Relations’. He is currently Associate Editor of the journal ‘Competition and Change’.
Christoph Dörrenbächer is Professor of Organizational Design and Behaviour in International Business at the Berlin School of Economics and Law (Department of Business and Economics), Germany. Previously he worked as a consultant and research fellow at various organizations in Germany and abroad, including the Social Science Research Centre (WZB), Berlin, and the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. His current research focus is on management, labour relations and headquarters-subsidiary relationships in multinational corporations. He has published widely in renowned international academic journals including ‘British Journal of Management’, ‘International Business Review’, ‘International Journal of Management Reviews’, ‘Journal of World Business’, ‘Management International Review’ and ‘Journal of International Management’. He currently serves as a Co-Editor-in-Chief of ‘Critical Perspectives on International Business’ and he is the founding director of the ‘Berlin Institute for International Business Studies’.
Mike Geppert is Professor of Strategic and International Management at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany, and Visiting Professor at the Turku School of Economics, Finland He studied sociology, did his PhD in Organization Theory at Humboldt University in Berlin. His work has been published in leading academic journals and books in the areas of international business and management, business management, organization studies, industrial relations, and sociology, reflecting his multidisciplinary research interests and commitment to interdisciplinary work.