Understanding Trade Union Responses to Migration in a Comparative Context

Comparative industrial relations has evolved more rigorously in the past two decades or so, allowing us to properly comprehend different systems and approaches. It has also allowed us to understand how employment relations and institutions vary across contexts. The notion that concepts such as flexibility, pay, and working time are mediated and constructed in various ways according to national systems of regulation and traditions of struggle and meaning has been of benefit to the study of industrial relations and its continuing relevance. Increasingly not only are we concerned with the typologising of industrial relations and economic systems – for example, by looking at levels of co-ordination, different state roles, competing understandings and activities regarding social and worker welfare, and the position and authority of the employer - we also see a concern with the way varieties of trade union structures and strategies emerge historically.

Frege and Kelly attempt to map the way we can appreciate the different strategies that evolve in relation to questions such as union renewal – within which the issue of representing new constituencies of labour and citizens is key. They argue that we need to proceed with an appreciation of the different dimensions of trade unionism. Starting with social and economic change as an external trigger – albeit not one which is constructed in a reductionist manner – they see union structure influenced by this contextual factor. This is an important thematic beginning for their model which adapts much of the work from social movement debates. 

Trade union structure and the way its politics are organized are a vital starting point that is often ignored in many contemporary debates. The role of industrial relations institutions along with the state and employers play a further role in shaping this structure in terms if its environment. These factors along with union structure impact on the way trade unions frame issues and give rise to particular organizational identities. That the line of causality within such a model is always a matter for conjecture, the point being made is a singularly important one: we need to appreciate the internal politics of unions and how traditions of identity and narratives influence the way choices are made. Choices are mediated by these traditions and structures, but there will be ways of seeing and understanding problems that frame options and choices. We cannot read how unions‘ will understand and respond to questions of immigration, for example, from any clear structural analysis of the employment relationship or its context. Hence, union renewal is contested, open and in many cases problematic. We must appreciate structure, context, institutions and identity and framing processes in order to start a more grounded debate on union renewal and responses in relation to migration. What Frege and Kelly propose is a model of action which is more complex in terms of causality - but more importantly they provide us with a map for explaining the dimensions of union response and renewal. This literature proposes a series of explanatory variables to explain trade union strategies in comparative perspective. It is important (especially Frege and Kelly) because it links contextual variables with union-related variables. It gives importance to context (economic, social variables) and institutions (employers association action) and some union-related variables.

Frege and Kelly‘s approach is useful as it helps further understanding and explanation of the variety of strategies adopted by trade unions in different countries. The model outlines important influences on trade union strategies whilst also showing the interrelations between actors, structures and framing processes. It provides an encompassing framework for analysing the social construction of union choices and attempts to reconcile approaches focusing on structural, institutional factors for explaining union choices and those focusing on identity as determinants of union strategies. Hyman has developed an industrial relations oriented version of this in terms of social, class and market related identities within trade unions which would help us understand the way trade unions see, respond to and configure immigrant related issues. Frege and Kelly‘s framework draws on Hyman‘s work on union identities. Hyman argues that identities may be viewed as inherited traditions which shape current choices, which in normal circumstances in turn reinforce and confirm identities. Union identities can be oriented between market, class, and society. The ways in which union leaders interpret and frame their external environment is thus argued to have an important impact on the eventual strategies adopted by trade unions.

In terms of the study of immigration it can allow us to appreciate the way issues and responses evolve – and the way the politics of immigration is constructed. Hence, comparative research is a vital step for understanding the way immigrant communities and their experiences can be understood in terms of their broader historical complexity of struggle. In terms of trade unions we can begin to see how unions vary, and why, in relation to the questions of immigration.

07 July 2022
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