The International Handbook of Labour Unions
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The International Handbook of Labour Unions

Responses to Neo-Liberalism

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.
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Chapter 2: Theories of Collective Action and Union Power

John Kelly


John Kelly ‘Power is almost certainly the most contentious and the most elusive concept in social analysis.’ (Hyman, 1994: 127) INTRODUCTION The ‘austerity’ policies proposed by many West European governments from 2008 onwards posed major threats to wages and conditions of employment, to welfare and pension benefits and to the degree of protection enjoyed by workers against dismissal and redundancy (EIRO 2009, 2010). Many union confederations opposed many of these policies but mobilising effective opposition raises important questions about trade union capacity, strategy and power, not least because of the economic and political context. Unions have had to face an increasingly adverse labour market as unemployment levels rose throughout the advanced capitalist world from summer 2008, with particularly sharp increases in Ireland, Spain and the USA (Hyman 2010: 2). Unions have also found the political arena to be fairly inhospitable because the Socialist governments in Greece, Portugal and Spain for example have proved to be just as committed to public spending cuts as their Conservative and Christian Democratic counterparts elsewhere. Nonetheless unions have responded to government policies with a wave of protests and general strikes, most notably in France, Greece, Italy and Spain (Kelly et al. 2010). Popular discussions of these contemporary events are rooted in assumptions about trade union power which often go unexamined and that is a problem precisely because of the ‘contentious’ and ‘elusive’ nature of the concept. In the social theory literature, Steven Lukes’ short monograph Power: A Radical View has proved to be one of...

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