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 3: Union Renewal: Objective Circumstances and Social Action

Pauline Dibben and Geoffrey Wood


Pauline Dibben and Geoffrey Wood INTRODUCTION This chapter locates the problems and prospects of union renewal within contemporary theoretical debates. The first section critically appraises accounts that see the position of unions primarily as a product of objective circumstances that are not easily changed, including institutionalist accounts and approaches that locate the fortunes of unions in terms of economic long waves. The second section reevaluates approaches that see the fortunes of unions as linked to subjective interpretations and actions, and reviews the strategic alternatives promoted. Finally, we bring together recent thinking on the interrelationship between social action and structure, and the extent to which the former may remake the latter. We conclude that the wholesale destruction of ‘good’ jobs that provide decent terms and conditions of working and the resurgence of temporary, part time and contingent working poses great challenges for unions, and indeed, the idea of trade unionism itself. On the other hand, the visible failings of neo-liberalism open up a space for alternative, new and better ideas and practices. CONVERGENCE APPROACHES There are two strands of the literature that link union decline (or at least, constraints on the possibilities for union revival) to economic circumstances and which see the position of unions worldwide converging on a common outcome. The first is the broad area of globalisation. Conventional neo-liberal approaches within the literature on globalisation suggest that, in their imaginary reality composed of rational profit maximising individuals, firms are in the business of making money, and anything that distracts...

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