Trade Union Responses to Immigration and Immigrant Workers in the European Context

Heather Connolly (University of Leicester), Stefania Marino and Miguel Martinez Lucio (University of Manchester) The Politics of Social Inclusion and Labor Representation: Immigrants and Trade Unions in the European Context. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2019.

This new book compares and contrasts trade union responses to immigration and immigrant workers in three countries, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and also explores pan-European initiatives. The book shows that it is vital to grasp the very complex dialectic between material and ideational causal forces and stresses the dynamics of union-migrant relationships. Although the patterns in each country are to an important extent path-dependent, in some respects it has been possible to break with the past.

The question of immigration has always been of fundamental importance in the discussion of work and employment. The mobility of workers and their influence on national labour markets, and the manner in which they have been treated and included/excluded in those labour markets and the wider social dimension, have attracted a great deal of political and academic interest. The relationship between so-called “indigenous” workers and immigrant workers has raised broader questions about more inclusive forms of solidarity.

The role of trade unions in this area has, since the early 2000s, become a greater focus of organizational interest within trade unions themselves and has also led to greater academic engagement. The question of whether wages and salaries are affected by immigration, the nature of skills and how they change within any given labour market, questions of integration and mutual support within the workplace, and the general perspectives and views of social and economic actors on the matter—not forgetting those of the state—are drawing much more attention, in part due to the accelerating and changing nature of immigration. Ongoing issues of social exclusion and racism have remained significant in the reality of labour and employment relations.

Our book presents an analysis of the way trade unions—particularly more established and institutionalized trade unions—respond to immigrant workers. We locate the discussion in the period since the 1970s, with a particular focus on the late 1990s to the early 2010s. To this extent we traverse a period of increasing—and changing—immigration patterns, as well as the emergence of a significant crisis in the context of capitalism and new forms of xenophobia. The research we conducted was financed mainly by the Leverhulme Trust (2008–12) and in part by the Economic and Social Research Council. The research is based on interviews with a wide range of individuals: 150 interviews in our national case study countries and 12 interviews at the European level during 2009–13. We conducted a range of semi-structured and unstructured interviews along with extensive observations of national and local conferences and meetings in each national context and in the ETUC and European industry federations. We interviewed workers in local establishments and other informal spaces and collated a wide array of trade union materials and policy documents.

The book looks at the dynamics of change in relation to trade union responses to immigration across three distinct national contexts in the European Union: the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The nature of labour and employment relations, the form of the state, and the experiences of immigration vary in the three countries. Our research observes how trade unions understand issues related to immigration, such as the needs of immigrant workers, and maps the responses of those trade unions. The way trade unions respond to the question of immigration consists of four variables: the nature of immigration, the structure of the labour market, the structure of the social contexts, and the patterns of employment regulation in each country. Furthermore, the way trade unions have historically developed distinct projects in relation to social inclusion and broader matters of equality has also shaped the nature of current responses. In this respect, we believe it is necessary to understand the competing meanings of solidarity and institutional traditions that frame such responses. The question of social inclusion has been framed and mediated by national structures of regulation and traditions of state intervention.

In our book we study the different ways that trade unions interact with the working class (and the meanings of class to a certain extent), the link with the state and the broader question of social rights, and the engagement with immigrant communities and questions of race and ethnicity—noting how they develop and interact in each national case. We problematise the question of social inclusion and trade union responses by looking at the way trade unions have approached immigration and immigrants, focusing on what they perceive to be the important points of renewal and change that are required for a more integrated and supported immigrant community to emerge. We also engage with the role of cross-national trade union relations on the question of immigration and how trade unionists have attempted to deal with very different national configurations of trade union action.

We set out a framework for understanding the different choices and patterns of trade union responses and the way they sometimes face difficult and competing choices. The three countries broadly reflect different systems of regulation and welfare politics but also exhibit different trade union traditions of community or social engagement (as well as immigrant engagement) that are not always reflective of the overarching structures of the state and civil society.

In the empirical chapters we follow how trade unions engage with matters of class, regulation, and social rights as well as ethnicity and race in each of these countries. We focus on relatively larger established trade unions as a way of evaluating and critiquing the embedded institutional spaces of these contexts and exploring the tensions in the incumbent and established practices and structures of labour and employment relations. We are aware that, more recently, the nature of the research focus and choice would require a study of newly emergent bodies and networks within and around organized labour and immigrant communities, but our intention was to look at the fissures and challenges—as well as changes—in organizations that because of their resources and legitimacy should have been well-placed to respond to these social challenges.

We observe that most trade unions in Western Europe—similar in aspects to the United States—have started historically from a position of ambivalence and even opposition toward migrants, for various social and political reasons, and have steadily moved to more pro-immigration policies. Yet we argue that there are very different dimensions in regard to these pro-immigration policies due to the nature of different national contexts of regulation, histories of social struggle, and the language and practice of solidarity.

We also explore trade unions at the European Union (EU) level and how we have seen the emergence of projects to try to create a common framework of responses toward immigrant workers. We focus on the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which has conducted projects that allow national trade unions to share the nature and usefulness of their responses to immigration and social inclusion. Our research demonstrates the fundamental challenges related to the cross-referencing of practice across different countries and the limits of this for the development of transnational trade union strategy: the pattern of trade union responses remains very different and bringing together a common approach to social inclusion is challenging.

We therefore need to appreciate the complexity of trade union traditions and their trajectories of solidarity. We also point to the need for a greater politics of democratic engagement and participation in relation to immigrant workers. To a large extent, trade union organizations remain wedded to specific trajectories and trade union renewal remains an innovative but at times problematic and uneven set of choices and aspirations.

Share this page:

Share this page:

Leave a Reply

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer