T3-10: New solidarities

7 September 2019, 09:00–10:30

Chair: Heiner Dribbusch 

Precarious solidarities

Unions, young workers and representative claims

Melanie Simms, University of Glasgow

» Full paper: ilera-2019-paper-26-Simms.pdf

It is widely accepted that union movements in many countries face profound structural challenges organising and representing young workers, despite often significant investment in this area (Hodder and Kretsos 2015). This raises questions about the limitations of current activities and what might be necessary to improve outcomes. This paper draws on two forms of claims that unions make when representing any group of workers; solidaristic claims (Hyman 1997) and representative claims (Saward 2010).

After an exploration of the theoretical basis of these two forms of claims, this paper addresses two central research questions:

  • What soldiaristic claims are being made when unions seek to organise and represent young workers?
  • What representational claims are being made in these processes?

The presentation draws on evidence from three research projects undertaken by the author since 2011. The first was a Eurofound survey of social partner responses to helping young workers during the crisis. The second was a British Academy Small grant comparing the UK, Ital and France. And the third was a large-scale international comparative project comparing the USA, UK, Netherlands, France and Germany. Despite slightly different research questions and methodological approaches, all three projects have resulted in a wealth of data from trade unions regarding their efforts to organise and represent young workers.

Using evidence from these studies, the paper argues that solidaristic claims are extremely important ‘rallying cries’ (Hyman 1997) but, in practice, often precarious because they are typically invoked when there are few avenues for effective bargaining and representation. Evidence shows that unions are keen to stand in solidarity with young workers, but often have few mechanisms to represent their interests. In this space, new representative claims are being made by unions. In some cases, institutional arrangements allow unions to make ‘expert claims’ (Saward 2010) and represent young workers despite very low membership. This is typically the case where unions are embedded in extensive networks of nationally supported representation systems. Where that is not evidence, or perceived as ineffective, we sometimes see the emergence of new representative organisations such as San Precario in Italy, which make ‘alternative claims’ (Saward 2010) in the spaces where unions are absent or ineffective.

This presentation argues that solidaristic claims are important but not sufficient to build effective representation of young workers. Too often the debate is framed in terms of what young workers can do for unions with regard to survival and renewal, rather than what unions can do for young workers.

  • Hodder, A. and L. Kretsos. (2015) Young Workers and Trade Unions: A Global View. Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Hyman, R. (1997). ‘Trade unions and interest representation in the context of globalisation’. Transfer. 3 (3) pp 515-533.
  • Saward, M. (2010) The Representative Claim. Oxford University Press.


Perspectives of worker solidarity in changing times

Lise Lotte Hansen, Department of Social Science & Business, Roskilde University

» Full paper: ilera-2019-paper-150-Hansen.pdf

The paper concludes on the research project ‘Workers solidarity/ies –between crisis and renewal’ funded by the Danish Research Council for Society and Business. The overall interest of the research project is how solidarity among a widely diverse group of workers is produced, reproduced, changed, and challenged. The main research question is: What unifies and what divides workers with diverse backgrounds? And what is the role of trade unions in this? The research focuses on commercial cleaners of which many are women and migrant workers, and the Danish trade union 3F.

The paper will discuss solidarity dynamics in different ways:

  • Processes leading to and from political identification, challenged workplace collectivism, the building of a new ‘we’ in 3F as well as the mutual relations between the three (identification, collectivism, trade union)
  • Struggles on perceptions of solidarity and the challenge to institutions and regulations supporting solidarity
  • What characterizes workers solidarity/ties today: Is it ‘unity in diversity’/’mutuality despite difference’ (Briskin/Hyman)? Who is the adversary? Who is it with? What is it for? How is it solidarity achieved?

The conclusion will consists of three parts. First, it will conclude on the Danish case. Then, it will discuss what can be learned about solidarity dynamics in general. And finally, it will discuss theoretical implications for the conceptualization of worker solidary/ies.

To unveil a few of the discussions and conclusions:

  • It is not diversity in itself that challenges solidarity. But diversity (nationality, culture, language, contracts) in combination with management attitudes and actions challenge workplace collectivism.
  • Migrant workers are not against trade unions in principle, and the trade union includes migrant workers in democracy and interest representation (also Doellgast el al 2018). When migrants do not join unions, it is more likely to be because they do not know about the union or because of management hostility to unions. A closed union culture is a challenge to activism.
  • Feelings of disrespect are a strong motivation for collective action among the cleaners. More than problems re pay.
  • It is important for migrant workers that they get information about union activities directly and in a language they understand, but not taking part is just as much about being too tired, feeling depressed, don’t believe that taking action will do any difference, fear of losing job/income and a low self-esteem.
  • Trade union leaders are very clear about solidarity practices, but to speak about solidarity make them uncomfortable. The understanding of solidarity is unclear, and some even distance themselves from using the word solidarity.
  • Despite challenges to the Nordic class compromise, regulation and institutions still support workers’ collective voice and interest representation.

Data production

The study consists of 27 interviews (34 persons) with trade union leaders, employee representatives, cleaners in hotels and hospitals and migrant network leaders; fieldwork in the trade union 3F, at organising activities, in migrant networks and in workplaces; one memory workshop with female trade union leaders and officers; and one research circle with trade union leaders, officers, and activists of different genders, ages and ethnicities as well as different unions. The study also includes activities on Facebook as well as document studies. Data production ran from 2013-2016.


  • Briskin, L. (1999): ‘Autonomy, diversity, and integration: union women’s separate organization in North America and Western Europe in the context of restructuring and globalization’ in Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol.22 No.5
  • Doellgast, V., Lillie, N. & Pulignano, V. (2018): Reconstructing Solidarity: Labour Unions, Precarious Work, and the Politics of Institutional Change in Europe, Oxford University Press
  • Hyman, R. (2011) ‘Trade unions, global competition and options for solidarity’, in Bieler, A. and Lindberg, I. (eds.) Global Restructuring, Labour and the Challenges for Transnational Solidarity, pp 16-29. London and New York: Routledge


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