The Global Union Federations in International Industrial Relations: A Critical Review

03 January 2017

In recent decades, trade unions have been challenged to attempt to develop new forms of representation, action and institutional engagement in response to the increasingly transnational character of production and service delivery. This has necessarily required a shift in focus beyond national boundaries, and thus beyond the traditional scale of industrial relations systems. Among the most important actors in these attempts to globalize industrial relations have been the global union federations (GUFs), which represent national sectoral federations in key industries. Over several decades, the GUFs have sought to engage with multinational corporations through various strategies including policy campaigns and the negotiation of Global Framework Agreements and have provided support for workers and their unions in different national settings, including emerging labour movements in the Global South. This article reviews the growing literature on transnational industrial relations, focusing on the historical development of the GUFs, their core repertoires of action and their impact on industrial relations practice both internationally and within national boundaries. In doing so, it identifies and assesses not only the opportunities for GUF interventions in international industrial relations, but also the many obstacles – including resource constraints and dependence on unions at other scales – that limit their reach and ability to achieve these strategic goals.