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Dockworkers of the World Unite: Worker Power and Trade Union Strategy in a Global Economy

  • Author(s): Fox-Hodess, Caitlin
  • Advisor(s): Evans, Peter
  • et al.
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This dissertation examines contemporary transnational organization and strategy among dockworkers unions through a global organizational ethnography of the International Dockworkers Council (IDC), an independent global union organization. The research draws on 80 in-depth interviews and participant observation at a dozen international meetings of union activists, while the analysis relies on nested comparisons. In Part I, Chapter 2 examines the IDC’s regional-level organization in Europe, while chapter 3 examines three European country case studies (Portugal, Greece and England). In Part II, Chapter 4 examines the IDC’s regional-level organization in Latin America, while chapter 5 examines two Latin American country case studies (Chile and Colombia).

Olin Wright (2000) and Silver’s (2003) theory of worker power would suggest that dockworkers in general have a high degree of ‘structural power’ – the power accruing to workers as a result of their position in the economic system -- because of their central role in the global circulation of commodities and capital. Nevertheless, I find that dockworkers’ ‘structural power’ is heavily conditioned by the state, suggesting that frameworks that partition the economic basis of worker power off from its political and social basis may be insufficient. Instead, comparative research at the national and regional levels demonstrates that dockworkers’ structural power varies considerably in different parts of the world as a result of differing political and social conditions, with significant consequences for sectoral labor internationalism.

Within Europe, dockworkers’ power at the point of production is supported by strong industrial relations frameworks protecting the right to organize and take industrial action free from the threat of state-sanctioned or state-sponsored violence. Consequently, dockworkers have developed a strong regional-level network that provides effective mutual aid during disputes through industrial solidarity at the point of production. In contrast, within Latin America, dockworkers’ structural power in many countries, particularly outside of the Southern Cone, is effectively quite weak, despite their central position in the economic system, as a result of unfavorable industrial relations frameworks and pervasive violence at the national level. As a result, dockworkers have struggled to develop a cohesive regional-level network capable of delivering solidarity actions that are effective in the wide variety of national contexts for trade unionism found within the region. These national and regional-level observations are used to examine the challenges workers face in developing strong, cohesive and effective organizations that are truly global.

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This item is under embargo until March 10, 2023.