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Fair Weather Friends? Explaining Labor Union Support of Immigrants in Western Europe


Opposition among native workers to immigrants is well understood as a response to the economic and cultural instability caused by globalization. Increased capital mobility weakens the place-based leverage of strike action and collective bargaining, rendering unions susceptible to the protectionist concerns of native members. Yet, immigrant workers still join labor unions and turn to these organizations to improve working conditions and amplify their political voice. Little is known about the conditions underpinning pro-immigrant action by labor unions. This dissertation argues that when immigrant activists mobilize themselves, then partner with native trade unionists, they can pressure union leaders to support their concerns. By analyzing data from more than 120 in-depth interviews with trade unionists, employers, NGO-officials and politicians, conducted during 16 months of fieldwork in Denmark, Germany and the UK, I present evidence for the counterintuitive finding that weak, fragmented unions such as those in the UK more readily engage in pro-immigrant action than strong, encompassing unions such as those in Denmark and Germany. Combining cross-national and cross-sectoral observational and archival data with interviews, I explore three issue areas critical to the demands of immigrant union members: extreme right wing parties and movements, workplace discrimination, and job marginalization. Analysis of immigrant claims-making reveals that those immigrant activists who link their mobilization to the identity template prevalent in their host country, are better able to partner with native trade unionists and secure support from union leaders.

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