Online expert workshop

Assessing solidarity

The project team has organized a digital expert workshop on “Assessing Solidarity” which took place on October 8th 2021. For this occasion, we invited several experts to discuss forms of solidarity and to narrow down the meaning of solidarity in transnational relations.

Morning session

As part of the introduction of the workshop, we first presented theoretical thoughts and the expected challenges for our research project. In direct response to our project presentation, Sigurt Vitols (WZB) commented on our theoretical discussion regarding the conceptuality of solidarity. He emphasized the fluidity of the concepts of solidarity and referred on the necessity to further explain the choice of Englers’ concept of solidarity by the project. This already inspired a discussion on the demarcation between the terms “collective action” and “solidarity”.

Varying perspectives on transnational solidarity
The following roundtable started with an input by Aline Hoffmann from the ETUI. In her presentation, she focused on the role of the European Work Councils (EWCs). For instance, she stated that although EWCs are legally institutionalized, their role as transnational actors shows gaps in the chain of legitimacy. For example, the mandate to bargain with companies is the result of negotiations between the EWCs and the national trade unions, who normally have that mandate. She pointed out that federalist theories can contribute to the analysis of transnational solidarity but also stated the fragileness of these connections: “Transnational solidarity in EWCs is situational and the outcome of an open-ended process of social interaction.”

This perspective was complemented with the empirical findings of Sophie Rosenbohm and Christine Üyük from the Institute for Work, Skills and Training at the Universities of Duisburg-Essen. Sophie Rosenbohm introduced the employee representation in Multinational Companies (MNCs) and emphasized the complex multi-level system in the companies themselves, as they operate internationally. She stated that alliances of solidarity in the same company, but in different geographic places can be forged because of interactions between workers as well as protest actions in one place can spread throughout the company. Christine Üyük contributed with her focus on transnational protest actions and defined solidary actions like strikes or demonstrations in context of transnational protests have to take place in more than one country of the multinational companies.

This second part of the workshop was concluded by Christian Lahusen from the University of Siegen. His input provided a more general perspective on solidarity. His research is not directly related to transnational working relations, but mainly looking at civil societies and their challenges in the globalized world. He focused on why people can act solidaristically by referring to emotions that are involved with the regard to matters of injustice. This is the result at the personal level which becomes much more difficult in transnational relations. However, he emphasized that solidarity can be learned and certain narratives support an emotional involvement, even if the individual is not affected personally. According to Lahusen, solidarity is emerging mainly local, is depending on the context and is characterized by a fragile dynamic.

Solidarity versus collective action?
Overall, the discussion focused on the described issues of challenges of solidarity. In particular, the conditions when solidarity emerges in transnational relations and how solidarity could be broadened and consolidated. For instance, Andreas Bieler (University of Nottingham) mentioned that solidarity is an outcome of concrete struggles and it is not given that trade unions have to be progressive actors. Virginia Doellgast (School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University) emphasized the competitive situation of trade unions and raised the question, whether the multi-level structures in transnational relations are fostering the competition between the different employee representatives. This brought the discussion back to the need of a homogenic interest. Aline Hofmann, by contrast, argued that it appears that there is no absolute need for homogenic interests, like it is usually stated in the literature. From her perspective, aggregated interests may already suffice for solidarity actions. Sophie Rosenbohm and Christine Üyük complemented this discussion by pointing out their observation that it is already to be seen as a success when solidary protests took place in only some countries instead of all countries related to the MNC.

Afternoon session

In the afternoon the final part of the workshop started with an input by Andreas Bieler from the University of Nottingham. He emphasized the roots of solidarity in working relations with the Marxist perspective on labour exploitation as initial conditions in industrial relations history. He reminded the participants of the competition in market relations which is still the biggest challenge to solidarity. Against that background, he described the role of trade unions as a political promise for workers to prevent underbidding themselves and emphasized the structure of a free market situation as the core of underbidding labour forcing the companies to maximize their profits because of their competitive market situation to secure their economic survival.

When does solidarity occur?
We closed the workshop with a discussion regarding the question when solidarity arises. With the example of Andreas Bieler of an English university, where students showed their solidarity with cleaning personal, he emphasized that there is no need in homogeneity per se, because the students were not affected by the struggles of the cleaning personal, but still had an interest to improve their situation. Phillip Gies contributed with another example with regards to gender equality as a possible case where the common interest even connected company officials and employee representatives. Regarding constellations like that, Christian Lahusen referred again to focal points in discourses that build up narratives that make it more easy or more difficult to find excuses for not seeing a need for solidarity as a non-affected individual person.

Overall, the workshop provided a lot of different perspectives about transnational solidarity and helped us to deepen our understanding of the challenges of transnational solidarity. We are very thankful for this insightful exchange and are looking forward to future fruitful discussions with the participants of our workshop.