Labour History Review

The Late Birth of Transnational Labour Cooperation: Cross-Border Trade Union Networks at Ford and General Motors (1953–2001)

Labour History Review (2010), 75, (1), 76–97.


Multinational companies (MNC) are today one of the most important challenges for the trade union movement. Against this backdrop, and given that the growth of MNC has been a long-term historical process, it is rather surprising how little efforts labour historians have devoted to the topic — despite the existence of a relevant and rich sociological and industrial relations literature. The article aims to contribute to fill this gap with a case study analysis of international trade union networks at Ford and General Motors, two firms in which such networks emerged early after the Second World War, and which today, at least in Europe, stand out as 'best practice' cases of international labour cooperation in the guise of European works' councils. The paper inquires into the changes in the motives, forms, and practical results of cross-border cooperation initiatives at Ford and GM in Western Europe during the second half of the twentieth century, and interprets these patterns against the backdrop of the broader development of trade union internationalism during the post-war period, and the more specific challenges organized labour faced in these two multinational firms. I argue that serious attempts for international cooperation were already made during the 1950s and 1960s but were frustrated because of management obstruction and also because of fears among major European unions that international bargaining could weaken national union structures and solidarity notions. It was only during the 1990s that the emergence of European works' councils led to the first tangible results of international cooperation, reflecting above all the much more threatening labour market consequences of MNC development during that period.

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Author details

Fetzer, Thomas