In Transformations of Trade Unionism: Comparative and Transnational Perspectives on Workers Organizing in Europe and the United States, Eighteenth to Twenty-First Centuries, available to download here for free, Ad Knotter offers a historical analysis of the development of the labour movement in European countries and in the United States from the eighteenth century up to the present day. This detailed, well-written and novel account should be on the shelves of anyone interested in the history of unionism, recommends Michele Fenzl.

Transformations of Trade Unionism: Comparative and Transnational Perspectives on Workers Organizing in Europe and the United States, Eighteenth to Twenty-First Centuries. Ad Knotter. Amsterdam University Press. 2018.

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With few exceptions, all advanced economies have experienced a decline in union density and power. Many scholars have linked contemporary income disparities to this decline. Political economist Jonas Pontusson and colleaguesfind that stronger unions push towards wage equality. US economists have highlighted that since the 1930s, union members had higher salaries than non-unionised workers with similar education levels. In author Ad Knotter’s own words: ‘the weakening of union density and power was one of the main causes of the steady decline of the wage share in advanced capitalist countries since the 1970s/1980s’ (12). The book Transformations of Trade Unionism is a historical analysis of the development of the labour movement in European countries and in the United States, covering case studies on unions during the eighteenth century through to their recent developments in the late 2000s.

Transformations of Trade Unionism builds upon decades of scholarly research to challenge some of the understandings that labour studies (often restricted to analyses of single countries) have pushed forward in the literature. In particular, the main objective of the book is to demonstrate how the history of unionism is not linear. Rather, discontinuous historical developments brought varieties of unionism. This creates a parallel between this historical account and other political economy studies that trace the features of varieties of capitalismand welfare systems. Through a range of historical case studies, Ad Knotter instead shows that (historically-specific) features of the labour market influenced the labour movement. This meant that workers’ associations could show patterns of time discontinuities or cross-country similarities, depending on the nature of the labour market that surrounded their activities.

The chapters of Transformations of Trade Unionism subsequently guide the reader through a tour de force that departs from the earliest developments of cloth shearers’ associations in Western Europe during the eighteenth century to arrive at the strike actions of Dutch cleaners in the first decade of the 2000s. While readers can appreciate each chapter as a standalone study, it is only by reading the whole book that they will go beyond the main message about the ‘varieties of unionism’ and appreciate its additional contributions.

Image Credit: Transport House, Belfast (William Murphy CC BY SA 2.0)

The first of these, as Knotter stresses in the introduction, is that the book goes beyond the ‘methodological nationalism’ typical of most other accounts of the history of the labour movement which have focused on single countries. Instead, Knotter pools together cases from a variety of advanced economies. This approach not only shows that the history of labour is not linear, but also uncovers an interesting tension between the local and the global in the history of unionism. Many times, comparative approaches show cross-country similarities in unionism. This tends to create a strong idea of transnational solidarity and influence on workers’ associations. To some extent, Knotter’s findings perpetuate this conclusion. For instance, Chapter Five shows how the French ‘Bourse du Travail’ of the late nineteenth century became a model for imitation in Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries. Transnational solidarity appears in the associations of cigar-makers in the 1800s (Chapter Two), and transnational coordination also led to cleaners’ strike actions in the 2000s in the United States and the Netherlands (Chapter Seven). At the same time, the book shows how the transnational character of the labour movement has always been in tension with the local conditions of the labour market. Since the specific form that unions take depends on the local labour market, local features will in turn shape transnational influences.

A further contribution of the book is that it shows the complexity of unions’ objectives through time. As other authors have also pointed out, they don’t always act, as we might expect, to directly influence wage-setting or working conditions. Instead, they sometimes seek to control access to the labour market. For instance, as Chapter Two shows, nineteenth-century cigar-makers were entrenched in a transnational labour market. The British one was characterised by higher wages and better working conditions than those of other European countries. Despite some British workers lamenting the limits of transnational linkages of the labour markets, international organisation and coordination between local associations remained an important instrument ‘to prevent the arrival or importation of foreign […] workers, and to support the establishment and activities of trade unions elsewhere to defend or improve wages and working conditions, so there would be less reason to come to Britain’ (91). In other similar cases, unions did not seek to protect workers from overseas peers but rather from influxes of unemployed individuals. For instance, Chapter Five shows that ‘union regulation of job placements and unemployment benefits were meant to enable members to uphold a standard wage rate and occupational status by excluding admission to others’ (195).

Departing from institutional accounts of labour history, Knotter’s book isn’t just an important contribution for those interested in the history of the labour movement. It is also a vital read for those who want to better understand current trends in unionisation and unions’ practices. As the author himself claims: ‘as of today growing numbers of workers are exposed to labour markets, so it is to be expected that new labour regimes based on wage labour will result in new varieties of trade unionism’ (13). The book is therefore aligned with those voices in the literature that challenge a general pessimism on the future of labour.

Transformations of Trade Unionism guides the reader to appreciate discontinuities in the history of the labour movement. If some readers might feel the lack of more systematic analyses, the book is nonetheless a detailed, interesting, novel and well-written account of the history of unionism in Europe and the United States. It broadens the reader’s view regarding national developments, going beyond ‘methodological nationalism’. Readers more interested in the early varieties of unionism should concentrate on Chapters Three to Five, while social scientists focused on contemporary issues will find Chapters Six and Seven more relevant. However, every scholar or student interested in the labour movement will find important information in this book. The book also indicates that we should have more optimism regarding the future of unions. For these reasons, Transformations of Trade Unionism should be on the shelves of anyone interested in the labour movement.

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Note: This article is provided by our sister site, LSE Review of Books. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Michele Fenzl – University of Essex
Michele Fenzl is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government of the University of Essex. He holds degrees from the University of Bologna and University of Essex. His PhD thesis studies the comparative political economy of income inequality and redistribution, and adopts quantitative methods to analyse the intersections between economic and political inequality.

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