Special Issue: American corporations and European labor

Source: Guest editors: William Knox & Alan McKinlay,Labor History, Vol. 51 no. 2, May 2010
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Our understanding of the relationship between American multinationals and European labor has been refracted through two assumptions. The first of these is that American multinational labor strategy has been marked by a consistent adherence to the US domestic model of employment and employee voice mechanisms. While European subsidiaries have been prepared to modify American practices, this has consisted of no more than tactical adaptations rather than representing the decentring of employment norms or the emergence of a truly international, far less global strategy. The second assumption is that American employment practices are derived from strong, highly centralized corporate philosophies – or cultures – that change very little over time. This has often made studies of American multinationals peculiarly, and unconsciously, ahistorical. In no small measure this reflects the closed nature of American corporations in Europe, especially in those without union recognition where there is no legitimate alternative source of information. The ahistorical nature of studies of multinational employment practices is reflected and compounded by methodological choices. Overwhelmingly, studies of multinational employment or work organization are snapshots based on managerial self-reporting. At the very least, this limits the possibility of developing long-run data on, for instance, the dynamics of skill, internal labour markets or the dynamics of employee voice, whether through trade unions or other institutions. This produces temporally ‘flat’ accounts or requires us to make heroic assumptions linking quite different historical moments but with little sense of process. All of the articles in this issue have confronted these questions directly and developed analyses which draw on new sources and examine employment and collective bargaining not simply as ‘problems’ addressed in various ways by American headquarters but as matters negotiated by local management and grassroots campaigning. The result is the beginning of an alternative way of examining multinational employment that regards temporality as essential and ‘local’ bargaining as having its own dynamic not wholly determined by – or as a deviation from – a ‘pure’ American model.

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