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NAFTA and the Politics of Labor Transnationalism

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Part of Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics

  • Author: Tamara Kay, Harvard University, Massachusetts
  • Date Published: February 2011
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9780521132954

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About the Authors
  • When NAFTA went into effect in 1994, many feared it would intensify animosity among North American unions, lead to the scapegoating of Mexican workers and immigrants, and eclipse any possibility for cross-border labor cooperation. But far from polarizing workers, NAFTA unexpectedly helped stimulate labor transnationalism among key North American unions and erode union policies and discourses rooted in racism. The emergence of labor transnationalism in North America presents compelling political and sociological and puzzles: How did NAFTA, the concrete manifestation of globalization processes in North America, help deepen labor solidarity on the continent? And why did some unions more readily engage in transnational collaboration and embrace internationalism than others? In addition to making the provocative argument that global governance institutions can play a pivotal role in the development of transnational social movements, this book suggests that globalization need not undermine labor movements: collectively, unions can help shape how the rules governing the global economy are made.

    • Based on over 140 interviews with U.S., Mexican and Canadian labor leaders - first study using data to track the emergence and trajectory of transnational labor relationships
    • Compares variation in unions' response to NAFTA, i.e. why some unions embraced transnationalism and others did not
    • Innovative synthesis of 'field theory' with a modified political opportunity theory
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    • Received an Honourable Mention for the ASA Sociology of Law Outstanding Book Award 2013

    Reviews & endorsements

    “In the bourgeoning interdisciplinary field of transnational studies, Professor Kay once again has demonstrated that she is the leading sociologist of transnationalism of her generation with this pathbreaking book. A must-read!”
    —Sanjeev Khagram, University of Washington

    “Challenging the conventional wisdom that economic globalization has left national labor movements isolated and defenseless, Kay argues — almost heretically in the case of NAFTA — that regional economic integration at the top can also spark transnational solidarity from below. In a classic case of unintended consequences, we see how NAFTA, through its governance institutions and side agreements, provided an opening for savvy organizers to build a more inclusive and unified North American labor movement to resist global capital’s unrelenting ‘race to the bottom.’ NAFTA and the Politics of Labor Transnationalism is a superb study that offers important lessons for scholars and activists alike.”
    —Howard Kimeldorf, University of Michigan

    “Anybody concerned with social movements in the 21st century, and especially the prospects for labor transnationalism, needs to read this book. Tamara Kay shows why and how a few U.S. and Mexican unions were able to turn NAFTA, which they had viewed as a threat, into an opportunity for new cross-border strategies. The results point to promising ways forward for global movements.”
    —Chris Tilly, Director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, University of California, Los Angeles

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    Product details

    • Date Published: February 2011
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9780521132954
    • length: 338 pages
    • dimensions: 229 x 152 x 20 mm
    • weight: 0.45kg
    • contains: 5 b/w illus. 9 tables
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Introduction: NAFTA and labor transnationalism
    Part I. The Emergence of Transnationalism:
    2. Labor nationalism: diplomacy and distance among unions prior to NAFTA
    3. NAFTA as catalyst: constituting transnational actors and interests
    4. Constituting transnational labor rights
    5. Seizing the opportunity NAFTA provided
    Part II. Variations in Transnationalism:
    6. Missing the opportunity NAFTA provided
    7. Explaining variation in the emergence of labor transnationalism
    Part III. Conclusions:
    8. Global governance and labor transnationalism.

  • Instructors have used or reviewed this title for the following courses

    • Social Movements
    • Social Movements and Social Protest
    • Sociology of Work and Employment
  • Author

    Tamara Kay, Harvard University, Massachusetts
    Tamara Kay is Associate Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, Massachusetts and Co-Director of Harvard's Transnational Studies Initiative. Her work centers on the political and legal implications of regional economic integration, transnationalism, and global governance. She is interested in how organizations and social movements - particularly labor and environmental movements, NGOs, and non-profits - respond and adapt to processes of regional economic integration and globalization. Professor Kay has published in the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review. She has worked as a consultant to the International Labour Organization, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, and the United Farmworkers of America. At Harvard, she has affiliations with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations.


    • Received an Honourable Mention for the ASA Sociology of Law Outstanding Book Award 2013

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