The Ends of Union Solidarity: Undocumented Labour and German Trade Unions
Kip, Markus Erik
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This dissertation focuses on the contested practices of union solidarity with undocumented migrant workers in Germany. Unionists part ways when it comes to the practical meaning of solidarity with workers who lack work permits. To some union members, undocumented migrant workers ought to be included in the bonds of union solidarity by virtue of being workers. To others, undocumented migrant workers are primarily illegal and unfair competitors undermining existing practices and institutions of solidarity. Since 2008, six union centres for undocumented migrant workers called MigrAr (German Migration & Arbeit, English migration & labour) have been established by labour activists. Their institutionalization under the umbrella of German unions continues to arouse controversies among their members. This research builds on an activist ethnography following the Extended Case Method. The researcher is positioned as an activist in the MigrAr centre in Berlin. In a critical encounter with Jrgen Habermas's work, the research charts the significance of instrumental and normative rationalities in union controversies around undocumented labour, since it became a topic two decades ago. The fieldwork shows that activists engagement for expanding union solidarity cannot be properly understood in relation to Habermass account of instrumental and normative rationality alone. The dissertation, moreover, contests Habermas's dismissal of material reproduction, especially in relation to work and citizenship, as significant for the development of solidarity. Contrary to Habermas's premise of symmetrical reciprocity in his notion of solidarity, this research demonstrates that activists understand their own practice as being premised on conditions of asymmetry. Differences pertain among activists, as to whether this requires holding on to established labour standards and union procedures, or whether specific measures are required to practice union solidarity under the condition of undocumented workers legal, economic, and social vulnerabilities. Affirming the latter approach, activists in the Berlin centre encounter multiple obstacles to implement it in union organizations as the ethnography details. Drawing on participant observations and interviews, I argue that the activist practice of solidarity is motivated by what I call political imagination; the ability to imagine activist practices as a contribution towards realizing an alternative form of union solidarity.