chapter  1
15 Pages

The rise of corporate social responsibility as a challenge for trade unions


Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a concept that has been adopted extensively by societal actors in business, public policy and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). CSR has diffused to all corners of the globe over the past decades, far beyond its origins in the United States (Visser and Tolhurst 2010). This trend is illustrated in part by the emergence of CSR-related institutions at the transnational level, such as the United Nations Global Compact, CSR guidance document ISO 26000 from the International Standards Organization and the sustainability reporting framework from the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) (Leipziger 2010). Additionally, the global financial crisis has brought the issue of the legitimacy of corporate power into sharp relief (Werhane et al. 2011), making private corporate responsibility a core matter of public concern (Brammer et al. 2012). In the wake of such developments, renewed attention has been devoted to the relationship between business and its key stakeholders, whether these are NGOs (Seitanidi and Crane 2009) or local communities (Bowen et al. 2010). Curiously, however, one societal actor is frequently absent in such discussions, namely trade unions. Such an omission is remarkable for two reasons. First, as the role of unions has traditionally been to defend the interests of the employee stakeholder, they should be part of the discussion of business-stakeholder relations. This is particularly important at a time when labour is affected by an increase in competition over international labour costs that in many industrialized nations has led to significant employment losses. Second, unlike trade unions, NGOs often do not have elected officials and do not necessarily consult their membership when they draw up their policies (Nye 2001). For this reason, many NGOs, although more often invited to participate in CSR discourse, appear to be less democratic than trade unions. The time is thus ripe to examine in greater detail what trade unions make of the rise of CSR. We examine this question across 11 European countries, namely Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland,

Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Our approach draws loosely upon the ‘national business systems’ and ‘varieties of capitalism’ literatures, which highlight national variation in the way key institutions – such as the state, the legal system and the industrial relations system – combine to embed social and economic structures and norms within particular ‘national logics’ (Hollingsworth and Boyer 1997; Whitley 1999; Hanké et al. 2007). While not seeking to make an explicit theoretical contribution to this literature, our book aims to examine the nature of CSR, and trade union responses to it, through a broadly comparative institutionalist lens.