Constructing Workers of Migrant Background : A study of class and nation myths in trade union practice

Abstract: How do trade unions represent workers of migrant background? How are factors that affect the quality of life of workers of migrant background, made sense of and responded to by trade unions trying to reverse declining trade union membership numbers? This thesis takes a qualitative approach and utilises discursive constructions as a semiotic entry point into the social practices of trade unions and their responses to workers of migrant background. Combining semiotic theory of Roland Barthes and Stuart Hall with critical discourse theory of Norman Fairclough, trade union work is conceptualised as a social practice that comprises both semiotic and non-semiotic elements. The study focuses on the discursive work of two unions in Copenhagen, Denmark that represent the bike mechanic and the cleaning trade, respectively. The selection of unions allows for an exploration of similarities and differences within the national setting. The analysis is based on individual and group interviews with 28 union officials and active members, supported and complemented by notes (387 pages) from 56 participant observations (147 observation hours) that were conducted in the two unions over several years. The analysis shows how workers of migrant background are constructed through discourses of class and nation. Analysing the interrelationship between semiotic and non-semiotic elements of union events and practices, a four-cell typology is developed that characterise union responses as either internalisation, externalisation, ignorance or misrepresentation. The type of response is defined according to whether the unions signify their constructions of migrant differences as relevant or irrelevant to union work, and whether they address these differences with uniform or differentiated union action. It is argued that the ways in which constructions of national, ethnic and racial differences are responded to through signification and action are crucial to whether unions work to reinforce or ameliorate social inequalities. Finally, the typology is suggested as a tool to nuance the discussion about the inclusive and/or exclusive character of trade union responses to workers of migrant background.