The University Record, October 22, 2001

U-M explores labor on a global scale

By Rachel Ehrenberg
News and Information Services

As with almost every facet of our social, economic and political realities, debate concerning labor conditions is shifting to reflect a global focus. In an effort to understand and explore labor issues in the context of a global economy, the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations (ILIR) has established a research and teaching program on globalization and labor.

Under the direction of ILIR director Larry Root and Ian Robinson, assistant research scientist, the Labor and Global Change program includes four components: a small grants program to foster research by faculty and students; undergraduate teaching; a series of public talks and symposia; and a network providing text-searchable summaries of related research. The program addresses broad issues of globalization and labor as well as specific topics geared toward understanding the role of multinational corporations and unions in the economic and social life of communities in developing countries.

“The program grows out of efforts to come to grips with the effects of economic globalization on workers, on unions and on societies,” says Root. “The University is confronting some of the practical implications of global economic restructuring through its Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights, which has been addressing issues related to working conditions in factories making U-M apparel. This program is an effort to expand the University’s discourse on these critical issues.”

An undergraduate course will explore issues of labor and global change, such as the role of multi-national corporations in developing countries.

Robinson taught a prototype class last year, which included a field experience in northern Mexico.

“This was a wonderful opportunity for the students to get a first-hand look at some of the social and economic implications of trade liberalizations in a border community,” explains Robinson.

Funds also will be available for joint student-faculty research projects focused on economic globalization. “We believe that systematic, empirical exploration of these issues is critical in the debate on the positive and negative effects of global change,” says Robinson, who also is a lecturer in the Residential College and the Department of Sociology.

According to Root, there are numerous potential research projects that the student-faculty teams might examine, including how and to what degree wages are determined by market forces in a particular locale, the impacts of efforts to enforce labor codes, or the role of a particular corporation in a specific area. Such research could influence recommendations concerning University policies.

The Labor and Global Change program also will organize symposia, bringing together the U-M research community and experts from around the world, to explore aspects of economic globalization. Questions of equity and justice in a global economy and models for economic development will be included in the program’s agenda.

“The University has an extraordinary wealth of experience and talent,” explains Root. “Our hope is that this new program can draw upon these resources to build a program that addresses the human impacts of the vast changes that we are seeing in the structures of national and international economies.”

For more information on the Labor and Global Change program, visit the Web at