Organized labor can play a vital role—positive or negative—in an employer’s human resources operations. That is true at the local level and even truer internationally. In today’s interconnected world, collective labor challenges regularly arise simultaneously across a multinational’s various local operations, particularly when headquarters launches cross-border “change projects” like global restructurings, international acquisitions and divestitures, multi-country reductions-in-force and global HR information systems—as well as when organized labor groups launch “corporate campaigns” and other international labor offensives.

Multinationals used to silo their organized labor relationships by country. They had no business incentive to align union or collective labor strategies across borders. Consider a hypothetical old-school manufacturing company with unions at plants in Kansas City and Mexico City, “works councils” at R&D facilities in Paris and Dusseldorf and “sectoral collective bargaining agreements” reaching offices in Sao Paulo and Johannesburg. A multinational like that would traditionally have confined its approaches to collective labor locally within each respective location, making no effort to harmonize any approach to labor relations globally. In fact, integrating organized labor relationships across multinational operations might only have invited trouble—inspiring unions and employee groups in different countries to compare notes and team up across borders. This is why, for decades, multinationals’ default cross-border collective labor strategy has been local containment, not cross-border integration.

But now this dynamic has flipped. Multinational human resources operations have gone global, triggering collective labor challenges across borders. Today’s multinationals increasingly launch multijurisdictional initiatives that reach staff internationally—global mergers, divestitures, restructurings, reductions-in-force, codes of conduct, human resources policies, intranet systems and the like. These require a cross-border approach to organized labor and labor law compliance. Meanwhile, organized labor has also gone global; unions and labor groups now champion cross-border collective labor solidarity as a cutting-edge tactic, forcing management to respond accordingly.

Both these drivers—global HR alignment and cross-border union offensives—push multinationals proactively to craft an aligned international organized labor strategy. Multinationals’ old siloed model confining collective labor challenges locally has stopped being consistently viable. Now headquarters may seek a coherent, aligned global strategy for confronting organized labor internationally.

But devising a viable cross-border labor strategy is hard. Multinationals—particularly those headquartered in the United States—get whipsawed by disparate organized labor regimes and inconsistent approaches to unions and labor groups from country to country. Forging a useful global labor strategy is simply impossible without accounting for the radically different ways organized labor works abroad.

Our discussion here explains how a U.S.-headquartered multinational can construct a viable, aligned and proactive global collective labor strategy that enhances international business operations. We address three distinct issues: (1) why a multinational needs an aligned global labor strategy; (2) how organized labor works outside the United States; and (3) how to build a global labor relations platform that aligns collective bargaining and organized labor strategies across borders.

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