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Lucas Franco: Driven to Discover How Workers Can Organize in a Changing Economy

September 29, 2017

Lucas Franco

Lucas Franco
Lucas Franco

Lucas Franco joined the PhD program in 2012 after working as a researcher as well as an organizer for the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, UNITE HERE, in Seattle, Washington. His work in the hotel industry gave him a firsthand look at the rapid changes taking place within the American economy. During his time as an organizer, many unionized hotel employees were replaced by subcontracted labor. These subcontracted workers were no longer direct employees of a hotel, but rather they were employed by small third party subcontracting firms. Their pay and benefits were worse; it was extremely difficult to protect their collective bargaining rights. This experience has inspired and informed his PhD research.

Franco’s dissertation project explores how the displacement of manufacturing work as well as the growth in nonstandard contract labor is affecting workers and their ability to unionize in advanced industrialized economies. The decline in manufacturing employment and the rise of the service sector has reshaped the balance of class power within advanced industrialized economies. As a result, service sector employers have expanded their influence, while service sector unions have struggled to replicate the power of manufacturing unions. This changing balance of power has resulted in a re-engineering of industrial relations models towards a common, deregulated form of capitalism. 

The Union... Forever?

Franco argues that if unions are to remain relevant actors in the political economies of advanced industrialized economies, they must expand their membership among service sector workers. To do this, they need to find a way to overcome an array of organizing challenges in the service sector including the expanded use of contract employment models such as franchising, subcontracting and independent contracting. Unions across advanced industrialized economies have begun to invest in organizing campaigns to unionize contracted workers, but the organizing strategies pursued vary widely across institutional and political contexts.

The primary goal of Franco’s dissertation is to explain this variation in the strategies unions have pursued to organize contracted service sector workers. To do this, he develops an interdisciplinary, cross-national study of the factors shaping contracted worker organizing. He pursues an interdisciplinary approach because he is able to find insights and deficiencies in both the scholarship of political science and sociology on current changes underway in national political economy models and the impact of those changes on worker organizing. He develops a comparative case study analysis of variation in the organizing strategies of six different service sector labor unions in two contrasting political economies: a “liberal” (the US) and a “coordinated” (Norway) market economy. Norway’s coordinated market economy model is characterized by high levels of unionization and robust welfare protections. In comparison, the liberal model of the US is characterized by low levels of unionization and a minimal welfare state. The analysis of union organizing campaigns in two contrasting market economies provides leverage in generalizing his findings about labor union strategies across advanced industrialized countries.

Through extensive fieldwork in each country, he argues that while the organizing challenges unions face are increasingly similar, variation in labor market institutions, political opportunity structures, and the internal characteristics of each labor movement explain divergence in the strategic paths they pursue. In his dissertation, he develops a theoretical model to explain strategic variation based on these factors. His work ultimately helps to explain how rapid changes in the political economies of advanced industrialized economies are reshaping class relations and impacting workers. 

Studying Unions In Norway

One of the more exciting aspects of his research is his engagement with scholars and practitioners in both Norway and the US. During his time at the University of Minnesota, Franco took three years of Norwegian language classes in the German, Scandinavian and Dutch Department. His language development was supported for two years by two Foreign Language and Area Studies Scholarships (FLAS) (2013-2014 and 2014-2015) and a summer FLAS in 2016 to support six weeks of intensive advanced language training at the University of Oslo International Summer School in 2016. This language training was essential for his dissertation research, as he was able to conduct in-depth interviews with Norwegian scholars, workers and union leaders in Norwegian during six months of fieldwork in Oslo in 2016. While in Norway, Franco worked under the guidance of a labor scholar at the University of Oslo, Professor David Jordhus-Lier. Franco was able to conduct extensive research in Norway thanks to financial support from a Torske Klubben Fellowship. His fieldwork in Norway helped him better understand how Norwegian labor unions function, the legal rules they operate under, and how they interact with the government. These findings have been key to the development of his dissertation project. 

Franco relies heavily on interviews and participatory forms of research to learn more about how work is changing and how those changes are impacting workers and unions. He is grateful for the opportunities he has had to meet workers, union organizers and government officials in Norway and across multiple research sites in the US. His interviews and informal conversations, in offices and on picket lines, have pushed him to rethink many of his assumptions and to expand the theoretical scope of his project. He is thankful for the advice and guidance he has received from various CLA professors, students and especially his advisor, Professor Teri Caraway.

Franco’s dissertation research has been generously supported by the Minnesota Torske Klubben, The Graduate School at the University of Minnesota, the Foreign Language and Area Studies program, and the Department of Political Science.