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The geographies of community-oriented unionism: scales, targets, sites and domains of union renewal in South Africa and beyond

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Abstract

This article takes the increased interest in union renewal and community politics within the geography discipline as its starting point, and argues that the various cases described in the literature should be understood as socio-spatial responses to a new geography of work. Encouraged by the literature on contentious politics, I provide a conceptualisation of how workers reconfigure political spaces through community orientation. A concrete case of municipal unionism in Cape Town, South Africa is used to explore these geographies along four dimensions: the scalar strategies of trade unions, their targets for direct action, their sites of recruitment and the domain of mobilisation these campaigns and alliances stake out for themselves. It is argued that community-oriented unionism tends to entail a reorientation of each of these dimensions. Moreover, union strategies correspond to particular challenges faced in times when local labour markets undergo neoliberal restructuring, such as fragmentation of work and rescaling of labour relations.

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