Kay, Tamara. 2005. Labor Transnationalism and Global Governance: The Impact of NAFTA on Transnational Labor Relationships in North America. American Journal of Sociology Vol. 111 No 3 pp. 715–56
Kay applies political process theory to transnational activism, specifically to a case of labor activism and NAFTA. Political process theory was developed for national social movements. It relies on the concept of political opportunity structures. Kay makes the point that political process theory's ideas about political opportunity structures are specific to national activism. Transnational activism also has political opportunity structures, but they are different from national social movements.
"Synthesizing key scholars’ conceptualization of the term, McAdam (1996, p. 27) highlights four primary dimensions of political opportunity at the national level: (1) the relative openness or closure of the institutionalized political system, (2) the stability or instability of elite political alignments, (3) the presence or absence of elite allies, and (4) the state’s capacity and propensity for repression" (p. 721-722).
These factors require a state: repression by the state, the political parties within a state, and electoral politics within the state. In the case of transnational activism, Kay says, the political opportunity structure is not determined by a state. Additionally, the four dimensions named above assume one nation state, and in the case of NAFTA there are three.
This seems specific to the types of activism Kay is referring to in which there is an global governance institution that creates the arena for activism. In cases where transnational activism uses a boomerang strategy (Keck and Sikkink) to target one state government using activism from abroad, there are multiple states involved, or at least activists in multiple states who are perhaps targeting just one state, but there may not be a global governance institution involved.
In the case of NAFTA and other political opportunity structures created by global governance institutions, Kay's work applies. NAFTA has no elected representatives or political parties nor does it have a capacity for repression. Kay identifies three dimensions of political opportunity structures at the transnational level:
"Here I offer three primary dimensions of political opportunity structure at the transnational level that explain how power is established at the transnational level: (1) the constitution of transnational actors and interests, (2) the definition and recognition of transnational rights, and (3) adjudication of rights at the transnational level" (p. 722). She adds that "At the transnational level, political opportunity structures are embedded in rules and bureaucratic processes rather than electoral processes" (p. 723).
In the case of NAFTA and its labor agreement NAALC, their creation created transnational actors and interests. Previously, labor activists in each nation saw their interests as purely national. Activists in each nation wanted to keep the jobs in their own country, and saw labor in other nations as competition. Each nation has its own labor laws, institutions, and adjudication processes. Essentially, the arena for activism was purely national. When NAFTA was under negotiation, this changed. Suddenly labor activists in all three nations had a common interest - opposing NAFTA - and they began working together as transnational actors to oppose it. Following its passage and implementation, they continued to have shared interests in protecting and expanding labor rights in all three NAFTA countries. Or, as Kay describes the shifting of interests from national to transnational: "The goal of the campaign was not to keep jobs in the United States; rather, it was to maintain decent labor rights and standards in North America" (p. 730).
Part of the reason for the continued activism after the passage of NAFTA was newly established adjudication process through which activists could file complaints against labor violations in the three NAFTA nations. The complaints must be filed outside one's own country. In order to file complaints, activists in the country in which the labor violation occurred worked with activists in the nation where they were filing the complaint.
Thus, the creation of NAFTA established both a definition of transnational rights - the labor standards that the three NAFTA nations were to uphold, giving rights to labor in all three nations - and an adjudication process at the transnational level when violations occurred.
Kay writes, in summary:
"In this article I show how global governance institutions facilitate a process that constitutes transnational actors and interests. NAFTA forced labor unions in all three countries to recognize the common threat to North American workers if the free trade agreement stimulated a reduc- tion in jobs and wages and in health, safety, and environmental standards. Although it is commonly thought that NAFTA only created a common market, my data suggest that it also created a transnational political opportunity structure through which national unions in North America could identify their common interests as North American unions and advocate for them by developing a transnational political action field.
"The second dimension of transnational political opportunity structures expands upon the first by emphasizing the importance of defining and recognizing transnational actors’ and social movements’ rights in the transnational arena. This dimension is similar to Tilly’s (1984) assertion that national social movements target nation-states because they have the power to grant or deny legitimacy. In the transnational arena, global governance institutions have the same power" (p. 723).
Kay also introduces two other terms, political mobilization effect and institutional effect.
The political mobilization effect occurred when the threat of NAFTA created a common interest (preventing its passage) among labor activists in all three nations. The institutional effect occurred when NAFTA created institutions that "define and recognize transnational rights, and adjudicate violations of these rights at the transnational level" (p. 724).
Kay provides five stages in a process of creating a cooperative transnational relationship and institution building: "(1) contact, (2) interaction and the coalescing of interests, (3) growth of confidence and trust, (4) action (e.g., joint activities and actions to address mutual needs and interests), and (5) identification (e.g., recognizing mutual interests)." (p. 725).
In her case study of three unions that work together, one from each of the three NAFTA nations, she provides examples of how the three unions work together. They initially worked to oppose NAFTA. After its passage, they worked to organize workers in Mexican factories; they set up a fund for striking workers in Mexico; they worked together to organize Mexican workers in the U.S.; and they worked together to file complaints when labor violations occurred in any of the three nations.