Donna McGuire

Dr. Donna McGuire,
study program Labour Policies and Globalisation, 2004-2005; current employment: Freelancer researcher and advisor for the labour movement and NGOs.

Donna McGuire has just finished her dissertation and works as a freelance researcher and advisor for the labour and broader non-government sector. The former English teacher, journalist and activist in the Australian union movement studied an MA in Labour Policies and Globalisation at the University of Kassel and the Berlin School of Economics. She returned to Australia but the academic contacts with her former professors and peers brought her back to Kassel to undertake a PhD on trade and labour politics.


From Down-Under to Kassel – Labour Policies and Globalisation

“In a former life I was a teacher in Australia,” Donna reports laughing. Donna McGuire was born in Wellington, Australia and grew up in a working class family. She studied at Griffith University, in Brisbane and worked as an English teacher and journalist. For a number of years she worked as a journalist for the Queensland Independent Education Union (QIEU), before she sought further advancement in her personal and academic development. 

When Donna found the Labour Policies and Globalisation (LPG) Masters program on the Internet she decided to register immediately, even though she had never been to Germany before and had no connection to Kassel. “The program is unique”, she said. “It provides an opportunity for trade unionists from all over the world to come together in a multicultural and multidisciplinary environment to analyse and discuss the challenges of globalisation from a labour and trade union perspective and, at the same time, to obtain postgraduate qualifications.”

Nevertheless, even the requirement of obtaining a bachelor degree prior to participating in the Labour Policies and Globalisation MA can be an obstacle to unionist worldwide. In many countries union activists have no chance to go to university. The shorter ENGAGE program is one way out of this problem.” (The ENGAGE program of the Global Labour University helps labour activists and trade unionists to acquire additional knowledge and tools enabling them to take an active part in public debates and the process of policy formulation and implementation. A School Leaving Certificate combined with at least three years of labour-related work experience are the prerequisites for participation.)

The one-year LPG Masters degree program of the Global Labour University (GLU) is split into two sections. One half of the course is taught at the University of Kassel and the other at the Berliner Hochschule für Wirtschaft und Recht (HWR). The study program educates trade unionists and other people who are interested in questions of social and economic justice. The aim is to strengthen the analytical and policy development capacity of trade unions and to promote cooperation between trade unions and the research community. The program provides participants with the knowledge, research and analytical skills needed to empower them to negotiate with employers and political opponents at ‘eye level’, both at the global level as well as in their home countries.

As Donna sees it, the Labour Policies and Globalisation study program demands that its participants have one eye on the issues and problems of the trade unions in his/her home country and the other on global issues. In many cases problems are interconnected. This dual focus enables graduates to foresee issues that might arise at home later and to anticipate the effect of global factors on regional and local levels.

The LPG program is as challenging as it is stimulating. “The two semesters are packed,” Donna recalls. “Two blocks of seminars – one in Berlin and one in Kassel - a six-week internship and the Masters’ thesis all have to fit into one year.” The program is taught in English. “I was lucky,” she said. “English is my mother tongue. But for those students for whom English is a second language it was difficult to accomplish all of these challenges in such a short time.”

The topic of Donna’s Master thesis was “Keeping education out of GATS”. The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which is negotiated in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), aims to progressively liberalize all services, including higher education. Although there are some protections in the GATS for public services, unions and other civil society groups believe these are not adequate. Unions at the global and local level have mobilized against the GATS because they believe it promotes further liberalization and privatization of public and essential services, which frequently leads to restricted access and precarious employment. Donna’s master thesis identified and analysed the lessons learned from the global union campaign against the inclusion of educational services in GATS for future cross-national campaigns against global governance policies.

Postgraduate Studies

The year after Donna had graduated from the University of Kassel and returned to work for her previous trade union in Australia, her former supervisor, Prof. Dr. Christoph Scherrer invited her to present the findings from her master thesis to the 1st GLU conference, held at the University of Kassel. The stimulating debates during the conference convinced her that her research topic had further potential for development and to provide additional insights for the labour movement. The idea to continue her research and to expand the insights of her master thesis into a doctoral thesis grew, slowly but surely.

Following the saying, “Risk it!” she left family and friends in Brisbane, Australia and moved back to Germany to start her dissertation, without even having the financing of the work finally settled. But in a relatively short time she was able to convince jury members of the worth of her proposal and she received a doctoral scholarship from the Hans Böckler Foundation.

Her doctoral research focused on analysing the opportunity, strategic capability and power needed by unions to influence international trade policy. Multilateral trade agreements such as the GATS have been used to pry open state regulated services to foreign suppliers. In general, this leads to fewer employment opportunities in the state sector, lower labour standards for those still employed, less access for the poor and a weakening of the unions of public employees, which play an important role in the labour movement. One way to address this exclusion of labour issues from international economic governance is to explore ways in which organized labour can be more influential in inter-governmental institutions such as the WTO, which plays a major role in setting global rules and guidelines.

Following her doctoral studies Donna completed a six-month internship with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) in London financed through the “Berufseinstiegspraktikum” program of the Hans Böckler Foundation.

Current Activities

Donna’s current project is to organise the publication of her dissertation. As her readership is an international audience, in some cases with restricted access to academic literature, copyright issues are especially important to her. She believes that it is essential that knowledge is made available for the people that need it, without restrictive access and costs. She also thinks it is important that academics are able to retain control over their own research. After all, this is their raw material for further research, education and policy development. For Donna, copyright is both a professional and a political issue, especially given the tendency to copyright more and more of the world’s resources and to protect and enforce intellectual property rights through trade agreements such as TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights).



Donna has enjoyed life and work in Kassel so far and intends to stay in Germany as a freelancer. Her main competences are to bridge the gap between academic research and applied trade union work. The biggest challenge will be to make her services of strategic research and counselling known to her target groups. However thanks to the alumni network of the Global Labour University and its yearly Alumni summer schools she is in touch with trade unionists and social justice activists worldwide and at the hub of research and applied findings on the global union movement.

Aside from work there are other challenges connected to her scientific and academic career in Kassel: One thing that she really misses is her family. Her adult daughter just graduated from college in Australia and her adult son works in Dubai. She also has a large extended family in Australia. The long distance makes reunions rare and precious.

Advice for students and alumni

One of the main differences, which Donna sees between German and Australian universities, is the tuition fees. Tuition fees are high in Australia. Even though students can defer the cost until they start work, this leaves them with a huge debt to start their working life. Griffith University, where she did her first degree, has some commonalities with the University of Kassel. Both are reform universities. For a brief period in Australia, during which Donna started her studies at Griffith, higher education was free. This was a reform bought in by a labour government in 1974. For the daughter of a working class family without the means to pay tuition fees this meant she could access higher education – the first person in her entire extended family (including previous generations). Later, when fees were re-introduced as a Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), they were quite low and students could pay them back when they started earning a good income. But Donna says, since then these fees have steadily increased. Now they range from 4 000 to 9 000 Australian dollars per year. Griffith – in the spirits of the reform movement - offered opportunities for the acquisition of higher education for those with limited resources and from unusual career paths. It actively encouraged people who had never had the opportunity to study because they lacked the official qualifications. This was particularly important for women and people from working class backgrounds who had lack of opportunities to complete formal education. Whereas Griffith University has converged towards the Australian main stream Donna hopes that the University of Kassel will preserve its uniqueness, including the lack of tuition fees, the tradition of Diploma I and II and alternative pathways to admission besides the general university-entrance diploma (Abitur).

For Donna it is obvious: As a hub for affordable multicultural and multidisciplinary higher education, including for international trade unionists, the University of Kassel has unique features that it should cultivate and promote.


(Interview by Isabelle Schulze 19 March 2013)