Diana Reddy, MA, JD
PhD Student, Jurisprudence and Social Policy
University of California, Berkeley
Identifying Class, Classifying Identity:
Constructing Protagonist and Antagonist in the Modern American Labor Movement
Although the social movement literature has devoted considerable attention to the importance of “identity work” in movements, the construction of collective identity by modern American labor movement organizations remains relatively unexamined. Historically, scholars have interrogated America’s class consciousness (or lack thereof), and today scholars emphasize the importance of collective identity for “new” social movements, but there has been limited synthesis of these literatures; that is, attempts to understand how organizations within the modern labor movement construct a collective identity that is tied to class—but not limited to it—and how this work matters for movement outcomes.
This project addresses this gap by asking: how are organizations within the American labor movement constructing collective identity today? I focus on two sub-questions: first, what collective identities are being constructed, and how are they shaped by both micro-level and macro-level sociological processes, by members’ personal identities, and by legal, economic, and discursive structures?; and second, how does organizational “boundary work” manifest in movement outcomes, in identification of goals and success in achieving them?
This inquiry draws from and builds upon the insights of varied but intersecting literatures: from the study of collective identity, the recognition that identity work matters for movement outcomes; from the scholarship on class consciousness, the realization that material position is not mechanistically linked to oppositional consciousness; from union revitalization literature, the tension between “business” unionism and “social movement” unionism; and finally, from legal scholarship, the ongoing debate about the “ossification” of labor law and the cautious optimism about non-traditional models of employee organizing.
Collectively, these literatures detail the complexities of constructing solidarity across multiple subjectivities; yet, they have failed to theorize the broader implications of identity’s centrality for movements under global capitalism, or to examine how economic movements, specifically, can effectively navigate identity fields. The labor movement provides a meaningful case study for these questions. By investigating collective identity construction in a movement tied to a material subject position (class), but not necessarily to a resonant personal identity, this project deepens our understanding of how social movements engage with what I call “identity opportunity structures,” and how flexible identity construction can balance movements’ need for both inclusivity and exclusivity.
It is an ideal time to initiate this inquiry. The American labor movement, drastically weakened over the past fifty years, is currently experimenting with diverse organizational forms and innovative strategies to mobilize workers. This heterogeneity provides a wide swath of cross-sectional data from which to examine organizational choices, as well as constraints on those choices. And, while this inquiry is an academic one, it necessarily speaks to pressing policy questions: Why has increasing economic inequality not spurred a resurgence in organized labor? Why is there a disconnect for so many Americans between material well-being and political orientation? How does democracy persist under conditions of great socio-economic inequality and fraying social bonds? And what, if anything, can the labor movement do to reclaim its relevance?