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U.S. Department of Labor Futurework
  Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century
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Passion with an Umbrella:
Grassroots Activism in the Workplace

by
Maureen Scully and Amy Segal

Sloan School of Management
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Task Force Working Paper #WP13

Prepared for the May 25-26, 1999, conference “Symposium on Changing Employment Relations and New Institutions of Representation”

September 1, 1999

Social Movements and Workplace Activism
Relating the Passion and the Umbrella


The social movements literature contributes concepts of micro-mobilizing, framing, and publics transcripts that are helpful in a study of organizational activism. Certainly some of these concepts are resonant of concepts in the organizational literature. However, the concepts that are anchored in the study of movements have a flavor of politics and radical resistance that are crucial for expanding the view of organizational change. The social movements literature helps us to locate and interpret activist efforts in the workplace.

Our findings about the dynamic relationship between the "passion" and the "umbrella" reveal some distinctive qualities of workplace activism that add to the social movements literature. Activists' knowledge of the workplace gives them a sophisticated working knowledge of how to mobilize resources and how to pick battles. At the same time, it is harder to protect their right to mobilize when they know they could lose their job on trumped up charges, particularly in non-union contexts where we see the kind of local employee activism around diversity described in this paper. Despite obstacles, workplace activists manage to maintain their passion and capitalize on moments for change. Their colorful discourse keeps alive their links to broader societal movements. Activists meet and find succor in their collectivity; with these groups validating grievances and providing opportunities for new sense-making. Though workplaces pose constraints, they are also familiar places in which activists can decompose broad social agendas into manageable steps with known players.

Management occupies a distinct position in the landscape of workplace activists. Management can simultaneously provide the policy pronouncements and support that enable activists while also representing the privilege and resistance that activists work against. Consequently, activists must uphold a delicate balancing act in attempting to resist and push management, while also seeking management support.

It is difficult for activists to gauge how safe it is to take risks, and the stakes – whether reputation, promotion, or paycheck – are high. If activists rely too much on management protection, they are vulnerable when that protection is retracted. Activists seek a delicately balanced buy-in from management, in language neither too whitewashed nor too strident. It is also difficult to be critical of management – the climate managers create, the frustratingly slow steps taken toward greater workplace diversity, and the power structure from which managers derive authority – all while trying to win and sustain managers' blessings.

Activism within a workplace context is therefore complex because of the very closeness of the power that is contested. Workplace activists who want to change power relationships contend with both distant and immediate forms of authority, sometimes speaking in general terms about what “top management” wants, sometimes speaking specifically of managers down the hallway whom they are trying to lobby. Many of our activists were themselves middle or highly placed managers, whose social identity and/or commitment to change nonetheless left them feeling beleaguered and speaking from the vantage point of “bottom-up” change. The passion and umbrella imagery, therefore, should not connote neatly the passion of the bottom and the umbrella of the top. At each level, there are people with passion and people who control important resources and represent the umbrella.

Activists' Tactics Characterized by Dualities

We discovered how activists talk about and approach their work, balancing a variety of frames, risks and tactics. The workplace provides them with some of the tools they use in their everyday business life. These tools, nonetheless, offer both opportunities and constraints in their activism. Our results show that activists' tactics in this context are characterized by a number of dualities. Some dualities that we found include:

  • Using social movement language charges up activists' efforts-and lets them express how much more modest their efforts are than protests outside of work;
  • Joining forces helps activists find strength in numbers-and arouses suspicions;
  • Using the mechanics of business-like task forces (e-mail, mission statements, agendas) helps activists get organized and stay on track-and can turn diversity work into just another task force to fit into a busy schedule;
  • Courting top management in top management's own language helps activists get support and manage risks-and raises the possibility that public agendas mute more radical hidden agendas;
  • Capitalizing on apparent hypocrisies and inconsistencies helps activists find opportunistic moments and terms for change-and can diminish activists' morale and sense of progress.

The simultaneity of opportunity and constraint is a useful way to think of the contextualized actions of agents working within powerful structures. Faced with this kind of "on the one hand, on the other hand" tabulation of approaches, it is difficult to assess the impact that activists have. We have found activists who are in the midst of a change project, not yet sorted out and assessed by history. It is a good moment to observe their practices, but a difficult time to address the question of impact, toward which this discussion of change tactics invariable moves.

Has Anything Really Changed?

Critical approaches to organizational studies sometimes expose how incremental changes are trivial relative to the severity of inequalities that must be addressed, or how they merely, if accidentally, reproduce the very inequalities they were trying to contest. These accounts downplay the role of change efforts and might be characterized by what Gouldner (1955) called the "metaphysical pathos" of the social sciences. Gouldner acknowledged that organizations can be autocratic and inertial, but championed the more interesting cause of finding and trying to understand modest instances where they could be made more participative and adaptive.

In a similar spirit, we feel we have located moments and instances where radical passions drove individuals to action and changed the contours of the workplace. We keep in mind critical theorists' injunctions not to overstate the efficacy of these changes and to realize much more needs to be done. They emphasize rightly that organizations are not responsive and that reformist changes can be cooptive and shut down a debate without changing the power structure at all. Ironically, these concerns mean that critical theorists, who should be the most likely to look for more radical styles of change, are reluctant to do so.

To ask whether a particular change tactic is reformist or radical, evolutionary or revolutionary, effective or not, a contribution to change or a distraction from "real" change, a big win or a small win, may ultimately create simple binary depictions that distract activists, as well as researchers who wish to understand and enrich activism. It may be easier to move incrementally from the status quo than to abandon it. Given the risks involved, it may be the only feasible way to address deep-seeded social problems within workplace organizations. Perhaps the persistent historical attention to the reformist versus radical distinction has done more to create internecine conflicts among change agents than to advance change efforts.

We would like to conclude instead with the suggestion that we move away from these binary classifications and observe how there are inherent dualities in many aspects of a workplace social movement. A particular activist tactic may at once be a facilitator and an inhibitor of change. The dualities discussed above illustrate the halting steps forward and backward that seem to characterize social movements inside organizations. Ultimately, the impatient "what has been changed" question might be misplaced. The very impatience to know what activists have done may create an additional source of anxiety for activists and constitute an inadvertent way of undermining them. Without oversight and standards for change, change will not come about. However, this penchant to speak of an amount of change that has been achieved fixes attention on a linear and additive model of change (Albert, 1992), which may be appealingly neat but not empirically true to activists' experiences. Instead, change seems to come from multiple local experiments, in which activists utilize different discourses, framings and leverage, improvising as they go along.

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