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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

How Do Groups of Activists Mobilize in the Workplace?

Activist groups fueled the passion that individuals shared. This section provides a fuller picture of the formation stories of the particular groups at PineCo. We explore how the activists made sense of both how and why the groups formed. The passions that drove them to create these groups was evident in their stories. We also discovered that there was not one formula or approach for how these groups formed. The following four accounts show the roles played by a core group, a founding individual, a chance coming together, and an electronic mail network.

The African-American Caucus was formed by a small core group of individuals who had found each other across their predominantly white work groups and who felt there was a need to get together. Prior to initiating the Caucus, several of its members had been involved in another employee group called the Multicultural Network. Membership in the Multicultural Network had waned, because of people’s busy work schedules, because several of its focal members left the company, and because some participants felt the breadth of the multicultural label diluted issues pertaining to specific racial groups. A few of the remaining African-American employees decided to reinvigorate their organizing efforts and form a group specifically devoted to their interests: As one of the leaders of the African-American Caucus explained:

The previous effort was called The Multicultural Network, and a lot of people felt that well maybe it was too broad, that multicultural would then connect any ethnic background.

A number of members averred the important mission of the new caucus: to maintain a clear focus on the interests of black employees and the legacy of racism and historical oppression amidst the burgeoning agenda of diversity.

Women at PineCo was founded through the frustration and zeal of a lone white woman activist. She explained that she became motivated to start the group because of her own sense of frustration and alienation in her job as an administrative assistant:

It [was] an extremely isolating job, in an extremely isolated group, and they [were] very, very, very rigid and they want[ed] their AA to be, to do everything...And I wasn’t happy in that position.

Like several other administrative assistants, she had a bachelor's degree and had hoped that the entry level position of administrative assistant might lead to more interesting work. She saw the demands placed on her and the limits on her opportunities as symptomatic of a larger set of issues for women. Propelled by her own experiences, she formed Women at PineCo with the hope of providing a place where women in similar situations could meet and ultimately improve the situation for all women across the company.

In contrast, Women of Wonderland was born serendipitously when all the women on a specific development project happened to find themselves together in the kitchen one day and realized it was the first time they had noticed so many women in one room. As a senior woman on the project recalled:

All the women on Wonderland actually wound up being in the same spot at the same time. There was a realization that this was the first time that all the women on Wonderland had ever been together in a group before, and it actually felt kind of good...and [it] just felt like it would be a good opportunity to get [together.]

The decision to continue to meet on a monthly basis for lunch was spurred by a sense of frustration that several of the women felt about the culture on the project. Being together for the first time allowed the women to air some of their frustrations. The irony of initially meeting in the kitchen was relished by group members, many of whom told this shared story of their chance founding.

Mobilization posed particular challenges for gay and lesbian employees, because they needed to protect the privacy of those who did not want to be "out" at the workplace. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA) grew out of its sponsorship of an electronic discussion bulletin board whose membership and postings were monitored. Members could contribute anonymously if they preferred. As their electronic participation increased, members realized that they had a potentially influential alliance. The group remained a loose coalition of individuals who did not tend to meet regularly, in part to protect members' privacy. However, there was the sense that they had a latent capacity to mobilize; an active member of GALA remarked that as a group they tended to: coalesce around an issue when it comes up, and then kind of back off when it isn’t an issue anymore.

In part because the membership and boundaries of the group were not well known and in part because of some salient successes, they were perceived by other activist groups as one of the most well-organized and effective groups.

It is tempting for theories of mobilization to look for common, definable, and linear paths to organizing. We learned of very different pathways to mobilization. Specific factors – the existence of a previous group as a springboard, the frustrations of a single individual, a fortuitous turning point, or the new role of technology – created different founding stories. The stories demonstrate the common feeling that group members had when they finally found each other and immediately recognized and shared certain disappointments, questions, or grievances. Despite the differences in their formation, all of these groups justified their formation and ongoing meetings by appeal to the top management's official statements in support of creating and honoring diversity. The founder of Women at PineCo shared the belief that the creation of these groups was expressly in the spirit of all of the talk about diversity around the company, which she felt allowed for the formation of these grassroots groups where change could be initiated through collective action:

I felt like diversity was meant to bring about this type of change with groups of minorities coming together saying, ‘let’s work together in a collective voice and make a difference.’

While the activists celebrated the grassroots as the source of diversity efforts, there was a dynamic relationship with the pronouncements of top management, which provided an umbrella under which grassroots groups affirmed the importance of their founding.

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