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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

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


The social context is often neglected in studies of organizational change, while the workplace as a locus of activism receives less attention from social movement theorists than other organizational settings. This paper takes a social movements approach to employee activism regarding diversity and inequality in the workplace. In their discussion, the authors do not seek to differentiate employee activists from quiescent employees but to understand the concerns, language, and tactics of small groups of employee activists when they mobilize.

Undertaken for the May 25-26, 1999, Symposium on Changing Employment Relations and New Forms of Worker Representation, co-sponsored by the Task Force on Reconstructing Americas Labor Market Institutions at MIT and the U.S. Department of Labor, this study is based on interviews with 39 activists from 9 grassroots employee groups in a 900-person division of a high technology firm. The authors identify how employee activists pursue changes that question power relations, draw links to broader societal issues, sustain their collective efforts over cycles of involvement, manage risks to their careers and their mission, handle the protection and constraints offered by the “umbrella” of management, and make sense of their accomplishments. They close by highlighting the significance of local, fragmented change efforts. Without being too sanguine about employee activism nor too cynical about its cooling out function, they recommend, theorists should allow a place for piecemeal change.

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