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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

What the Social Movements Literature Offers to Studies of Organizational Change

Theories of social movements focus on how groups mobilize to challenge inequalities in resources and status that are systematically reinforced by power relations. McCarthy and Zald (1977:1217-1218) define a social movement as "a set of opinions and beliefs in a population which represents preferences for changing some elements of the social structure and/or reward distribution of a society." Sociologists have focused their attention on large scale politicized efforts designed to alter the balance of power in society, such as the civil rights (e.g., McAdam, 1982; Morris, 1984), women's rights (e.g., Mansbridge, 1986), labor (e.g., Conell & Voss, 1990; Klandermans, 1984), nuclear disarmament, (e.g., Kitschelt, 1988), or environmental (e.g., Dalton, 1994) movements. They explain who becomes involved in collective action, why, and what tactics they use to contest and change power relations.

A social movement approach allows us to go beyond the existing work on organizational change and shine a spotlight on attempts at more radical change, designed to alter power structures in a way that, in turn, may transform how work is done and who reaps the benefits from it. The organizational literature often assumes change is initiated by top management and is centered around strategic issues such as technological innovation, new ventures, new product development, or new values statements; it takes the current power structure of the organization as a given (Pfeffer, 1981; Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978; Schein, 1985; Tushman & Romanelli, 1985). Theory that explores upward influence for selling issues to top management adds a needed element of bottom-up change (Dutton & Ashford, 1993; Yukl & Falbe, 1990), but must be extended to include issues raised to alter the very notion of bottom and top.

Studies of other organizational phenomena have used a social movements focus, but lose the flavor of contesting the power or reward structure. For instance, Davis and Thompson (1994) creatively cast shareholder activism as a social movement, emphasizing that shareholders have shared interests that they can define and upon which they can act collectively. Shareholder activism may ultimately change the landscape of capitalism, but its defining social movement character may best be found by directly examining what employee-owned pension funds are doing in the interests of employees, rather than what is happening in the asserted interests of shareholders, which are so often used as a stick against labor. Hackman and Wageman (1995) characterize total quality management as a social movement, declaring it a paradigm shift in how work gets done. However, this paradigm shift has not been accompanied by real changes in control or reward systems (Barker, 1994; Donnellon & Scully, 1994).

Our use of a social movements approach focuses attention on groups of employee activists who pose a threat to the current power structure in organizations. We will focus on employees whose change agendas are far more "radical" than what has been labeled "radical" and "revolutionary" in the mainstream change and innovation literature (e.g., Day, 1994; Tushman & Romanelli, 1985). Organizational movements centered around gender and race inequality offer an example of a radical change effort; they have the capacity to alter authority relationships profoundly because of their links to a political ideology of how power is transformed (MacKinnon, 1982). Historically, radical change has been pursued in organizations through unions. In today’s environment, employees often attempt change without the guidance and safety net of a union. Nonetheless, they still seek some local form of voice to challenge authority in the workplace (Freeman & Rogers, 1993).

We focus directly on the activists, as many sociological studies of social movements do. We do not try to differentiate activists from those who do not act, which diverts attention away from instances of action. Social psychological studies of employee grievances and outrage (e.g., Martin, 1986) emphasize individuals who either do not perceive injustices or who do but face resource constraints against acting. The literature offers an array of obstacles to worker mobilization, making inaction not just typical but overdetermined. With few notable exceptions (e.g., Harquail, 1996a, 1996b; Prasad & Prasad, 1996), little work has been done to understand employee activists. We focus explicitly on employee activists to understand them more fully and to make sure their small numbers do not make them invisible to researchers.

Finally, we draw upon recent advances in the social movements literature that integrate, transcend, or depart from the debate over ideological versus structural causes of revolutionary action (e.g., Sewell, 1985; Skocpol, 1979, 1985). A few radical organizational theorists stand out for engaging this debate (e.g., Martin, Brickman & Murray, 1984). However, organizational theorists have not yet drawn upon new approaches to social movements. Sociological studies of recruitment into movements, issue framing, micro-mobilization, public and private discourses, and everyday forms of resistance to local authorities (e.g., Gamson, 1992, 1988; McAdam, 1988; Scott, 1985, 1990; Snow et al., 1986) provide useful concepts for understanding activism in the context of organizations.

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