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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 Organizational Settings Offer to Research on Social Movements

Sociologists have studied social movements that redress inequality on a societal level. They consider the organization to be a form that provides mobilizing tools for activists. McCarthy and Zald (1977:1217-1218) define a social movement organization as a "complex or formal organization which identifies its goals with the preferences of a social movement or a counter-movement and attempts to implement those goals." For example, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are organs of the environmental movement. This organizational tapestry has not included business organizations, devoted to other goals, but settings in which activism can occur. Business organizations reflect and shape larger social, cultural, and political settings (Stinchcombe, 1965). They are sites where societal issues are generated and societal changes can be advanced. Individuals in these organizations draw on their knowledge of broader settings and may be at once constrained by their organizational context but also prompted to change it (Granovetter, 1985).

We pose three reasons for examining the workplace as a site or an instantiation of these broader movements. First, much of the inequality that social movements address is created by organizations and by their policies regarding hiring, occupational sorting, pay, and mobility (e.g., Baron, 1984). National policies that sprang from the civil rights movement, such as equal employment opportunity, recognize business organizations as the site where injustice may occur and where monitoring and enforcement are required. People experience injustices in a firsthand and non-abstract way in the workplace. Inequalities based on social identity may become salient and contestable in the workplace, because individuals come face-to-face with them on a daily basis. Second, at work, people may more easily develop an understanding for the local workings of the system and the potential resources that can be mobilized opportunistically, such as the use of an electronic bulletin board, a conference room for meetings, or a key to the copy machine for distributing information. Third, the problem of finding recruits and mobilizing them in one place is resolved, particularly as people spend an increasing number of their waking hours assembled under the same roof at work (Schor, 1991). The workplace is therefore an important site where a movement can be actualized. Kennedy (1993) envisions the workplace as the primary future site for resistance in furthering the goals of a larger movement devoted to embracing diversity in society.

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