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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

Exploratory Questions from the Social Movements Literature

We pose five questions that arise in thinking about organizational change in this manner and ideas from social movement theory that may help address them. While the questions appear to track the movement chronologically, from formation to action, we present them this way for rhetorical purposes only. Because we are exploring change while it is in process, we do not think about the different moments of a movement in a linear sequence. Instead, we consider them part of an iterative process where they cycle back and forth. The questions that guide our paper are: First, do activists invoke a broad social movement discourse? Second, how do groups of activists mobilize in the workplace? Third, how do activists sustain their commitment? Fourth, how do activists manage the risks involved? Fifth, what do activist groups do? In this final question, we arrive at the issue of whether the groups are effective in their actions, singularly or cumulatively. Below, we draw on the literature that gives rise to these questions and suggests approaches to them.

First, we explore whether a larger body of societal ideas and beliefs propels organizational activism. Gamson (1985) has shown how the meaning system that is culturally available for thinking about issues impacts whether collective action is pursued, the extent of that action, and the form it takes. Donati (1992:142) has identified discourse as the instrument used to create that meaning system and an important resource for social movements. He defines discourse as “the place where efforts at defining public reality are made, so that it can achieve a collective validity.” Gamson (1988) has pointed to the role of the media in shaping that public reality. He has shown how the media influences the way individuals perceive an issue, which in turn may lead to discontent and sometimes action. Our first question explores whether employees feel that their actions in the workplace are a part of a larger movement and whether they invoke the culturally available languages of resistance.

As an example, the recent coverage by the popular business press as well as the national media on diversity and multiculturalism testifies to the development of a new language that is being invoked around issues pertaining to gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation (Anthony, 1992; Cox, 1991; Dreyfuss, 1990; Galen, 1994; Nelton, 1992; Wynter, 1994). This new cultural vocabulary can be seen as propelling the development of a larger societal movement around diversity issues. This vocabulary has been invoked in educational organizations, leading to debates about biases in college curricula. Interest in diversity has also brought the advent of corporate diversity programs and consultants (Celis, 1993; Deutsch, 1993; Lynch, 1992; Sowell, 1994; Thomas, 1991). Additionally, researchers have noted the emergence of employee groups that have organized around diversity issues and social identities (e.g., Friedman, 1996; Proudford, 1997), although they have not probed how groups makes links to this larger discourse.

Our second question focuses on how groups of activists mobilize in the workplace. Groups that form in workplace settings may be good examples of what McAdam (1988:134-135) has defined as micro-mobilization contexts: “small group setting[s] in which processes of attribution are combined with rudimentary forms of organization to produce mobilization for collective action.” These groups have been identified as being a critical component in the process of collective action in part because they heighten the shared sense of injustice. The smaller scope of action implied in the term "micro-mobilization" may be most appropriate for precisely the type of challenge workplace groups pose to management and the changes they hope to affect. These groups may avoid large-scale actions for fear of being censured or even expelled from the corporation if their actions are seen as too radical or pose too great a threat to management. We examine how activists come together and how they make sense of their collective identity in the workplace.

Third, we probe how the groups sustain their activism. Piven and Cloward (1979) argue that collective action enables individuals to see greater possibilities for change. Working collectively allows individuals to define reality in a different way and make sense of their situation in new terms so that a problematic condition is no longer seen as an individual misfortune, but a systemic injustice. As a result, individuals will no longer attribute the problem to themselves but to some fault of the system. Hirsch (1990) also points to the importance of the group process as a "consciousness-raising" experience. However, the energy needed to continue to push for change is hard to sustain over long periods of time. Tarrow (1988) shows that activism can be sustained over long historical cycles, but with greater and lesser involvement. We consider how activists may both lose energy and reinvigorate their efforts. We also address whether activists feel that their groups do confer greater possibilities for effecting change and sustaining involvement in the movement.

Through our fourth question, we explore how activists manage the risks involved in their actions. Individuals involved in grassroots efforts may perceive risks to their livelihoods and careers and seek ways to manage these risks. Activists may have to balance delicately their burning sense of justice and desire for wholesale change with the needs to minimize risks to their careers and to secure management support in enacting their goals. Activists may have to garner some top management support to ensure their continued existence and to achieve their goals. Unlike the attempts at upward influence described by Dutton and Ashford (1993), these activists may differ in their motivation in trying to influence top management. Dutton and Ashford depict middle managers as driven almost exclusively by instrumental career reasons when they attempt to “sell” ideas upward. Activists may be motivated by concerns about equity, ethics, or "principled organizational dissent" (Graham, 1986). They may take actions that risk their own careers while trying to make career opportunities more widely available.

How activists present their issues to top management may be an important strategy in navigating the paths of resistance. Frame extension, whereby the boundaries of the primary framework of a social movement are expanded to encompass other points of view that may be incidental to the movement, is an important way in which adherents to a movement gain additional support and members (Snow et al., 1986). While activists may become involved in pushing for change primarily for reasons having to do with justice and fairness, they may instead frame the issues to top management in business terms that are more likely to secure management support and yield changes. This strategy would be consonant with Scott’s (1990) contention that subordinate groups have their own vested interest in colluding to preserve appearances. They act out what he calls "public transcripts," which allows them more latitude to pursue their own agendas or "hidden transcripts." We examine the ways in which workplace activists present issues to management in order to procure management support and diminish the perceived threat their activism poses.

A fifth and obvious question demands attention: what do organizational activists do to affect change? We examine what concrete actions activists take. We will consider whether it is possible to assess the scope and efficacy of their actions for effecting change, given the ongoing and emergent nature of the movement inside an organization. We will specifically examine how activists themselves evaluate the scope and efficacy of their own actions as part of a broader change effort. Whether a small change is merely a trivial one that brings a problem prematurely to closure or a significant one that marks an incremental step on a longer journey can be gauged in part by activists' visions of what the broad change agenda looks like. We will explore whether workplace activists have blurry or empty visions, which characterizes some movements (e.g. Alinsky, 1972; Martin, Scully & Levitt, 1990), or whether being in a concrete setting with familiar problems permits somewhat richer visions.

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