Workers are a group who ought to be readily prone to mobilization. They are brought together into proximity with each other in large numbers in factories, rail stations, ports, and other workplaces. The circumstances of production usually give them causes around which to gather — health and safety issues in the workplace, bullying or disrespectful treatment by supervisors, petty or demeaning work rules. And the business incentives created for owners and managers assure an environment in which workers are likely to have economic grievances, ranging from low pay to withheld wages to pension fund corruption and default. So the conditions for mobilization of workers in protest and advocacy seem propitious almost everywhere. And yet passive acceptance seems about as common as spontaneous or organized protest and resistance. So what other factors come into play? What explains historical patterns of worker passivity and protest? And going a bit further, what factors influence the form that protest takes when it occurs?
Marx’s answers to these questions are well known. The development of industrial capitalism brought about the objective conditions for a militant working class identity. Capitalism increasingly erased differences among artisans and other producers. It conducted a process of commodification of labor that increasingly place all producers in the condition of wage labor. And the imperatives of profits pushed the industrial system towards worse working conditions, lower wages, and a degraded social position. The emergence of a unified class identity and a readiness for protest was inevitable. “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
Marx’s story here isn’t a fantasy. There are real institutional processes embedded in this story that correspond pretty well to the historical experience of labor and capital in many countries and times. But neither is it an iron law of social development. Each country’s experience of development is somewhat different — sometimes in major ways. And crucially, the result Marx expected — a steadily rising tide of radical worker mobilization — has certainly not occurred. So, once again, what are the more specific and local factors that influence the occurrence and form of worker mobilization?
One of Charles Tilly’s central ideas about the occurrence of protest is its historical character. Protest movements have histories that form their present. Tilly emphasizes the central role that traditions and repertoires of protest play in virtually every instance. Protest is not simply the automatic response to exploitation and bad conditions. Rather, protest is an act of collective agency. And this means that outrage and protest must be conceptualized and placed into a practical context. So traditions of protest and grievance play a key role in determining the occurrence and form of mobilization. Parades, strikes, boycotts, road blockages, and petitions all represent forms of the “art of resistance” that have developed differently in different traditions of popular politics. (See The Contentious French for more on this.)
E. P. Thompson’s focus on the particulars of the group identity that has formed represents another crucial factor that helps explain differences across historical settings. Classes make themselves — and they make themselves in different ways. William Sewell’s treatment of the guild consciousness of nineteenth century workers in Marseilles illustrates the point (Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848). Historians and sociologists can observe these processes of identity in formation through a variety of ways — both historically and in the present. And these differences in consciousness formation have consequences for mobilization and action. For example, C. K. Lee argues that China’s workers today, in both “rustbelt” and “sunbelt” settings, have absorbed a set of attitudes towards the moral importance of their legal protections within existing Chinese law, that profoundly influences the form that protests take Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.
Resource mobilization theory highlights another crucial factor that helps explain differences in mobilization across similar material settings. For a group to successfully constitute itself as an effective collectivity, it needs to have access to a range of resources. Communication requires resources; organization requires fulltime activists; propaganda requires access to printing assets; and so forth. So we can get a better picture of the status of labor mobilization in a particular setting, by examining the resources and opportunities for collective action that exist for potential activists.
Organization is a factor that also makes a large difference in the occurrence and form of mobilization. The presence of the IWW plays a key role in Howard Kimeldorf’s account of Philadelphia dock workers (Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement). The CCP is key in Lucien Bianco’s trarment of peasant mobilization in China (Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China). Organizations permit a movement to acquire the coordination of effort required by successful mobilization. And it permits “escalation” — extension of mobilization to a broader territory or a broader set of alliances.
It is also important to recognize the role that agency and strategic interaction play in the unfolding of mobilization. Struggle involved multiple parties responding to each other’s actions. And the outcome may be entirely unforeseen; state actions can both ameliorate the causes of worker grievance (through more vigilant regulation, for example) and deepen worker grievance (through a legal system that systematically disregards worker claims) — and may even do so at the same time.
A final factor that needs mention is the state. Actions and policies by the state can have a large effect on mobilization at several levels. Through regulation it can reduce grievances — pension fund abuse, health and safety issues, intimidation in the workplace. And by providing a substantial social security system — unemployment benefits, access to healthcare, decent treatment of the elderly — it can blunt some of the aggressively harmful tendencies of the unbridled private system that would otherwise lead to explosive protest. Finally, the state can use its coercive and legal power to channel protest in one direction rather than another.
So where does this take us with respect to the original question — what explains patterns of worker mobilization? We’ve noticed some general circumstances that are conducive to worker activism and mobilization. But this account also highlights a wide suite of independent factors that influence mobilization, both up and down. This treatment reinforces the view that social change is highly contingent. And it shows the irreplaceable role to be played by good, specific works of historical sociology. No comprehensive theory suffices for any particular case. Instead, we need to discover the particular ways in which general processes and more contingent factors come together to forge a particular historical juncture. (An influential recent book that tries to work out where workers’ movements might be going in the twenty-first century is Beverly Silver’s Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870.)