Labour market or labour movement? The union density bias as barrier to labour renewal

  • Sullivan R
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Most labour scholars view the unionised share of the labour market, union density, as the movement’s primary source of power. Conversely, social movement scholars usually consider power embedded in disruption, organisational networks, resources, or political opportunities. Although many labour scholars promote ‘social movement unionism’ to reverse labour’s decline, they have largely failed to adopt a thoroughgoing social movement perspective.A sign of this is that union density remains the sacrosanct indicator of organised labour’s success and power. I argue that this density bias has significant analytical implications, leading observers to overlook non-market sources of movement power, to reduce a heterogeneous movement to a single organisational form, and to oversimplify the complex processes of movement organizing. I contend that treating labour explicitly as a social movement rather than implicitly as an agent in a market will open new lines of inquiry that may strengthen analyses of labour’s prospects for renewal.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Labour movement
  • Labour movement revitalisation
  • Social movement unionism
  • Social movements
  • Union density
  • Unionisation
  • Unions

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  • Richard Sullivan

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