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Title: Negotiating justice and possibility : alternative labor organizing in New York
Author: West, Zoë
ISNI:       0000 0004 6500 7641
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2017
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Amid broad consensus about the urgency of transforming and revitalizing the US labor movement, alternative labor organizations such as worker centers have emerged as community-based, experimental organizations aiming to address some of the perceived gaps and failures of the mainstream movement. The structures and ideological orientation of worker centers challenge the labor movement's decades-long entrenchment of top-down bureaucracy and its historical exclusion of people of color, women, and immigrants - the very people that worker centers organize. This dissertation uses ethnography and life histories to examine the possibilities and constraints of alternative labor organizing with a radical vision of social change, exploring labor campaigns carried out by the Brooklyn Worker Center and a diverse group of bakery workers in New York. BWC sought to overcome both the limitations of worker centers in building power and the weaknesses of the mainstream labor movement by pursuing a model based on 'solidarity unionism', a current-day form of syndicalism that centers the principles of solidarity, direct action, and worker leadership within its long-term vision of worker control. Through an affiliation with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), BWC was seeking to unionize workers without using elections or aiming for contracts, but instead relying on worker solidarity and ongoing direct action. Documenting the struggle to manifest this radical vision within the reality of our existing political economic terrain, this study reveals a disjuncture between the Brooklyn Worker Center's vision and its practice, particularly evident in the organization's struggle to foster sustained worker participation in its campaigns and cultivate an active, growing, and militant organization of workers on the shop floor. I argue that this discrepancy between vision and practice was caused by the organization underestimating the challenges of transitioning from an advocacy-centered model to a model rooted in sustained workplace organizing. This transition is traced across multiple scales of analysis in the dissertation, weaving between BWC's organizational vision and strategies and the experiences of the bakery workers both inside and beyond the workplace. Beginning with a framework that traces the structural formation of the working class along hierarchies of labor, the analysis moves to workers' subjective experiences of these hierarchies and imagined possibilities for change, to the moral economy of the shop floor at an industrial bakery. I explore how BWC's organizing strategies strove to help workers prefigure the union through building 'structures of solidarity', seeking to activate workers' sense of justice and to expand their sense of what was possible; meanwhile, the employer sought to reassert maternalism and diminish imagined possibilities. Yet as these workers faced the triple threat of limited structural bargaining power, divisions in the workplace and precarity beyond the workplace, BWC was unable to position the union as a viable source of justice and security. Ultimately, the organization's ambitious, radical vision of worker power was not matched with sufficient organizing capacity to overcome the challenges and divisions; while the organization succeeded in leveraging external sources of power to win certain demands, the cultivation of worker solidarity and internal power faltered. This case study speaks to the inherent challenges of organizing marginalized workers, and draws our attention to the need to attend to the cultivation of workers' bargaining power and their ‘internal power' - a balance far more difficult to achieve in practice than in principle.
Supervisor: Anderson, Bridget ; Pratten, David Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: labor