VIDEO: Frances Fox Piven on the Importance of Social Movements Being ‘Unruly’

Jamie K. McCallum July 5, 2016

Protests against Michigan's right-to-work bill in 2012.

The game is rigged against Amer­i­can work­ers. What if the only way to win — to increase their pow­er rel­a­tive employ­ers — was to break the rules?

In The Impor­tance of Being Unruly, Frances Fox Piv­en tells the sto­ry of the US labor move­ment. She focus­es on the role of mas­sive dis­rup­tion, trou­ble­mak­ing, and upheaval in cre­at­ing big changes for US work­ers — high­er wages, a voice at work, and a more eco­nom­i­cal­ly equal soci­ety. The catch is that although aggres­sive mass strikes led to unions (which are good for work­ers), unions don’t lead to mass strikes (which is bad for workers).

Piv­en is a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence and soci­ol­o­gy at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. For six decades, her work has inspired both rad­i­cal social move­ments and new research agen­das in the acad­e­my. Through­out this time, no schol­ar has done more to describe the ways that mass dis­rup­tion, social unrest, and non-coop­er­a­tion with elites can change the world. This work has earned her innu­mer­able acco­lades, but per­haps none more dis­tin­guished than when the con­ser­v­a­tive pun­dit Glenn Beck dubbed her an ene­my of the Con­sti­tu­tion” and one of the nine most dan­ger­ous peo­ple in the world.”

Piven’s body of schol­ar­ship is an assess­ment of how pow­er works. But rather than argue that peo­ple form mass insti­tu­tions to con­front the one per­cent, she sug­gests that many groups exer­cise pow­er by with­hold­ing their con­tri­bu­tions to soci­ety. For exam­ple, work­ers strike.

Pick­et lines out­side of fast food restau­rants, Chica­go pub­lic schools, or, most recent­ly, Ver­i­zon com­pa­ny head­quar­ters, hide a dra­mat­ic his­toric trend: strikes have all but dis­ap­peared in the Unit­ed States. Through­out the 1970s, an aver­age of almost 300 large-scale work stop­pages hap­pened every year. In 2015 there were twelve.

Have unions failed to heed lessons from their own his­to­ry? Strikes are risky, poten­tial­ly divi­sive among the rank and file, often draw pub­lic con­dem­na­tion, and can dam­age the union as an orga­ni­za­tion. But if work­ers fail to use their most potent weapon it may prove to be far more dis­as­trous in the long run. 

Jamie K. McCal­lum is assis­tant pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege. His book Glob­al Unions, Local Pow­er, won the best book award from the Amer­i­can Soci­o­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion in 2014. Frances Fox Piv­en was his PhD dis­ser­ta­tion adviser.
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