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

Jamie K. McCallum

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. 

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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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