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Workplace Justice

Organizing Multi-Identity Movements

2002
Author:

Sharon Kurtz

Workplace Justice

An unheralded union battle offers new insight into identity politics.

"There is nothing quite like this book. Sharon Kurtz documents the 1991 Columbia University clerical workers' union campaign in impressive detail, melding together disparate literatures on identity politics, social movements, and labor to develop the notion of ‘identity practices’." -Ruth Milkman, Director, UC Institute for Labor and Employment

Workplace Justice makes a major contribution to our understanding of collective identity theory. Through the concept of ‘identity practices,’ Kurtz is able to make sense of the juggling act performed in a strike by a union whose members are mostly women and people of color. Furthermore, she uses it critically to suggest missed opportunities.

William A. Gamson, Boston College

In 1991, Columbia University’s one thousand clerical workers launched a successful campaign for justice in their workplace. This diverse union-two-thirds black and Latina, three-fourths women-was committed to creating an inclusive movement organization and to fighting for all kinds of justice. How could they address the many race and gender injustices members faced, avoid schism, and maintain the unity needed to win? Sharon Kurtz, an experienced union activist and former clerical worker herself, was welcomed into the union and pursued these questions. Using this case study and secondary studies of sister clerical unions at Yale and Harvard, she examines the challenges and potential of identity politics in labor movements.

With the Columbia strike as a point of departure, Kurtz argues that identity politics are valuable for mobilizing groups, but often exclude members and their experiences of oppression. However, Kurtz believes that identity politics should not be abandoned as a component in building movements, but should be reframed-as multi-identity politics. In the end she shows an approach to organizing with great potential impact not only for labor unions but for any social movement.

Workplace Justice

Sharon Kurtz is associate professor of sociology at Suffolk University in Boston.

Workplace Justice

Workplace Justice makes a major contribution to our understanding of collective identity theory. Through the concept of ‘identity practices,’ Kurtz is able to make sense of the juggling act performed in a strike by a union whose members are mostly women and people of color. Furthermore, she uses it critically to suggest missed opportunities.

William A. Gamson, Boston College

There is nothing quite like this book. Kurtz documents the Columbia University clerical workers' union campaign in impressive detail, melding together disparate literatures on identity politics, social movements, and labor to develop the notion of ‘identity practices’.

Ruth Milkman, Director, UC Institute for Labor and Employment

Well-written and insightful. Kurtz tells an important story about clerical workers’ struggles over the last 20 years. She points out the vital lesson progressives need to learn from these struggles about building broadly inclusive campaigns representing workers, minorities, women, and others.

Contemporary Sociology

If the labor movement has a future, it will more likely resemble the multiracial, predominantly female, clerical union studied by Sharon Kurtz, than the now weakened and diminished traditional industrial unions. Kurtz’s work is a case study of labor organizing that draws analytically from resource mobilization, framing, and new social movement perspectives. Kurtz argues that inclusive solidarity based upon multi-injustice practices are key to labor organizing; her main case for analysis, the Columbia clerical union, as well as the secondary cases at Harvard and Yale, mark important gains.

American Journal of Sociology

Based on semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and historical observation, Kurtz asks how social movement organizations can transcend sub-group solidarities, valorize multi-identity cohesion, and still fulfill their broader goals. The most interesting aspect of this work is the detailed documentation of the workers’ understanding of their own experiences.

Mobilization

Kurtz provides a very useful discussion of the immediate topic it addresses: women in global factories, union organizing among clerical workers, and the use of federal law and agencies to address employment and discrimination. Workplace Justice engages with larger issues within feminist research and teaching.

National Women’s Studies Association Journal