Just Another “Special Interest”: Collective Identities and Union Strength in the U.S. and Canada in the Twentieth Century

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 4:15 PM
Room: Booth 51
Oral Presentation
Barry EIDLIN , Sociology, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, WI
Why are labor unions weaker in the U.S. than in Canada, despite the two countries’ many similarities? This was not always the case: unionization rates only diverged in the mid-1960s, with consequences for inequality and social policy. Standard explanations emphasizing long-standing differences in national characteristics and policy differences are insufficient. I argue that union divergence resulted from different processes of political incorporation, which created different collective identities for labor in both countries. Labor was incorporated as an interest group in the U.S., and as a class representative in Canada. These collective identities enabled and constrained labor’s scope of action. U.S. labor’s interest group identity led it to focus on using inside influence and lobbying. As its influence within the Democratic Party weakened and employer attacks intensified in the 1970s, labor was unprepared to return to a more mobilizational strategy, its independent organizing capacity sapped by decades of behaving as a responsible interest group. By contrast, Canadian labor’s class representative identity allowed it to retain its independent organizational capacity. Labor fought for legislative reforms, while also mobilizing outside political pressure. This left Canadian labor better equipped to withstand increased employer and government attacks on labor beginning in the 1970s and 80s.