The Organizational Trace of an Insurgent Moment

Occupy Wall Street


The relationship between social movements and formal organizations has long been a concern to scholars of collective action. Many have argued that social movement organizations (SMOs) provide resources that facilitate movement emergence, while others have highlighted the ways in which SMOs institutionalize or coopt movement goals. Through an examination of the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and the field of SMOs in New York City, this article illustrates a third possibility: that a moment of insurgency becomes a more enduring movement in part through the changes it induces in the relations among the SMOs in its orbit.

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The Costs of Being Poor

Two new books explore how difficult the housing market and criminal justice system make it to climb out of poverty.

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Looking for the Next Generation

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1964, students from around the country traveled to Mississippi to participate in Mississippi Freedom Summer. Working hand-in-hand with civil rights organizations and African American residents of Mississippi, these students helped to shine a spotlight on the deep injustices of Jim Crow. At the same time, these students came to see the world with “Mississippi eyes,” deepening their own commitment to racial and economic justice in ways that would last a lifetime.

To mark the anniversary of Freedom Summer, I’ve been working with OUR Walmart and Columbia University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE) on a program to document and address the economic disenfranchisement that contourwalmartinues to afflict our country.  Students from around the country, hand-in-hand with Walmart worker-leaders, will participate in an intensive summer of organizing and oral history documentation.

The project will last from May 26th to August 3. We will begin with an intensive four-day training in organizing, oral history, and video co-facilitated by OUR Walmart and INCITE, to take place between May 26th and May 29th at Columbia University. Students will then travel in teams to one of four regions across the country, where they will embed themselves with existing workers’ organizations. For the next nine weeks, students will be a part of ongoing organizing campaigns, with a particular focus on conducting oral history interviews with workers, customers, and community members. The group with then regroup in New York City at the beginning of August (August 1-3) for a debrief and celebration, where we will plan next steps for the campaign.

We’re looking for a few good students to make this program work.  Do you know one of them?  If so, please let me know or send them my way!

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Will You Help My Parents Get Divorced on Google?

Almost eight years ago, my parents–Robert Reich and Clare Dalton–separated.  Six years later, in January of 2012, they got divorced.  I was twenty five at the separation, thirty one at the divorce.  As any adult child of divorce can tell you, it was still hard when it happened.  But it all happened a long time ago, and both of my parents have found wonderful new partners who make them very happy.  The wounds have mostly healed.

googleBut for all its searching, aggregating, synthesizing, and disseminating, Google has not been keeping close enough tabs on the personal lives of my family of origin.  Google “Robert Reich” on your iPhone, and the second fact that appears–after the specific dimensions of my father’s very short stature (4′ 10″)–is that his spouse is Clare Dalton.

What’s more, my parents seem helpless to change it.  Both of them have sent personal emails to higher-ups at the company.  No dice.  What they have been told is that the easiest way to correct the page is to publish new material setting the record straight.  If my dad writes an Op-Ed about his new wife, or dedicates one of his regular radio commentaries to the end of his marriage to my mom, then maybe it will become true on Google.

For me, the error isn’t so meaningful.  Honestly, it’s kind of a relief.  I mean, I figured privacy had ended, that Google, the NSA, the FBI, Facebook, and Twitter had all been listening in as my brother and I processed the drama back in 2006.  But I guess they all missed that conversation, and the ones that followed, and all the electronic ink spilled over the last decade as everyone in my family processed the split.

It’s somewhat comforting for me that Big Brother hasn’t been watching, makes me feel like the dystopian full-information society about which we have all been warned is still some ways off.  But it’s not comforting for my parents, or for their new partners.  For them it feels like blackmail–like the only way they can bring their online presences into the present is to make their private lives even more public.  And what does seem disturbing to me is how little control we have about the information out there about us, even when we are willing to set the record straight.  The Google executives my parents have contacted seem committed to their algorithms even when they know they have led to falsehood.

So here is the request, an experiment:  Will you link to this page?  I’ll let you know if it changes the Google page.


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Traveling Salesmen

My grandfather, Edwin Reich, turns 99 this month, and my family is going down to visit him in Boca Raton next week.  He’s been on my mind more than usual.  Ed, or Bapa, began his career as a traveling salesman in the 1930s, hawking fancy fur coats throughout the Northeast to those few who hadn’t been hit so hard by the Great Depression.  Then, in an ill-advised business move, he switched to selling carpet sweepers; and not the brand that people wanted to buy.  He struggled in those early years, although you wouldn’t know it now.  He went on to start a small clothing store alongside my grandmother Mildred, retired early, and seems to have the spent the better part of the last thirty years playing golf, reading the newspaper, and doing some kind of magic with his investmtraveling salesmanents.

A couple months ago my warm and encouraging editor, Suzanne Gordon, sat me down and told me I should get out there to promote my book, With God On Our Side: Labor Struggle in a Catholic Hospital.  I needed to speak about it.  I needed to blog about it.  I needed to ask my friends and relatives to tweet about it.  My stomach lurched a little.  Suzanne noticed, but persisted.  She does not give up easily.  And she’s right, after all.  I should be shouting about my book from the rooftops!  The dignity of work and importance of labor unions are issues I care deeply about.  And a book is a perfect platform!  Why not stand on it?  Or jump from it?  Or do whatever one does with a platform?   If I’m honest with myself, I think part of the appeal of the academic world is the privacy I get to feel inside it.  But at the same time I believe that those of us in this world should be more public and engage with others about our work.

And so, with these conflicts unresolved, I’ve begun to arrange a small book tour for myself.  This morning I took the train from Penn Station as the first flakes of Snowmageddon began to fall on New York City, and tonight I’m sitting in a hotel room in Washington D.C.  Tomorrow I talk to a gathering of the Catholic Labor Network and try to make my way home.  So far it’s been surprisingly fun to talk about the book, and satisfying to connect with others who care about the same things I do.  But when my energy starts to flag, I just think of my book as a carpet sweeper.  And it all gets a little bit easier.

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Michigan’s Attack on Unions Undermines Public Health

nurse imageHere’s a short piece I wrote on Michigan’s “Right-to-Work” legislation for Beyond Chron.

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Free at Last?

“This is the day when Michigan freed its workers.”  That’s what Republican state representative Lisa Posthumus Lyons told her colleagues in the Michigan Legislature yesterday, according to a story in the New York Times.

freedomIn case you missed it, Michigan made history on Tuesday.  Yes, Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, became the 24th state in the country to pass “Right-to-Work” legislation.  Right-to-Work legislation is newspeak for making it difficult for unions to raise money, since under these laws a workplace cannot make the payment of union dues or fees a condition of employment.

A lot can be and should be said about how pernicious these laws are; John Logan says a lot of it here.  But what has been most striking for me throughout this debacle is how much of a stranglehold the right seems to have on the concept of “freedom.”  Demolishing unions is about freedom?  Seriously?

This hasn’t always been the case.  My bedtime reading right now is Eric Foner’s brilliant book The Story of American Freedom, U.S. history told as a persistent struggle over the meaning of “freedom.”  It’s a good reminder that in other epochs freedom had more substantive, more collectivist connotations.  Franklin Roosevelt spoke powerfully of freedom from want as one of his Four Freedoms.  The Freedom Movement (you know, that thing we call the Civil Rights Movement today) linked the struggle of black Americans to the story of Exodus, and envisioned the promised land as possible only through the bonds of solidarity and moral commitment.

I’m not proposing that we need only use different language—that we can reclaim “freedom” through linguistic jiu-jitsu.  But I do think there’s a lesson here about linking what we believe is right and just to the moral principles on which the country was founded.  I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of “freedom talk,” since the way it is used today seems so far from the world as I hope it might be.  But rather than ditch the concept perhaps it’s time we work—in thought and deed—to reclaim it.

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Domestic Worker Report Hits Home

Every once in a while, when my four-year-old’s expressive chaos has gone too far, I hire people to clean my apartment.  It’s amazing—a rebirth.  Granted, my dog gets anxious and has diarrhea for the following thirty-six hours.  But that’s a small price to pay. 

The actual price tag is somewhat larger.  That’s because I use Apple Eco-Cleaning, a cooperatively-owned, environmentally friendly cleaning business.  Founded by people from NYC’s Worker’s Justice Project, the idea is to create a sustainable model of domestic work.

ImageIt’s a great organization, but paying a living wage is expensive.  That’s why most people don’t do it.  Last week, the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance released what many are heralding as the first systematic survey of the domestic work industry in the United States.  The report is a powerful indictment of the industry, and of our collective failure to regulate it:  domestic workers have been excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act since its passage in 1935. 

Among domestic workers, intimacy and exploitation seem to go hand in hand, as live-in workers are treated even more poorly than their live-out counterparts.  For example, two-thirds of live-in domestic workers reported being paid below state minimum wages (among all domestic workers the rate was 23%).  A quarter of live-in workers reported having job responsibilities that prevented them from getting at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep the week prior to the interview. 

What is to be done?  A big start would be increasing regulation of the industry, as the report suggests.  But another important part here is cultural.  As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her introduction to the report, much domestic work is intensely personal in nature, and many domestic workers come to care about the families for whom they work.  Cruelly, these emotional attachments are used to reinforce workers’ subordination:  “What is being exploited in these instances is not just the domestic worker’s labor and skills, but her sense of interpersonal responsibility, her capacity for love.” 

An important part of a domestic workers’ movement, then, is collectively reconfiguring these emotional attachments in ways that help workers have more control over their work and more agency in their lives.  The report itself, to which numerous domestic workers contributed, is a significant step in this direction.  Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, thinks we are on the cusp of bigger change:

We have an opportunity to reverse this history of discrimination, with policy changes — at the state and federal levels — that establish basic rights and standards and ensure that these workers can live with dignity and safety. Over the past decade, domestic workers in California and New York have organized to pass Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in their state legislatures. Workers in Massachusetts and Illinois are now developing their own bills of rights, but it’s time for more states to take up the task.


In a nation based on the values of liberty and justice for all, the people who are raising our children should not have trouble feeding or caring for their own children, and the people who provide care for our elders should receive support for their own retirement. We should honor, respect and value the precious labor that they provide: the labor of love that serves as the foundation of our economy.


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Myles Was Here, and May Still Be

My new office at Columbia sits on the seventh floor of the northern wing of the Union Theological Seminary (UTS).  Like many divinity schools, UTS has been facing declining enrollments in recent years, and so leases this side of the quandrangle to Columbia.  I look out over spires and a well-manicured cloister that serves as a set for the television series Gossip Girl when the characters visit Yale.  But other than the occasional film crew it’s very quiet here.  More than one colleague refers to the place as “The Morgue.”

I was surprised, then, to realize that one of my heroes spent the early years of The Great Depression in these halls.  Myles Horton, the co-founder of and life force behind Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Center for Research and Education) arrived at UTS in 1929.  It was here that Horton studied under Reinhold Niebuhr, here where Horton found a community of public scholars and financial backers who would become so important to Highlander.   Highlander, a social movement “halfway house” in the words of Aldon Morris, would become one of the first racially integrated spaces in Tennessee; in the eighty years since its founding it has been a training school, retreat center, and respite for generations of social movement leaders in the south and beyond.

UTS today seems a world away from Highlander.  But the north wing of the seminary here may be coming back to life.  In October, Columbia’s new INCITE (Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics) moved into the building.  And thanks to the leadership of Denise Milstein, the sociology department’s revamped M.A. program will work to bridge the worlds of theory and practice through relationships with local community organizations.

You should come visit.  But bring your tennis shoes.  Here in New York, where no one owns a car, we have no choice but to make the road by walking.


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Act of Faith

July 1, 2012:  Metamorphosis.  I had gone to bed a graduate student and rose as an assistant professor.  This transformation was underappreciated by my friends and family.  And granted, it was incomplete.  Thanks to a research fellowship, I did not actually see the inside of a classroom until last week, when I joined a sociology class at Columbia for a discussion of my book, With God On Our Side:  The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital.

There, five undergraduates—a small, friendly firing squad—asked me to explain myself.  Why had I chosen to be a sociologist?  How had I gotten interested in health care?  And why (in the world) did I focus on labor unions?  I had relatively coherent answers to the first two, but the last seemed more loaded.  I asked for clarification.  The student seemed a little embarrassed, as if he were trying to avoid offending me:  “Well, it seems like unions are irrelevant,” he stammered.  “So why focus on them?”

Students have a way of cutting to the core.  Why do I care about unions?  Why should anyone?  Union membership has been in the decline for the last half-century.  Rates of national union membership hover around 12%, and private sector unionization has dropped below 7%.  Labor law is gutted, and fiscal conservatives, like vultures, pick at its remains, working to eviscerate the last strongholds of union membership in the public sector.  Even in Obama’s most populist moments he treats “labor” like a four letter word.

I don’t remember exactly what I told the student; it wasn’t Oscar-worthy.  Here is what I should have said:

If we care about economic justice, then we must care about unions.  Workers in unions earn between ten and twenty percent more than their non-union counterparts, and are almost thirty percent more likely to have health benefits.  According to recent research by Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld, declines in union membership help to explain a goodly share of rising economic inequality.

If we care about workplace dignity, then we must care about unions.  Absent union membership, employees have little in the way of workplace protections.  The First Amendment does not apply to them, and they can be fired without due process.  Without unions, workers have no guarantee of having real voice over the conditions of their employment.  We may live in a democracy, but without unions we work in dictatorships of varying degrees of benevolence.

But there is another, broader reason we must care about unions.  The future of the labor movement is in industries like health care and education, in hospitals and in nursing homes, in schools and in colleges.  These are the workers who are teaching our kids, who are taking care of our parents and our friends.  They are teaching us to read; checking us for bedsores; helping us overcome our fear and uncertainty.  Their interests—staffing ratios that allow them to nurse in the ways they know how; class sizes that let them allow them time with individual students—are our interests.  As workers fight together to protect their dignity, they are protecting our dignity as well.

Unions do not always do this perfectly.  But there is no other institution in the United States that does so any better.  And so for the sake of economic justice, workplace dignity, as well as for the sake of a more just and dignified society, I have faith in unions.

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