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[Excerpt] In recent years, the long-declining U.S. labor movement has refocused in new and promising ways on rank-and-file mobilization, in organizing drives, collective bargaining conflicts and political campaigns. Such efforts are widely viewed as the best hope for revitalizing the labor movement: breathing new life into tired old unions, winning organizing drives and raising membership levels, increasing political influence, pushing toward the power necessary to reform labor law and ineffective labor institutions. The stakes are high and the goals ambitious: to close the "representation gap" at the workplace, reverse growing economic and social inequality, and build new coalitions for expanded democratic participation in local, national and global politics.

The purpose of this paper is to gain perspective on American labor's current revitalization efforts by way of historical comparison to parallel developments in comparable large industrial democracies, in particular Britain and Germany, with a background look at Italy, France and Japan. In all democratic societies, labor movements contain elements that are service oriented and bureaucratic as well as elements that are more participatory and mobilization oriented. One or the other gains the upper hand at different times in history - thus periods of protest and mass demonstration are followed by quieter, usually longer periods of institutional consolidation.

The central argument examined in this paper is that periods of popular protest, including rank-and-file mobilization as well as broad coalition building, are necessary for the revitalization of labor movements. Revitalization means renewed influence (at the workplace and in politics), membership growth, and institutional consolidation (e.g. labor law reform). The alternative to revitalization is institutional decline and decay.


Suggested Citation
Turner, L. (2003). Reviving the labor movement: A comparative perspective [Electronic version]. Retrieved [insert date], from Cornell University, ILR School site:

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© Elsevier. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Final version published as Turner, L. (2003). Reviving the labor movement: A comparative perspective. In D. B. Cornfield & H. J. McCammon (Ed.), Research in the sociology of work: Vol. 11. Labor revitalization: Global perspectives and new initiatives (pp. 23-58). Amsterdam: JAI Press.