Can Participation in Social Forums

Help to Revitalize the U.S. Labor Movement?


Principal Investigators:

Ellen Reese and Christopher Chase-Dunn

Department of Sociology, University of California-Riverside


A proposal to the UC Labor and Employment Research Fund, October 2006


Project Summary

Initially organized by the Brazilian labor movement and the landless peasant movement in 2001, the World Social Forum (WSF) has quickly become the largest international gathering of participants in, and supporters of, grassroots social movements. Social Forums are an “open space” where a variety of social actors--activists, policy experts, students, intellectuals, journalists, and artists—from around the world, or particular regions, can meet, exchange ideas, and coordinate actions. The 2005 meeting of the WSF drew 155,000 registered participants from 135 countries. Meanwhile, hundreds of regional, thematic, and local Social Forums have spread, particularly within Latin America and Western Europe. Social Forums are slower to develop within the U.S., but have been held in Boston, Milwaukee, Dallas, and Raleigh. In June 2007, Atlanta will host the first U.S. Social Forum and plans are currently underway for a Los Angeles Social Forum.


Many labor scholars and activists view transnational and labor-community coalitions as crucial to the revitalization of the U.S. labor movement and its capacity to overcome the challenges it currently faces. Our research examines whether, and under what conditions, U.S. labor activists’ participation in the 2007 WSF in Nairobi, Kenya and the 2007 USSF in Atlanta, Georgia contribute to the development of these kinds of coalitions using in-depth interviews with labor activists participating in these events and field observations of WSF and USSF workshops led by labor activists. In addition, we plan to conduct surveys with over 600 participants of the 2007 WSF and over 600 participants of the 2007 USSF meetings. Using quantitative methods, we will use this survey data to explore how participants involved in the labor movement differ in terms of their social characteristics and political views from participants involved in other kinds of social movements. We will also examine differences in the views and characteristics of self-identified working class participants and those who are middle-class or upper-class. Combining information from our survey results from the 2007 WSF (which will mainly involve Africans), the 2007 USSF (which will mainly attract U.S. residents), and our prior survey results of 639 participants of the 2005 WSF meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil (most of whom were South American), we will explore regional differences among labor activists and among working class participants of these meetings. Our findings will have important implications in terms of understanding the challenges of, and opportunities for, building international solidarity among workers and strengthening labor-community alliances as well as how to make Social Forums more inclusive of, and beneficial to, organized labor and working class communities.


Project Goals and Significance for Labor Research


                The U.S. labor movement is currently facing a crisis, experiencing declining membership, a wave of anti-labor rulings and legislation, global outsourcing of jobs and a rise in contingent employment, and declining real wages for most workers. Many labor scholars and activists view transnational labor coalitions and labor-community coalitions as crucial to the revitalization of the U.S. labor movement and its capacity to overcome these challenges. In this project, we examine the significance of the World Social Forum (WSF) and the United States Social Forum (USSF) to the development of these types of coalitions.

Initially supported by the Brazilian Labor Party and the Brazilian landless peasant movement, the WSF was organized as the popular alternative to the World Economic Forum, which brings together elites to develop global economic policies. Intended to be a forum for grass roots movements from all over the world, the WSF has been supported by the Brazilian Workers Party, and has been most frequently held in Porto Alegre , Brazil, a traditional stronghold of that party. Whereas the first meeting of the WSF in 2001 reportedly drew 5,000 registered participants from 117 countries, the 2005 meeting WSF drew 155,000 registered participants from 135 countries. The next WSF meeting, in January 2007, will take place in Nairobi, Kenya in an effort to include more Africans. Since 2001, hundreds of regional, thematic, and local Social Forums have also been organized, mostly within Latin America and Western Europe. Local forums have been slower to develop within the United States. So far, they have been held in Boston, Milwaukee, Austin, and Raleigh, and plans are currently being made for a Los Angeles Social Forum. In June 2007, the U.S. will host its first national Social Forum in Atlanta, Georgia.

In opposition to Margaret Thatcher, who declared that “there is no alternative” to neoliberal globalization, participants of Social Forums proclaim that “another world is possible.” Social Forums are both institutions—with their own leadership, mission, and structure—and an “open space” where a variety of social actors--activists, policy experts, students, intellectuals, journalists, and artists—from around the world, or particular regions, can meet, exchange ideas, participate in multi-cultural events, and coordinate actions. These events are open to all those opposed to neoliberal globalization and militarism, but exclude groups advocating armed resistance. Participants vary in terms of their affiliations with particular movements and types of organizations; they include both participants in unconnected local and national campaigns as well as long-time veterans of transnational organizations (Smith 2004c; Byrd 2004; Della Porta 2005b; Patomaki and Teivanen 2004).

To date, there has been little systematic research on the views and experiences of the hundreds of thousands of people participating in the WSF and other Social Forums.  Little is known about their social composition and how they have used the ideas, networks, and action plans developed at these events.  Previous research on the WSF is mainly based on scholars’ observations of workshops, reports produced by participants, and news reports (Byrd 2005; Hammond 2003; Ponniah and Fisher 2003; Smith 2004c).  Other research is based on observations of, or selective interviews with, members of the International Council and the Organizing Council (Patomaki and Teivanen 2004; Schönleitner 2003). Della Porta (2005a, b) provides the most extensive research on Social Forum participants; her work combines data from surveys, participant observation, interviews, and documentary analysis, but it focuses on local and regional Social Forums in Western Europe (della Porta 2005a, b).

Using surveys, fieldwork, and interviews with U.S. labor activists, our study seeks to improve our understanding of the processes that facilitate or hinder the development of cross-border labor solidarity as well as labor-community coalitions—that is, “discrete, intermittent, or continuous joint activity in pursuit of shared or common goals between trade unions and other non-labor institutions in civil society” (Frege, Heery, and Turner, cited in Nissen 2004: 72). Our study examines the following questions: (1) To what extent has the participation of U.S. labor activists in these events helped them to garner greater support for labor campaigns and to forge or strengthen effective transnational and cross-movement alliances with other groups? (2) How do the social background characteristics and political views of labor activists and workers at these events differ from those of other participants and what challenges do such differences create for building greater unity within the global justice movement?


Policy Implications of Our Study


While the global nature of capitalism and its inequities are not new, the scope of economic globalization has increased remarkably over the past fifty years.  Economic globalization spread in the 20th century as a result of a wave of decolonization that began in the 1950s, the collapse of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe after 1989, and the spread of free market reforms across the globe that opened up new territories for capital investments and markets.  At the same time, improvements in transportation and communication reduced space-time barriers to the spread of global capital (Harris and Seid 2000; Mann 1997).  Coupled with the rise of neoliberal policies, economic globalization has intensified economic inequality both within and between nations, and has fueled a “race to the bottom” in which workers’ rights and working conditions are constrained by the pursuit of profit. U.S. policy-makers actively promoted free trade policies, claiming that they would promote economic growth and lead to higher wages and better employment opportunities for workers. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, millions of U.S. factory workers were priced out of the market, lost their jobs, and were forced to enter low-wage service industries as factory jobs were outsourced and relocated abroad (Minnich 2003; Alderson and Nielson 2002; Levine 1995; Moody 1997; Bonacich & Appelbaum 2000). In the United States in the 1990s, the earnings of the average displaced worker decreased by 16 percent (Cormier and Targ 2001).

Public policies, including tax, welfare, and labor laws, play an important role in mediating the impacts of economic globalization. Indeed, while both Canadian and American cities experienced rising levels of international trade in the 1970s and 1980s, income inequality grew more rapidly among American cities than Canadian ones.  As Levine (1995) persuasively argues, Canada’s higher minimum wage, higher union density, and more liberal income maintenance, family-allowance, and unemployment compensation programs helped to reduce income inequality in that country. The extent to which protective labor legislation, social welfare, and corporatism can continue to minimize the detrimental effects of economic globalization on workers is uncertain, however, because of the spread neo-liberal doctrines. Such doctrines uphold the virtues of a free market society and market values and oppose governmental regulations of the economy.  This anti-statist rhetoric obscures the real nature of neoliberal reforms, which transform the functions of the state to favor the rich over the poor rather than weaken the state altogether (Moody 1997). Heavily promoted by conservative think tanks, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank (WB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), neoliberalism has become hegemonic throughout much of the world.  Elites within the global north have readily carried out neoliberal reforms, restricting welfare programs, weakening labor and environmental regulations, liberalizing their trade and financial policies, and privatizing social services.  These developments have been the most extensive in countries, such as the United States and Great Britain, where market regulations have always been fairly weak, than countries in continental Europe, where they were much stronger however (Hicks 1999).  In the global south, the IMF and WB imposed neoliberal reforms (often in the form of structural adjustment programs) on national governments as conditions for receiving loans or repaying past debts.  Such policies have impoverished workers and made them more desperate to accept jobs on almost any terms by increasing unemployment and by making it more difficult for workers to organize, obtain social services, or cope with job displacement (Harris and Seid 2000). The spread of neoliberal policies thus exacerbates the competitive pressures on corporations to minimize labor costs and relocate jobs abroad.

This international “race to the bottom” can only be stopped by promoting labor rights in the national as well as the global economy, including fair labor standards, economic security programs, democratic relations in the workplace, and employment training that protects workers from shifts in the technological production of work. The “low wage road” to national competitiveness, reliant on minimizing labor costs as much as possible, is certainly not the only path to economic growth in the global economy; U.S. corporations could compete with their rivals through the “high-wage road” of using highly skilled labor to create new technologies, redesign the labor process, identify new markets, and invent and market new products (Reich 1991; Cormier and Craypo 2000; Moody 1997). However, the lure of the “low wage road” will remain strong without strong international pressure on all nations to better regulate their labor markets and respect workers rights. Curtailing the global “race to the bottom” depends greatly on the capacity of workers and their allies to mobilize and influence both national and international policies. A vibrant transnational labor movement promises to improve workplace conditions for workers employed by the same U.S. corporate interests both here and abroad, and it can serve as a deterrent to U.S. corporate interests that seek to utilize cheap labor in the global south rather than to provide U.S. workers with a living wage and a safe workplace. International labor solidarity is also necessary to promote workers’ rights in international trade and financial agreements (Aguirre and Reese 2004).

The U.S. labor movement also has much to gain by joining forces with other types of social movements, both here and abroad to promote more “labor-friendly” policies. Transnational feminist organizations have become increasingly active on labor issues, pushing for improvements in international labor regulations and their enforcement by national governments (Moghadam 2005). U.S. unions have also found strong support among environmental organizations for many of their campaigns, including those against toxic working conditions and against the North American Free Trade Agreement (Dreiling 1998; Obach 2004). Locally, the labor movement’s efforts to promote living wages and oppose the privatization of, and cutbacks in, public social services has been greatly served by their alliances with local community organizations (Reese, Giedraitis, and Vega 2005; Clawson 2003). Many other national movements, such as the anti-war movement and the movement for immigrants’ rights, promise to benefit workers, and U.S. unions have participated actively within them (Clawson 2003; Tait 2005). Strengthening and expanding these kinds of ties to other movements is likely to increase the political influence of the labor movement at all levels of governance.

Our proposed study, which seeks to understand if, and how, Social Forum participation by labor activists contributes to the development of sustained and effective cross-border and cross-movement alliances has important implications in terms of national and local initiatives to strengthen the U.S. labor movement. Evaluating the benefits of Social Forum participation for the labor movement, and understanding the conditions under which international labor solidarity and cross-movement coalitions thrive or falter, could help U.S. unions to make more strategic decisions in terms of using their resources, choosing coalition partners, and strengthening their political alliances. Documenting “success stories” from past Social Forum participants, showing how such events inform citizens about important social issues and strengthen ordinary citizens’ capacity to collaborate and participate in the policy-making process, could help to increase local policy-makers’ interest in supporting these events. Although Social Forums are organized by non-governmental organizations, public officials can provide critical assistance to these events by providing organizers with access to public buildings and public parks, issuing permits for public demonstrations, or by providing additional public transportation to Social Forum participants. Local policy-makers in California are likely to be faced with these decisions soon, since plans for a Los Angeles Social Forum are currently underway. Finally, findings from our study will be used to develop a set of recommendations for Social Forum organizers in terms of improving these events so that they are more inclusive of, and beneficial to, organized labor and working class communities.


Previous Literature


Collaboration with community groups can help unions to reincorporate social movement tactics into their campaigns and increase their political leverage. Conversely, community organizations can benefit from the relatively rich resources of unions with which they do not regularly compete for members or foundation grants (Clawson 2003; Isaac and Christiansen 2002; Levi 2001; Ness 2002; Obach 2004). Despite these benefits and greater collaboration since the 1990s, many unions and community groups remain wary of cooperating too closely (Nissen 2003a, b; Robinson 2000; Johnston 2000). Community organizations worry that unions are rigidly bureaucratic and will make them junior partners; unions fear that community groups lack sufficient resources to justify a partnership, or that broadening their base will divert attention from workplace issues (Fantasia and Voss 2004; Levi 2001; Nissen 2003a, b; Voss and Sherman 2000).

The barriers preventing unions and community organizations from collaborating have been particularly formidable within the United States, where working-class politics is deeply structured by ethnic, racial, and gender divisions. While there were certainly exceptions, especially with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, mainstream unions, historically dominated by white men, rarely joined community-based and poor workers’ movements, especially those led by women and people of color. Along with the institutionalized racism and sexism in New Deal labor legislation, the spread of “business unionism” within the U.S. labor movement after World War II marginalized “poor workers’ unions” from the mainstream labor movement. Under this model, unions became top-down, bureaucratic “service bureaucracies,” narrowly focused on serving existing members through collective bargaining and grievance procedures (Clawson 2003; Isaac and Christensen 2002:723–25; Katznelson 1981, 2005; Ness 1998; Nissen 2003b:138–41; Robinson 2000; Rose 2000; Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin 2003; Tait 2005).

The U.S. labor movement also has a poor record of building transnational ties to unions in other countries, although this is also changing. The AFL-CIO actively participated in the historic 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle along with labor activists from other countries. U.S. unions were also active in international campaigns against free trade agreements, and have participated in various cross-border union campaigns in recent years (Dreiling 1998; Armbruster 1999). Increased involvement of unions in protests targeting global governance institutions has also been found internationally (Tarrow 2005b). Efforts to build greater international solidarity among organized workers remain highly uneven and partial however; they also confront contradictions in workers’ interests stemming from global inequities in wages and employment. Workers from the global south continue to have considerable distrust of northern unions, many of whom promote and benefit from protective labor laws and trade policies that undermine southern workers’ employment opportunities (Brecher, Costello, and Smith 2002 [2000]). Our research will examine U.S. unions’ involvement in the global and national Social Forum process and the extent to which it helps them to gain greater support for their goals and to build strong alliances with unions in other countries and with other social justice movements.


Commitment to Social Movement Unionism

Labor scholars suggest that the extent to which “social movement unionism” (SMU) supplants “business unionism” (BU) affects their willingness to invest union resources in labor-community campaigns. Dimensions of SMU, such as inclusiveness toward the working class; extension of demands beyond the workplace; willingness to use direct action and other tactics; bottom-up, non-bureaucratic processes of organizing and decision-making; and left-wing political orientations among leaders have all been found to help foster labor-community and international labor coalitions (Dreiling 1998; Johnston 2000; Obach 2004; Robinson 2000; Nissen 2003a, b; Scipes 1992; Voss and Sherman 2000). Dimensions of SMU took greater hold in the mainstream labor movement in the 1990s, as did alliances with community groups. The new energy devoted to labor organizing under the leadership of John Sweeney and the New Voice slate, the pressures exerted by neoliberal restructuring, the greater inclusion of women and people of color within organized labor, and the increased presence within union leadership and staff of organizers with experience in other social movements all fed the growth of SMU (Nissen 2003a, b, 2004; Johnston 2000; Robinson 2000; Rose 2000: 99–102; Voss and Sherman 2000). As a result, unions increasingly relied on community support for various kinds of labor campaigns. Unions and central labor councils also joined labor-community coalitions for labor-friendly social policies, such as policies for affordable housing and living wages (Brecher and Costello 1990; Bronfenbrenner et al. 1998; Clawson 2003; Matejka 2000; Ness and Eimer 2001; Nissen 2004, 1995; Reynolds 1999; Obach 2004).

            The rise of SMU in the mainstream labor movement was, however, uneven and incomplete (Clawson 2003; Nissen 2003a, b; Obach 2004; Voss and Sherman 2000). Actual unions frequently combine elements of both SMU and BU, such as highly participatory or militant locals that have narrow goals. Labor scholars agree that persistent dimensions of business unionism limit the capacity and willingness of unions to form effective alliances with community groups (Hecksher and Palmer 1993: 297–99; Nissen 2004). This suggests to us that union involvement in Social Forums should come more readily and last longer where organizational commitment to SMU is more developed. Through our participant observation of Social Forum events and interviews with labor activists, we seek to examine how U.S. labor activists and unions’ commitments to SMU (especially, unions’ willingness to invest resources in organizing and coalition building) shape their participation in Social Forums and their capacity to build alliances with other groups.

The Challenges of Collaborating Among Diverse Groups

Various studies suggest that cultural and social similarities among activists, the identification of common goals, ideological similarities, and rhetorical overlap between groups fosters inter-organizational collaboration (Clawson 2003; Dreiling 1998; Estabrook et al. 2000: 114, 139; Rose 2000; Keil 1994; Obach 2004). The challenges of building coalitions across socially and culturally heterogeneous groups are particularly great within the global justice movement, which brings together activists from across the globe and across movements varying in their political goals and priorities. When they cross north-south divides, transnational coalitions not only confront the “tyranny of distance,” but confront deep inequalities in participants’ access to resources. Even when they are regionally concentrated, transnational movements grapple with considerable linguistic, social, and cultural diversity among participants however (della Porta 2005a, b). We expect that U.S. labor activists would tend to cooperate most closely with other groups with whom they share social characteristics (e.g., groups with working class constituencies) as well as groups with whom they share goals, political orientations, and rhetorical frameworks. We also expect that U.S. unions mainly form regional alliances with other unions that are based on U.S. corporations’ international patterns of production and trade since they are most likely to share common antagonists with such unions.

Scholars suggest that cooperating across diverse groups is not impossible however. Case studies suggest that maintaining a focus on time-limited projects, the least controversial issues, and abstract goals help to sustain political collaboration among diverse groups (Arnold 1995; Hathaway and Meyer 1997). Building trust and familiarity among diverse groups also takes time and effort. Obach (2004) provides evidence that regular interactions among union members and environmental activists through meetings and conferences was crucial to their ability to collaborate effectively around common goals. Rose (2000) similarly finds that the experience in working together on common goals helps to overcome some of the distrust bred by stereotypes that members of unions and members of other social movements tend to have of one another. Labor and social movement scholars also highlight the role of “bridge-builders,” with ties to multiple groups, to successful coalition building (Rose 2000: 143; Nissen 2004; Estabrook et al. 2000:115; Clawson 2003: 119). It is likely that many, if not most, of the labor activists attending the WSF and USSF are “bridge builders” with prior experience in, and ties to, other social movements.  We also expect that participation in the WSF and USSF meetings serve to not only introduce unions to new allies, but to solidify ties and build trust between labor activists and geographically distant groups with whom they already cooperate.

External Context: Threats and Opportunities

As labor scholars emphasize, external economic or political conditions shape the creation, outcome, and strategies of community-labor coalitions in important ways. Many studies emphasize that these coalitions were forged in response to threats to unions’ labor market control—for example, plant closings, lockouts, unfair labor practices, free trade policies, and so forth (Dreiling 1998; Estabrook et al. 2000; Jonas 1995; Nissen 1995; Thornwaite 1997). Scholars of social movements similarly emphasize the importance of the emergence of joint threats or opportunities for stimulating inter-organizational collaboration (Staggenborg 1986; Hathaway and Meyer 1997). Several studies indicate that threats are more important than opportunities for this (McCammon and Campbell 2002; Van Dyke 2003). With respect to cross-movement collaboration, Van Dyke’s (2003) research on student protest finds that “broad,” or cross-cutting threats better predict cross-movement collaboration than do local ones; she suggests that this is because participants in such coalitions tend to have more identity differences than those in intra-movement coalitions.

            Some labor scholars highlight the role of context, especially the characteristics of industries and the extent of political “openness” of local states, for shaping the strategies and outcomes of community labor coalitions (e.g., see Estabrook et al. 2000; Rose 2000: 116; Jonas 1995; Nissen 1995; Obach 2004). Authorities’ responses to joint activities also shape their longevity; authorities can split coalitions by repressing them, meeting the demands of one part of the coalition, or by channeling multi-issue movements through existing institutional routines. Conversely, small victories tend to encourage greater collaboration (McAdam 1982; McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001; Meyer 2004; Hathaway and Meyer 1997). Tarrow (2005a: 59) suggests that one of the major challenges of building sustained transnational coalitions is to “bridge the differences in opportunities and constraints that their different states and societies impose on activists once they return home.” We will examine the extent to which these arguments apply to the experiences of the U.S. labor activists in our study.


Relationship of Proposed Study to Prior Work


            Our larger research project is studying the characteristics, political views, and political activity of WSF participants by surveying individuals attending these meetings. We already completed 639 surveys of WSF participants at the 2005 meeting of the WSF in Porto Alegre , Brazil. We have already entered data from these surveys into a dataset, cleaned the data, and prepared a series of conference papers based on our findings. This January, we plan to conduct a second survey at the 2007 meeting of the WSF in Nairobi, Kenya. Since most of the participants come from the local area, we expect to find considerable regional differences among participants attending these two meetings. Our larger research project seeks to understand the network structure of cross-movement ties held by WSF participants. We also seek to understand the social and organizational bases of political cleavages within the global justice movement and the challenges of creating greater unity among the variety of progressive social movements associated with it. Finally, we plan to examine the impacts of WSF participation on the political views, strategies, and activities of a variety of social activists. This proposed study differs from that larger project because it focuses more narrowly on Social Forum participants who are active in the labor movement and from working class backgrounds, and how they compare to other participants. It also seeks to better understand the role of U.S. labor activists within these meetings and the impact of Social Forum participation on their views and activities. We also seek to expand our previous research by surveying participants of the first U.S. Social Forum, to be held in June, 2007 in Atlanta.


Methods and Data


            Our proposed research will combine data from five sources: (1) 639 surveys of 2005 WSF participants; (2) over 600 surveys of 2007 WSF participants; (3) over 600 surveys of 2007 USSF participants; (4) participant observation of events involving U.S. labor organizations at the 2007 meetings of the WSF and USSF; (5) structured interviews with 30-40 U.S. labor activists who participated in the 2007 WSF and/or the USSF meetings.


Surveys of WSF participants: We will conduct 8-page surveys of participants at the WSF to held in Nairobi, Kenya in January 2007 and the U.S. Social Forum to be held in June 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Our survey asks participants’ opinions on a set of questions designed to capture the main political divisions within the global justice movement described in previous research (Byrd 2005; Smith 2004c; Brecher, Costello, and Smith 2002 [2000]; Starr 2000; Ponniah and Fisher 2003; Teivainen 2004). Our new survey questionnaires will be based on the questionnaire that we conducted at the 2005 WSF meeting.  While ensuring comparability with the first survey, we plan to modify the new questionnaire by introducing additional questions on participants’ religious beliefs and their opinions on various racial and gender issues.  Ideally, we would like a representative sample of those attending the WSF and USSF. We plan to target venues that most participants attend (i.e., the opening parade and registration line). We will then cover most of the more specialized venues. Our original survey questionnaire was translated into three languages (English, Spanish, and Portuguese).  In addition to these languages, we plan to translate our survey into French and Swahili since these languages are commonly used in Africa.

Using results from each of our three surveys, we plan to use quantitative methods to compare the social background characteristics, political activities, and political views of WSF and USSF participants active within the labor movement with participants involved in other social movements. We will also compare the social and political characteristics and views of self-defined working class participants with those of middle- and upper-class participants. This study will help us to better understand the opportunities and challenges associated with building labor-community coalitions within the global justice movement as well as the challenges associated with building coalitions across the class divide. We will compare our results for the 2007 WSF meeting in Nairobi, Kenya with our results from the 2005 WSF meeting in Porto Alegre , Brazil. We found that only 2% of our 2005 respondents were from Africa, 9% were from North America, while 54% were Brazilian and 68% were South American. We expect that the 2007 meeting will draw substantially more Africans, while the USSF meeting will undoubtedly draw many more U.S. residents. Combining information across these three surveys, we will then examine regional differences among working class participants as well as regional differences among participants active with the labor movement. Understanding such regional differences will have important implications for better understanding the opportunities and challenges associated with building international solidarity among workers.

Participant observation: Members of our research team plan to also take daily field notes of their observations at WSF and USSF workshops led by labor activists and their informal conversations with its participants. We are particularly interested in the kinds of grievances, goals, and strategies discussed at these workshops and plenary sessions as well as U.S. labor activists’ assessments of, and experiences with, the WSF and USSF. Members of our ethnographic team will pay particular attention to the range of unions and countries represented on workshop panels and whether the issues or campaigns discussed are local, national, or international. They will also take notes on the content of participants’ political views and the debates taking place at these meetings. Finally, they will focus on the extent to which participants appear to be oriented towards “social movement unionism” (e.g., by expressing radical rather than pragmatic goals, by expressing concerns with broad social justice issues rather than simply workplace demands, and by advocating the use of innovative rather than traditional union tactics).

Interviews with Labor Activists: We will conduct 15-20 interviews with U.S. labor activists who participated in the 2007 WSF meeting and 15-20 interviews with their counterparts attending the 2007 USSF meeting, completing a total of 30-40 interviews.  We will identify potential interviewees while we collect surveys and conduct our fieldwork at the WSF and USSF meetings and obtain their contact information. These interviews will examine the actual role that participation in the WSF and USSF plays in the development of their political ideas, strategies, and relationships with other groups; we will explore the extent to which sustained alliances with other groups are complicated by the geographic distances between participants, their social and cultural diversity, nationalist sentiments, regional inequalities, and differences in political opportunities within their home countries, as some scholars have suggested. We will also explore how, and under what conditions, such challenges are overcome. We will conduct these interviews about five months after their participation at the WSF or USSF meeting so that we can assess the extent to which commitments made at these meetings were actually implemented. In particular, we will ask respondents the following kinds of questions:

(1)   What motivated you to attend the WSF (or USSF)? What advice or support, if any, did your labor organization provide for your participation? What did you (and/or your organization) hope to gain from participating in these meetings? Were these expectations fulfilled? Why or why not?

(2)   How did you spend your time at the WSSF (or USSF)? What impression did you have of this event? What, if anything, did you gain from participating in this event? Did you make new contacts or meet with past or current friends or allies (e.g., other members of unions, organizations, or coalitions to which you belong)? Did you participate in any discussions about on-going or future political campaigns, action plans, or coalitions?

(3)   What kind of report, if any, did you make to your organization after returning from the WSF (or USSF)?  How was this report received? Have any ideas or strategies discussed at the WSF (or USSF) influenced you or your organization’s political activities or relationships to other groups, and if so, how?  If not, why not? What challenges have you or your organization faced in implementing action plans or maintaining alliances that were developed at the WSF (or USSF)?

(4) How could the WSF (or USSF) be improved to make it more useful for labor activists and working class communities?

We will use responses to these questions to explore the challenges and opportunities for U.S. labor leaders to build meaningful transnational and cross-movement alliances at the WSF and USSF. All interviews will be audio-taped and responses will later be transcribed and then examined for thematic patterns.

Work Plan

Division of Labor: Co-PI Ellen Reese will serve as the coordinating PI for the grant. Reese and Chase-Dunn will direct graduate and undergraduate research assistants working on the construction, administration, and analysis of the survey questionnaires, in-depth interviews, and field observations.


January 2007: Hire graduate and undergraduate research assistants. Create codebook and data set for survey responses. Go to WSF meeting in Nairobi and conduct surveys, interviews with union activists, and conduct field research at workshops led by union leaders. Present our project to the social science researchers studying the WSF in Nairobi for feedback.

February-April, 2007: After returning from Nairobi, we will type up field notes and begin entering and coding the 2007 WSF survey responses. In February and March, we will present conference papers based on results from our 2005 WSF survey at the International Studies Association and the Pacific Sociological Association meeting.

May-June, 2007: Design survey and interview research instruments for USSF meeting and obtain Human Subjects approval. Finish entering and coding responses from the 2007 WSF survey. Clean the data and have translators check codes for open-ended responses. Conduct follow-up interviews with WSF participants and transcribe interviews. Go to USSF and conduct surveys and complete fieldwork there.

July-August, 2007: Develop thematic codes for analyzing interviews with WSF participants. Type up field notes from USSF events and revise codebooks and dataset for USSF survey. Enter and code responses from the USSF survey. We will present a paper based on findings from our 2005 and 2007 WSF surveys at the Society for the Study of Social Problems meeting and the American Sociological Association’s Collective Behavior and Social Movements section Workshop. Write book proposal.

September-October, 2007: Finish entering and cleaning data from USSF survey and complete data analysis. Write book chapter on labor activists and working class participants of the WSF and USSF meetings and how their views and characteristics differ from other participants. Include analysis of regional differences among working class and labor activists attending Social Forum meetings.

November, 2007: Conduct follow-up interviews with USSF participants, transcribe them, and develop thematic codes to analyze these interviews. Compare findings from interviews with USSF participants and those with WSF participants.  Continue to work on book.

December, 2007: Complete a second paper based on field research on interviews with labor activists. Develop a brief report on the outcomes of workers’ and labor activists’ participation in Social Forum meetings; include recommendations for improving the Social Forum process for these groups.  Continue to work on book.

Dissemination Plan

            Our findings will be disseminated through our project website ( We will present our findings at the meetings of the American Sociological Association, the International Studies Association, the Pacific Sociological Association, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. We will also present our findings at a meeting of social scientists studying the WSF that takes place during the 2007 WSF meeting in Nairobi. Feedback on these papers will help us to publish scholarly articles and a book about the World Social Forum We will send copies of our report regarding organized labor and workers’ participation in the WSF and USSF to the stakeholders, i.e., the unions represented in our study, the USSF organizers, and the WSF organizers, who are very much interested in improving the quality of these events. This report will include recommendations for making these events more inclusive of, and beneficial to, organized labor and working class communities. We will encourage each of these groups to include a link to our report on their own websites so that our findings will reach an even broader audience.


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