What Works in Organizing? Applying Social Movement Theory to Building Labor Unions in North Carolina

No Thumbnail Available



Journal Title

Series/Report No.

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Social movement theorists have offered various explanations for participation by individuals in social movements. Two theories, resource mobilization theory and collective identity theory, propose very different motivating factors. Resource mobilization theory emphasizes a rational-choice decision-making process for potential participants, while collective identity theory states that individuals participate in social movements in order to achieve a feeling of solidarity and commitment to a group. By using interviews with individuals involved in the labor movement in North Carolina, I have examined these two perspectives to determine their applicability to the experiences of labor movement participants. The interview responses of workers, organizers, and union leaders in several contrasting unions regarding the process of joining and maintaining membership in unions suggest a sequencing process that features elements of both theories. In particular, respondents note the influence of material incentives in the recruitment process, including promises of better pay and grievance representation. Subsequently, generating solidarity and feelings of commitment and responsibility to the group often encourage more active and long-term union membership. These responses must be placed in the context of North Carolina's restrictive laws affecting unionism, the state's extremely low union density, and long-term elite resistance to unionizing action. This sequencing process of approaching unorganized workers initially with material incentives, and then working to develop a sense of solidarity among union members may be a function of this hostile environment: workers who are unfamiliar with and even skeptical of unions cannot initially be attracted by the appeals of solidarity. Although neither resource mobilization nor collective identity theory appears accurately to describe the experience of joining the labor movement in North Carolina on its own, combining elements of both theories offers a more complete picture of why and how individuals decide to join and participate.



organizing, North Carolina, social movement theory, labor unions