Research

Me and Meany

Bust of AFL-CIO President George Meany (1894-1980)
George Meany Memorial Archives,
Silver Spring, Md.

My research lies at the intersection of political sociology, organizational studies, inequality, and social policy. More specifically, I examine how class conflict, policies, and politics interact to shape social classes, modern states, and contemporary dynamics of power and inequality. Methodologically, I bring qualitative and quantitative analysis to bear on comparative, cross-national, and historical evidence.    

Book and Related Publications

In my book, Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada, which is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, I ask the question: why are unions weaker in the U.S. than in Canada, despite the two countries’ many socio-economic similarities? This difference has had profound consequences for politics, policy, and inequality in both countries. 

The book draws on research from my dissertation, which won the Thomas A. Kochan and Stephen R. Sleigh Best Dissertation Award from the Labor and Employment Relations Association, as well as the Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States. It offers a fresh reinterpretation of the problem of American exceptionalism through a cross-national comparison with Canada. Many view this cross-border distinction as a byproduct of long-standing differences in political cultures and institutions, but I find that it is actually a relatively recent divergence resulting from how the working class was politically incorporated in both countries during the Great Depression and World War II. My central argument is that in Canada, this incorporation process embedded “the class idea”—the idea of class as a salient, legitimate political category—more deeply in policies, institutions, and practices than in the U.S., where class interests were reduced to “special interests.”

Labor and Politics

AFL-CIO Political Education Pamphlet, 1957
Cornell ILR Archives, Ithaca, N.Y

Using archival and statistical data gathered over a year from collections across the U.S. and Canada, my analysis first challenges the conventional wisdom regarding cross-border differences. I then articulate my “political incorporation” explanation by examining changing party-class relations in the 1930s and 40s, the different effects of postwar Red scares on labor-left relations, and how those factors combined with different institutional structures to cause labor law regime divergence in both countries. This, I argue, drove the stark divergence in U.S.-Canada unionization rates starting in the 1960s: U.S. rates collapsed, while Canadian rates stayed relatively stable, and are now nearly triple those in the U.S. 

I elaborate my book’s theoretical contribution in two articles. The first, entitled “Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? Political Articulation and the Canadian Comparison, 1932-1948,” draws on my comparative case study of the development of party-class alliances in the U.S. and Canada in the 1930s and 40s to argue for an “articulation model” of politics that emphasizes the role of parties in both articulating and suppressing different social cleavages. This manuscript is forthcoming in the American Sociological Review.

The second article, entitled “Class vs. Special Interest: Labor, Power, and Politics in the U.S. and Canada in the Twentieth Century,” examines why labor law regimes diverged in the two countries, exacerbating union density divergence. This paper was published in the May 2015 issue of Politics & Society, and received the 2013 Best Student Paper Award from the American Sociological Association Section on Labor and Labor Movements.

Additionally, I drew on my research on Canadian politics to contribute a chapter to Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society, published in 2015 by Stanford University Press. My chapter, “Continuity or Change? Rethinking Left Party Formation in Canada,” problematizes the idea that the formation of an independent left party was inevitable in Canada. It explains why the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) succeeded in the 1930s where previous efforts failed.        

Publications

In the course of revising my dissertation for publication as a book, I immersed myself in the literature on class formation and class identity. Out of this process I developed an article offering a history and critical assessment of this literature. That piece is featured in the August 2014 issue of Sociology Compass. I also have a chapter on class and work forthcoming in the Sage Handbook on the Sociology of Work and Employment.

The dissertation itself grew out of a study for my master’s paper of the relationship between state policy, intra-class conflict, and organizational transformation in the Teamsters Union in the 1930s and 40s. This study appeared as the lead article in the August 2009 issue of Labor Historyand won awards from the ASA Sections on Labor and Labor Movements and Marxist Sociology. In it, I showed how struggles between more radical and conservative factions within the union fundamentally transformed both the union’s organizational model and its relationship with the state. In turn, this episode foreshadowed expanded state intervention in union affairs more broadly and marked the ascendancy of a new model of postwar unionism.

NAM pamphlet

National Association of Manufacturers Survey, 1962
Hagley Museum, Wilmington, Del.
My interest in historical processes is complemented by an ongoing engagement in contemporary problems of power and inequality. This led me to research the scope, influence, and functioning of retail giant Wal-Mart by quantitatively examining the effect of Wal-Mart market entry on retail sector wages. Findings showed that the “Wal-Mart effect” reduced earnings of retail workers nationwide by $4.5 billion in the year 2000. A manuscript based on this research is under review at a major economics journal, and findings were featured in the New York Times.

Ongoing and Future Projects

I am currently developing a series of projects that expand my research program exploring the relations between social class, political power, ideology, and organization. The first, a book-length project, is a comparative historical study of the politics and ideology of economic crisis in North America and Europe. Viewing the current economic crisis in historical perspective, what is striking is the degree to which is has failed to undermine current economic orthodoxies. While expansionary Keynesianism enjoyed a brief revival in the crisis’ early days, fiscal austerity quickly reasserted its dominance as the consensus policy strategy. This stands in stark contrast to the Great Depression, which discredited the ideology of the gold standard in favor of Keynesianism, as well as the crisis of the 1970s, which discredited Keynesianism in favor of market liberalism. This raises two important sets of questions. First, why did state policy elites converge on fiscal austerity as the consensus response to economic crisis, despite its considerable political and economic costs? Second, why did this economic crisis not only fail to dislodge the prevailing economic orthodoxy, but actually strengthen it? My current hypothesis is that this novel response to economic crisis is tied to the decline in class-based economic and political organization that I initially examined in my dissertation.

The second project is a piece that Michael McCarthy (Marquette University) and I are developing that re-engages with class analysis and seeks to integrate it with institutional approaches to understanding social change.

The third is an article-length piece that uses cases of dramatic electoral realignment in two neighboring U.S. states and two neighboring Canadian provinces in the 1920s and 30s to examine poorly understood processes of cross-class coalition formation. While farmers in Minnesota, North Dakota, Alberta, and Saskatchewan all mobilized behind left-populist parties in the aftermath of World War I, North Dakotan and Albertan farmers veered sharply to the right in subsequent decades, while those in Minnesota and Saskatchewan remained staunchly to the left. I seek to understand the causes of realignment and diverging political alliances in the two matched-pair cases.

Finally, Kim Voss (UC Berkeley) and I are working on comparative project that examines the historical development of college admissions in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain. The project has two related facets. The first seeks to understand the emergence and institutionalization of a system of professions surrounding college admissions. The second examines how and why admissions standards have changed over time, how this differs between the three countries, and how this both reflects and reproduces class structures in each case.

Taken as a whole, my future research furthers my efforts to understand and re-theorize the relationship between political and economic power, and its effects on socio-economic inequality broadly construed.

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