Sociologists can serve as a motivating influence in revitalizing the labor movement, Daniel B. Cornfield told an audience at the Southeastern Undergraduate Sociology Symposium on March 3. The event was held on campus.
Cornfield, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, has studied and written extensively about the labor movement and employment relations and has served as a consultant to the AFL-CIO.
"Human biographies don't often intersect with social structure," Cornfield said. And these "problems of intersection" have weakened the labor movement. For example, only 12 percent of workers today belong to a union or some sort of labor organization. Several factors contributing to this decline are technological change, employer resistance and the shift from a blue-collar working environment to a white-collar environment, Cornfield said.
In the 1950s, Cornfield explained, "[C. Wright] Mills criticized the labor movement, calling it 'humanistic sociology turned toward powerlessness.'" Today, Cornfield said, there are three distinct types of salaried union professionals: the facts and figures man, who has a political lobby function and is proficient in law, social sciences and engineering; the contact man, who manipulates the thoughts and feelings of external actors and holds a public relations function; and the internal communications specialist, who uses his skills for propaganda. Having these distinct types has weakened the labor movement, Cornfield said. "Unions today are precarious rather than stable."
Sociologists could prove vital to the labor movement for several reasons. Their discipline teaches empathy, it "demands that we observe society systematically and rigorously," and it provides "enduring insights about the gradual process, mobility and function of society's institutions," Cornfield said.
Sociologists might also function as organizers, Cornfield said, and serve as a meaningful intersection in the labor movement. Sociologists can use tools such as demography to study who is the most and least unionized and social psychology to provide insights on self-defined groups.
They might examine the sociology of work and the social stratification of work-related factors, political sociology to explain the distribution of power between the workplace and society, and the sociology of organizations to learn how to appeal to new members and find an optimal balance through decentralized decision making.
"In resolution and practice," Cornfield concluded, "sociology has a lot to offer to revitalize the labor movement. The time has come to put sociologists' imaginations to work."
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