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Labour market or labour movement? The union density bias as barrier to labour renewal


  • Richard Sullivan

    (Illinois State University,


Most labour scholars view the unionised share of the labour market, union density, as the movement’s primary source of power. Conversely, social movement scholars usually consider power embedded in disruption, organisational networks, resources, or political opportunities. Although many labour scholars promote ‘social movement unionism’ to reverse labour’s decline, they have largely failed to adopt a thoroughgoing social movement perspective. A sign of this is that union density remains the sacrosanct indicator of organised labour’s success and power. I argue that this density bias has significant analytical implications, leading observers to overlook non-market sources of movement power, to reduce a heterogeneous movement to a single organisational form, and to oversimplify the complex processes of movement organizing. I contend that treating labour explicitly as a social movement rather than implicitly as an agent in a market will open new lines of inquiry that may strengthen analyses of labour’s prospects for renewal.

Suggested Citation

  • Richard Sullivan, 2010. "Labour market or labour movement? The union density bias as barrier to labour renewal," Work, Employment & Society, British Sociological Association, vol. 24(1), pages 145-156, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:sae:woemps:v:24:y:2010:i:1:p:145-156

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    Cited by:

    1. Glynne Williams & Martin Quinn, 2014. "Macmillan's children? Young workers and trade unions in the early 1960s," Industrial Relations Journal, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 45(2), pages 137-152, March.
    2. Jonathan Preminger, 2013. "Activists face bureaucrats: the failure of the Israeli social workers' campaign," Industrial Relations Journal, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 44(5-6), pages 462-478, November.
    3. Saori Shibata, 2016. "Resisting Japan's Neoliberal Model of Capitalism: Intensification and Change in Contemporary Patterns of Class Struggle," British Journal of Industrial Relations, London School of Economics, vol. 54(3), pages 496-521, September.


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