Culture and the Early American Labor Movement

With Larry Isaac, Quan Mai, and Anna Jacobs, I have been researching the role and impact of culture (e.g., newspaper articles, editorial cartoons, novels) in the labor movement. This research has primarily focused on labor movements in the Gilded Age through the Great Depression and has drawn on qualitative and quantitative content analyses of cultural media about the labor problem. An abstract of two recent articles can be found below; copies can be made available on request.

Isaac, Larry W., Jonathan S. Coley, Quan Mai, and Anna Jacobs. 2022. “Striking News: Discursive Power of the Press as Capitalist Resource in Gilded Age Strikes.” American Journal of Sociology 127(5): 1603-1663. (external link)

Does mass media discourse influence material outcomes of contentious social movement events? Scholars have provided mixed answers to this important question. We address this enduring puzzle by developing a discursive power resource theory of the press that takes seriously the co-emergent features of movement (labor) and media institution (press) and makes coverage valence central. We systematically examine the impact of negative coverage in three different forms (lagged context, contemporaneous context, event-focused) across two leading New York newspapers (Sun and Times) on strike outcomes during the unsettled times of Gilded Age class contention. Employing a unique evidentiary base and probability models, we test the strike efficacy suppression hypothesis that mass commercial news coverage containing negative content about strikes creates a discursive climate that amplifies the likelihood of strike failure by disproportionately serving as a resource for capital and a liability for strikers. Evidence strongly supports this core hypothesis of our discursive class power resource theory, suggesting more generally that, when the mass media sides disproportionately with one contender over another, discourse can serve as a resource with material consequences. Yet we find important valence, form, press political perspective, and movement intensity contingencies in how press influences work. Our findings have significant theoretical implications for the role of media in the study of social movement outcomes, the public sphere, and press as capitalist resource during the co-emergence of the corporate press and national-level labor movement.

Isaac, Larry W., Jonathan S. Coley, and Hannah Ingersoll. 2022. “Early Labor Movement Strike Violence, the Press, and the Upton Sinclair Hypothesis.” Journal of Labor and Society 25(4): 587-626. (external link)

During the labor movement’s formative years, Upton Sinclair was among the most vehement critics of the press for, as he claimed, a wide variety of “capitalist corruptions.” The authors examine one of Sinclair’s central charges in his The Brass Check, the first major book-length criticism of the U.S. corporate press: When strikers are violent, they get reported on the wire services; when they are not violent, they are ignored by the wires and thus the papers. This press selection process serves to create in public consciousness a strong association between strikes and violence. Focusing on coverage by the New York Sun and New York Times for fourteen major strikes spanning the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, evidence suggests that Sinclair’s claim was, with some qualification, generally correct. The authors discuss implications of negative press as “soft repression” during the formative years of the labor movement and prior to journalism’s major moves at professionalization.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2015. “Narrative and Frame Alignment in Social Movements: Labor Problem Novels and the 1929 Gastonia Strike.” Social Movement Studies 14(1): 58-74. (external link)

smsResearch on social movements and frame alignment has shed light on how activists draw new participants to social movements through meaning making. However, the ‘framing perspective’ has failed to interrogate how the form or genre in which frames are deployed affects the communication of meaning. The burgeoning literature on social movements and narrative would seem to point to one discursive form of importance to meaning making in social movements, but scholars have failed to connect their insights with the literature on framing. In this article, I analyze five novels published in response to a 1929 communist-led strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. I argue that labor movement activists deployed these long-form narratives for the purposes of ‘frame alignment,’ specifically ‘frame amplification’ and ‘frame transformation,’ and I show how these narratives conveyed frames in ways that other discursive forms could not. The study raises new questions about the selection and reception of discursive forms in social movements.