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Applied Sociology

Question: How can a sociologist help Organized Labor?
Answered by Arthur B. Shostak, Drexel University

A Labor of Love: Empirical Empowerment for Unions

Consistent with my 1958 BS degree in Industrial and Labor Relations, and since earning a PhD in Industrial Sociology in 1961, I have sought to help Organized Labor, America's largest social movement, then and now my lifelong favorite among large-scale agents of social change. In 1962, for example, my first book challenged Labor's hostile stereotyping of "company unions" as always and necessarily employer-dominated. My field research led me to  conclude many single-firm independent unions were not "guilty as charged," but instead  practiced a form of proud Jeffersonian Democracy worth emulation. Intent then and since on "calling it as I saw it," I have no second thoughts about insisting on my academic  independence, though it has cost me unqualified acceptance by certain zealous Labor

When my campus suffered a strike by its unionized janitors in the 1980s, I met my classes in a nearby church, and I have never crossed any picket line, even when I have had private doubts about the merits of the strike or the local union. Applied sociologists considering working with Labor will confront such ethical questions and should know in advance that  sage unionists respect clarity and integrity and disdain postmodern ambivalence about supporting Labor, and anything that reeks of condescension.  My Labor-aiding roles are quite varied, and generally profit from an on-going effort I make  to scan for, and "translate," relevant academic research (especially items in the business literature that labor leaders too seldom see). Typical is an effort I made to help the Graphics Arts Union design an innovative substance abuse program. I drew extensively here on new reform ideas being promoted by human resource (HR) specialists to corporate clients.

In reverse, I regularly publish my Labor Union research findings in the business and HR  literature, the better to improve understanding by corporate types of union realities. As well, I have interviewed union leaders in Britain, Canada, Israel, Norway, and Sweden in search of ideas to help import into American unionism, and have reciprocated by trying to explain the novel ideas and ways of American Labor to unionists in several countries.

Persuaded by a childhood-spent in a Brooklyn working-class neighborhood-that unionists urgently needed to know more about one another's union, I have traveled widely to uncover union innovations and I am now updating the 1984 book in which I discussed over 200 of them (Title: Robust Unionism). I also edited a unique volume of interviews taped with grass-roots union activists (Title: For Labor's Sake), wrote articles on "unionism" for two recent encyclopedias, and for years I have authored a "State of Labor" op-ed every Labor Day for Philadelphia  newspapers.

I especially enjoy interpreting survey findings and, for example, served for two very tense years as the survey researcher for PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association). I succeeded in getting nearly 90% of the 14,500 air traffic controller members to answer four decisive national surveys in 1981 just before the union's history-making strike. Thereafter I was the major author of an insider's book (Title: The Air Controllers Controversy) on that historic tragic event (and a regular attendee at PATCO reunions).

I have pioneered labor education advances, introducing the first college-credit course in "futuristics," designed specifically for unionists studying at the AFL-CIO National Labor College. I also converted the standard "Introduction to Sociology" course there into a custom-tailored course I titled "Sociology as an Ally," and I taught it there for 25 years from 1975 to 2000.

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