Labor’s Epistemological Capacity: Unions as Knowledge Institutions

Johnnie Lotesta, Appalachian State University
Apollonya Porcelli, Bucknell University

This paper develops a novel theoretical approach to organized labor as a knowledge-producing institutions. Labor scholars tend to attribute the power of workers and worker organizations to the size of their movements, their political ties, and their mobilization strategies, overlooking questions of knowledge and knowledge-production. Sociologists of knowledge, for their part, tend to sideline the epistemological contributions of organized labor, emphasizing instead the work of knowledge-producing elites in institutions such as universities, governmental agencies, and hospitals. At the same time, scholarship on the production of knowledge by social movements and marginalized social groups tends to ignore labor all together. While valuable, these parallel literatures fail to acknowledge organized labor as a knowledge producing institution in its own right. Alternatively, we offer a neo-Gramscian framework to crystalize how labor unions and labor-based social movements function as knowledge institutions that generate thus far unrecognized, “organic” forms of knowledge. We develop this theoretical approach from an in-depth case study of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the United States’ largest public service employees union representing a wide array of workers, including nurses, sanitation workers, transportation workers, and first responders. Based on this case study, we identify four practices by which labor unions not only produce knowledge about workers, but also cultivate unique ways of knowing and interpreting the world by their members. These practices include: 1) institutionalized data collection; 2) training and pedagogical development; and 3) strategic framing. We furthermore argue that the distinct forms such practices take are informed by labor’s marginalization within capitalist modes of production, and shaped by efforts to adapt epistemologically to new threats.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 222. Professionalizing Labor