Dissertation Abstracts

The Class Idea: Politics, Ideology, and Class Formation in the United States and Canada in the Twentieth Century

Author: Barry Eidlin, eidlin@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: University of California, Berkeley, United States
Supervisor: Kim Voss
Year of completion: 2012
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Labor , Unions , Class , Politics
Areas of Research: Labor Movements , Historical and Comparative Sociology , Political Sociology


Why is working class organizational power weaker in the U.S. than in Canada, despite the two countries’ socio-economic similarities? Many view this cross-border distinction as a byproduct of long-standing differences in political cultures and institutions, but I find that it is actually a relatively recent divergence resulting from different processes of working class political incorporation during the Great Depression and World War II. In Canada, labor was incorporated as a class representative; in the U.S., as an interest group. This embedded “the class idea”—the idea of class as a salient, legitimate political category—more deeply in Canadian policies, institutions, and practices than in the U.S. In turn, this enabled or constrained labor’s legitimacy and organizational capacity in different ways. Canadian labor’s role as a class representative legitimized it and expanded its organizational capacity, while U.S. labor’s role as an interest group delegitimized it and undermined its organizational capacity. I show this through a detailed analysis of working class organizational strength over the course of the twentieth century in both countries. Unionization rates (union density) were very similar in both countries until the mid-1960s, then diverged. I show that standard explanations such as structural economic shifts, public opinion, employer hostility, political institutions, national or internal union characteristics, and policy differences cannot fully explain the U.S.-Canada divergence. Having illustrated the limitations of conventional explanations, I then advance my “political incorporation” argument in three steps. Looking first at political parties, I show how different ruling party responses to the Great Depression encouraged labor party formation in Canada, but led to their collapse in the U.S. This strengthened class-based political representation in Canada, while incorporating labor in the U.S. as an interest group within the Democratic Party. Next, I show how these different party-class configurations affected the postwar ideological climate, allowing McCarthyism to have a much greater impact in the U.S. than in Canada. Crucially, this severed the organizational connection between labor and the left in the U.S., which did not happen in Canada. I then look at how U.S. labor’s incorporation as an interest group within the Democratic Party and its de-linking from an independent political left weakened the U.S. labor policy regime over time, while Canadian labor’s incorporation as a class representative and the maintenance of organizational links with the left led to a more stable labor policy regime. The combination of a more protective and institutionalized labor regime and a labor movement more accustomed to winning gains through mass mobilization left Canadian labor better positioned to defend itself than its U.S. counterpart when employers began a counter-offensive beginning in the late 1960s. While U.S. labor spiraled into decline, Canadian labor proved more resilient, leading to the divergence in union density rates. While neoliberalism has suppressed the “class idea” on a global scale, leading to union density decline across the board, the institutionalized legacy of past struggles has meant that working class organizational strength remains higher in Canada than in the U.S.

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