Sociology of labour movements.

Period of duration of course
Course info
Number of course hours
Number of hours of lecturers of reference
Number of hours of supplementary teaching

Type of exam

Written exam and seminars


Optional for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students of the PhD Programme in "Political Science and Sociology"

Optional for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th year students of the PhD Programme in "Transnational Governance"

Optional for the 4th and 5th year students of the MA Programme in "Political and Social Sciences"


Labour movements have been seen for over 30 years as in decline. The module will revisit the theories of labour movement decline by reconsidering the definition of labour movement (not only as formal trade unions) and enlarging the perspective from western industrialised societies. It will cover sociological, political, economic and historical theories of the labour movements and test them against specific empirical puzzles such as trends in strikes, organising of labour market outsiders, and political role of trade unions. It will include in-depth sessions on particularly significant historical cases of labour movement and their recent evolutions, such as German unions and works councils, the Solidarity movement in Poland, and labour protests in China.

Students will acquire, by the end of the module, knowledge of different forms and dynamics of labour mobilisation, familiarity with different theoretical perspectives, and experience in analysing specific instances and contexts of mobilisation.

Course format The course is articulated into ten seminars, held on Thursdays, 14-16. Active participation, starting from the essential readings, is essential to be successful in this course.



The assessment will be based on class participation (25%: in particular comments to the readings of one session) and a written essay (75%) of 3,000 word to be completed by the 15th of June, on either a theoretical issue covered in the course, or an empirical issue related to a labour movement or the relations between labour movements and other social movements of political processes.



There is no course textbook, but some recommended reference/core books are:

A. Touraine et al, The Worker Movement (1984/87)

J. Kelly, Rethinking Industrial Relations (1998)

R. Hyman, Understanding European Trade Unionism (2001)

B. Silver Forces of Labour (2003)

G. Franzosi The Puzzle of Strikes (1995)

R. Fantasia Cultures of Solidarity (1988)

R. Milkman, New Labor in New York (2014)

G. Gall (ed) New Forms and Expressions of Conflict at Work (2013)





  1. Theories of labour movements and labour power

13th January 2022

The first session will discuss definitions of the labour movement and the evolution of social sciences approaches to it. The different theories will then be compared and assessed throughout the module. In particular, students are invited to reflect on the different forms and sources of labour power, and on the argument that globalisation and technological change result in a historical weakening of labour power.



Essential readings

E O Wright, Workers Power, Capitalist Interests and Class Compromise, American Journal of Sociology, 2000

G. Meardi “Labour Movements and Labour Unions”, Sociopedia.isa (2013)


Further reading:

S M Lipset, Radicalism or Reformism: The Sources of Working-Class Politics, The American Political Science Review, 77 (1983)

R Hyman, Understanding European Trade Unionism (2001) esp. Ch1-4

B Silver, Forces of Labor (2003)


2. Social movements meet the worker movement: Touraine and the case of Polish Solidarity

20th January 2022


This session will specifically look at the social movement approach to the labour movement by Alain Touraine, and its application to the study of French trade unions and to the unique case of the Polish trade union Solidarity in 1980-81. How far is it useful to distinguish between industrial and post-industrial labour movements?


Essential Readings:

G Meardi, The Legacy of Solidarity, Social movement Studies 2 (2005)

F Dubet, A Touraine, and M Wieviorka, A Social Movement: Solidarity, Telos 21 (1982)


Further reading:

G Meardi, Trade Union Consciousness, East and West, European Journal of Industrial Relations 2, 3 (1996)

L Martell and N Stammers, The Study of Solidarity and the Social Theory of Alain Touraine. In J Clark and M Diani (eds), Alain Touraine (1996)

M Rose, Alain Touraine: Sociologue du Travail, Proudhonian, Pessimist. In J Clark and M Diani (eds), Alain Touraine (1996)

A Touraine, M Wieviorka and F Dubet, The Worker Movement (1984/87)

A Touraine, M Wieviorka, F Dubet and J Strzelecki, Solidarnosc (1982/83)

D Ost and M Weinstein, Unionists against unions, East European Politics and Societies 13, 1 (1998)


3. Labour movements and mobilisation theory

27th January 2022

The study of social movements and trade unions have increasingly intersected, drawing on similar concerns regarding organisation, mobilisation, conflict. The high level of institutionalisation of labour movement sin industrialised societies, however, raises the issue of the degree to which this is doable. We’ll take the example of John Kelly’s theory and debates on trade union revitalisation as tests.


Essential reading:

J Kelly, Rethinking Industrial Relations revisited, Economic and Industrial Democracy, 39, 4, (2018)

C Ibsen and M Tapia, Trade union revitalisation: Where are we now? Where to next?, Journal of Industrial Relations, 59, 2 (2017)

C Frege and J Kelly, Union Revitalization Strategies in Comparative Perspective, European Journal of Industrial Relations, 9, 1 (2003)


Further reading:

J Kelly, Rethinking Industrial Relations (1998)

Special issue: ‘John Kelly’s Rethinking Industrial Relations - a celebration and critique’, Economic and Industrial Democracy 39, 3 (2018)

B Klandermans, A theoretical framework for comparisons of social movement participation, Sociological Forum 8, 3 (1993)

4. Organising the disorganised?

3rd February 2022

In recent years, with declining union density and increasing labour market inequalities, the issue of organising labour market outsiders has become increasingly important for both practice and theory. What are the limits of the union organising model, and what are the implication of ‘dualisation’ for organised labour?


Essential reading:

G Meardi, M Simms and D Adam, Trade unions and the precariat in Europe, European Journal of Industrial Relations 27, 1 (2021)

G Murray, Union renewal: what can we learn from three decades of research? Transfer 23, 1 (2017)


Further reading:

V Doellgast, N Lillie and V Pulignano, Reconstructing Solidarity (2018)

J Holgate, M Simms, and M Tapia, The limitations of the theory and practice of mobilization in trade union organizing. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 39, 4, (2018)


5. Strikes

10th February 2022

Strikes are the clearest and most typical form of labour mobilisation. Arguments of a historical decline of strikes have been raised several times, and data form the last 40 years appear to confirm it. Yet, strikes have not disappeared, but, rather, have changed: how and with what implications for the labour movements? Or are labour disputes moving “South”?


Essential readings

K Vandaele, Interpreting strike activity in western Europe in the past 20 years: the labour repertoire under pressure, Transfer, 22, 3 (2016)

O Manky, Resource Mobilisation and Precarious Workers’ Organisations, Work, Employment and Society, 32, 3 (2018)


Further reading

W Korpi and M Shalev, Strikes, Industrial Relations and Class Conflict in Capitalist Societies, British Journal of Sociology, 30, 2 (1979)

J Piazza, Globalizing Quiescence: Globalization, Union Density and Strikes in 15 Industrialized Countries, Economic and Industrial Democracy 26, 2 (2015)

M Shalev, The Resurgence of Labour Quiescence. In M Regini (ed.) The Future of Labour Movements (1992)

J Kelly, Conflict: trends and forms of collective action, Employee Relations 37, 6 (2015)

G Franzosi, The Puzzle of Strikes (1995)

D Bailey, Resistance is futile? The impact of disruptive protest in the ‘silver age of permanent austerity’, Socio-Economic Review 13, 1 (2015)



6. The institutionalisation of labour movements: the German case

17th February 2022


The German trade union movement, alongside the Scandinavian, represents a historical example of institutionalised labour power, based on strong procedural power (eg through the works councils system) and resulting into very low strike volume. What are the long-term limits and implications of institutionalisation?


Essential readings

A Hassel, The Curse of Institutional Security, Industrielle Beziehungen, 14, 2 (2007)

W Müller-Jentsch, Seven decades of industrial relations in Germany, Employee Relations 40, 4 (2018)


Further readings

L Turner, Institutions and Activism: Crisis and Opportunity for a German Labor Movement in Decline, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 62 (2009)

S Schmalz and M Thiel, IG Metall’s comeback: Trade union renewal in times of crisis, Journal of Industrial Relations 59, 4 (2017)

R Hyman, Understanding European Trade Unionism (2001) ch 6


7. A new labour movement? The Case of China

24th February 2022 

Despite a totalitarian past, and the lack of trade union freedoms, labour unrest has taken place in China in recent years, and represents the most complex case with regard to the thesis of labour unrest shifting to the South of the world.


Essential reading:

C-K Lee, Precarization or Empowerment? Reflections on Recent Labor Unrest in China, The Journal of Asian Studies 75, 2 (2017)

T Pringle and Q Meng, Taming Labor: Workers’ Struggles, Workplace unionism and collective bargaining, Industrial and Labor Relations Review 71, 5 (2018)


Further readings:

J Howell and T Pringle, Shades of authoritarianism and State-Labour Relations in China, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 57, 2 (2019)

C-K Lee, Against the Law (2007)

CKS Chan, Strike and changing workplace relations in a Chinese global factory, Industrial Relations Journal 40, 1 (2009)

M Elfstrom and S Kuruvilla, The Changing Nature of Labor Unrest in China, ILR Review 67, 2 (2014)

8. Radical and grassroots labour movements: Latin countries and beyond

3 March 2022

Latin countries have been characterised by politically divided unionism and the presence of strong leftist unions with anarchist and communist roots. The seminar will be devoted to the specificities of radical and leftist unions, including new, independent ones.



Essential readings

A Tassinari and V Maccarone, Riders on the Storm: Workplace Solidarity among Gig Economy Couriers in Italy and the UK, Work, Employment and Society (2019)

A Peterson, M Wahlström and M Wennerhag, European Anti-Austerity Protests – Beyond “old” and “new” social movements? Acta Sociologica 54, 4 (2015)


Further reading:

H Connolly and R Darlington, Radical political unionism in France and Britain: A comparative study of SUD-Rail and the RMT, European Journal of Industrial Relations 18, 3 (2012)

J McIlroy, Radical political unionism reassessed, European Journal of Industrial Relations 18, 3 (2012)

J McIlroy, Marxism and the Trade Unions: The Bureaucracy versus the Rank and File Debate Revisited, Critique 42 (2014)

9. Self-organisation, solidarity and ‘union fetishism’

With Maurizio Atzeni, Centre for Labour Relations, CEIL/CONICET, Buenos Aires

10th March 2022

The seminar, with guest lecturer Maurizio Atzeni, will re-examine theories of collective action and solidarity to discuss how far they are linked, or not, to the specific form of union organisation, and the nature of roles of worker solidarity and leadership.


Essential reading:

M Atzeni (2021) Workers’ organizations and the fetishism of the trade union form: toward new pathways for research on the labour movement?, Globalizations, DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2021.1877970


Further readings:

R Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity (1988)

M Atzeni, Searching for injustice and finding solidarity? A contribution to the mobilisation theory debate, Industrial Relations Journal 40, 1 (2009)


10. Other forms of resistance and coalitions with other movements

17th March 2022

Unionism and strikes are visible forms of labour movement but not the only one. And labour movements do not exist in isolation and coexist with other forms of protest. Sociological literature on resistance and organisation misbehaviour lists many other forms of resistance, and coalitions with other movements have been identified as important strategies. The seminar will see discuss if forms of resistance betray an individualisation of work issues at the expenditure of the social dimension, and whether coalitions diminish the centrality of labour movements.


Essential reading:

D Collinson and S Ackroyd, Resistance, misbehaviour, and dissent. In S Ackroyd et al (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Work and Organisation (2005)

P Fleming and G Sewell, Looking for the Good Soldier, Švejk: Alternative Modalities of Resistance in the Contemporary Workplace, Sociology 36, 4 (2002)

E Heery, Williams S, Abbott B. Civil society organizations and trade unions: cooperation, conflict, indifference. Work, Employment and Society. (2012) 26(1)

Further reading

G Gall (ed) New Forms and Expressions of Conflict at Work (2013)

R Hodson, Dignity at Work (2001), Ch 2

Additional event:

16th March 2022, 1-2:30 pm

Prof.Simone Baglioni, Università di Parma:

Transformations of work in the era of the gig economy:
towards a new paradigm of worker autonomy or exploitation?

Educational aims

Students will acquire, by the end of the module, knowledge of different forms and dynamics of labour mobilisation, familiarity with different theoretical perspectives, and experience in analysing specific instances and contexts of mobilisation.

Bibliographical references

A. Touraine et al, The Worker Movement (1984/87)
J. Kelly, Rethinking Industrial Relations (1998)
R. Hyman, Understanding European Trade Unionism (2001)
G. Meardi “Labour Movements and Labour Unions”, Sociopedia.isa (2013)
B. Silver Forces of Labour (2003)
G. Franzosi The Puzzle of strikes (1995)
R. Fantasia Cultures of Solidarity (1988)
R. Milkman, New Labor in New York (2014)
E.O. Wright “Workers Power, Capitalist Interests and Class Compromise,” American Journal of Sociology, 2000
G. Gall (ed) New Forms and Expressions of Conflict at Work (2013)