I spoke on a labor panel this afternoon, “The Wisconsin Fight Back: Union Organizers Sound Off,” at a conference organized by The Progressive magazine. Scholars struggle to explain under what conditions social movements are able to turn out a critical mass (see Marwell & Olson, 1993). One of the other panelists, from Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI) and a school guidance counselor, very aptly described importance of communication and interpersonal trust in overcoming the “collective action problem.”

He described an MTI meeting the week following Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announcement of the now infamous “budget repair bill” back in February. More than 100 union representatives from schools throughout the district decided unanimously to take a stand, prompting “sick-outs” in the days that followed. He described going into the meeting feeling that it was the right decision but not thinking they would vote to go to the Capitol the next morning. But through learning what other individuals felt over the course of the meeting, he became more committed to the idea of publicly taking a stand and asking others to do so. No one wants to be the first one to speak out even when they believe it is the right thing to do.

Communication is at the heart of collective action. Through deliberating we are able to change the dynamics of the situation and (potentially) feel empowered to speak out when we know others will join with us and we will not be alone. Reflecting on the experience now, some seven months later, he said at the time it did not seem like a courageous action, it seemed like what needed to be done given the exigency of the situation. I know that we in the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) felt the same way. But we needed to communicate, via multiple offline and online channels, to be assured others felt the same way in order to take action.

We talked after the panel and he left me a handwritten sheet of paper with a quote from Audre Lorde (“Leaning from the ‘60s,” February, 1982):

“In order to be whole, we must recognize the despair oppression plants within each of us – that thin persistent voice that says our efforts are useless, it will never change, so why bother, accept it. And we must fight that inserted piece of self-destruction that lives and flourishes like a poison inside of us… we can lessen its potency by the knowledge of our real connectedness, arising across our differences.”

There is still a lot to do. Organizations, such as MTI and the TAA, sustain organizing through the lull periods of movements (see Taylor, 1989). To open communicative spaces is to open the possibility to “spark” large-scale mobilizations.


Marwell, G. & Oliver, P. (1993). The critical mass in collective action: A micro-social theory.
New York: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, V. (1989). Social movement continuity: The women’s movement in abeyance
American Sociological Review, 54(5), 761-775.