Book Manuscript, "Going Political: Labor Mobilization, Institutions, and Democratic Unrest in North Africa"

My book manuscript, tentatively titled Going Political?: Labor, Institutions, and Democratic Unrest in North Africa, investigates variation in the political behavior of labor unions within authoritarian regimes. As one of the largest and most well organized components of civil society, organized labor is a powerful actor in autocratic states, and, consequently, its political actions and alliances have substantial impacts on regime outcomes. However, despite its substantive significance, the precise dynamics that influence when and why unions decide to engage in political protest remain unclear. Thus, my book is guided by two main research questions: 1) Why in authoritarian contexts, do some unions engage in politically motivated protests while others do not? and, 2) Under what conditions does corporatism enable unions to develop independent organizational bases and launch effective challenges to the state?

Challenging prevailing theories of development and labor, I argue that differences in unions’ political mobilization stem from historical variation in the institutional structures available for labor representation and contestation under authoritarian rule. Where autocrats initially incorporated labor into formal politics, coalition building between unions and established parties undermined political activism by coopting the interests of union elites and diminishing vertical accountability between union leaders and the rank-and-file. By contrast, where unions were alienated from political institutions, the development of “outsider alliances” between union elites, marginalized parties, and rank-and-file members facilitated political mobilization by radicalizing labor agendas and promoting solidarity within various ranks of the labor movement. Thus, I find, paradoxically, that where autocrats pursued corporatist strategies intended to isolate and depoliticize labor, they unintentionally strengthened unions by providing them with the autonomy and organizational cohesion necessary to effectively challenge the state. 

To support this argument, I rely on a mixed methodological approach which combines original data on union protest in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA), survey research, and acomparative case study drawn from 18 months of fieldwork in Tunisia and Morocco. Drawing on insights from historical institutionalist and political process theories, I illustrate the differential development of Moroccan and Tunisian unions, outlining how inclusionary corporatist practices (in the Moroccan case) facilitated the establishment of party-union linkages and provided strategic incentives for labor leaders to eschew political militancy, while exclusionary corporatism (in the Tunisian case) fostered radical alliances between union elites and opposition movements that politicized labor agendas. Most notably, through a comparative analysis of labor development in Tunisia and Morocco, I highlight the symbiotic connection between unions’ external political environments and their internal organization, arguing that the absence of influential external allies enhances unions’ capacity for political mobilization by driving union elites to invest in internally democratic structures which increase labor solidarity and help safeguard against state cooptation.

This research and analysis advances contemporary scholarship on labor by showing how attention to variation in the interaction between governments, unions, and workers can add explanatory leverage to our analyses of labor opposition and contentious politics in authoritarian regimes. Moreover, in addition to providing a unique window into the politics of labor mobilization and protest in closed political environments, the book sheds light into how the choices of political elites can effect the organizational development of unions, producing labor movements with dramatically different interests in and capacities for political mobilization.