Envisioning Democratic Citizenship: Rhetorical Constructions in the Public Sector Labor Movement

Open Access
Coletta, Kristin Summer-mathe
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 03, 2013
Committee Members:
  • Stephen Howard Browne, Dissertation Advisor
  • James Hogan, Committee Member
  • Paul Clark, Committee Member
  • Jeremy Engels, Committee Member
  • labor movement
  • democracy
  • citizenship
  • rhetoric
  • public sector
Labor relations in the public sector were originally modeled after those in the private sector, but key differences between the sectors contributed to whether or not policies would transfer well. Debates over whether public employees should have the right to organize, bargain collectively, or strike highlight these differences and complicate our understanding of democratic citizenship. I consider the rhetorical strategies that union leaders, workers, government officials, intellectuals, and other vernacular voices used in these debates. The arguments and characterizations they used shaped and reshaped how we imagine the responsibilities and relationships between government and citizens. Four case studies provide insight into different visions of democratic citizenship. The Boston police strike in 1919 concluded with the understanding that public workers should not be allowed to unionize because that would also require that workers be able to go on strike—something thought to be too dangerous to happen. By 1959 Wisconsin passed the first law that allowed public workers to organize and set up guidelines for collective bargaining. In 1969, Pennsylvania passed Act 195, which gave public workers the limited right to strike. Finally, I consider Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s 2011 success at restricting collective bargaining rights for public workers. These four episodes in the public sector labor movement brought challenges to the meaning of power and those in power, shifted definitions of class and exposed different ways of classifying citizens, questioned whose ideas would be included in decision-making processes and how, and created opportunities for different modes of civic participation and contested the validity of those modes. I find three visions of citizenship that emerge from these events and provide suggestions for reenvisioning and strengthening our democracy. What I call the powerful government vision of citizenship, in which the government preserves civilization and controls citizens, expects little from citizens. The good citizen vision expects little of government and requires that citizens take responsibility for how everyone behaves. The engaged citizen vision supposes that work and public life reflect one another and imagines citizens engaging in social and political initiatives while the government manages civic action.