The Semantic Saturation of Labor Strikes: Internal Organizing Processes and the Political Influence of Public School Teachers on Strike
Work stoppages have had a recent upsurge in the American educational sector. Since 2018, teachers across the country have participated in record-breaking labor strikes using innovative communication technologies to skirt more traditional, offline organizing spaces in order to keep their organizing communication private and/or secret. This dissertation presents two studies that address the organizing communication done behind virtual closed doors as well as the public-facing strike communication intentionally meant for relevant stakeholders. In addition to this distinction between intended audiences, I also consider how differing legal contexts may influence the communication possibilities for teachers participating in a strike. Specifically, right-to-work (RTW) laws serve as a legal backdrop in both studies to examine how state-level policy helps or hinders workers organizing in the public sector by comparing one strike in a RTW state to another strike in a state without RTW laws.
The internal organizing communication was done in private Facebook groups for both teachers groups. I used the two spectra from the Collective Action Space theoretical framework (Flanagin et al., 2006) to plot the internal organizing communication according to the posts and comments in each Facebook group. The RTW teachers’ internal organizing communication is near the personal and institutional ends of the mode of interaction and mode of engagement spectra, respectively. This placement indicates that the RTW teachers valued and utilized deliberative engagement in their channels of communication while also exhibiting communication patterns more indicative of top-down, hierarchical power structures. The unionized teachers’ internal organizing communication is closer to the impersonal and entrepreneurial ends of the mode of interaction and mode of engagement spectra, respectively. This combination of placements on the two spectra indicate that the unionized teachers valued equitable channels of communication while devaluing conversation and back-and-forth deliberation.
The external organizing communication was observed and analyzed on Twitter. Building largely on network agenda-building theory (Guo & McCombs, 2011a, 2011b; Guo, 2012), I employed semantic saturation as a class of semantic network analyses to compare and contrast the public communication about each strike from each legal context. These techniques involve capturing the language structure used by various group to discuss the strike and analyzing and comparing how much of one group’s messaging ends up in another group’s messaging (Wiemer & Scacco, 2018; Wiemer et al., 2021). In general, the teachers in the RTW legal context were more effective at getting their messaging into the local press’s reporting about the strike. The teachers in both contexts also appeared to be communicating toward different audiences when specifically talking about one of their strike demands and that difference was also reflected in the local press’s reporting on each strike.
Overall, this dissertation extends collective action and media effects theories by analyzing two strike events in two very different legal contexts that both used the same communication technology to organize their respective strikes. The findings presented here have important implications for organizing communication, interest group politics, and the role of local news media in labor actions.