Bargaining in the Shadow of Social Institutions: Competing Discourses and Social Change in Workplace Mobilization of Civil Rights


  • I wish to acknowledge the generous support provided for this research by the National Science Foundation, No. SES-0001905, and by the Sloan Foundation through the Center for Working Families at the University of California, Berkeley. The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation, the Center for Working Families, or the Sloan Foundation. I also wish to thank Jane Collins, Marianne Constable, Lauren Edelman, Howard Erlanger, Myra Marx Ferree, Rosann Greenspan, Arlie Hochschild, Bert Kritzer, Kristin Luker, Stewart Macaulay, Hamsa Murthy, Robert Nelson, Laura Beth Nielsen, Barrie Thorne, and the anonymous reviewers at Law & Society Review for their helpful and insightful comments on various versions of this manuscript.

Please address correspondence to Catherine Albiston, Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, Boalt Hall School of Law, 2240 Piedmont Avenue #2150, Berkeley, CA 94720-2150; e-mail:


The Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers to provide job-protected leave, but little is known about how these leave rights operate in practice or how they interact with other normative systems to construct the meaning of leave. Drawing on interviews with workers who negotiated contested leaves, this study examines how social institutions influence workplace mobilization of these rights. I find that leave rights remain embedded within institutionalized conceptions of work, gender, and disability that shape workers' perceptions, preferences, and choices about mobilizing their rights. I also find, however, that workers can draw on law as a culture discourse to challenge these assumptions, to build coalitions, and to renegotiate the meaning of leave.