To Rebuild Unions, Understand Power

EXCERPT FROM Arise. Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence BY JANE HOLGATE

In 1978 the labor historian, Eric Hobsbawm, wrote an influential (and controversial) article called ‘The forward march of labor halted?’ in which he discussed the changing structure of British capitalism in the post-Second World War period and the detrimental effect it was having upon workers. He said, ‘if the labor and socialist movement is to recover its soul, its dynamism, and its historical initiative ... [it needs] to recognize the novel situations in which we find ourselves, to analyze it realistically and concretely, to analyze the reasons, historical and otherwise, for the failures as well as the successes of the labor movement, and to formulate not only what we would want to do, but what can be done (p. 286). The aim of Arise. Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence is to do just that by reviewing the approaches to organizing and revitalization in the United Kingdom union movement over the last 20–30 years.

It begins with an analysis of the key debates around union renewal and the ‘turn to organizing’ that took place following the instigation by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) of an Organizing Academy in 1998. The aim in establishing a training program for a new wave of organizers was to kickstart a renewal initiative across unions so that there would be cross-union discussion about strategy and tactics. How this worked takes a much broader perspective with a focus on the missing element of power. This initial context helps to set the scene to show how narrow the debate around union organizing has been, focusing primarily, as it has, on recruitment, tactics and individual campaigns rather than a strategic review of where power lies and how it can be (re-) created. Viewed from this perspective, the trade union and labor movements’ approach to organizing and union renewal has never seriously considered the potential for transformational change through an understanding of, and commitment to building, different concepts of power.


Let’s Talk about

Social Power


The workers’ strategies constructed in the industrial age have been undermined not because globalization has eviscerated labor power but because it weakened old labor strategies and spurred aggressive new elite strategies with which labor has yet to cope. (Fox Piven and Cloward 2000, p. 414)

This quote highlights that the loss of worker power is not an inevitable consequence of globalization and the neoliberal agenda that has been in ascendancy for the last 50 years. Workers and trade unions remain active agents capable of effecting change. Workers have the potential for power, even if not yet realized, because capital and employers depend upon them. The key issue emphasized by these two labor scholars is that too often the strategies deployed today are formed out of past conflicts by leaders and organizations that have ‘cultural memory and habits’ carried over from previous struggles or even different times. That they might have been successful in the different circumstances of the past, and led to great wins being achieved, doesn’t necessarily mean those strategies are appropriate to the changed industrial climate of today. Understanding the nature of the power resources available, and their application in industrial disputes, is essential when fighting to win: The forging of new repertoires of struggle is always uncertain and contingent, depending as it does on agency as much as the unfolding of institutional trends. Still, it just may be that this is not the end but the beginning of a new era of labor power. (Fox Piven and Cloward 2000: 427) While this view might be considered overly optimistic given the perilous state of much of today’s labor movements, some groups of the most precarious of workers are still managing to win concessions despite their seemingly weak bargaining power in certain sections of the labor market (Staton 2020). 

If workers are to enter a new era of labor power, they will need a much deeper understanding of the conceptualization of power and its different forms – only then will they be able to adapt organizing tactics and strategies that utilize this power to win their demands. But what holds people back from demanding a fair share? Workers are, after all, in the majority – employers are few in comparison – so, on a simplistic level, if all workers walked off the job, then employers could not function without them, and business would come to a halt. But, in the main, this doesn’t happen. Insufficient confidence, fear and the lack of alternative conceptual frameworks hold people back. The internalization of dominant values, or norms, can shape people’s awareness and ultimate understanding of policies, practices and legal rights and prevent critical consideration of alternative ways of being.


Control Through Ideology

An understanding of ideology contributes to our first consideration of one aspect of social power. Workers – as well as employers, the state, the education system and the media – combine to produce a set of beliefs that express particular sets of power relations. These ideological power relations operate in social networks, in discourse, in culture, and are played out in actions. They position people in hierarchies of power – some in places of security and wealth, and others in poverty and precarity. 

The power of ideology is therefore strong and controlling, derived from within individuals, as well as being reinforced by outside influences in wider society. As such, sometimes people are unaware of their own true interests (the power of the unquestioned), and they become implicated in the system that exploits them; they become grateful, they get a wage, a chance to earn a living, and the price of this is subjugation – a phenomenon that has been well documented in racial or imperial contexts. Control over the ideological apparatus by employers, the state, the education system and the media is important in securing acceptance of a particular social and political order – it’s the way the ruling class secures consent, and why workers often feel they don’t have the right, or the power, or the understanding, to effect change that would benefit their material conditions. 

This is not to say that people are unable to resist the ideological power of rulers by developing their own frames of reference; they can, and have done this repeatedly over time. Sometimes this is done by workers in subtle or covert ways, for example through sabotage, theft or slow-downs, or it might be expressed overtly through strikes or other forms of industrial action, which can be costly. Workers can be smart in figuring out the cost-benefits of noncooperation with employers, and if they feel, instinctively or expressly, that the balance of power is not in their favor, then they may be more reluctant than they otherwise would be to take action. The power of ideology is often in inverse relation to workers’ self-organization, because when workers combine, they will likely generate alternative narratives that redefine the notion of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In doing so, their struggles will often create a powerful alternative to the erstwhile ‘dominant’ narratives.


The Central Importance

of Political Education


In order to change the balance of power between bosses and workers, there is a need for political or class consciousness among the latter group that can provide people with the confidence to act to change their circumstances. By analyzing the power structures that hold them in bonds and finding weak points of resistance, workers are able to overcome the apathy, inertia and fatalism that prevents them from taking action. Political education is central to this, not necessarily in a formal classroom sense, but education that arises from reallife examples of where the dominant ideology has led to real injustice or where collective struggles have met with success. Politics and education provide legitimacy, confidence and the tools to understand what actions are necessary for change to occur. Breaking the dead weight of coercive ideology is a prerequisite for collective resistance as it creates the potential for the asking and answering of new questions, and allows for an understanding on the part of these workers themselves of how power can shape the participation of those who may have thought they were relatively powerless.

In order for workers to successfully challenge holders of power, there is a need to interrupt the process of internalization of powerlessness that stops people from taking action to change their circumstances. There is a dialectical inter-relationship between consciousness and participation: participation leads to consciousness, but also participation is a result of consciousness. But previous defeats, fatalism and passivity can lead to quiescence. Such an internalization of the powerlessness of the oppressed is an ideology that drives fatalism and passivity. It then becomes more difficult to challenge managerial prerogative, the dominant ideology of the state and the views held in wider society.

Yet power is not static nor one-dimensional. The relationships of power can be subject to change depending on social, political and economic circumstances. This is the pattern of history, but it’s also a guide to the present and the future as workers learn to change their circumstances and rebalance power relationships. The labor movement was once strongly committed to the value of providing political education as a means of developing critical thinking to challenge these dominant ruling-class ideas in society. Unfortunately, this type of worker education has, to all intents and purposes, been abandoned by the United Kingdom trade union movement and without this, there are fewer ways in which learning can take place to contest the structures of ideological domination that hold workers down.

Much of the thinking about trade union renewal, both at academic and practitioner levels, has tended to assume that increased associational power of workers should be the key focus, but evidence suggests that people in leadership positions in unions have tended to think about power in very narrow ways, and this has constrained approaches to revitalization. Further, many union activists have become locked in traditional ways of operating and have failed to develop new ‘repertoires of contention’ that can be fitted to new and changing circumstances. Union renewal strategies have not been effective because union leaders haven’t taken into account cycles of power and how they intersect with one another as the labor market and the labor process have changed.

There’s a need for a greater understanding of power and how it can be used by union and community leaders, but with this on its own – without also a discussion among all concerned of the strategy and required tactics to actually harness power to win – the unions will continue to squander the power resources open to them.

Working-class people need to re-focus on challenging the ideas that keep them in their place and that help prevent them from seeking to effect change in their own interests. This is key to union renewal. If workers are unable to see the broader picture of structural inequality, then they will not act to change their circumstances. Political education – is a vital missing ingredient in union renewal strategies – and it’s an important way to connect workplace concerns with other issues of control. 


Union Resurgence

is Possible


There is a stark choice for trade unionists today – to continue doing what the movement has done for the last 40 years and continue to see a decrease in power, leading to a further growth in inequality, an increase in precarity, a loss of hope within our communities and a consequent increase in the confidence of right-wing, authoritarian ideas, or to organize to change the current circumstances in which we find ourselves.

The stakes are high. It’s not just about whether there’s an annual pay award that matches inflation, winning job security, career development and safe workplaces, eradicating discrimination from employment and pay practices or defending hard-won pension rights. Quite literally, the very future of the world depends on the ability of working-class communities to build sufficient power – in the next few years – to defeat the suicidal short-termism of the fossil fuel industry.

The challenges for the labor movement are immense, but we are the 99 per cent. Another world really is possible, one where equality and social justice is the norm, but we have no time to waste. The forward march of labor was halted – indeed, it went into reverse for decades – but the lesson we have learned from the original ‘gig economy’ workers of the 1880s is that organizing works. We are today, once again, seeing that it’s the most precarious of workers demonstrating that, despite their circumstances, they can find and use a range of power resources to win. To transform the world, we need to inspire, to provide hope and to organize to build a movement that has the strategic capacity to realise the power we have as a collective force – and to do so for the many, not the few.

Jane Holgate is a labor activist and professor at Leeds University in England. This is an essay drawn from her new book Arise. Power, Strategy, and Union Resurgence.

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