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Workers have disruptive power; let’s use it


The most important thing workers have is power. That power doesn’t come from having a collective bargaining agreement but from being so well organized they can disrupt business as usual to get what they want. 

There are different kinds of power and not all are the same or have the same impact. Knowing which one we have is the key to getting what we need. 

Many unions over rely on the kind of power that is located away from work. They limit their efforts to going into the streets or the halls of government for support. This kind of public support away from work is important but inadequate by itself. 

President Joe Biden and Congress’s attempt to suppress the railroad workers’ strike demonstrates the limits of relying only on this type of power. 

Instead, we need to redirect our focus on our most potent power — our power at and over work.  

Labor organizers and scholars identify three types of worker power: associational, positional and disruptive. The first two terms were coined in 1984 by the Italian sociologist Luca Perrone, who tragically died young before his influential article was published in English.  

Associational power is when workers are well organized and have widespread public support for organizing. Positional power is where workers are located in the economy.  

To make a credible strike threat, which I wrote about in my last book, Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle, workers need a high level of both kinds of power. Doing “wall to wall” organizing of every worker, union member or not, in a shop, firm or industry is the way to acquire associational power. 

Where we are organized, or our positional power, is also critically important. Workers have more power if the employer plays a critically important role in the national or global economy. 

According to Perrone, the more associational and positional power we have, the more effective our strike threat will be in convincing the employer to settle to avoid the strike or to end it. 

In the global capitalist economy, where nearly every kind of work can be automated or moved elsewhere, having high levels of associational and positional power alone is no longer enough.  

Workers must also have disruptive power. In 2018, Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Immanuel Ness added disruptive power to Perrone’s two concepts in their influential book “Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain.” 

Disruptive power exists when workers at key choke points are able to disrupt the boss’s operations and the economy if a strike occurs. Even a minority union acting at a choke point can have more disruptive power than a union that has a supermajority of organized workers in every workplace of the employer but has little positional power and is not targeting choke points. 

While we deplore Biden and Congressional Democrats, and even the supposedly socialist “Squad,” for sabotaging the railroad workers’ right to strike, we should understand why they attempted to suppress it. These workers have spent the last few decades organizing across their craft unions to coordinate their organizing through Railroad Workers United. They have high levels of associational and positional power.  

Because the railroads are a critical choke point in the U.S. and global economy, a railroad strike by even a minority of workers would have given them immense power to dictate terms to the immensely profitable railroad companies.   

Although disruptive power has always been the key ingredient of effective worker organizing,most workers never heard of it. You can be sure the boss knows all about disruptive power and is constantly engaged in efforts to keep workers divided so that when strikes do occur their impact is blunted and the strike fails.  

Those tactics are many including pitting workers against one another by gender, race, sex, pay, job titles, merit pay, benefits and other means. Having multiple unions with different contracts in a single workplace or industry is an effective method of divide and conquer.  

Kroger supermarkets, where I belonged to my first union while in high school, is one of the largest employers in the country. It has an incredible 310 different contracts with its unionized workers. We have seven unions and contracts at my university. Across the San Francisco Bay, at UC Berkeley, the university has 16 different contracts. 

Putting certain workers in different bargaining units is strategic. The boss knows that a single union including all the workers will have maximum disruptive power when they act.  

As a result, many workplaces have multiple unions all under different contracts with different contract lengths and expiration dates. This divide and conquer strategy assures the boss that if one union strikes the other will not be able to if they have a no strike clause in their CBA. This undermines our capacity to act together against a unified employer. When workers are fragmented, disruption is minimized and strike threats are not credible.  

Railroad workers are not the only ones with a high level of disruptive power that can spread through every other sector connected to the industry when used. The 48,000 University of California graduate students, researchers and undergraduate UAW workers who have been on strike since mid-November also know they have it (full disclosure: my daughter is a UC student). All three UAW locals have been striking together statewide for a month. Because their strike will prevent grades from being filed, these workers have immense disruptive power. Undergraduate students support them and lecturers and tenure track faculty have been canceling classes, exams and assignments in solidarity. Bus and delivery drivers have already honored their picket lines, disrupting other campus operations. 

Every workplace and industry — even the public sector — have multiple choke points. It’s only a matter of time until other workers locate them and focus their organizing there.

Robert Ovetz is the author of two books on the the labor movement,“When Workers Shot Back" and “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle," and the new book “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few." Ovetz co-directs trainings to identify choke points and organize credible strike threats.  


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