Labor 101: Building and Organizing Worker Power

Most of us in the United States’ capitalist society work for someone else — our “employer.” Employers run on two main principles: profit maximization and cost minimization. These principles have a direct and immediate impact on workers’ lives.

Under capitalism, we as workers surrender our autonomy to our bosses by providing our labor and adhering to workplace rules and instructions in exchange for the payment of a wage. Standing alone, workers have very little power over our working conditions and wages.

However, workers in the United States have come together in the past to make demands of their employer by withholding their labor, and effectively halting the profit maximization/cost minimization machine, until their employer complies with their demands. Workers have demanded fair wages, safe working conditions, better hours, stronger healthcare coverage, freedom from harassment and discrimination on the job, and a number of other issues.

Employers need workers because our labor is the source of our employer’s profits. Therefore,  employers negotiate with us and give a little to ensure that we will continue to work for them  so that they can continue to profit— but it is important to recognize that most employers will only give as much as is demanded of them.

Workers know that when we band together, larger demands can be made of our employers. Standing in solidarity puts more pressure on the employer than does standing alone. A boss can shift responsibilities to cover the work done by a few workers, but an entire striking workforce becomes more difficult to ignore.

Workers hold the power; our actions require employers to comply with our demands or risk losing profit.

Employers know this. It is the reason that employers fight back against workers when we attempt to organize, when we make demands, or when we go on strike. Employers use all their tools—by putting financial pressure on workers or by using social and political capital to give themselves an advantage.

For decades, employers have fought pro-union legislation in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures. Employers and their peers are behind right-to-work legislation that attacks unions by attempting to erode funding and membership, shifting power to corporations, and forcing communities to compete for business, instead of businesses competing for customers. The entire goal is to convince workers to decline to join the union in an effort to diminish the union’s political power and deplete the union financially.

We have seen it in our state. Here in Ohio, Governor Kasich, through Senate Bill 5, attempted to strip public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights. Luckily, Ohio voters were able to destroy that attempt through a statewide ballot initiative that repealed the legislature’s decision, but in the meantime, Kasich was still able to rob child care and in-home health care providers of their rights. Nationally, Supreme Court cases like Janus — which ruled that government workers can’t be required to pay for a union’s negotiations, even when these free-riders benefit from those negotiations— have been used as tools to weaken the union and attempt to disintegrate power from the inside.

Workers do not have to sit back and take these attacks. We can work together, by organizing ourselves and forming a union, to speak out against unfair treatment and to stand up for our rights in the workplace. By coming together, workers can keep each other educated and prepared to mobilize when important policies are threatened.

Organized workers can ensure that all employees, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, age, race or ethnicity, national origin, religion, genetic information, disability, or pregnancy, are treated fairly in the workplace. Through grievance proceedings and collective action, unions can be powerful advocates and allies when addressing issues of discrimination, retaliation, and/or harassment.

Organized workers can also fight against wealth disparity. Workers with union contracts make more on average than their non-union counterparts, and the pay gap between races and sexes shrinks when workers negotiate their wages together. Through collective bargaining, workers have been able to earn a higher percentage of the wealth that our labor produces.

Additionally, organized workers can fight to establish strong safety protocols and work rules at work sites that ensure employers comply with state and federal safety standards. Every day in this country, an average of fourteen workers die because of job injuries, and this figure doesn’t include the estimated nearly 95,000 workers each year who die from occupational diseases. It does not have to be this way.

The power of organizing is not simply limited to a person’s particular workplace. Unions empower workers who have more in common with each other — despite their various differences — than they ever would with their bosses, the politically connected, or shareholders who profit from their labor. Coming together as a group of workers at a particular workplace is a good way to start building worker power, but it is not where our solidarity ends.

In a country where Trump tax cuts will cost the nation $1.9 trillion over a decade, where Ohio tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest citizens will cost more than $6 billion a year, and where working families are falling farther and farther behind, something has to change. As workers, we have the power and the momentum needed to change it. The time is now.


If you are interested in learning more about unions and how they work, your rights at work, how to build power in the workplace, or how to support local worker struggles in Columbus, come to Columbus DSA’s Labor 101 event this Saturday (October 11th) from 11am – 1pm at the Northwood High Building, 2231 N. High Street, Columbus, Ohio 43201.

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