WHAT IS POWER?

In a 1981 article on bargaining, authors Samuel Bachrach and Edward Lawler[i] defined power in a way that is useful for understanding either economic or personal relationships:

Power in ongoing relationships, the writers say, depends on need. Each person (or organization)’s power depends entirely on the need the other person or organization has for them, or for something they control. If Mary, for example, needs nothing from Bob, Bob has no power over Mary, regardless of how “powerful” Bob may think he is. But if Mary needs Bob – or something Bob controls — more than Bob needs Mary, Bob dominates. In general, the side that needs the other side less in a relationship has more power (whether for good or ill).

And please remember, we are only speaking here of power in a relationship, often with some degree of mutual need. This is not about the simple power to destroy.

Now, here’s an example of how this plays out in the workaday world.

In the words of an old labor song: “What strength on Earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? But the union makes us strong.”

The labor movement in the USA was built on this idea. One hundred years ago, in a factory employing a thousand workers, a supervisor might be able to bully or dominate any single employee, because the employee NEEDED the job, and it was usually easier for the boss to hire another person to than for the worker to find another job.  The boss, in fact, did not need almost any particular worker, while each worker needed the job the boss controlled. That was the employer’s power.

But… as workers learned over time, when ALL the workers in one factory stopped working (a strike), and fought to keep other would-be workers from coming in to take their jobs, the workers could win. The boss didn’t need Joe or Nancy or Steve – but he DID need a consistent GROUP of workers. By holding workers together, their union made them strong. That is how unions were built, and how the American middle class was created.

Then, beginning in the 1970’s, employers in some U.S. industries — the garment industry, for example — found they could move ALL of the work from their U.S. factory to the Dominican Republic, or Mexico, lay off ALL of the U.S. workers, and hire all-new non-American employees, who often earned only a few pennies per hour. “Our” government did nothing to stop this; in fact, beginning with President Reagan and the first President Bush, and continuing under President Clinton, American Presidents actively encouraged “U.S.” companies to send their work anywhere in the world they wanted, with no concern for the U.S. workers who would lose those jobs. So, the boss no longer NEEDED any or ALL of the workers in the old U.S. plant. The American labor union no longer made the workers strong enough.

And, since there were billions of impoverished workers around the world who could make clothes — and, eventually, make computers, cars or any other product — millions of U.S. workers were no longer needed as much as they had been, and workers lost power. Workers overseas didn’t gain much power in this arrangement, either, because they knew the company that employed them was free to go elsewhere, with no resistance from their government, or ours. There were still billions of hungry people out there who wanted their jobs. So they had to work for so little they could not afford to buy most of what they made.

Unfortunately, U.S. workers and our unions were mostly unable, or unwilling, to follow the work to the country where it was moved.  The language, laws and culture of other countries were different, and the local government often cooperated with the U.S. companies against their own workers, even to the extent of allowing union organizers to be killed – because that country needed the work, and would do whatever the employer wanted. This still happens today in some countries where U.S. corporations do business.

So, we live in a different world today, because there are many more potential workers in the world than employers need, and employers often don’t need ANY of the workers in one factory or even in one country. So far, though millions of workers now move from their own country to another to find work, most Americans won’t do that, and workers around the globe have not united on a large enough scale, across borders, so that employers need to negotiate with them.

However, some unions are learning to cooperate better than others. For example, German union members at Deutsche Telekomm, a German phone company, are now helping U.S. employees of phone company T-Mobile — which is mostly owned by Deutsche Telekomm — to organize and improve working conditions here. And another German company, Volkswagen, is encouraging U.S. workers at a Tennessee Volkswagen plant to organize and discuss terms of employment with management. This is not too surprising, because the German economy is built on labor-management cooperation, and works very well. The German system will not usually allow employers to ignore their workers’ concerns to the extent American employers are “free” to do. In that environment, VW workers have some power, and can make reasonable demands on management in return for their labor. Sometimes, they can even demand fair treatment for workers in the U.S.A.. And when U.S. and German workers cooperate, they are all stronger.

Could this change? Of course. Germany, and some other countries, show the way. Most global corporations still need to do business in the world’s richest country, the USA. If American voters demanded that companies selling here negotiate with their workers, those companies would need us, and need to do it.

But first, U.S. workers must realize they are alone by choice. To win, they need each other, and not just those who happen to be in the same workplace or union. They need to unite with each other, with community groups, and with workers in other countries. Only globally organized workers can match or defeat global corporations.

[i] Samuel B. Bacharach and Edward J. Lawler, in “Bargaining: Power, Tactics and Outcomes,” printed in “Bargaining,” Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1981. My summary is a simplification of their theory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: