Mark Bergfeld

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Where’s the power in the union? Some consideration on trade unions and social media


The chorus to IWW labour organiser Joe Hill’s song “Power in the Union” (1913) reads “There is pow’r there is pow’r in a band of workingmen, when they stand hand in hand. That must rule in every land—One Industrial Union Grand”. Where’s the power of the union today?

Hill refers to organisational power vis-à-vis the collective action of working people. However, workers also possess other forms of power. While trade unions and labour scholars have concentrated their efforts on the above as well as institutional and structural forms of power, symbolic and (social) media power play less of a role in theory and practice. This piece is a starting point for a debate on what role symbolic and (social) media power can play in organising workers.

The Loss of Institutional Power

Union’s institutional powers are economic, political and legal. Unions in Germany, for example, have relied on their institutional power rather than their structural or organisational power following WWII and during the time of the expansion of the welfare state. They continue to do so despite shedding millions of members, real declining wages since the 1990s and a reconfiguration of the social partnership.

Collective bargaining agreements, recognition, political representation and rights such as the right to strike are the source of union’s institutional power within capitalist societies. Yet, declining union membership and ever fewer number of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements undermine union’s institutional power. Too frequently, this loss of institutional power is popularised into “workers don’t have power”.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Industrial relations scholar Klaus Dörre rightly points out: “The erosion of institutional power as it occurs in metropolitan capitalisms today is not allowed to be equated with the general disappearance of workers’ power” (my transl.) (Dörre 2008:4)

In some cases, unions’ loss of institutional power has facilitated a shift to concentrate on their organisational or structural power through organising projects in key industries (the new economy, call centres, food factories) or amongst new groups of female and migrant workers.

Is Structural Power Enough?

The loss of institutional power facilitates the view that unions have moved away from organisations of working class representation to special interest groups. Dörre develops the view that this facilitates a schism between structurally powerful groups of workers and those who have lost their institutional power (rf. Dörre 2008:7).

Structurally powerful groups of workers include train conductors, dock workers and airline pilots to name a few. Their power defines itself through their position in the production and circulation of capital. The fact that an increasingly small number of workers hold ever greater structural power is one of the great paradoxes of globalization. Yet, this form of power is primarily objective insofar that it does not depend on levels of class consciousness, organisation or their activity. It is a potentiality. The recent train conductor strike of the GdL, the Lufthansa air pilot strike or the 2010 BA cabin crew strike illuminate that structurally powerful groups of workers have used their power most recently.

Paradoxically, structurally weak white collar professionals (i.e. public school teachers, social workers etc.) can become to structurally powerful groups due to shortages of supply in the labour market. It is unclear whether groups of workers have used this source of structural power to their advantage, and fought for higher wages.

Recently, I spoke to a union organiser of university cleaners. He argued that unions such as the British RMT simply could rely on their “industrial muscle”. They could shut down the tube and live with negative press coverage, the demonization of their leaders or non-reporting. Does this suffice, or do we need to account for other forms of power?

Organisational Power

In light of these developments, workers’ organisational power is crucial if labour is to increase its share of wealth within the current framework of capitalist social relations or point to alternatives beyond. Organisational power comes about when a group of people start to organize together and pursue their interests through collective organisation and common action. That is, when workers strike, picket, or occupy, for example.

The dominant form of rebuilding organisational power has been through organizing drives spanning from short-lived projects to a number of years. Re-building organisational power has been seen as a means to regain institutional power first and foremost. This is at one and the same time, a product of union’s waning institutional power as well as a strategic choice.

In the past or under different institutional arrangements

“(t)he great movements (…) mobbed the houses of the rich, helped steal the slave property of the south, shut down the mines and factories and even occupied them, rioted in the big cities” (Piven in Eds. Khatib 2012:378).

More recently, French workers have made use of the tactic come to known as “bossnapping”. Journalist Paul Mason has described these actions as the “power of mayhem” (Mason, 2012). This power is only used infrequently by unions in countries such as Germany or the UK.

The question has much more focussed on how organisational power can translate into membership empowerment vis-à-vis participatory and democratic structures. In their study on female union leadership, Kirton and Lieberwitz write that

“union leaders should deploy power to include members in decision-making and the purpose of gaining power should be to serve members’ interests, rather than to gain positional power for the sake of personal aggrandizement or to dominate others by deploying personal and technical power resources.” (Kirton & Lieberwitz in Eds. Kirton & Healy 2013:122)

This shifts the focus of the debate on how unions can use and expand their power from the macro level to the intra-organisational level. In doing so, Kirton et al. raise pertinent questions as to how power can be distributed and asymmetries can be challenged at a time when institutional power is waning, structural power might exacerbate schisms and inequalities amongst workers and organisational power has to be re-built from bottom-up.

Toward Symbolic and (social) media power

To their disadvantage, trade unions and labour scholars often dismiss forms of symbolic or (social) media power. The following quote highlights this:

 “Our vision of trade unionism is realized through in practical work through many small steps. Given fields of activity need to be used successfully. Ideologically-motivated symbolic politics doesn’t lead us anywhere.” (Schmoldt in Schulte 1996:66)

This is a mistake when Greece’s 32 general strikes since 2010 had no significant economic effect according to Wall Street journalists and analysts (Moffat et al. 2012) yet SYRIZA’s electoral victory sends shivers down the spine of the German Bundesbank, and the European Central Bank. What implications does this have for union organising and rebuilding organisational power?

The organizer of the cleaners’ campaign claimed that positive articles about their campaign in the Guardian and the Independent contributed to building power in two inter-related ways. Firstly, they boosted the morale of the strikers as their demands were legitimized by the press. Secondly, they created reputational damage to the university itself. These two forms of power fit into neither of the three above-mentioned categories. The organiser defines a new type of power which has been so eloquently summarised by media scholar Paolo Gerbaudo: “It is communication that organises, rather than organisation that communicates.” (Gerbaudo 2012:139)

Of course, communicating one’s point of view through symbolic actions or the media will not suffice to stem the tide of union decline but expands a union’s power in novel ways. The flashmob by Wal-Mart workers in Raleigh, North Carolina below is not only an innovative tactic but consciously engages with media power by recording their action for YouTube. In doing so, the workers build their organisational power and at the same time mediate themselves in front of three audiences: (1) management, (2) customers and (3) a digital audience. Especially the latter outshines quantitatively with its 1.375million YouTube views. This group of workers show that symbolic and media power can and should play a role in union organising.

Similarly, a group of hotel workers fighting to win a fair contract and affordable health care at a hotel in San Francisco, USA performed “Don’t get caught in a bad hotel” – a parody of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. By getting help from a group of LGBTQ activists they displayed the usefulness of this “outside” and “external” power.

Harnessing symbolic and (social) media power could particularly help campaigns of non-traditional, fragmented, casualised, migrant and female workers who don’t fit the mould of the typical union member and activist. Writing about the movements of 2011, Gerbaudo writes:

“social media have been chiefly responsible for the construction of a choreography of assembly as a process of symbolic construction in the public space which facilitates and guides the physical assembling of a highly dispersed and individualised constituency.” (Gerbaudo 2012:5)

While unions could expand their power through the use of such tactics, there’s a need for labour scholar to come to terms with what this means for the future of trade union activism and how it relates to the traditional forms of union power.


Dörre, Klaus (2008) Die strategische Wahl der Gewerkschaften – Erneuerung duch Organizing?, WSI Mitteilungen 1/2008

Gerbaudo, Paolo (2012) Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Forms of Activism (Pluto Press)

Eds. Khatib, Kate (2012) We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation (AK Press)

Eds. Kirton, Gill & Healy (2013) Gender and Leadership in Unions (Routledge)

Mason, Paul (2012) Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere (Verso)

Moffett, Matt; Brat, Ilan; Kowsmann, Patricia (2012) Big Europe Strikes Have Little Effect, Wall Street Journal 14 Nov 2012, source: (accessed 26/01/2015)

Eds. Schulte, Dieter (1996) Global denken – sozial handeln: Neue Perspektiven der Gewerkschaften (rororo-aktuell)



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