Viewpoint: Workplace Power: It’s Skill that Gives Workers Clout on the Job

[This article appeared in the Viewpoint column]

Power in the workplace itself. That is the underlying issue in the West Coast longshore struggle and facing most other unions across the world. Unfortunately, unions don’t like to talk about their members having power; they fear that power plays negatively in the media, so they paint a picture of “workers as victims” instead.

But the employers know the issue well, talk about it, and have long-term plans to eliminate the power of workers individually and collectively in the workplace. Transferring power to management is one of the cardinal rules of the lean production religion.

The struggle on the docks focuses on about 600 “marine clerk” jobs, about 5 percent of the ILWU bargaining unit. Historically, the job of figuring out the placement of cargo in outgoing ships, checking the organization of incoming cargo, sequencing unloading, and placing for loading on trucks and trains was done mainly by union members. Over the past 40 years, with containerization and new technology, more of this work has been done using computers.

The employers have used this technology to move some of the skilled planning and coordination work outside the bargaining unit, even to remote locations such as Salt Lake City. Now the employers want to accelerate that process under the guise of further technological change.


The union says it is willing to accept the technology, but insists that the functions of dock, vessel, and rail planning, and all other new work created by the implementation of new technologies, remain in the bargaining unit. Jobs may be reduced in number, says the ILWU, but the jobs that are key to worker control over the flow of work must remain union.

While other jobs on the docks are also skilled, the ILWU has recognized that retaining every skilled job is necessary, if the union is to maintain its power to bargain in the future and to control working conditions day to day on the docks.

One of the main ways workers have power on the job-in addition to solidarity, union density, and market conditions-is through skill. Skill is a hard concept to nail down. It can be a combination of experience, formal mental or physical training, informal training, physical abilities, and judgment.

It is also partially determined by the market. Reading and driving, for example, are skills that require years of training. Yet they are generally not considered skills because such a large percentage of the workforce has them.

Some jobs are widely recognized-with pay, licensing requirements, apprenticeships, or titles-as skilled jobs: toolmakers, electricians, nurses, engineers, repair people, or programmers, for example.

But skill can’t be determined by the job title. Many clerical or machine operator jobs, for instance, take years of on-the-job training and entail heavy responsibility.

Skilled work is a thorn in the employers’ side, not just because skilled workers are more difficult to replace in the event of a strike, but because skilled workers are difficult to control at the workplace. The fact that management would have difficulty replacing you or even telling you what to do gives the skilled worker a sense of power, individually and collectively.

Skilled work requires judgment calls and decisions and therefore carries with it a great deal of responsibility. You know you have a skill when you say to an irritating boss, “OK, you are the boss, I am the worker. You tell me exactly what I should do in this situation and I will do it,” and the boss apologizes and goes and gets you a cup of coffee.

The contract can spell out provisions on work pace, health and safety, and rights and dignity at work. But without worker power on the shop floor, contract clauses have few teeth. The grievance procedure is slow, and legal enforcement of contracts is time-consuming and depends on hostile courts and government agencies.


Skilled workers have an easier time determining the pace of work, controlling the methods of work, and punishing bad supervisors. The fact that they can plan their work and use their own judgment in carrying it out helps them enforce good working conditions, including safety, and oppose speed-up.

The individual power, pride in craft, or sense of professionalism inherent in skilled work mainly benefit unionism, but they also have downsides. The inclusion of skilled workers in a union makes the union a lot more powerful in dealing with management. It potentially provides the union with people who have flexibility and mobility in the workplace, and access to knowledge about management’s plans.



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At the same time, skilled workers may see in their skills an identification with management, as against their sisters and brothers who may have fewer of the skills management requires at that specific workplace. The “skilled” designation may generate an arrogance that says, “We can do it alone. We don’t need anyone else.”


Experience shows that even the most skilled groups of workers are not safe against concerted and focused employer assault. The PATCO (air traffic controllers) and Caterpillar strikes are two cases where the skills of the workforce were not enough to deter carefully planned union-busting.

But the extent to which skilled workers do not see themselves on the same page as management is the degree to which management does not “control the process” in the workplace. And controlling the workplace is fundamental to all of the current management strategies, from ISO certification, to quality programs, to flexible manufacturing.

A direct assault on unionized skilled work is still costly-look at the ILWU lockout-so employers have a wide range of strategies to reduce the power of skilled workers more discreetly yet more effectively:

• Use technology as the excuse to move judgment out of the unionized workforce to a sector separated from the union and potentially even hostile to it. As in the case of the ILWU clerks, management may slowly shift work to vendors or outside contractors, or to management, or to new classifications.

• Gain the cooperation of the union in controlling the skilled workers. Pit production workers against skilled in assigning the blame for “failure to compete.” Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) programs lay the basis for a conflict over work between production and skilled classifications.

• Increase the identity of skilled workers with management. Pit sections against each other. This is a common strategy in hospital settings.

• Deskill the skilled work by “dumbing it down.” Reduce it to Standardized Work Instructions that seek to move as much judgment as possible from the worker to management. Computerized instructions and recordkeeping play a big role here.

• Deskill the workforce by undermining training programs and designing training programs that don’t work. Then when the bargaining unit cannot perform, leave the work nominally in the bargaining unit, for the time being, while shifting the work in reality to contractors. In auto, the companies have bought the UAW’s cooperation by building massive training facilities with enormous staffs. These centers make the record while the workforce itself is deskilled.

The tragedy is that most unions are not facing the issue of skill squarely. If anything, they have been going the other way. They have found that employers are willing to trade money and benefits for workplace power. But the more workplace power the union gives up now, the less ability it has to win money and benefits down the road. And in the meantime working conditions and contract enforcement deteriorate.

The ILWU, to its credit, is taking this issue on. It probably could have quietly settled, as so many other unions have, for watching its skilled work moved out of the bargaining unit in exchange for an employer pledge of job security for those currently working.


It is an important start for unions to simply lay claim to certain jobs and assert that the jobs must remain in the bargaining unit even if the tools and skills change. Unions also need to:

• Put “card check” and “employer neutrality” for non-union sections of the company at the top of their bargaining demands. The CWA has led the way here.

• Craft strategies to win over non-union skilled workers, many of whom have little experience of unionism.

• Make sure training programs impart real skills that make workers valuable, not “soft skills.” If the skills are not real, their role in workplace control is not real, and withdrawing them is no threat.

Mike Parker is a UAW electrician at Chrysler and a co-author of Democracy Is Power. He has long experience in new technology training programs for skilled trades.