Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Individual rights claims as disguised collective action

As the video above suggests, there are many kinds of power in the workplace. Some is based upon authority and the ability to officially levy punishment. And some is based upon skill and the ability to throw a spanner in the works.

Over time, workers have developed different strategies to exert power. The most often discussed on is through unionism. Employers and the state have both acted to constrain this power. The state has limited the ability of Canadian workers to seek redress for grievances through strikes (strikes are legally limited to contract renewal disputes). Employers have limited workers’ power through various union evasion and busting tactics.

Something we don’t hear much about are the strategies that vulnerable workers use to advance their interests. An interesting article in Comparative Political Studies entitled “Disguised Collective Action in China” was published a few weeks ago.

The author looks at how Chinese workers (who face repression for collectively organizing) nonetheless manage to act collectively. Basically, civil society groups secretly teach workers how to advance individual claims against employers who have acted wrongfully. Such groups can emerge from existing kinship, religious, friendship, cultural, or other networks which can be hard to employers and the state to “see”.

In aggregate, individual rights claims can be powerful because they strike at the moral authority of employers and the state (i.e., “you made rules and you are not following them”). They can also be powerful because of the resource drain they entail on employers. And such actions also largely eliminate the risk associated with collective protests (e.g., strikes and other forms of collective disruption).

Obviously there are weaknesses with this approach. Individual claims can be turned aside or evaded. Workers are always reacting to employer attacks. But employers sometimes make policy changes in the face of such action. And, faced with state-employer repression of collective action, such a strategy may be an effective option.

For example, while Alberta is about to allow farm workers to unionize, it is unlikely many farm workers will join unions and farm workers are not likely to be subject to many organizing drives. Unions seeking to help farm workers might well better spent their energies developing “how-to” kits and workshops for farm workers to exercise their statutory workplace rights. These kits might include not just the mechanics of how to file a claim, but some discussion of how to maximize the effectiveness of such a claim through tactical choices.

-- Bob Barnetson

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