When you’re at work, you’re likely to receive dozens, if not hundreds, of do-it-or-else orders from the boss or manager on a day-to-day basis. What happens when you disobey? Maybe nothing will happen the first time — maybe it’ll just be a write-up or a lecture — but if you keep working the way you want to work on “their time,” even if your way is simply more comfortable than the way they’ve approved, you’ll eventually be out the door.
What happens then? Once you’ve been cut off from the income you depend upon to pay your rent or mortgage, grocery bill, and other expenses, meeting your needs can be enormously difficult, if not impossible. If hiring is slow across the industries in which you have experience and training, a firing can be a social death sentence for a worker, resulting in anything from a depleted savings account and damaged credit rating to hunger and homelessness.
That’s a lot of control for an employer to have — too much control. Take a step back and look at how many hundreds of millions of people and their dependents around the world are caught in a similar situation, and you could even call it global tyranny.
The ability to hire and fire is the key to the employing class’ power, and it stems from our outdated and dysfunctional system of property rights. These rights state that productive industrial equipment, even that which has been paid for many times over by the goods and services it has been used by hundreds or even thousands of workers to produce, may be owned and operated by individuals or small groups of individuals and run for their own personal profit rather than to meet human need. This is what has resulted in the enormous imbalances of wealth which now threaten workers’ rights all over the world.
The good news is that workers hold a counter-power which, to our collective detriment, we have rarely exercised in recent decades. It requires organization, cooperation, and togetherness — solidarity — which are currently not in fashion. Still, if employers hold workers by the throats due to the fact that they control the workplaces, and the only commodity we workers have to sell is our labor, then the key to workers’ power is the withholding of our labor from them. Workers refusing work together can shut it all down and, if we organize correctly and often enough, bring democracy to the workplace.
Withholding labor can take many forms, from walkouts and strikes — total work refusals — to intentional, coordinated screw-ups and slowdowns. The term, “sabotage,” is commonly associated these days with property destruction, but the IWW has historically used it more broadly to mean any action on the job which interferes with production. There are thousands of examples of workers successfully uniting to withhold labor in various ways to enforce our demands, just as employers have always threatened to withhold access to “their” workplaces in order to enforce theirs.
For a number of complex reasons which are outside the scope of this article to examine in full, unionization among US workers has dropped way down in the last few decades to about 8% in the private sector. Some of these have to do with intrinsic factors such as the mainstream business unions’ willingness to make concessions to employers and be unresponsive to their membership, while others have to do with external factors such as employers’ support for union-busting legislation. However, if you are among the majority of US workers who would join a union if there were one organized in your workplace, contact the IWW today for info on how to get one established. In exchange for very low dues, we provide training and support to help you win your demands for better pay, better conditions, and more control over the way you work — and we are all-volunteer, with no paid officers at the branch level.