What Does It Mean To Build Power For Working People?


It’s our birthday and we’re thinking quite a bit about how far we’ve come.

When we launched The Workers Lab, we charged forward with the goal of building power for working people in the US. This was, and continues to be, our north star. While we remain unrelenting in this pursuit, we have grappled with the reality that the concept of power – generally and as it relates to people who work – is not uniformly defined. It turns out that power is an immensely complex concept. We’ve pushed ourselves to define power in our Enterprise Institutes, with our board, and in partnership with other organizations in the field of economic justice.  Many continue to define power for working people as singularly expressed through collective bargaining and negotiation with employers around standards, wages, and benefits. With the aggressive fissuring of the economy and the erosion of union membership, it is no longer tenable to hold collective bargaining up as the ultimate expression of power for people who work in this country.

In light of this, we’ve been on a journey to explore and deepen our understanding of the many ways that people who work can gain and have power in the 21st century.  This was not simply an intellectual exercise: this process has been central to helping refine our programmatic objectives and offerings as we step into our 2nd year of operation. 

What does it look like when working people have power?

At the first two meetings of The Workers Lab’s Board of Directors, it took little time before the topic of power for workers emerged. Our Board is an incredible group of labor leaders, worker advocates, finance experts, foundation representatives, investors, movement organizers, and business owners. They are uniformly passionate about our mission and yet, at their respective institutions focus on discrete approaches to ‘winning’ for working people. Because of our orientation as a Lab, we cast a wide net in the projects and partners we take on to ensure we can harvest insights across the continuum of economic justice work. We wondered if that was a good thing. We wondered if there was consensus on our board that perhaps we ought to focus on specific ways of building power; or, whether we simply needed to define the parameters of what a strategy for building power included and what it did not. We needed to take a step back and examine the collective assumptions about power shared by our Board members to arrive at a collective consensus on how The Workers Lab can engage with partners that approach power and power-building for workers in sometimes radically disparate ways. To do this, we invited each of our 22 Board members to submit written answers to three questions:

  1. How do you define and think about power?
  2. What are 1-2 cases of ‘power’ in the world that inspire you?
  3. What are some of the concepts, terms, and examples you use to talk to your peers about power?

The diversity of responses helped us frame a conversation about power during our June 2016 Board meeting. To further ground the discussion, we invited two members of our Board to provide additional thoughts. Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University offered us eight types of power:

  • Force
  • Wealth
  • State action
  • Ideas
  • Information
  • Social norms
  • Reputation
  • People power/numbers

Dorian Warren, fellow at The Roosevelt Institute, gave a brief history lesson on the evolution of power struggles as defined by political scientists over time which in several instances involved one actor exercising influence and/or compelling the other to action.

In the written responses, many described power as the ability to make change without the necessity of consensus. Power was cited as often exercised through coercion, disruption, contestation, mobilizing people in large numbers toward a specific end or set of demands, decisive influence, persuasion, and authority. There was a distinction made between power used to compel action and power used to influence people to think or see things differently. When it came to power for workers, the following two categories emerged.

Wins for Individual Workers

Collective/Systemic Wins
·    fair and livable wages

·    retirement security

·    training & education

·    ‘benefits’ in the broadest term

·    aggregation of workers, collective action

·    collective bargaining

·    feedback loop with employer, inclusion of worker voice in decision-making

·    binding agreements

·    strong and effective enforcement mechanisms

·    legislation that institutionalizes any of the above

The distinction between wins for individuals and systemic ones helped put words to a contested issue in our work: what types of power does The Workers Lab want to direct its resources toward building? Every application we’ve received articulates varying ideas about what power is and how that project can help working people acquire it. Most proposals we receive fall in either of the two categories above. Depending on who you talk to, some of the objectives in the above chart are higher priority than others. It is easy to see a project and critique its limitations for not being systemic enough, or not materially improving someone’s daily life fast enough. Perhaps one idea doesn’t quite build power. Another isn’t so scalable; and another doesn’t look financially sustainable by any means. We’ve begun to accept that this diversity is good and that not every program or tool will fundamentally transform the power dynamic between worker and employer; nor will all wins for workers be the product of groundswell organizing and collective action. The advantage of maintaining a portfolio with programmatic breadth is that you get to experiment with strategies along the continuum of worker power. The goal now is to look across our portfolio and find the gaps. What are we not testing? Instead of zeroing in on whether one project will or won’t inspire a revolution, our goal is to be asking how these collective experiments can inform the broad movement for working people. 

How do you know when a project is not building power for working people?

Initially, we screened many of our potential Lab partners by asking foundational questions such as: Can this project be scaled? Can it generate revenue to ensure the work can be sustained? Does it build power for working people? In every case where the three answers were not ‘yes’, we were without a way to assess, compare, and contrast projects’ ambition, potential, and constraints. We had a portfolio of diverse projects that seemed to hit the mark in one or two ways, but rarely all three. Instead of debating the merits and limitations of individual projects that were promising on one or two accounts, it became easier to contrast the projects we invested in with ones that did not aim to build systemic or material power for workers at all. To do this, we needed to collect concrete ideas about what power is not. It may sound easy at first, but there are a lot of strategies out there that do not have the explicit objective to build power for workers. Some of those are below:

  • High-road or ethical business models: when a subset of workers simply win the good boss lottery, but don’t maintain any role in decision-making at the corporation level.
  • Worker empowerment programs: when workers are loaned some power and the power they have is defined by those giving it away. They are not entitled to shaping or setting the terms of their employment relationship; or accessibility to resources and protections.
  • Access to (or relationship with) the ‘powers that be’: the opportunity to articulate demands does not guarantee one will get what they are demanding.
  • Safe working conditions in and of themselves: the ability to earn a living in a workplace free of harm and hazards is a human right to which everyone is entitled.
  • Charitable programs: when working people benefit from the at-will benevolence of others, especially through the transfer of resources. 

Why do assumptions about power matter?

It was a worthwhile exercise to revisit our collective assumptions about power, particularly as an organization whose mission is to accelerate power-building ideas to action. It was no longer sufficient for us to operate under the assumption that we’d know what building power for workers looked like when we saw it. The fact is, it can look and feel like many things; as a Lab, it’s important that we function as a testing ground and incubator for as many approaches we can find. We all can attest to why power matters, but it also matters that we vet and investigate the strategies we believe can tip the balance of power toward working people.

We remain committed to investing in efforts that have the promise of building power for workers. Now however, we will investigate exactly what type of power the project intends to build (from the eight forms of power mentioned previously); and, whether it will improve work conditions and wages for individuals or if it will intervene at the systems level to enable workers to exercise influence over processes. Our investment strategy is now tiered to facilitate small early-stage investments in projects that could use more scoping, vetting, and early testing. Projects that are more mature or ready to be scaled from early-stage scoping and implementation are our select big ‘bets’ that we believe can transform the status quo and achieve the coveted three yes’s (scale, sustainability, and power).

It is both a privilege and a responsibility to be able to experiment and learn. At the same time, we see many partners in the field who shy away from small opportunities to try new things and learn out loud. At our best, we hope you see The Workers Lab as a place where you feel comfortable revisiting assumptions, suspending disbelief, and committing to building a kind of power that will advance the state of play in favor of everyday working people. On the heels of Labor Day, we invite you to reflect on whether it’s time to revisit, refine, redefine, or double-down on your organization’s power-building strategy.