Theories of Union Power

Professor John Kelly

This post is a summary of John Kelly’s Theories of collective action and union power (2011). It is a chapter of The International Handbook of Labour Unions: Responses to Neo-liberalism (Gall, Wilkinson & Hurd 2011). Kelly follows Lukes’s distinction of three dimensions of power and analyses unions’ power accordingly. He also provides five types of theory on union power: market theory, resource mobilisation, institutionalism, labour process, and mobilisation theory.

Three dimensions of union power

Steven Lukes, in his seminal work Power: A Radical View (2004), distinguishes three dimensions for analysing power. He defines power as the capacity of agents to ‘to bring about significant effects, specifically by furthering their own interests and/or affecting the interests of others, whether positively or negatively’ (Lukes 2005: 65). Thus, power is always relational.

Read more about What is Power?

Kelly bases his analysis of unions’ power on Lukes’ categorisation.

1) The first level of power is the most apparent. It considers effected conflicts between two or more agents. For this article, the two agents can be a union and an employer and the outcome of the power struggle is observed through the outcome of the conflict, which can be a strike.

2) The second level is agenda setting. This dimension consider power in the ability to establish what can be the subject of conflict and what cannot be. For example, the power demonstrates itself in the fact that strikes are legal only if they pursue certain goals.

3) The third dimension of power is more fundamental and considers what can be thought and what can be viewed as common sense or natural. For example, the dominance of pro-business or the ruling class ideas is the outcome of power.

There can be a fourth view on power, which is based on Foucault’s work. This view rejects ‘the idea of a concentration of power in the hands of particular agents, arguing instead that power is dispersed among networks of relationships’. This view asserts that resistance only buttresses the power relations.

Theories of Union Power

Kelly distinguishes five types of theory on union power:

1) Market theory

The market theory of union power stems from the neoclassical economics and ‘assigns substantial weight to the impact of competition in product and labour markets on union bargaining power’. The studies with this view sometimes have the fallacious tendency to only consider wage and monetary demands as the motivation for strikes, which are the exercise of power.

2) Resource mobilisation

In this perspective, union power is associated with personnel and material resources, e.g. union membership. However, the link between union power and density is weak because, e.g. for strikes, unions need to mobilise non-members, they can have the support of other social movements, their opponents may lack sufficient resources.

On the other hand, strong unions that can influence pro-labour governments have less incentive to strike.

3) Institutionalism

This view associates union power with the structure of unions and collective bargaining. Strikes are particularly related to the level of ‘centralisation and coordination of collective bargaining’. The more decentralised the more strikes. However, focusing on the institutions alone cannot tell us about their outcome for actors.

4) Labour process

In this view, the organisation of the production process and the disruptive capacity of workers influences union power. Lean production, based on ‘just in time’ motto, are more vulnerable to disruptive strategies.

5) Mobilisation theory

This view considers the sense of injustice as the essential factor for collective organisation and action. Its aim is to account for participation in, and not the choice from, the ‘repertoires of collective action’.

The role of unions

If we take a purely economistic view, i.e. union are only to represent workers in bargaining for term and conditions of employment, then they are weak in resisting neo-liberal policies. However, in the political arena, the role of unions can be quite substantial. Working at the third dimension of power, they can shape how people think.


‘While acknowledging the role of markets, institutions and actors, the literatures on power and on mobilisation have highlighted the importance of ideas in shaping people’s behaviour and in particular their willingness to participate in collective action’.


Gall, G, Wilkinson, A & Hurd, RW (2011), The international handbook of labour unions : responses to neo-liberalism, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

Kelly, J (2011), ‘Theories of collective action and union power’, In Gall, G, Wilkinson, A & Hurd, R (eds), The international handbook of labour unions: Responses to neo-liberalism, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

Lukes, S (2004), Power: A Radical View (2nd), Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan.



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