History of Workers Rights

How have seemingly powerless people found ways to have just a little bit of power at work?

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The common understanding in our society is based on the assumption that the powerful can influence and direct the powerless. However, the history of workers, whether indentured servants, slaves or laborers has proved that the powerless gain just a little bit of power and inform the direction of the work they carry out. In instances where workers take power the results are usually negative resulting the loss of work as well as other punitive effects. The powerless have devised various strategies over the years to gain a little more power in the workplace including the formation of unions, staging strikes, speaking out against injustices experienced, passive resistance and the manipulation of their leaders.

The rise of unions evidences an example of of how powerless people gained power in their workplace. Unionization gives employees the ability to generate power by combining their influence to achieve collective goals . The unions gained power by leveraging their ability to collectively bargaining for the needs of the steelworkers. A single employee is powerless and incapable of achieving much change within their working environment, but this is changed with the rise of the unions. Notably, the unions gave the powerless employees the ability to organize and demand the changes they wanted within the working environment. According to Smith, the National Labor Relations Act gave voice to the laborers allowing them to come together and fight for their rights . The results of unionization included improved wages all as a testament to the new power gained by the employees. The ability of the unions to call for higher wages and better working environments while threatening to strikes resulted in managers giving in to such demands highlighting the extent of power gained. The rise of unionization saw a shift of power from the management to the employees giving the employees a voice and a platform for gaining access to the changes they desired.

The ability to challenge authority and take on individual actions aimed at improving the workplace highlights another approach taken by employees in limiting the power of their supervisors the working environment. The powerless push back against the system and wresting the power from the powerful, and this is evidenced in the article by Casey Newton on the worst-performing content moderation companies. The article points out to a strategy to seize power by the powerless employees of the content moderation sites such as Cognizant by breaking their non-disclosure agreements bringing to light the horrible working conditions employees faced in these sites . The non-disclosure agreement is used by the contractors such as Cognizant to maintain their power over the employees, ensuring that they never speak out against the company . Forcing employees to remain silent on the problems they experience is one approach through which the employers maintain their power over the powerless employees. The simple act of speaking out to highlight the inhumane working conditions experienced by the employees at the moderation site highlights an act of taking power from the company. By breaking the non-disclosure agreement, the employees highlighted the problems faced, such as the post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by the employees resulting in changes to the workplaces. By speaking out, regardless of the contrasts, they had signed the employees at Cognizant moved from being powerless to having significance to change in the workplace . The creation of global resiliency team to improve the well-being of the employees and the contractors at Facebook Moderation sites was all in response to the complaints aired by the employees who had broken their non-discourse agreements. Simple actions such as speaking out regardless of the repercussions in an aim to improve the workplace are one approach through which powerless individuals have worked to gain power within the workplace environment.

Staging strikes although a risky initiate that leads to the loss of employment for the workers is another approach by which workers find a way of gaining an upper hand against their superiors. In each organization, the power rests on the leaders and the management teams with the employees having minimal power to influence change within the workplace. However, the ability to halt work through organizing strikes is an efficient approach through which the powerless employees gain power within the workplace. The Washington Post video evidences the best evidence of this power shift on employees at an Amazon fulfilment center in Minneapolis going on strike to improve working conditions . The strike is an example of the issues presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution as automation and robots continue to take shape within the working environment. The jobs are at stake of getting lost while human labor is met with little regard. The strike meant that no more work was carried out on within the fulfilment center thus providing the employees with the power to influence the change of working conditions . The management of Amazon, therefore, lost power to the employees as they mobilized themselves by calling for a strike. The only way forward after strikes is for the management to agree on the issues raised by the employees, and this is an example of who power shifts from the management team to the employees. By calling for a strike, the powerless employees are capable of holding their employers accountable and leveraging their collective power to address their individual needs . It is the ability of the employee to mobilize and seize working that gives them the power to challenge the robust cooperation they work for and the management team. The strike by Amazon workers shows that when the powerless employees come together, their power increases and they are capable of tackling problems faced. Such initiatives show that power dynamics can change giving the powerless more power to negotiate their needs. Collective employee actions such as strikes are therefore, an effective strategy at gaining power within the working environment that can shape the experiences of these powerless entities.

Laborers in the past gain a bit of power by changing the argument on how many hours they should work to gain abit more independence.. Brody’s article touches on the organization of the Philadelphia carpenters as well as other laborers in the 1800s that led to the change of working hours. The laborers realize that they are never going to be self-employed and thus seek solutions by arguing that the working days should be defined by the number of hours worked. The laborers organized for strikes resulting in the reduction of working hours from 12 to 10 hours a day . The strikes gave the laborers the power to negotiate their working hours as well as their compensation. The 10-hour workday was adopted during these negotiations with the laborers getting extra pay to compensate for the work carried out outside of the ten-hour workday . By changing the narrative on the number of hours worked the laborers were capable of gaining a little more power in their work. According to Brody, the demands raised by the striking laborers had an impact on not only power dynamics between the employer and the workers but affected the relationship between these parties. The power to influence change was a victory on the part of the laborers in addition to promoting equality between the employer and worker. The simple step of organizing and coming together to seek unanimous changes to the working environment was an important strategy in gaining power for the powerless.
Even slaves found ways to manipulate their masters to gain what they wanted within the working environment. The slaves in the article by Hammond were able to wrestle the power from their owner through demanding benefits they felt they were owed. According to Faust“The slaves were more than just passive recipients of these sporadic benefits; they, in turn, manipulated their master for those payments and privileges they had come to see as their due” . The slaves in Hammond’s farm had realized that they could gain power by demanding rewards from their master, and this led to a shift in the power dynamics within the farm. Although they were slaves, those working in Hammonds farm had leveraged their ability to mobilize and issue demands that their master had to obey for them to continue working . The slaves had realized their value and wanted to expand the benefits they could get. The slaves in this farm gained significant power by directly resisting the master, and in the end, he had to yield some of his power to them. This change of power dynamics led Hammond to come to an accommodation with the slaves on the issue of work. The fact that there was subtle and passive resistance from the slaves affecting the production in the farm was responsible for giving them power . Their master, therefore, had to reach a truce with the slaves on this farm to achieve an acceptable level of production. Notably, the resistance of the slaves to the orders of their master helped to gain them more power to seek a middle ground with their master. It is evident that the powerless, even when devoid of all rights, have the ability to influence power changes that allow them to seek changes within their workplaces.

Resistance was one of the defining acts that gave the powerless slaves an upper hand over their masters. In the article by Davis resistance took several forms, but subtle resistance could shift the power dynamics from the master to the slaves . Butler evidenced an example of this type of resistance as he states that slaves sabotaged tools in addition to burning barns all of which led slave owners to seek a change in how they treated their slaves . The passive type of resistance in which the slaves would wreak havoc on the farms as well as reducing their input within the farms meant that the slave owners had to strategize and address some of the concerns raised. Resistance, therefore, gave the slaves the power to bring their master to and understanding of what their issues were at the time. The slaveholders, therefore, had to recognize the needs of their slaves or continue to express the subtle form of resistance that was disadvantageous to them.
The powerless are capable of adopting various strategies that give them a little more power within the working environment allowing them to promote the desired changes they see fit. Last, unionization is an effective strategy by which the powerless in the workspace combine their power to challenge authorities and the powerfully as evidenced by the striking workers at Amazon fulfillment centers and the Philadelphia laborers in the 1880s. Furthermore, strikes have been used as a useful tactic for gaining power that calls the management or leaders to the issues or problems experienced by the powerless. By breaking their silence over the problems faced within the workplace, the employees have been capable of marshalling support to the necessary changes necessary within the working environment, and this is evidenced by the breaking of the non-disclosure agreement to bring to light the issues facing employees of content moderation companies. Notably, the powerless understand that they can do very little on their own and thus adopt a series of strategies all aimed at gaining the power needed to institute change. The shift of power dynamics to the powerless has been essential to the adoption of changes and improvements within the workspace.


Butler, John. Butler Evolution of Slavery. Chapter 3
Brody, David. Time and work during early American industrialism. Labor History, 30(1), 5–46. (1989).
Davis, David Brion. Inhuman bondage: The rise and fall of slavery in the New World. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. “Culture, conflict, and community: The meaning of power on an ante-bellum plantation.” Journal of Social History 14.1 (1980): 83-97.
Montgomery, David. The fall of the house of labor: The workplace, the state, and American labor activism, 1865-1925. Cambridge University Press. (1989)
Newton, Casey. Bodies in Seats. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2019/6/19/18681845/facebook-moderator-interviews-video-trauma-ptsd-cognizant-tampa, 2019.
Smith, Catherine. “The Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937.” LERA For Libraries 19.1 (2015).
Washington Post. “Workers are not machines”: Amazon employees strike on Prime Day. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQ7A09bSvvQ, 2019.