How come sometimes bosses fight back, and sometimes they give in?

Marianne Garneau reflects on how to bring pressure against the boss

We have a saying in the IWW: “The boss is a good organizer.” It means that bosses push workers towards the union with the terrible ways they treat them.

But of course, the terrible ways bosses treat workers also sometimes provoke a different reaction: workers get scared, demoralized, back away from the union, quit.

So, looked at more closely, the lesson is this: the very same thing that could upset or demoralize workers can also spur them to action – to stand in solidarity with their coworkers and fight back.

As organizers, it’s our job to make sure that the boss’s bad treatment encourages workers to fight back, rather than lose heart. That’s a matter of getting them to trust in their own collective power — they have to feel more emboldened and empowered to act in solidarity with one another than they feel afraid of the boss.

But now let’s look at things from the boss’s side. There’s a similar dynamic at play there: the things we do, as workers or as a union, to mess with bosses can either make them roll over… or can strengthen their resolve to fight us. Sometimes, when we act against bosses, they cave on our demands. Other times, they refuse, and just try harder to destroy the union.

Once again, as organizers, it’s up to us to make sure the right response prevails.

How do we do that?

The answer is complicated. It’s about bringing the right kind of pressure, in the right way.

Some reflections on pressure

First we have to clear something up about pressure.

In the IWW, we have sometimes taught that there is an escalating scale, from emotional pressure — the kind you place on a boss by confronting them — to public pressure, where you go after the business’s reputation, to economic pressure, where you impact profits or the bottom line.

The idea was that economic pressure is more impactful than public pressure, which is in turn more impactful that emotional pressure. This was based on the theory that profits are what bosses care about the most. Followed by reputation (since that relates to profits, but in an indirect way). Followed by emotion.

We’ve since revised this linear progression because it hasn’t been borne out in experience. For example, we have learned that emotional pressure can pack a real wallop. A well-coordinated march on a boss, with participation that reflects the whole workforce, a concrete demand, and a deadline, succeeds more often than not.

On the other hand, bosses seem willing to weather big attacks on their reputation, if it means keeping a union out.

There is proof that even profits aren’t what is most important to bosses. I know of several campaigns where bosses have rather quickly given out a raise at the first sign of unrest. Why do they do this, when it cuts into profit?

Because they would rather get back their compliant workforce at a higher price than allow a union to take hold. Bosses offer carrots alongside sticks because that strategy works: offering workers a “grass is greener” workplace where they indeed have higher wages or what have you, and they are relieved of the stress of having to fight the boss (not to mention all the meetings involved in union organizing)? That’s a tempting offer. In fact, in most of the cases I know of where bosses have thrown out some quick favors, the campaigns have fizzled or run out of momentum soon after.

Here is a stunning story of workers in a factory getting everything they asked for, by engaging in a brief wildcat (spontaneous and illegal) strike:

In the fall of 1973, a six-day long wildcat strike took place at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois. About 150 men, mainly black and latino, refused to work in the twister department of the cable plant, where telephone cables were wound together by machine. Although the strikers were officially members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), they viewed the union with total disdain because of its cozy relationship with the company. When the company laid off several employees and told the remaining workers they would need to pick up the slack, union officials counseled the men to accept the changes while their concerns were investigated. No doubt thinking of the many accidents caused by previous management speed-ups, the workers instead decided to shut down the department and walk out.

The strikers organized themselves well, and in addition to demanding a reduction in the work load back to its previous level, the removal of a racist foreman, the creation of a rest area near their department, and access to better medical facilities, they also demanded a permanent negotiating committee for the department, elected by the workers to deal directly with the company when grievances arose (thus bypassing the union altogether). The men elected a temporary negotiating committee made up of one black and one latino worker from each shift, and they immediately established a picket line to raise plant-wide awareness of their actions. The company was willing to meet with the negotiating committee, but no concessions were forthcoming, and the workers were told to return to work by the following week or be fired en mass [sic]. IBEW officials told the workers their strike was illegal and that no aid would come from the union if they didn’t end the walkout by the company’s stated deadline.

A total of 26,000 workers were employed at the massive facility, and in living memory there had never been any sort of organized work stoppage at the plant, whether authorized or wildcat. Given the miniscule numbers in the twister department, the strike was hardly major news to the outside world…

After six days, and with the pressure building, the company management agreed to every one of the workers’ demands…

I will return to this story in a second. For now, note that the employer gave in on everything – really significant demands, some with a hefty price tag – rather quickly.

Let’s also remember that bosses often lock workers out, or happily goad them into a strike. Businesses are willing to halt production, and sacrifice the flow of profits – and not even as a last resort.

So, profits are not the most important thing to bosses. How about reputation?

Well, note the limited effectiveness of public pressure campaigns, like phone zaps (where you flood the business with calls supporting some worker demand), or negative online reviews, or informational pickets (where you hold signs or hand out flyers about a business’s bad behavior, but don’t actually try to stop people from going in).

These tactics are sometimes successful in relation to a finite demand like recovering a worker’s stolen wages. They do not have a good track record when it comes to forcing recognition of a union, or winning major concessions, say in a contract negotiation.

It’s true that businesses get annoyed when you attack their reputation. But think about this: when we publicly smear a business as part of a union campaign, where do they fight back? They do some damage control, but generally speaking, they fight back in the shop – not in the realm of public opinion. Sure, they’ll put out their own statements and press releases; they may even create a website. But they don’t spend a ton of effort on winning the public relations war. Most of their propaganda is not directed at the public, but at the workers. They direct their energies to getting rid of the campaign, by dissuading workers, with both propaganda and outright intimidation like firings.

What do bosses care about?

If neither profits nor reputation are what bosses or business owners care most about, what do they care about most?

Let’s return to the story above.

After six days, and with the pressure building, the company management agreed to every one of the workers’ demands,  but in exchange they required that the men stop discussing the situation with other workers.

Unfortunately, this “code of silence” proved to be the undoing of the strike gains, as the company proceeded to transfer the most militant workers—including the original members of the permanent negotiating committee—to other departments and otherwise disrupt the momentum gained from the immediate victory.

The one thing the bosses asked for in return was for workers to stop talking to one another. They knew that the most dangerous thing, for them, was an organized workforce.

The thing bosses care about most is power in the workplace. Power is a matter of how organized workers are – how much ability they have to act in coordination with one another, through things like strikes, work stoppages, sick-outs, refusals to use certain equipment, etc.

In this case, the strike tactic worked, but the employer reached beyond that to what had enabled workers to pull off the strike, namely the committee they had built.

There are two lessons here: the most effective form of pressure is disruption of workflow – not public pressure, but messing with the production process. And the most important thing workers can do is organize, because that is what allows them to mess with production.

It now becomes clearer why reputation doesn’t matter that much. As long as the shop is running – cables are being produced, pancakes are being served, students are being taught, what have you – the boss isn’t really losing.

And bosses can afford to throw a few more bucks workers’ way, as long as they maintain their power long-term. They can always claw those gains back later, once workers get compliant again.

What bosses cannot afford is to lose control over the workplace.

This also sheds some new light on why the march on the boss is so often successful, as a tactic. The boss is literally looking at a group of workers who are not working, but confronting them instead. You can categorize that as “emotional pressure,” but it’s also an implicit threat. Bosses give in to marches because they are a visual demonstration that workers have the ability to act together, including to disrupt work. It’s the most significant kind of pressure there is.

So, now we know that workflow disruption is the most effective tactic. And we know that the thing bosses care most about is power in the workplace. But doesn’t that mean that’s the very thing they’re going to fight us hardest about? How do we win?

How do we make bosses give in rather than fight back?

Avoiding the fight to the death

Think about a typical union campaign. The boss finds out about the union, and tries to quash it. The boss might use carrots, or they might use sticks, or they might use both, but they absolutely do not want a union, because a union means they have to cede some control over the workplace.

In the most hard-fought union campaigns, the boss fights the union, the union fights back, and as both sides ratchet up the pressure, it becomes an existential struggle: either the union disappears, or the business does.

Surely, we think, the boss would rather have a union than close up shop entirely. But in fact, it’s a toss-up. Some small businesses have closed rather than allow a union to take hold. Even large corporations like Walmart will shutter a location if an organizing effort begins to take root there. And that goes for “progressive” institutions like coops and non-profits.

This is why we see bosses refusing to give in, even when unions bring a maximum amount of pressure. Pushed to the brink, they may well just decide to fight to the death, even if it’s their own.

So what do we do? If bosses will do anything to prevent a union taking hold, and no amount of pressure can change their mind, how on earth do we win?

Go slowly

In the IWW, when we train workers how to organize their workplace, we give them a scenario where they have a small workplace committee, and a list of grievances. We ask them to pick from the list of grievances, which one their committee should take on.

The rule of thumb – especially when you are just starting out – is that you should take on something that you can win. Generally, this means a smaller grievance, and something that can be addressed with a small action in the shop. Maybe it’s a fridge for the breakroom. Maybe it’s fixing one person’s shift schedule. Maybe it’s reinstating workers’ right to take home the leftover food at the end of the day.

It’s important to pick something small and winnable, especially early on, because this will give the committee confidence. You don’t want a knock-down, drag-out fight right away; you want the committee to “find their feet” – to develop their ability to take on issues in the workplace, through their own direct action.

So you pick something small and winnable, and you formulate an escalating series of tactics to win it.

Any time you launch a campaign with an employer, what you’re trying to do is box them in: to make it easier for them to give in to your demand than to refuse or resist. That is why you have to be willing and able to inflict costs if they resist (to mess with workflow). But it’s also why you are presenting the boss with an easier alternative: just give us what we are asking for.

The boss thinks, “The staff are demanding a break room fridge. They seem serious. They’ve given me a deadline. They’ve implied they will do something if I don’t give in by their deadline. Now I have a choice. I can ignore them and probably piss them off more, and find out what they are going to do next… or I can buy them a fridge. I’m angry about their insubordination! Maybe I should start handing out discipline, but that will definitely piss them off more… or I can buy them a fridge. What is this anyway, a union? I should nip this in the bud, maybe fire the main troublemakers – of course then I’d have to train new staff, and then I’d really be going into battle; I’d have to hire and pay consultants to union-bust, lawyers to defend myself at the NLRB… or I can buy them a fridge.”

Chances are, the boss will just buy you a fridge.

The rest proceeds accordingly. You maybe pause for a month, maybe two, then you ask for something else. Something else small. This time you show the same resolve – but also, the same willingness to play nice if they give in. You win again, or you don’t. You bring out your escalation tactic — maybe you all come in an hour late one day — to show you mean business. You win. Your committee grows because people develop confidence in this collective action thing. You eventually start taking on bigger demands. Every time, you box the boss in. They don’t like it. They retaliate, but you refuse to stop organizing. You refuse to give them the one thing that the bosses at Western Electric Hawthorne Works demanded. And because of that, the threat of what you can inflict is always a little bit more than the boss can handle.

Instead of the existential fight-to-the-death, you have slowly boxed the boss into a corner.


There is no such thing as a campaign in which the boss doesn’t fight back. We can’t trick them into believing there’s no union. Bosses are often uncannily good at sniffing out organizing, not to mention social leaders, and so on. That’s a byproduct of them always looking out for their interests. Most of the time, they’re better at this than we are.

However, we can increase our chances of success by building a gradually escalating campaign that relies first and foremost on collective disruption of workflow in the shop. If we slowly but surely build our control over the production process, learning better and better how to take action, carving out one win after another, we will shift power from the bosses to us. We will win, and they will lose.