Contentions about the state of world labor are based on assumptions about the impact of contemporary globalisation on workers'bargaining power. A useful starting point for differentiating types of workers'bargaining power is Erik Olin Wright's (2000:962) distinction between associational and structural power. Associational power consists of "the various forms of power that result from the formation of collective organisation of workers" (most importantly, trade unions and political parties). Structural power, in contrast, consists of the power that accrues to workers "simply from their location...in the economic system." Wright further divides "structural" power into two subtypes. The first subtype of structural power (which we shall call marketplace bargaining power) is the power that "results directly from tight labor markets." The second subtype of structural power (which we shall call workplace bargaining power) is the power that results "from the strategic location of a particular group of workers within a key industrial sector."
Ok, so this interesting for me, not only because Beverly Silver is brilliant (check this review of the book, by Aufheben), but because it makes me think about why I think my use of this term, associational power is useful, but distinct from Silver's use of it. God this sounds pretentious.
Anyway, I guess the ímportant thing about the paragraph above is that its talking about class power in a specifically antagonistic relations with capital, i.e. the relative strengths of the capitalist and working classes. Fair enough, that's the topic of the book.
My problem is that I want to be able to talk about something underlying this, which is how the internal organisation of the class can both reproduce the disempowerment of the class in relation to the forces of production by maintaing sectionalism, clientelism, etc, but can also be the basis of a wholly different organisation of society.
So, let's say we have a big-ass trade union, like Siptu or whatever. It is a free association of workers, and it certainly does have a certain amount of power, associational and structural in the terms used above - it could shut down the country (in potential anyway). But power vested in a body like Siptu is obviously not equivalent to class power - because the actual people who have power in this structure are very few, and the majority of members are left disempowered by this mammoth body. The trade union structure, as has been remarked countless times, has a basically clientelist mode of organising, which empowers TU leaders to make decisions on behalf of members. So it's difficult to see the origins of a mass movement in such a body.
My concern is that we need to be able to identify fertile ground for anarchist intervention, and that these should be defined, not primarily by numbers or structural position (although these are also important criteria), but by a mode of organising which can be the basis of class power. Without which, in fact, we cannot really speak of class power, but only of discrete sectional agendas. This is what I want to use "associational" modes of organising to distinguish.
I don't want to use this in an exclusivist way, as if there are "associational" modes of organising, but these are immediately cancelled out by the intrusion of clientelism or whatever. I think that such modes will, and do, coexist within various social structures, and the role of revolutionaries is to develop the relative strength of associational power bases.
I'm still skirting around an exact definition.