Power Theater

Although we have written many class handouts specifically for these classes in Vietnam, this is the first one that I think really gets at what we have to teach.

When we teach collective bargaining in the US to trade unionists, we do not have to make explicit what the power relationships are behind what is going on at the table. That is taken for granted. American trade unionists know what capitalism looks like.

But here, we have to make it explicit. I think that in this handout we are starting to cut to the chase.  Here is the one we call Power Theater. It is being translated right now by a young guy named Dang.

Power Theater: What We Learn from Collective Bargaining Simulations

Collective bargaining is really Power Theater. Collective Bargaining is not an argument, in which one party tries to convince the other. Instead, it is like a chess game with an audience. Each turn in the conversation is a move. The whole conversation enacts a strategy. The Union has a strategy and the Employer has a strategy. Every move is strategic. In between every move, each side has to stop and think, “What happened? Has the balance of power changed with this move? How? What move shall we make in response?”

There are two audiences for the performance: one is the party on the other side of the table. The other is the people away from the table: the workers on one side, the investors or managers of the company on the other side, and the allies of both in the broader society and government.

The thing to remember is that the Union’s interests are different and opposed to the Employer’s in most respects. If they were not, we would not need a union or collective bargaining at all in this form.

Although the parties that meet and negotiate across the table are speaking politely and thoughtfully, what is really going on is a conversation about the power on both sides. Each one is silently showing how strong it is.

The Real Questions Behind the Questions People Ask

The Union is the moving party and starts the conversation. It says, “Here is what we want.” Whatever it actually says, this is what its words mean.

The Employer may really say, “Thank you, this is interesting,” but what they mean is, “Why should we? Can you force us to give this to you?”

The Union responds: “Yes, because if you don’t, we won’t work for you or we will make life difficult in other ways for you.” This is the power that the Union has.

The Employer then has three possible responses.

Employer Response #1: “I don’t believe you. You aren’t well-organized enough. You aren’t unified. You aren’t a real collective. You haven’t educated your members. Maybe some of you will refuse to work, but all the other people will come and work because they need jobs.”

Of course, the Employer doesn’t say this out loud. None of this conversation is going on out loud. But this conversation is what lies behind everything that goes on at the table.

Possible Employer Response #2 is this: “You need us because we give you jobs. Our company can go somewhere else. Or we could fire all the workers and hire new ones that will be satisfied with anything we give them. This is our threat.”

Possible Employer Response #3 is a question: “What really matters the most to you and your members? What are your priorities?”

What Does the Union Say Back to the Employer?

First we will talk about the Union response to Employer Responses #1 and #2. Then we will talk about the Union response to Employer Response #3.

One possible Union response to Employer Response #1, which is never said out loud, is “You are wrong. We are well-organized enough to do that.” If this is true, the union should have chosen to display how strong it is by gathering names on a petition, having a membership meeting at which workers talk about a strike, giving workers buttons or T-shirts to wear, talking to journalists and the media and other public actions. The Employer will have heard about this and will remember it when it meets the Union at the table.

A second possible Union response to Employer Question #1, also never said out loud, is: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe we aren’t well-organized enough to really give you a big problem. But we are still well-organized enough to give you a small problem, and you have to talk to us.”

This is the basic power equation of bargaining. The understanding that workers need jobs, and employers need workers, is what brings workers and employers to the table. But the relative strength of each is what determines what goes on at the table. By “relative strength” we do not mean how loud they talk or how emotional their language is. We mean their ability to either withdraw labor power (work), on the union side, or withdraw capital (jobs) on the other side. Both sides need each other and have to respect each other, but they are also engaging in shows of strength. They are performing.

At the table, the way the Union shows their strength is by being disciplined and prepared. Their self-discipline at the table symbolizes their ability to control the behavior of the workers who are not at the table, and who may be called upon to demonstrate their strength and unity as a collective. Likewise, the Employer shows strength by being firm but reasonable and knowing clearly what is possible and what is not possible. Their self-discipline symbolizes their control of the company.

What the Union says to Employer Response #2 (“What if we take away your jobs?”) depends on how well the union has researched the company and the legal context. An effective Union will have researched the company well and knows how much profit they are making. An effective Union will not ask for something that is impossible or will cripple the company. An effective Union will also know if the laws prevent a company from firing all the workers just in order to get cheaper workers.

So the Union might say, silently, “We know how much money you are making and we know that you can afford to give us what we want and still make plenty of profit. So we are ready to put pressure on you to give us what we want.” Out loud, the Union might say, “Here are the details of how this would work. Give our proposal your careful consideration.”

The Employer should be aware of how much research the Union has done. Just to make sure that it knows, the Union should be ready to mention relevant facts to show how well it has prepared.

The First Management Caucus


If the Employer is convinced that the Union is strong enough to put pressure on it, and prepared enough to negotiate something that is reasonable and will not force it to flee the country or fire all the workforce, there is a third response to the Union’s opening proposal. The Employer will ask:

Employer Response #3: “What are your priorities? What really matters the most to you and your members?”

This is a good question. It is the question that opens the conversation after the first exchange of proposals. The two sides have met and looked at each other. They have mentally estimated what the responses of the other party might be. The Employer might be thinking, “These people are well-organized and self-disciplined, and they are going to put serious pressure on us.” Or, the Employer might be thinking, “These people do not really represent the workers. They do not have the power to really pressure us, so I will give them only a little of what they want.” The Union might be thinking, “Do they understand that we are serious? Do they know that we have done our research and can check what they say about their finances and resources? Do they think we forgot to educate and prepare our workers? I think that they do not really understand how strong we are – yet.”

The Employer Caucuses

Let’s imagine that the Union has passed their first set of proposals across the table, saying, “This is what we want.” The proposals are written simply in clear language. They focus on the main idea. They do not contain the careful, fine language that will end up in the contract. That will be worked out later.

The Employer reads the proposals. Maybe a short question or two is asked. Someone makes a signal and they go into caucus. Maybe they wait to read the proposals when they are in caucus. They want to discuss their response to the proposals privately. Most important, they want to make sure they understand what the Union is asking for. They make a list of clarifying questions that they want to ask.

When the Employer comes back to the table after the caucus, they ask specific questions that are all part of this big Employer Question #3, which is: “What do you mean and what are your priorities?”

Clarifying Questions

The little questions that get answers to this big question are called “Clarifying questions.” The Employer wants the union to clarify its proposal. Questions like “What does this word mean? How often would this happen? What is the purpose of that? How does item 3 relate to item 4? Help me understand this item.” – things like that.

These are not hostile questions but they are strategic. The superficial purpose of them is to get the Union to clarify anything that is unclear. The deeper purpose is to get the Union talking and reveal what is important to them. This is a point at which several representatives from the workers’ side might speak, each one with special knowledge about their work groups. They have to be on board with the strategy.

Once a party knows whether something is important or not important to the other party, they can begin to think about trading. Here is where negotiation begins. The parties start to think about: “We will give this if you will give that.” But you don’t say this out loud. At this point, you are just learning about the other side.

The main activity in this part of negotiations is listening.

The Employer will listen to the Union’s answers and think, “This point is important to them, this one is not so important, here is another thing that would actually work well for us, maybe we can develop this idea, but here is something that is a real problem for us so we will not agree to it. But we need to find out whether it is a top priority for the Union. We need to find out if they are united about this.”

The Union will listen to the Employer’s questions and think, “Aha, so this is what worries them. This is what they want to know more about. This is something they like. They seem to think this is reasonable. We can build on that. But that other point, that’s going to be a hard one to win.”

Neither side reveals its strategy intentionally at this point, but it is impossible to avoid revealing it a little. This phase of bargaining is not hostile and not confrontational. At this point, the two sides are listening to each other very carefully. They are trying to build a relationship of respect because they both want to get an agreement.

Once the Employer believes that it has understood what the Union’s proposals mean, they go back and caucus and come to agreement among themselves about how to respond.

The Employer’s Counter-proposal, and what follows

What happens next is that the Employer presents their counter-proposal. The Union asks clarifying questions for the same reason that the Employer asked clarifying questions last time. Then the Union caucuses to decide what it will do.

And it goes on and on.

Sometimes a party says, “No, that’s impossible. We can’t consider it.” They set it aside for the time being. Maybe it will come up again.

Sometimes a party says, “We’re interested in this part of your proposal. Can you tell us more about how it would work?”

Or: “Let’s try a different way to accomplish what you’re trying to do.”

Sometimes (rarely) a party says, “That’s a good idea, we agree on that one.”

Or sometimes one party says, “You’re not bargaining seriously. Call us when you’re ready to be serious. In the meantime, we’re going back to work.” And they walk out.

The Point is Not to Convince the Other Side

This description of table skills takes us a little bit farther than we have gotten in any collective bargaining simulation we have done so far at TDTU. Mainly because of limitations of time, and also because of the difficulty of working with translation, we have had to cut short bargaining at about this point in each simulation. However, the biggest problem has been that in most of our classroom situations, students have made the mistake of trying to convince the other side, which is mostly impossible. We have written this handout in order to explain why this is a mistake.

Bargaining is not about convincing the other side. Bargaining is not debate. It is power theater. Debate can turn into blame and even squabbling – that is, arguing back and forth in an undisciplined, non-strategic manner.

Therefore we are writing up this special handout in order to emphasize the importance of strategy and to explain that collective bargaining is not a matter of convincing the other side that your demands should be granted. Every argument that you make is a move in a game of strategy in which the essential demand that you are making is always foremost in your mind. At the same time, the strategy creates theater. People are watching you perform. That means you do some things just to show power – even if perhaps you do not really have as much power as you would like. And some of what you say at the table is largely for the benefit of those watching you are away from the table, to build unity and resolve in your own ranks and to help to recruit and solidify allies. You will report portions of these sessions on the web or through other means and people will read what you report.

Examples of Kinds of Arguments and Their Use at the Table

Here are some different kinds of arguments that people use in real life. Some of them are useful in collective bargaining and some are not. Remember: bargaining is not about convincing. Bargaining is about power.

  1. The argument from power: “We can make you do something.” This is a threat. In bargaining, this is usually left unsaid. You are talking about coercion. You should only speak it out loud in the last moment, when everything else has failed. If bargaining fails, and you have to get up from the table and go on strike, that’s when you say this. You also need to be sure that you can do what you threaten, like having a big majority strike vote in your pocket.
  1. The argument from efficiency. This is useful when you get down to details. This is for going over the small numbers, showing that a wage increase will not really hurt profits, or that a different way of scheduling or doing the work will make things easier. Employers like efficiency. The Union likes efficiency only when it makes a job safer or better in some way for workers over the long term.
  1. The argument from pity. Be careful with this. Neither Employer nor Union should use this argument lightly. The people facing each other at the table are not there to be moved by pity. They have to make decisions based on their roles in the negotiations. Employers will say, “If workers don’t think their job pays enough, they should get a different job.” The Union will say, “If the Employer is losing money, they should do a better job of running their business.” If workers are not making enough wages to live decently, or if the employer is struggling to pay for overhead, these facts can be explained in detail without making it an emotional appeal. What really matters here is how strong each party is away from the table, how much pressure they can bring to bear.

The argument from pity can be used to mobilize certain allies who want to support companies just getting started or workers in their struggle. A city government might be willing to give a company a tax break if it is having trouble. Obviously, it is not a good argument to use directly with workers, who will feel insulted.

  1. The argument from blame: Be careful with this. The question of who is responsible for certain things is established in law and by the contract. It is a waste of time to try to make the other party feel bad or admit moral lapses. The only time to do this is if one party’s behavior, either at the table or away from it, is so insulting and disrespectful, either in form or content, that the other party needs to employ the theater of moral outrage, which may be accompanied by leaving the table for a time. Most effective bargaining teams have one person who can do this effectively, when needed. Generally, if one party is not fulfilling its legal and contractual responsibilities, such as ensuring health and safety or sanitation or controlling disruptions in production, the consequences of this failure should be explained so that the guilty party will do its job.
  1. The argument from justice: This works best when the Union talking with membership and potential allies. They know what is right and what is wrong. Workers will be moved by arguments about what is fair and right. They can be mobilized and unified around these arguments. But justice is not an argument that works at the table. At the table, saying that something is right or wrong is not a strong argument. The whole idea of right and wrong presumes the existence of a single, absolute standard of justice. At the table, each side takes a different perspective, and right and wrong look different depending on which side you are on. Some Employers, of course, will be swayed by this argument, but not if they will risk a lot of money by doing it.

The main argument that both parties should use are the arguments from power.

But Negotiators are Just Human

Even the most experienced negotiators break these rules sometimes. They will appeal to pity, get angry or confrontational, slam their fists on the table or ask hostile, confrontational or blaming questions. If they bargain all night they will be tired and let their discipline falter. The rest of the team has to be quick to call a caucus when they see that one of their members is falling apart.

If they really know what they are doing, they will break the rules strategically – that is, for a purpose, to confuse the other side, delay the process, try to separate and dis-unify the other group. When this happens, the other side should caucus quickly and come to an understanding of what that move meant in terms of the other party’s strategy. Was it an accident? Is one of the other negotiators just getting tired? Are they really weak and losing their self-discipline? Or was there a strategic intention behind this behavior? Maybe there is a split, a difference of opinions in the other party, and maybe they can drive a wedge between these differences and make them weak. All this information can be used strategically by the other side.


Remember, most of all: This is power theater. At the table, you see only five or ten people, talking to each other and pushing pieces of paper across the table. But away from the table on one side are workers who may or may not be unified in support of the Union negotiators. Away from the table on the other side are investors and owners, and the families of owners of the company, who see their wealth being used either well or put at risk by the Employer. At the table, both parties perform a theater of power that reveals by representation the reality of what is off stage outside.

How effectively you bargain will depend on how well you wield the power of theater. The old saying is still true: You can lose at the table if you make a mistake, but you can’t win anything at the table that you can’t win in the street.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

%d bloggers like this: