"Work to rule" is a tactic in the class struggle, most commonly known as used by trade union members, but available and used as a tactic in all wage labor vs. capital games, i.e. also by individual unaffiliated workers of varying types from long term regular employees to (less frequently) contracted thru labor resellers and (much less frequently¹) directly contracting workers. A

The tactic reveals several underlying truths:
  1. Simply stated, the tactic is to strictly observe established workplace rules at the expense of production efficiency. This highlights the essential truth of the labor theory of value, as it is manifested countless times thruout every working day, everywhere in the world, i.e. by strictly observing the rules/commands given them to produce profit for their masters, workers thereby withdraw the full commitment of their being to the production of profit because the full measure of devotion to their exploitation is required to maintain the efficiency levels which will allow the owners of the means of production in which their labour is bound to continue to extract surplus value.

  2. The phenomenon highlights the so-called principle of "mortmain" or the "dead hand" at the helm of production since all the individual units of labor are doing in this confrontation with their class enemies is obeying.

  3. The truth of number 1 above is highlighted when one considers different grades of labour and hence different degrees of exploitation. The tactic is especially powerfull for hourly wage labors with relatively modest skills easily replaced from the general pool which the social order maintains to serve those sectors of production. Because profit margins there are thin, and as a result of the law of declining profit³, deviations from the fullest commitment to productivity have an immediate impact on the owners position. In labor types, such as intellectual or knowledge workers where both the rate of exploitation and the inherent risk are radically different, the tactic's impact is not as direct.

  4. The tactic makes no sense and could not be applied in a situation where class antagonisms where not present as manifest contradictions in the production process. For example, it is unthinkable that workers who were co-equal owners of some enterprise would use the tactic as they would be doing so against themselves.

The tactic is under consideration currently by the UAW in their conflict with GM which is attempting to force several billion dollars of cuts in health and pension benefits on its workers under the threat of even greater losses of social security should GM pursue a bankruptcy option as in the case of Delphi, the auto parts unit which it sold off in 1999 ²
  • Google retrieves about 125K entries for this noun phrase at this writing.
  • Though it isn't technically, the tactic is sometimes considered equivalent to the "slow-down", and ...
  • The tactic is sometimes combined with a refusal to work overtime.
  • The tactic is currently quite popular as organized labor generally suffers from a problem of mortmain itself in a leadership which has in effect become a collaborator with the enemies of those they are supposed to be representing and therefore and as a result of this, their weakness in principle, and the overall current historical correlation of forces in the development of the world system, the strike and related tactics have lost effectiveness/use.
  • The earliest instance of the tactic I have been able to find was the PATCO strike which the Regan administration broke, but it clearly is older than that.

spiregrain notes that the tactic could in some cases be in conflict with various professional codes of ethics. For software engineers, codes such as the ACM Software Engineering Ethical Policy could be cited. This brings to mind the general uniformity underlying the cases where the tactic is and generally isn't applicable. Well (and by virtue of being clearly defined, generally more equitable) defined relations of production, such as in a contract or removal from the normal relations of production present in the extended social order as for example in some non-profit public service tend to make the tactic inapplicable. Thus the apparent uniformity of the cases of applicablity is the degree of corruption of the sector of production.

¹ Since this would either be unethical and/or constitute an actionable common law or UCC fraud.
² http://www.wsws.org/articles/2005/nov2005/koko-n17.shtml
³ http://commoditysoftware.org/everything/index.pl?node_id=343