This article revisits the case for paying more attention to agency and strategy in theories of post-communist politics and society. The author analyses two trends of major social and political significance in Central and Eastern Europe between 1989 and 2007: the apparent political inconsequentiality of rising unemployment and the causes and consequences of the dramatic decline of organised labour, across a wide variety of political and institutional settings. While the prevailing explanations have emphasised the institutional and ideological legacies of the communist past, the author points to theoretical reasons for why the 'unsettled times' of transformation may have been particularly conducive to elite agency. Looking beyond legacies can shed light on the degree to which elites have channelled the expression of workers' reform grievances towards socially peaceful but, possibly, politically illiberal repertoires of expression. Pointing to past developments across a number of advanced and developing democracies, the author situates the post-communist labour decline within a larger comparative and historical context. Lastly, the author indicates how the erosion of labour power has influenced the particular models of democracy and the varieties of capitalism that have been emerging in Central and Eastern Europe since 1989.