This article argues that the labouring class poor are best able to access social protection when they have sufficient economic autonomy from their village's dominant class to allow them to act politically. To this end, the article analyses the capacity of associations of scheduled caste female labourers in rural Karnataka (south India) to access social protection through collective action. It identifies links between modifications of the material conditions of the labouring class, their capacity to take political action and the social and institutional forms that reflect the social relations of production. Three important variables are identified: the extent of economic autonomy from the dominant class, support from class-conscious social movement organizers and the political configuration of the local state. The former variable in particular is something that the mainstream social protection policy agenda fails to prioritize.