Why do actors that may be expected to contest finance-led capitalism in crisis periods rarely do so in effective and sustainable ways? This article contributes to the understanding of this question by explaining the sudden and puzzling silence of trade unions during the 1990–94 Swedish banking crisis. It underlines the importance of working within certain time-scales in prioritized policy areas for shaping strategic selectivity and precluding effective contest. The varied power of trade unions to perform effectively in different policy areas is important. However, cognitive-filters as stressed by constructivists are not. Findings point to a modified version of Korpi's power mobilization theory, where power resources are seen as refracted by the ‘institutional materiality’ of the corporatist state.