LABOR POWER AND STRATEGY, A Review
Jack Womack, Jr. LABOR POWER AND STRATEGY, ed. by Peter Olney and Glenn Perusek (PM Press, Oakland CA 2023)
LABOR POWER AND STRATEGY began with the “Foundry Interviews” of John Womack Jr conducted by Peter Olney in early 2018 at a Somerville MA restaurant. The interviews were transcribed by Glenn Perusek. Ten other labor organizers and researchers were invited to comment. The final collaborative anthology is now presented in a small-format paperback suitable for a back pocket.
This innovative and multi-layered project results in a fresh and instructive book that I recommend to all serious socialist and labor organizers and analysts.
Womack, a tenured professor of Latin American history at Harvard, has taken a deep plunge into the history of Mexican workers. From his research he posits that, in order to defeat capitalist exploitation, organized workers must learn how to exercise strategic power targeting the choke pressure points and seams where capital is most vulnerable. His prime historical examples are how railway and electric workers exerted strategic power during the Mexican Revolution, and how the Bolsheviks organized key sectors of the Russian proletariat. While insisting that socialist and labor organizers must constantly work to scientifically analyze where the crucial vulnerabilities of capital can be located in every specific case, Womack notes that workers themselves already possess key parts of that knowledge through their multiple interactions on the job.
During his interviews with John Womack, Peter Olney asks probing questions about possible variants of or alternatives to this analysis. The ten responders also enrich this high-level dialogue with reflections based on their own experiences and research. Gene Bruskin, for example, who was hired by the UFCW to coordinate its organizing campaign at Smithfield, revealed precisely where the vulnerable choke point was located at the giant pig processing plant in Tar Heel, NC. Even though I had been involved for some years in the international segment of the Smithfield campaign, I only learned from this book what creative tactic had finally forced Smithfield into agreeing to accede to a fair election. No teaser here – Read the Book!
With all the careful qualifiers and modifications built into the long dialogic process of creating this book, Womack’s basic thesis holds up rather well, or at least illuminates some aspects of new labor organizing campaigns that at first glance seem tangential or even contrary to Womack’s emphasis on concrete material interference with the vital node points of capitalism.
There is of course no mention of the Starbucks organizing campaign, which is barely a year old today. We may joke about how crucial coffee is for fueling the national intellect. But no one seriously believes that even closing down every Starbucks by a national strike would seriously impair the capitalist economy, or even dent the enormous wealth of Howard Schultz. Yet this does not mean that DSA Labor is strategically incorrect in urging that DSA locals to go all out in support of the Starbucks Workers United organizing campaign. Labor organizing in 2022 has clearly been revitalized by the spirit and resilience of thousands of baristas struggling against the odds to establish unions and improve their working conditions. And in a surprising leap in the Buffalo area, an original Starbucks organizer, Jaz Brisack, is now leading an organizing campaign for Workers United at a Tesla auto plant, with an initial focus on programmers for self-driving electric vehicles. By every parameter, this is a strategic campaign along Womackian lines, that would not have been conceivable without the “non-strategic” Starbucks campaign!
Second, the teachers’ strikes in Chicago, West Virginia and other states were already available for analysis before this book was completed. Womack, his editors and responders frequently cite the strategic importance of the education and healthcare sectors, even though they usually do not directly confront private capitalism itself. Yet these are massive industries, often the largest employers in their states and cities. Jane McAlevey notes that healthcare and educational unions often have strong elected women leaders, who focus on bargaining for the common good of their students or patients. [Parenthetically I note that in Massachusetts the leaders of the state nurses association and AFT are members of DSA, and that Massachusetts Teachers’ Association, with its former president Barbara Madeloni, now an educator and organizer for Labor Notes, has emerged as the largest progressive force in the Commonwealth].
And last, though far from least, let’s consider the railway workers. One responder in this book is Carey Dall, then an organizer for the Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employees [BMWED-IBT] and former ILWU organizer, who well before the public emergence of the rail dispute, identified rail workers and longshore workers as potentially key actors in the most vulnerable logistics area of capital. In the span of the last three months, driven most recently by the train wreck in Ohio, the mainstream media has joined the Left media in talking a lot about the safety of the railroads and about the working conditions and rights of rail workers. Two rail rank-and-file caucuses, Railroad Workers United and the BMWED Rank & File Caucus, are growing and accumulating new resources. [See my article in Democratic Left, https://www.dsausa.org/democratic-left/railroad-workers-can-build-on-seeds-of-change/]
After a shaky start, caused in part by the distracting internal DSA attack on three Squad members for their votes on the Railway Labor Act strike ban, relationships between DSA and the rail rank-and-file caucuses have improved. Several rail rank-and-file leaders joined the Off the Rails call of the National Labor Commission which had wide participation from DSA members.
On February 16, Railroad Workers United issued a public call asking support for its campaign to nationalize the railroads. On February 17, DSA issued an official statement drafted by the NLC and by the Eco-Socialist Committee in support of this campaign and also focusing on the rail public safety issue and the working conditions on railroad workers.
In all of these areas, from Starbucks and Amazon organizing, through health care and educational organizing, and the railroad workers, I found that this book stimulated and refreshed my thinking.
Also read: Which Workers Are “Strategic” to Organize?
Jacobin. Eric Dirnbach.
2/22/2023 11:30:13 am
Join John Womack and book contributors Gene Bruskin and Katy Fox Hodess in conversation about the book and its underpinning ideas, with editor Peter Olney, online on Tuesday 28th February at 7 PM (GMT). It's a free, interactive event hosted by the Ella Baker School of Organising. To sign up, or find out more, visit: actionnetwork.org/events/labour-power-and-strategy
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