Labor Power and Strategyby John Womack Jr., ed. by Peter Olney and Glenn Perušek
Review by Leo Casey
Related flaws Strategic Thinking, Past and Present
Womack’s theory is not without insights. It is important to think strategically about labor organizing, and to prioritize organizing work and drives that can have the greatest impact. Disruption can create leverage for working people, and disruption on a mass scale, affecting various sectors of the economy, can yield greater leverage. Serious thought should be given on how to amass and deploy leverage won through disruptive strikes and job actions.
None of this is entirely new or foreign to the U.S. labor movement. There have been numerous organizing initiatives over the last two decades—undertaken by Change to Win, the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, the Communications Workers of America, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and more recently, independent unions—that focused on the logistics sectors: transportation, distribution, and communications. What is missing is not a theory of why it is important to organize Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Walmart, but a critical inventory of these efforts—what successes they have had, where and why they have fallen short, and what could be done to move them forward.
Similarly, the most forward-looking contemporary union organizing employs strategic planning and campaigns rooted in the insights found in Labor Power and Strategy, with an eye to identifying and exploiting the vulnerabilities of recalcitrant employers. Disruptive strikes and job actions are key points of exposure for an employer. But they are by no means the only potential weaknesses that unions can target. Strategic campaigns build community support, employ political leverage, attack brand reputations, generate consumer boycotts, organize shareholder revolts against management, and use social media pressure. The more of these tactics that can be brought to bear, and the more they work in tandem, the greater the pressure on the employer, and the more likely a campaign will end in victory.
One of the responses in Labor Power and Strategy, “Thirty-Two Thousand Hogs and Not a Drop to Drink” by Gene Bruskin, provides a brief account of one successful strategic campaign in this vein, undertaken by the UFCW and workers in the world’s largest slaughterhouse against the meat processing and packing corporation Smithfield. After many years of unsuccessful efforts to win union recognition against an employer that flouted labor law, the UFCW organized a strategic campaign using many of the tactics listed above, which led to an employer agreement to halt its anti-union actions and victory. This example highlights the limitations of Womack’s singular focus on creating leverage through disruptions of production: strategic campaigns are designed to employ many different types of leverage against employers, most of which are external to the production in Womack’s theory are revealed when it is applied to labor history, including the two historic strikes that demarcate the period of U.S. labor strength. The 1936–37 sit-down strike targeted factories that were indispensable for the manufacture of cars across General Motors’ operations. Womack discusses at some length the UAW’s organization of the strike—especially its decision to focus on the factory in Flint—as an illustration of how his theory works in practice.
Read more in Dissent. Spring, 2023.
Leo Casey is a veteran teacher union leader and the author of The Teacher Insurgency: A Strategic and Organizing Perspective.
Published in Dissent. Spring. 2023.
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