Review of Labor Power and Strategy.
Confronted by modern capitalism’s sociopathic pursuit of ever-greater profits, Karl Marx sought to critique that vast economic machine and to imply redemptive alternatives. In the following century Harry Braverman mapped industrial employers’ strategies for greater exploitation of production workers that stretched out profit-seekers‘ power through their faux search for efficiencies. In our time John Womack Jr presents an order of battle for the repulsion of capital’s relentless attacks upon workers and for advancing a step or two toward reorganizing work and society. In selected responses the author’s strategies and tactics are explored by the observations and recommendations of ten noteworthy leftist activists . The main author’s responses, in return, conclude the most stirring foray into the subject during this historical moment: Labor Power and Strategy.
In explaining to interviewer Peter Olney why he sees private sector workers in specific industries as the most important targets for labor organizing, Womack seems for a moment the voice of an AFL official of 1900 – but he reaches far beyond that limited perspective, which was based often on attitudes about race, gender, and skill sets. Instead, Womack emphasizes workers’ locations and positions in industries and networks, factors that change over time in determining who, because of their strategic place in the technological mix of industrial necessities, can inflict the most damage on their adversary. Where are the crucial choke points of the operation of a company or a whole industry, he asks: Production? Transportation? Communication? Maintenance? Finance? No factor can qualify or be dismissed at a glance, Womack insists. So, deep research must be undertaken in systems analysis or network study, prepared and executed following the education of workers, chiefly through their own work and by other workers.
To the discomfort of some of the ten commentators, Womack also warns firmly against reliance on lasting gains from organizing campaigns among workers whose primary characterizations spring not from their strategic leverage but from an associational power based upon mutual sentiments, even if aided by public support. The author acknowledges that such power may indeed create disruptions and accomplish short-term gains for workers but lacks the deepened knowledge structure and long-term worker comradeship of educationally and ideologically prepared leadership backed by a group consensus that offers the hope for lasting changes. What victories may be achieved by hot shops or other situational opportunities will soon fade, Womack holds.
It is probably not surprising that commentators’ objections to Womack’s overall theses arise mainly over his near dismissal of associational power. The book’s minimalist section “About the Authors” offers sparse information, but clearly a majority of the eleven, including interviewer and co-editor Peter Olney, have worked as labor organizers and overlapping allows that seven have also worked as social justice organizers. Some, no doubt, have celebrated that unexpected success as well as that gut-punch of the surprise defeat. For his part, Womack wrote gently in response to his ten comrades, for “Comrades don’t go easy on each other. They can’t. They know the stakes are too high.” And they came.
Commentator Bill Fletcher saw little about race and gender in Womack’s work but found him “spot on” concerning the need for sustained engagement with both workers and their communities on matters of social justice, and Dan DiMaggio praised the strike-winning West Virginia teachers – an associational group – for renewing some faith in strike action, as did Jane McAlevey who connected their strike effectiveness to the large public appeal of public sector defiance within their communities. She also noted, however, in her “How to Read Womack” piece that his treatment of material power is “maybe not thoroughly theorized” perhaps because his own gender bias may have caused education and health care industries to be categorized as associational, their economic power undervalued.
Participatory education received encouragement by virtually all who shared the efforts that created this book, as did its implicit companion union democracy. Melissa Shetler observed that the education of organizers, leaders, and members is “woefully underfunded” in many unions, for various reasons. One of these relates to the question “Why should I approve classes that someone will take and then use later as credentials in running against me for my office?” Another problem – recognized by Womack and others – lies in the top-down classroom setting in which one person educates the rest, frequently with only legal and contractual information, rather than stirring discussions of how to build workers’ power “and for what?” Many such discussions may begin with a reading of this small book
John Womack Jr, Labor Power and Strategy, ed. P. Olney and Glenn Perusek. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2023
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