By Peter Cole
An interview with Peter Olney
US labor union density is at historic lows, and multinational corporations seem more powerful than ever. But by organizing to take advantage of strategic vulnerabilities in supply chains, workers can still score major victories.
US labor union density is at historic lows, and massive, mobile multinational corporations seem more powerful than ever. Yet because of their strategic position at the point of production, workers still have the ability to disrupt production and turn the table on their employers. In a new book, Labor Power and Strategy, the eminent historian of the Mexican Revolution John Womack Jr argues that workers can score major victories by taking advantage of strategic vulnerabilities in supply chains and individual workplaces.
Womack offers strategic advice for identifying “choke points” and using them to build labor power and solidarity. The book also includes interviews, conducted by Peter Olney of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), with ten labor organizers and educators who critically respond to and build on Womack’s thoughts. Labor historian Peter Cole interviewed Olney for Jacobin about some key takeaways from Womack and his respondents in the book.
Peter Cole: This labor historian loved the book because one of its major themes is “choke points.” Could you tell us what that term means in the context of organizing workers, and then how some of the labor activists and scholars who contributed to this volume consider this approach?
Peter Olney: Womack describes strategic sectors of the economy and then drills down into strategic positions within sectors and industries. He is careful to specify that such positions are not necessarily attributable to skill. Because of his seminal work on the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Womack devoted a lot of time to looking at the Mexican railroads as a strategic sector of the economy, a massive “choke point.” Then he drilled down on the specific occupations of dispatchers and mechanics as workers occupying vulnerable positions in the operation of the railroads.
One of the respondents to Womack, Carey Dall, points to the strategic power of transportation workers, whether it be railroaders, dockworkers, or truckers. Dall, who ran an internal organizing program for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, also points to the fact that many of these sectors are highly organized. But he, like many of the other respondents, says, “Yes, they have potential structural power, but . . . !” These workers need to be organized to act together in the case of the railroads, where workers are divided into twelve major craft unions. Labor sociologist Katy Fox-Hodess points out in her comments on Womack that if the broader sociopolitical community is not organized to support the action of, for instance, dockworkers, then their hold over choke points can be violently dislodged and suppressed by the power of the state acting in favor of transnational capital.
Womack calls for diligent “grubbing,” that is, digging down and discerning what choke points exist. He also promotes grubbing over time, because these choke points are constantly in a state of change and transformation as capital seeks to increase exploitation and avoid worker power. Robots may replace workers occupying a strategic position in the assembly line — but then who repairs and programs the robots?
Peter Cole: Why do you think that, despite fifty years of steady precipitous declines in membership, most unions still fail to do more to organize more workers and fight back?
Peter Olney: The failure of organized labor to respond to the challenge of declining density and new sectors of the economy is not the topic or purview of the book, but some answers are implied by the book’s insistence on analysis of strategic sectors and strategic workers. That type of analysis is not the sole purview of the Left, after all: gangsters can figure out how to insert themselves into a production process and extort bribes and kickbacks. But it is the Left in the labor movement that has historically had the commitment to deep analysis of the industries and exploitation, and the commitment to organize and intervene for the greater good of the working class. Several writers in the book mention the brilliance of William Z. Foster, a founder of the US Communist Party, and his meticulous analysis of the vulnerabilities in the steel industry; he helped lead the Great Steel Strike of 1919, which was one of the most impressive and largest strikes in US history.
But there are hopeful signs of life in major unions. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), now led by Sean O’Brien, has a national Amazon task force working in multiple locations to tame the behemoth. The United Auto Workers (UAW) is on the precipice of inaugurating a reform leadership in March and preparing for battle with the “Big Three” US auto manufacturers in September when their basic agreement expires. There is a reform movement, “Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW” (United Food and Commercial Workers), within the giant retail union that could, if turned toward aggressive organizing, become a true force in many retail and contingent sectors.
Peter Cole: The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report revealed that union density declined last year, from 10.3 percent to 10.1 percent of US workers. Yet there is greater popular support for unions than there has been in sixty years, and a wave of union organizing campaigns against high-profile corporations including Starbucks, Amazon, Apple, Lowe’s, and more. What explains this disconnect?
Peter Olney: We have become a public sector union movement. Density is 35 percent in the public sector yet a paltry 6 percent in the private sector. Occupy, Bernie Sanders, and COVID all combined to inspire the heightened interest in labor unions in the private sector. But the question is: How do we leverage that sentiment into concrete gains and organization?
Here is where Womack is relevant. Can Amazon organizers dissect the “production” system of this giant online commerce company? Are there vulnerabilities in giant fulfillment centers or last-mile delivery stations? When we approach the auto industry and the one million unorganized autoworkers in the United States, do we focus on the foreign-owned assembly plants? Maybe the vulnerability lies instead in auto parts, where one smaller facility could be struck and paralyze the whole supply chain. Certainly, the “missing” microchips from a few Asian-Pacific suppliers that halted auto production during the pandemic suggest lessons in strategic organizing.
Peter Cole: There are huge debates, across the political spectrum, about identity politics. The US working class is more diverse than it’s ever been and includes large numbers of immigrants, documented and undocumented. How do working-class demographics factor into the issues discussed in Labor Power and Strategy?
Peter Olney: First of all, beginning in 2006, the organized workforce in the United States was majority women and people of color, so the image of a white male union membership is a relic. Presently, 36 percent of union members are people of color. If we are to make progress in organizing at Amazon, then we will have to contend with the challenge of organizing women and people of color. The overall warehouse workforce is a broad mix of ethnicities and over 70 percent people of color, and, in urban centers, very African American and Latino. Interestingly, the leader of the successful Amazon vote in Staten Island, African American Christian Smalls, is the son of a New York unionized hospital worker.
When we talk about construction in California, the immigrant worker challenge is daunting. There are nine hundred thousand construction workers in California, and six hundred thousand of them are Latino immigrants. Fewer than 20 percent of these Latino workers are union, so about five hundred thousand are nonunion. If the building trade unions want to stay relevant beyond publicly funded, Davis-Bacon urban projects that basically mandate union workers and wages, unions will have to confront the challenges of language, culture, and the law in an industry that has multiple vulnerabilities to strategic action based on both skill and position.
Joel Ochoa, a gifted longtime labor and immigrant rights organizer, stresses the importance of movements of people of color and the most exploited in transforming the labor movement in Los Angeles. He points to the importance of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and its willingness to organize immigrants and hire Spanish-speaking organizers as a propulsive thrust in making the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor a political behemoth in California politics. He stresses that it is not always workers in the commanding heights of the economy that drive political and social change.
Peter Cole: Could you give one or two examples of union campaigns from the book that illuminate some of its key themes?
Peter Olney: The best example of thinking about production vulnerabilities is in the final response to Womack by Gene Bruskin, the organizer of the five thousand–employee Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. The chapter is entitled “Thirty-Two Thousand Hogs and Not a Drop to Drink.” Bruskin details the actions of the workers who are charged with unloading trucks with squealing pigs to the slaughter. If those pigs don’t get unloaded, then the whole process is stopped. Workers successfully exploited this “choke point” to win demands for drinking water and cleaning stations. But, more importantly, they inspired the whole workforce to stand up to management and eventually organize in 2008.
The power to disrupt exists in workers’ structural power or position, but the ability to use that power effectively resides in worker organization and the broader sociopolitical context.
Peter Cole: Outside of the United States and other industrial economies, there are literally billions of humans who have little or no work. How do you see the effort to revitalize unions in the United States connecting to what must be a global struggle against corporate power and capital? Do you see examples of US unions that are actively working to connect with fellow workers outside of the United States?
Peter Olney: I have always been of the opinion that the best internationalism is strengthening your domestic labor movement, so that you can play a meaningful international role. My own union, the ILWU, must adapt to the new challenges of organizing along the supply chain if it is going to remain a force on the West Coast waterfront with the necessary power to engage in international solidarity. If, for instance, the largely immigrant port drayage truckers are not organized, they will increasingly represent a potential scab force on the strategic flanks of the union.
Peter Cole: More than a hundred years ago, the legendary Wobbly leader “Big Bill” Haywood declared that “if the workers are organized, all they have to do is to put their hands in their pockets, and they have got the capitalist class whipped.” What role do you think the strike will play in our time?
Peter Olney: Of course, Haywood is right, but as we all know and as Carey Dall articulates in his chapter reflecting on the railroads, the ability to exercise strategic strikes is an organizing question. Often we have seen that the louder the cry for the “strike,” the less base and real the organization in the working class of those calling for such a strike. The strike is a tactic, not a strategy.
I’ll never forget my experience with the Rio Tinto corporation at a borax mine in the Mojave Desert of California. The company was baiting the union (ILWU Local 30) to strike during the slow Christmas season so it could shut down with no loss in production and starve the workers into submission. Instead, we said we are going to work, but “work to rule,” and we baited the company into a lockout that worked in our favor. We won by not playing the company’s game and striking.
Peter Cole: One tension in the book between Womack and his respondents is the discussion of “structural and associational power,” a concept advanced by the brilliant, recently deceased US sociologist Erik Olin Wright. Could you say something about this issue?
Peter Olney: The power to disrupt exists in workers’ structural power or position, but the ability to use that power effectively resides in worker organization and the broader sociopolitical context. If longshore workers are not looked on favorably in their communities, then the muscle of the state can more easily be used against them. If teachers do not bargain for the common good and win the support of parents and others in the community, their socially disruptive strikes are unsuccessful. As labor educator and historian Jack Metzgar says in his response to Womack, “Associational power is necessary (and not derivative) to turn technically strategic positions into powerful economic and political levers that can bend capital to the common will.”
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Peter Olney is a retired organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). He has been a labor organizer for forty years in Massachusetts and California.
Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University and a research associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently Ben Fletcher: The Life & Times of a Black Wobbly. He is the founder and codirector of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project.