Structure and Solidarity

By Leo Casey
Dissent Magazine
Spring 2023

Lasting labor victories depend on coordinating diverse strategies and building the relationships to sustain them.

Labor Power and Strategy
by John Womack Jr., ed. by Peter Olney and Glenn Perušek
PM Press, 2023, 208 pp.

Two strikes serve as bookends for the heyday of the twentieth-century American labor movement: the 1936–37 sit-down strike of the fledgling United Auto Workers (UAW) against what was then the nation’s largest corporation, General Motors, and the 1981 strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) against the Federal Aviation Administration, a government agency. The successful UAW strike led not only to the unionization of General Motors; it opened the door to the unionization of basic industry across the U.S. economy, from auto, steel, and textiles to important components of transportation, food production, and communications. The PATCO strike, broken by President Ronald Reagan, led not only to the demise of that union; it marked the start of a period during which industrial unions were decimated and strikes in the United States dwindled to a mere handful.

In the half-century between those two strikes, organized labor in the United States reached its peak strength, both economically and politically. In the mid-1950s, one in three American workers were members of a union, and at the end of the 1970s, union membership, swelled by an influx of public-sector workers, hit its highest point in terms of absolute numbers. Unions provided much of the political muscle behind the social democratic programs of the New Deal and the Great Society. Not coincidentally, these decades of labor movement potency were the period that economists call the “Great Leveling,” in which wealth disparities in the United States were brought down to their lowest point since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Today, after four decades of decline in union power that followed the PATCO strike, a mere one in ten American workers are union members. And income inequality in the United States is, according to Thomas Piketty’s calculations, “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.”

The Source of Labor Power

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner famously wrote. “It’s not even past.” The present state of the American labor movement is firmly anchored in its history, so vividly captured in the divergent outcomes of these two strikes. Today, every significant proposal for the revitalization of the labor movement draws upon some understanding of what went wrong and how it might be fixed. One such framework is found in Labor Power and Strategy, a book crafted as a dialogue on the strategic direction of the American labor movement.

In the first half of Labor Power a…