What Does It Take to Win a Strike?

John Womack’s Labor Power and Strategy makes the case that by targeting strategic industries, workers can not only win power for themselves but also for labor generally.

By David Bacon
The Nation

Half a century ago, long before the Internet, I got a job in a huge semiconductor plant. In Silicon Valley’s factories, we tried to organize a union, arguing that this industry sat at the heart of the US economy. If the workers in it had a strong union, we believed, we could use our power to change the world. Perhaps the industry thought so too: From the start, its titans were committed to keeping the workers in their factories unorganized. When Robert Noyce, cofounder of Intel, famously declared, “Remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies,” we knew he was talking about us.

One reason we wanted to organize the industry was its sheer size: Corporations had brought together 250,000 workers in a single valley. But it was also an essential sector, critical to the emerging new technologies around computers. What if we began to organize from plant to plant, much as autoworkers did in Detroit decades ago, and asserted sweeping demands not only for ourselves but other workers as well? By targeting this strategic industry, might unions in these factories provide a bulwark for labor in general?

Of course, this did not happen: Most of us were fired, and I was blacklisted. The mass production of semiconductors left Silicon Valley in the 1980s, first to plants dispersed around the American Southwest, and then to the Asian Pacific Rim. Today the most advanced chips come from fabrication plants in Asia. These are the factories that produce the silicon integrated circuits, or chips, at the heart of the material basis of contemporary life: computers, cars, you name it. Semiconductor production remains essential, but it is no longer based in the United States—a reason for the recently passed CHIPS Act.

The potentially important role that chip workers could play in the US economy and in organized labor doesn’t make it into John Womack’s new book, Labor Power and Strategy, but the questions from our experience echoed as I read it. Over the course of a series of interviews with labor veterans Peter Olney and Glenn Perusek, Womack makes the case that by targeting strategic industries, generally in manufacturing, transport, and communications, workers can not only win power for themselves but for labor generally.

“Hollywood to the Docks” (Robert Gumpert) (Robert Gumpert)

With responses from a series of experienced labor organizers and activists, Labor Power and Strategy includes many challenges to Womack’s provocative thesis. From Bill Fletcher Jr. to Jane MacAlevey, many of these respondents argue that we should concentrate on those workers already actively organizing or, as Fletcher says, in “sites of struggle.” But Womack comes right back at them: Some workers have the potential power to shut the system down, while others do not.

Womack’s journey to this conclusion was a roundabout one. A leading scholar of modern Mexican history, he wrote a seminal study of the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, as well as a book and articles examining the role that industrial workers played in the Mexican Revolution. He focused especially on the state of Veracruz, where these workers helped the revolution emerge victorious and then wrote some of the world’s most advanced social and labor rights into the revolutionary Constitution.

The lessons are clear for Womack: The power of these workers came from their organization and action in essential industrial sectors. Through detailed examination, he finds that industrial workers are linked together by the “technical relations” of production and are therefore potentially able to use that leverage in a struggle for power. Amazon workers, for example, can identify points where the company’s huge delivery systems are vulnerable to worker action, and by striking there can make demands for themselves and workers in general.

In Womack’s view, not all workers have this strategic power—only those in industries critical to the overall functioning of capitalist production. He is not necessarily nostalgic for the organizing drives of the CIO in the 1930s that built powerful unions in auto, steel, textile, and other industries, but his arguments stem from an assumption that industrial workers can be critical in transforming not just the economy but a society’s politics as well.

Member of the ILWU, moving containers to and from a ship in the Port of Los Angeles. (Robert Gumper) (Robert Gumpert)

If the CHIPS Act leads to building new semiconductor plants in the United States, might the workers going through their doors have a second chance to organize unions? Womack would certainly argue against the prevalent notion that a modern semiconductor plant is so automated that it doesn’t really need workers, or that organizing them is not vital. Instead, he would conclude that a change in the organization of production opens a window for workers who “can imbed themselves in it…so that they soon know better than the company’s engineers…how things go together for the system’s production—and so how to take them apart.”

In this way, his arguments are reminiscent not only of the CIO but of the Wobbly idea of sabotage, as well as the communist and socialist contentions in the 1920s and ’30s that the industrial organization of the working class was the route to political power.

Womack is not arguing against organizing sectors that are not strategic. Workers in other areas mount heroic struggles and sometimes challenge capital directly and effectively. Teachers did this in Chicago and other cities, winning undeniable political power as a result. But without the leverage to stop the system from functioning, he asserts, the gains are lost over time.

Yet the question remains: Can such a program of strategic organizing reverse the decline of unions in numbers and political power? And since much of the organizing that workers have done in recent decades has been in areas like retail (think Starbucks or Walmart) or caregiving (from health care to domestic work), isn’t Womack saying that their actions are not strategic? Rather than ignoring or dismissing these questions, Womack, Olney, and Perusek invite 10 veteran organizers to respond.

Their experiences range from the United Auto Workers’ campaign at Nissan’s Canton, Miss., plant to the Smithfield meatpacking drive in North Carolina, to Walmart and the Fight for $15, and especially to Amazon. Carey Dall, who spent 15 years trying to transform the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a major railway workers’ union, points out that 85 percent of logistics workers in the United States already belong to unions, yet they are often unable to use their power to stop the economy, even to help themselves.

How are workers in positions that potentially give them power going to become politically conscious—able and willing to use that power? Melissa Shetler, a champion of the popular education movement founded by Paulo Freire, calls for educating workers through collective action in a participatory and egalitarian process.

Katy Fox Hodess, a former ILWU organizer and now a university lecturer, points out that even though dockworkers have enormous potential power because of their control over the movement of goods, that power has often been defeated by the privatization of the docks. Jane McAlevey lays out the reasons why the women-led health care and education unions are the ones in the US labor movement most active in organizing and how their actions successfully build power, even if they’re not in an industrial sector. They’ve created not only well-organized unions but also coalitions that help defend public education, adequate health care, and political rights in general.

Gene Bruskin, who headed the organizing drive at the enormous Smithfield pork packinghouse in Tarheel, N.C., agrees with Womack. He describes the battle waged by African Americans in the livestock department, where pigs enter the facility for slaughter. These workers discovered that by stoping work they could stop the plant, force the company to make concessions, and ultimately inspire the rest of the 3,000-person workforce to take the union drive to its conclusion in a sector of critical importance to the food industry.

But Bruskin notes as well that the power of the Smithfield workers also came from social factors beyond the production process. Earlier, Mexican laborers had learned to slow and control the devastating line speed at the plant and stopped the lines twice in defense of their rights as immigrants. After they were driven from the plant by immigration raids, Black workers took up a workplace-based struggle for civil rights. The link between positional power and political movements, as the workers in the plant saw them, cannot be easily separated.

Bruskin’s response points to unanswered questions relating to race and sex. As Bill Fletcher Jr., a former organizer and education head for the AFL-CIO, notes, workers in “sites of struggle” against racism and gender oppression are also strategic, as they are already actively organizing and battling the system. Looking back at the failure of the CIO’s Operation Dixie (an effort to organize unions in the South), he notes that history might have been different if the labor movement had concentrated not on big textile mills, but on public workers in the wake of the Memphis garbage strike, who became an iconic symbol of the civil rights movement. “Race and gender are not identity questions,” Fletcher says. “They speak to a specific set of contradictions and forms of oppression that are central to actually existing capitalism.” Struggles against that oppression are “sources of strength and renewal.”

Given that people of color and immigrants will make up a majority of the working class by 2032, according to the Economic Policy Institute, one might ask if they are not strategic in their own right. The organizing efforts of immigrant farmworkers, janitors, construction workers, and others are responsible for most of the actual growth of unions in states like California over the past three decades. These organizing drives have also forced radical activists to analyze more deeply the central role of the migration of labor in today’s global economic system. Whether this system could survive without labor migration, and whether migrants themselves have a strategic role in changing it, are not just theoretical questions, but essential ones for labor power.

The concentration of Black workers in the steel and auto industries was a reason that many radicals saw them as central to building a movement for fundamental social change. In the wake of the divestment of capital from these industries domestically, are the areas of the economy where workers of color are concentrated the key to social progress in the same way? Many organizers of public workers, domestic workers, janitors, and others would certainly say so.

Another element of labor organizing that gets little attention in Labor Strategy and Power is the structure of the workers’ movement itself. In the 1930s, the movement to organize the big mass-production industries didn’t depend on paid organizers so much as it did the willingness of ordinary workers to begin organizing themselves, forming unions and starting the era’s labor wars. Workers organized themselves in part because the left was larger, often well-organized, and had a deep impact on the way workers viewed the system. Many were members of the Communist and Socialist parties or, at the very least, inspired by them.

All of the respondents in Labor Strategy and Power voice the need to change US unions structurally in order to implement the strategic ideas they debate. Union organizing, they note, depends on staff organizers. Yet the existing labor movement will never have enough organizers to bring the hundreds of thousands of workers needed to stop its shrinkage into the movement’s ranks every year. Raising the percentage of organized workers in the United States by just 1 percent would mean organizing over 1 million people. Only a vast political movement can organize people on that scale. Yet the political parties of the left today are small and don’t play the same role in the broad education of workers.

Labor Power and Strategy‘s participants have made a valiant attempt to steer workers and unions into uncharted territory. Instead of muddling along as organized labor shrinks in numbers and power, they make a powerful call to change course. The answers of earlier eras are here combined with new thinking appropriate to the changes in what is still the world’s most powerful system of capitalist production. Whether the ideas of Womack and the organizers will be tested and applied in the network of Amazon hubs or the building of new semiconductor plants is not certain. There is no unanimity—not a surprise in a fractious movement. But the debate they’ve provoked is certainly welcome and needed.