A Good Day in Our Movement: Organizers Debate in ‘Labor Power and Strategy’

By Bill Fletcher Jr. , Jane McAlevey , Peter Olney , and Stephanie Luce
Convergence Mag
September 4, 2023

Strategic locations, key occupations, networked relations—all bring workers power. “Labor Power and Strategy” offers an extended conversation among veteran organizers on how these modes operate and relate, and how best to deploy them.

The book Labor Power and Strategy (PM Press, 2023) was compiled as “a back pocket reference and discussion tool for a new generation of labor organizers,” wrote co-editor Peter Olney, retired organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

An exchange of articles and letters led to the conversations between Olney and Professor John Womack Jr. that form the core of the book.

After establishing himself as the leading English-speaking historian of the Mexican Revolution, Womack dug into the study of labor processes in Mexico. His research yielded an approach to pinpointing the locations in labor processes where workers had most power—and strategizing on how to use that power. From his time at the ILWU, Olney well knew what strategically located workers could do. He and Womack had corresponded, then finally met and recorded “The Foundary Interviews” in 2018. The book’s co-editor, Glenn Perušek, edited those. He and Olney then asked 10 veteran organizers and labor educators to discuss, dispute, and develop Womack’s propositions.

“The form of this book is intentional. It sets out a dialogical, participatory approach to learning and thinking that is essential to the kind of democratic, active, mobilizing union movement we advocate,” wrote Perušek, a strategic researcher and member of the faculty at Michigan State University’s Building Trades Academy.

Two of the contributors to Labor Power and Strategy, Jane McAlevey and Bill Fletcher Jr., joined Olney on an episode of “Reinventing Solidarity,” a podcast by the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies (SLU) and the journal New Labor Forum. CUNY Professor (and Convergence Editorial Board member) Stephanie Luce moderated the conversation. Convergence is delighted to offer a few highlights from this discussion; you can listen to all of Episode 41 of “Reinventing Solidarity” here.

Stephanie Luce: John Womack talked about the need to think about strategy within the labor movement. Peter, can you share a few of his insights that you found particularly useful?

Peter Olney: What I found useful was thinking about strategic sectors of the economy, writ large—and within those sectors, what are the choke points, the places where workers hold incredible power, not necessarily because of their skill but because of their position in the process. Another point John makes is that those choke points are constantly evolving. Production systems are constantly evolving. You have the introduction of robots to replace human labor, potentially eliminating the power of workers. And yet you have the robot-repair mechanics becoming strategically important workers. So it’s that concept of a constant dynamic and the need for analysis that really struck me about these interviews with John Womack.

Stephanie Luce: Jane, you wrote an excellent chapter called “How to Read Womack” and focused in on two key points that you think deserve attention. Can you talk about those a bit?

Jane McAlevey: Any time we’re debating questions of power and strategy, it’s just a good day in our movement…. To me, the fundamental question is where can we create the kind of crisis—that’s the word I was trained to use from 1199—the kind of crisis or kind of disruption that forces corporations and capital and, we hope, the broader political elite to actually respond and start to negotiate with us? I’ve spent most of my life organizing in at least the publicly financed parts of the private sector like health care, and then in education, which is more purely seen as public sector. I think that we’ve seen in recent strikes that there’s plenty of capacity to create massive disruption that forces the political elite to the table to negotiate with us.

I want to push harder on who has the capacity to create that disruption and towards what end. If we’re creating disruption in, let’s say, an education strike like the one in West Virginia, and we are only setting out with very narrow demands, that’s not very helpful. But if the demands that we’re creating are a larger set of societal demands, and we see the so-called public-sector workers as the frontline defense against the final destruction of public good and public services, I think that’s a hell of an important and strategic sector to engage.

Stephanie Luce: Bill, you’re really exploring the question of who are we talking about organizing here, and whether the strategy comes from above, from the generals who are making the most strategic technical decisions, or from where people are in motion. What would you add?

Bill Fletcher Jr.: I’m in a great deal of agreement with what Jane raised. I entitled this chapter “Should Spartacus Have Organized the Roman Citizenry Rather Than the Slaves?” because I wanted to get at this question of people in motion, and also the politics (using that with a small p) of those who are in motion. What I grapple with is the question of, as an old friend of mine used to say, is the wood wet or dry? And I also, focus on what Womack is raising in terms of what ripples can be sent and where. But then, as Jane was saying, what’s the objective of these movements? I make reference to a strike that took place in South Africa among white mine workers, where the slogan was, “Workers of the world unite and fight for white South Africa.” So they had obviously picked a vulnerable point in the South African economy. This was back in the early 1920s. But obviously, the politics were problematic. So those are the things that I was trying to grapple with.

It’s also very influenced by reading Nicos Poulantzas’s Fascism and Dictatorship, where he makes this really interesting observation that in the lead-up to the victory of fascism in Italy and Germany, the trade union movement became quite militant, but its demands were almost entirely economic. It was not an anti-fascist labor movement, and that the scope of the movement had really narrowed. And I deeply worry about that repeating itself in the United States when I look at some of the challenges that are going on within today’s trade union movement. And frankly, some of the cowardice of many leaders who don’t want to take on issue the far right. So I feel like I was both uniting with and also diverging from what Dr. Womack was raising.

What is power?

Stephanie Luce: I think another tension that comes up throughout the book is this notion of how to define power and think about power. And in the interviews, you discuss with Professor Womack these terms “structural power” and “associational power,” which he’s drawing in part from Erik Olin Wright, a sociologist from the University of Wisconsin Madison. I’ve used those terms in my own teaching with labor organizers and activists. Structural power is the power that you get from where you’re located in the economy, or where you’re located in the workplace or the labor market—if you have scarce skills, if it’s hard to replace you, if you’re located at a bottleneck in the production line. But the term “structural power” doesn’t always seem to land with organizers. I think some of them find it easier to think of it as the power to disrupt, or disruptive power, for example.

And then the other term associational power, which John Womack also agreed is not a very helpful term and he calls comradeship. In my classes, we call it solidarity power; this is the power that comes from having tight solidarity with your co-workers or other elements of society, the broad public for example. So I think one of the tensions in the book is do those distinctions between those two forms of power make sense? How do they operate together? Should we privilege one above the other? And so I wanted to ask you, Jane, to say some more about your thinking about that dynamic of sources of power and how we think about them in the labor movement.

Jane McAlevey: Let me get back to one thing that Bill said, as a way to segue into this. What would it take to build an anti-fascist trade union movement right now? It seems like a fairly urgent question, frankly, in this very moment…

When I think about building an anti-fascist trade union movement, the question of the role of education and health care workers comes in again, because I think that by definition, they can force larger questions about social justice on the trade union movement. They’re what I have long called mission-driven workers, who are largely not in a fight for just economics. In fact, they’re in a fight to make the services that they provide better and those services are fundamental. Do you have a right to health care? Are you dying? Is your kid getting a great education or not?

In a place like West Virginia and in a lot of the United States right now, they’re the two largest employment sectors. So on the one hand, they’re not the docks of LA in terms of structural power, but they are the largest employers for giant swaths of the population and geographic sectors where we need to do political work and unelected and elect different kinds of people….

Now, when a lot of unions think about associational power or think about building power with something they call “the community”…it’s where good organizers check their brains at the door. Because in fact we need to have the same kind of methods to use the potential of associational power, meaning power outside of the workplace—power from parents, power from students if it’s an education strike, power from broader consumers and patients and families if it’s a long-term health care strike. That associational power doesn’t mean a lot unless it’s organized. And so do we have a concurrent theory and set of methods that turns the potential associational power into actually organized power?

It isn’t even neutral. It isn’t even like if we don’t organize the faith community through the rank-and-file members, if we don’t go organize all the connections the members have through the members themselves in a bottom-up way, it isn’t just that we’re leaving power there, some other SOB is going to take it.

A good example of that is Chattanooga UAW election attempt way back. The UAW sent in a team of organizers that were let’s just say not the A-team by people’s admission because they had what they thought was a neutrality agreement, where the employer was not allowed to sort of fight back in vicious ways Volkswagen, in this case, inside of the facility. And what they completely missed was they were out-organized in the churches and by the wives. So literally the right wing in Tennessee went straight to wives of auto workers in the churches to organize their husbands to vote no, even with a neutrality agreement. So that’s, that’s like a really concrete example of when we don’t go out and organize that power. Someone else is going to do it in a hard campaign.

What is strategy?

Stephanie Luce: Turning to the question of strategy, we can think about “strategic” in terms of these choke points or bottlenecks. But strategic can also be in terms of changing public opinion. Strategic can be in terms of long-term building alliances. We have a lot of different ways to think about strategy.

Bill, you’ve been thinking and writing about how the labor movement should be on the forefront of fighting growing fascist authoritarian movements. Jane has a strong argument for a bottom-up approach, but there’s also a question of where top leaders need to also be taking action and maybe building what we might think of as tactical alliances with people that aren’t normally our friends in a fight against an authoritarian movement. But I’m curious to hear some more thoughts on this because I know it’s forefront on your mind.

Bill Fletcher Jr: First, I think it’s really important that people don’t miss the fact this is a question of a concrete analysis. In Mao Tse Tung’s essays, he asked the question, who are our enemies and who are our friends? That’s actually what people need to ask. You start with identifying enemies, what makes them the enemies and who are friends? And within that there are strategic and tactical friends.

One of the problems is that in the trade union movement, we don’t teach people strategy and tactics. I’ve been arguing for years that there needs to be a labor college, where the first thing that people read would be Sun Tzu The Art of War and the people would get to understand strategy and tactics campaigns, the whole nine yards. But you begin with a concrete analysis. And I think it’s really important to say this because I don’t want people to feel overwhelmed like, ‘Well, I haven’t been taught this. I don’t know how to do this.’ You can do it. And it can be done in a very facilitated way, tapping into the knowledge that people have. And I’m really encouraging people to do that elsewhere.

The second is that I’m a little bit more flexible than Jane might be on this issue of alliances. It’s understanding that when we’re talking about the working class, we’re not just talking about the people in particular workplaces, but that there are alliances to be built with forces that are outside of the working class. And particularly in this question of the far right, this becomes really important.

We’re dealing with a number of underlying problems. One is the lack of a coherent, visionary Left that can be a source of longer-term inspiration….The kind of discussion we’re having now about strategy and tactics is not happening in the larger labor movement. Organized labor has a lot of great programs, but how many would have prepared leaders for what to have done if the coup on January 6, 2021 had succeeded? How many are preparing you for what to do when the next coup goes down, when there’s more right-wing terrorism, when there’s legislative disruption by the right wing? But in a funny way, I’m actually quite optimistic. I’m quite excited by what I see out there—but in the absence of leadership and sober organization, history demonstrates what will happen.

Stephanie Luce: At this moment in history, we’re facing some really serious threats from multiple fronts—but we also see a lot of activity and more interest in unions than we’ve seen in a very long time. A lot of young people are very politicized and ready to learn and engage. So what are you feeling most excited about?

Peter Olney: I share the sense of urgency about the fascist threat, and I’ve long argued for trade union “ballot brigades” in battleground states…. In terms of signs of optimism, I’ve spent the last five years of my life trying to help build out networks of organizers in Amazon. And right now we’re in some very positive discussions where we have three unions talking to each other and to networks of independent organizers like Amazonians United about starting to build some solidarity and cooperation. After all, Amazon is probably a million logistics workers and it’s going to take all hands on deck to do any serious organizing. So this moment of effervescence among youth, I think can translate into some wonderful things. At the same time, the sense of urgency and concern over the political direction of our country has got to inform a lot of the things we do.

Labor Power and Strategy, by John Womack, ed. by Peter Olney and Glenn Perušek, PM Press 2023. Chapter contributors: Gene Bruskin, Carey Dall, Dan DiMaggio, Katy Fox-Hodess, Bill Fletcher Jr., Jane McAlevey, Jack Metzger, Joel Ochoa, Mellissa Shetler, Rand Wilson. Photographs by Robert Gumpert.

Featured image: Union members from across the Los Angeles-area labor movement took part in a three-day march “from Hollywood to the docks” in April 2008 calling for good jobs. From Labor Power and Strategy, p. 82. Photo and copyright: Robert Gumpert.