Labor Power and Strategy: A Review

By Gabriel Winant, University of Chicago
Labor Studies in Working Class History

In a recent Supreme Court case, Glacier Northwest v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 174, a concrete company won a claim against its union for material costs caused by a strike. Prior to walking out, workers had left wet concrete in some mixing trucks. When it hardened, the concrete was ruined; the trucks themselves were preserved from damage only by swift company action. Fruitlessly, the union argued that this was the exercise of workers’ economic power in its ordinary form and did not constitute a tort justiciable in the court system — leave it to the National Labor Relations Board. For workers to identify and exploit a material vulnerability in the production process is merely to strike effectively. But to hold unions responsible for economic damages from strikes has been a dream of employers since the 1930s, and the court system is now ready to oblige. Although the ultimate decision did not go as far as it might have — the justices attempted instead to construct a conceptually untenable distinction between deliberate sabotage and legitimate economic action — it nonetheless marks a clear move back in this direction.

The Glacier case thus illustrates both the possibilities and the challenges that arise out of the analysis and exploitation of vulnerabilities in production processes. Such analysis and exploitation has long been the lodestar of the historian John Womack Jr. and is the topic of discussion and debate in the new volume Labor Power and Strategy. Womack, a historian of Mexico, is the author of a famous essay in Spanish, “Posición estratégica y fuerza obrera” (“Strategic Position and Workers’ Power”), which has circulated by word of mouth in the United States both in Spanish and in translation for nearly two decades. In that essay and across much of his career, he rejects the interest of the “new labor history” in workers’ culture, instead emphasizing the decisive importance of leverage at the technical seams and bottlenecks of the production process. The new book Labor Power and Strategy, edited by Peter Olney and Glenn Perušek, does not include Womack’s original essay. Rather, its heart is a lengthy dialogue about the topic of strategic position between Womack and Peter Olney, the retired organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union; this is followed by ten brief responses from organizers and scholars including Jane McAlevey, Bill Fletcher Jr., and Jack Metzgar.

In a certain way, Womack’s approach is excitingly open-­ended. While he is espe-cially interested in industries like logistics (hence the dialogue with a veteran of the ILWU), he believes any large-­scale process of production involves moments where workers must work the interface between different technical systems — the “hubs, nodes, and vertices” (36).

Where are the docks or doors for deliveries and shipping? Where is motive and light power, the switchboard? Where are the generators? Where are the server room, the air-­conditioning, and humidification? And the moving parts: Where are their connections, simultaneous and sequential, who tends them, who maintains them all, and where is their tool room, the HELP room? What’s the shift plan? What are the various schedules and productive routes inside and out? (35)

Anyone who has organized a workplace and discovered the seemingly spontaneous self-­ confidence of skilled workers at such positions recognizes the force of this insight. At the same time, Womack somewhat dilutes the power of this analysis by his eagerness to fold almost any branch of production into it — describing the leverage of food service workers and janitors, for example, in terms of strategic position (56). As in the logic of the Glacier decision (ironically), the power to inflict costly damage on vital technical processes loses some of its distinctiveness against the larger backdrop of workers’ power more generally in Labor Power and Strategy. After all, every worker employed by capital is employed for an economic reason of some kind. The concept of “strategic position” initially engages in a bit of admirably icy discrimination, paying equal ethical respect to all workers’ struggles without granting them equal economic or political significance. But Womack, quite

understandably, seems not quite willing to sustain such a coldblooded posture. Rather, he is appropriately eager to identify the kernels of possibility in the heroic and one-­sided struggles of the working class, stretching his concepts in the process. But it is not clear how well concepts forged in the conceptual world of industrial production and transportation translate into less capital-­intensive contexts.

This question — the slippery definition of strategic position — shapes the central debate of the volume. Along with Olney and the respondents, Womack is drawn into a discussion that translates “strategic position,” or what he sometimes calls “the power to wound,” into the concept of “structural power,” as contrasted with “associational power,” a term coined by sociologist Erik Olin Wright (30 – 31). Associational power describes the power workers may wield through their relational position in society rather than in the accumulation process. Womack acknowledges the significance of associational power but insists that it is causally secondary to structural power, around which he expects the former to gather.

But is the relationship so linear? As Katy Fox-­Hodess observes in a response in the volume (following her writing with Camilo Santibañez Rebolledo), and as Michael Billeaux Martinez has written recently in this journal, certain social preconditions must exist in order for workers to withstand the pressure that will come if they attempt to exploit powerful technical leverage. The Teamsters at Glacier Northwest had structural power aplenty. The problem was the greater power that came down on them when they tried to use it.

It is true that workers are generally quicker to trust each other if they can see they have something to win. But that trust must still be earned, and the relationships that embody it must still be built. Even if the needed relationships of solidarity correspond to long-­standing everyday workplace social relationships, there remains no guarantee that one will translate easily into the other. How many millions of long-­standing work friendships have been broken when one friend struck and another scabbed? Solidarity is always at least somewhat uncertain. Often, moreover, the relationships that are strategi-cally necessary are not the same as those that are socially available. Some work functions lend themselves easily to social connection, while others isolate workers from each other; this distinction often has little to do with position in relation to capital’s technical vulnerabilities. Indeed, it can easily be the case that the most replaceable workers are the most connected ones: in many large multifunction service providers, the largest department is a “shared services” call center. With its relatively high number of workers relative to managers, it is often a relatively ideologically militant shop, because a more independent workers’ culture has a chance to develop there. Yet call center workers have little strategic power in the technical sense, since they are quite easily replaced — except in the sense that all workers perform functions that employers require. Consideration of replaceability thus adds an important nuance to the meaning of strategic power, in this sense.

Moreover, some forms of leverage are so strong that they are difficult or impossible to employ, at least directly, without risking major retaliation. Womack suggests that health-­care workers enjoy structural power, an intuitive idea that arises from their connection to matters of life and death (147). But they can never use this power: nurses’ strikes are planned to ensure that the hospital continues to operate. The social breach otherwise would be so great as to represent nihilism. Instead, then, what nurses do is force administrations to continue to operate the hospital by employing travel nurses. This can still be costly and can still generate significant leverage (as McAlevey points out in the collection), but it stresses a much less sensitive seam in the garment of capital (111).

The return of debates about strategy to academic labor studies (particularly history) is an extremely welcome development, and one that owes a good deal to Womack. The vitality of the discussion within the volume and its reception thus far indicates how much appetite there is for a discussion for which we have been somewhat starved. There is much to figure out, particularly as labor markets continue to change rapidly.