WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO WIN POWER FOR WORKERS?
A review of Labor Power and Strategy, by John Womack Jr., edited by Peter Olney and Glenn Perusek
PM Press, 2023, 190pp with index and notes
Reviewed by David Bacon
Silicon Valley electronics worker. Mountain View, California, 2001, Photo: David Bacon
Half a century ago I got a job in a huge semiconductor plant, long before the internet. In Silicon Valley's factories we tried to organize a union, arguing that this industry sat at the heart of the U.S. economy. If 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 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.
They'd brought together 250,000 workers in a single valley. What if we began to organize from plant to plant, we asked, 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 have been able to provide a bulwark against the loss of much of labor's power over the following decades?
Of course, this did not happen. Most of us were fired and I was blacklisted. Mass production of semiconductors left the valley in the 1980s, first to plants dispersed around the U.S. southwest, and then to the Asian Pacific rim. These are the factories that produce the silicon integrated circuits, or chips, at the heart of the material basis of modern life - computers, cars - you name it.
Today a huge percentage of the western world's chips are fabricated in enormous factories belonging to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, located in three Taiwan cities - Hsinchi, Tainan and Taichung. The U.S. government, especially the military, worries about this. What could happen if China goes to war with Taiwan and they're destroyed or captured? Or might the supply get cut off if a civil uprising brings to power a new government, not as U.S. friendly as its current one?
The unspoken fear, as old as the industry itself, is that the workers in these plants might organize themselves and want to change, not just their wages, but the output and who might be destined to receive it. Losing control of the fabricating plants for the most sophisticated microcomputers would render the U.S. defense complex extremely vulnerable, and over time, perhaps paralyze its weapons systems.
It is an old fear because it reaches back to the creation of Silicon Valley itself. At the beginning of the electronics age, from the early 50s to the mid-80s, the first manufacturers of integrated circuits were recipients of cold war Defense Department subsidies. Starting in Bell Labs, where William Shockley, the theorist of African American inferiority, invented the solid state transistor, the companies produced the chips in a vast complex of factories extending from Santa Clara to Mountain View, at the southern end of San Francisco Bay.
Those semiconductor factories are long closed, but now the United States is eager to find a way to entice the industry to bring them back. The recently-passed CHIPS Act, a landmark giveaway to huge electronics corporations, will subsidize the building of semiconductor plants in the U.S. Arguing that their construction is an issue of national security, the CHIPS Act is trying to reinvent the past.
But if new plants will again be built to produce semiconductors in the U.S., might there be another chance like that missed in Silicon Valley's early days - to organize the workers as they go through the doors, when these factories open and the production lines start?
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The workers in chip factories hold a lot of potential power. Increasingly sophisticated machines in an intensely automated production system require adept labor to keep them running. Without it the factories stop. What might those workers use their power for, if they knew how to win and use it? The creation of a democratic, progressive and powerful workers movement in the heart of capitalist technology could not only change their own conditions. It could push forward anti-corporate politics, and even become an engine of social transformation.
In Labor Power and Strategy John Womack devotes a lot of his thinking about labor strategy to questions of technology and its impact on workers. It's too bad the book was published just before the CHIPS Act made the question of the strategic position of semiconductor workers so immediate for labor organizers. If there was ever a convincing demonstration of the strategic importance of certain industries, the CHIPS Act has given it to us.
Womack would certainly argue against the prevalent idea that the plants are so automated that they won't really need workers, or that organizing them is not vital. Instead, he would perhaps apply to this situation his general conclusion that a change in the organization of production opens a window for workers: "The workers who can get into the change - the earlier the better - can imbed themselves in it, lock into the training for it, take part in working out its defects ... so that they soon know better than the company's engineers... how the whole system functions ... how things go together for the system's production - and so how to take them apart."
In Labor Power and Strategy Womack poses goals and strategies that seem almost unrealizable at a time when the percentage of workers belonging to unions declines every year. His arguments echo our own debates in the plant decades ago, ones going on in U.S. unions almost since their origin. Over the course of a series of interviews with labor veterans Peter Olney and Glenn Perusek, he holds that some industries are critical to the functioning of modern capitalism, and that workers in those industries therefore have the potential power to force radical change on the system. Labor, he charges, must direct more of its resources to their organization.
With responses from a series of prominent labor organizers and activists, Labor Power and Strategy also raises many challenges to Womack's provocative thesis. From Bill Fletcher Jr. to Jane MacAlevey, respondents argue for concentrating on those workers already the most active, even if they're not in strategic industries. But Womack comes right back at them - some workers can shut the system down, while others cannot.
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Womack's journey to his conclusions has been a roundabout one. A leading scholar of modern Mexican history, he wrote a seminal study of revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, as well as a book and articles examining the role industrial workers played in the Mexican Revolution. He looked especially at 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.
In Labor Power and Strategy he looks at capitalist production generally, contending that some industries are key to its functioning. He suggests that by analyzing the specifics of how work is carried out, workers can exercise their power to disrupt it. It's almost reminiscent of the Wobbly idea of sabotage, or the Communist and Socialist contention in the 20s and 30s that the industrial organization of the working class, able to shut down huge factories, was the route to political power.
Womack's argument looks at winning power in three general contexts - systemic, strategic and tactical. He begins on the large, systemic scale by asking why workers need power - to what end? He is a revolutionary - that is, he believes the system of capitalism must be replaced, and even looks, at two points in the book, at the experiences of the two major socialist revolutions of the 20th century - the Soviet and Chinese. What made those workers and their peasant allies aware of their power, he asks, and willing to use it?
Those revolutions are so different from the situation facing workers in the present-day U.S. that they seem almost irrelevant. However, by starting there he introduces two key questions. How have revolutionaries, committed to the centrality of the working class to social transformation, developed flexible strategies that incorporated, and even depended on, the action of other sections of societies already in ferment. And the related question is that of consciousness - that true social revolution depends on working people gaining a knowledge of themselves as a class, and then the ability to act on it.
But Labor Power and Strategy is not a book of history. Womack, and the ten veteran organizers and activists who answer him, argue over labor strategy in today's world. They range from the UAW campaign at Nissan's Canton, Mississippi plant, to the Smithfield meatpacking drive in North Carolina, to Walmart and the Fight for 15, and especially to Amazon. His interviews with Peter Olney and Glenn Perusek, in which he lays out his strategic framework in the first part of the book, are intended to provoke a rethinking of how the labor movement goes about winning power.
Through detailed examination of the way their place in production gives workers leverage, he develops a broad analysis of the way industrial workers are linked together by the "technical relations" of production. These are the key functions carried out by different groups of workers that enable, for instance, a chip factory to produce its semiconductors. Those relations, in turn, are a source of power if workers know how to use them.
In Labor Power and Strategy he speculates about the way a detailed analysis of Amazon's delivery system could identify those points where it's vulnerable to worker action, or how workers in logistics (that is, transport of goods) and communications (from phone to internet) might build a power base. In Womack's view, not all workers have this power - only those in industries critical to the overall function 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 react to a common assumption that industrial workers are no longer important, and that in modern production there are so few they don't count anyway.
Workers critical to the functioning of the capitalist economic system, he holds, have a potential power that other workers do not. In an era when train derailments and the slow movement of cargo across the docks have impacts that ripple through the whole economy, it's clear that some workers, like those in the logistics industry, can clearly affect the whole system.
Crane operator, member of the ILWU, moving containers to and from a ship in the Port of Los Angeles. Los Angeles, California 2000 Photo: Robert Gumpert 2000
Womack is not arguing against organizing sectors that are not strategic. Workers in other areas organize heroic struggles and sometimes challenge capital directly and effectively, as teachers have done in Chicago, Los Angeles 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. It is a basic Marxist argument. "Without work producing value, there is no surplus value," he contends, and therefore "power over production, the power to produce or strike production, is the working class's specific, essential, radical, critical power."
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But will organizing strategic industries reverse unions' decline 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 healthcare to domestic work), is Womack saying that workers' actions here are not strategic? Rather than ignoring or dismissing these questions, Womack, Olney, and Perusek invite organizers to respond.
Carey Dall, who spent 15 years trying to transform the Brotherhood Maintenance of Way, a major railway union, points out that 85% of logistics workers in the U.S. already belong to unions, yet they are often unable to use their power even to help themselves. President Biden made their weakness apparent simply by prohibiting a national rail strike. The west coast longshore union has mounted one-day strikes to protest the Iraq war and refused to unload cargo from apartheid South Africa and prewar militarist Japan. But in general logistics workers have not been a bulwark defending coworkers in the U.S. or abroad in their hours of need.
Katy Fox Hodess challenges Womack another way. Looking around the world, she cites examples of dockworkers who are unorganized and weak, or where their power was defeated by the privatization of the docks and their replacement. And in fact, the vulnerability of strategic workers is painfully clear in the U.S. labor movement. In 1981 the air traffic controllers, whose work operating airports is equally central, were replaced by military personnel ordered into the towers by President Reagan, who sent PATCO's leaders to prison. For most union activists the PATCO strike marked the legitimation of the permanent replacement of strikers. Yet the lesson here also is that standing alone, their control of critical operations was insufficient to protect them.
Hodess then gives two examples of longshore unions that successfully used their associational power, that is, the strength of their organization itself and the links created with other workers around them. Positional power, she argues, also depends on organization, ties with the surrounding community, and the consciousness of the workers involved.
Lest the reader think of this as idealism divorced from reality, working-class culture shines through the twelve photographs contributed by noted labor photographer Robert Gumpert. He's been at it a long time. Among his earliest images are those of a painter high on the cables of the Bay Bridge and a striking Greyhound bus driver and his son, in what was an iconic union battle in 1983. A 1986 image presents the idled rail cars and dark remains of what was once one of the country's largest industrial facilities - Pennsylvania's Aliquippa Steel Works. The modern working class is represented on the one hand by shouting Los Angeles janitors and the other by a crane operator high above Long Beach, moving the boxes that are now the lifeblood of global shipping. The amazing photographs are vivid reminders of that the book is discussing real human beings, not just debating power and strategy in the abstract.
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The argument for the centrality of industrial manufacturing workers is hotly debated throughout the book. Jane MacAlevey lays out the reasons why the women-led healthcare and education unions are the ones in the U.S. labor movement most active in organizing. They've created solidly-organized unions, and coalitions beyond their own members, to defend public education, adequate healthcare, and political rights in general.
Bill Fletcher argues for recognition of the potential of workers located in sites of struggle - where they are already actively organizing and battling the system. In looking back at the failure of the CIO's Operation Dixie, he asks how 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 where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
And how should labor respond when workers, not in theoretically strategic positions, ask for help in organizing and strikes? Jack Metzgar asks, "Are union organizers supposed to warn such workers against this folly or attempt to direct their hope and courage in the most fruitful directions possible in a given situation?"
Some respondents do agree with Womack. Gene Bruskin, who headed the organizing drive at the enormous Smithfield pork packinghouse in Tarheel, North Carolina, gives perhaps the best example, one of the few successful efforts in recent years in very large privately-owned plants. He describes the battle waged by African Americans in the livestock department, where pigs enter the facility for slaughter. These workers discovered that by sitting down they could stop the plant, force the company to make concessions, and ultimately inspire the rest of the 3000-person workforce to take the union drive to its conclusion.
It was not just positional strength that won even this battle, however. Earlier, Mexican workers had learned to slow and control the devastating line speed, and then stopped the plant twice in defense of their rights as immigrants. After they were driven from the plant by immigration raids, Black workers took up the workplace-based struggle for civil rights. The link between positional power and political movements, as workers in the plant saw them, won their victory when combined with broad outside support.
Yet unanswered questions in this debate revolve around race and sex - the unity of the working class. Fletcher says, "Race and gender are not identity questions. 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."
Janitors marching with a coalition of many unions during first day of the labor sponsored 3 day march "Hollywood to the Docks". Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Robert Gumpert 2008
Given that people of color and immigrants will make up a majority of the working class by 2032, according to the Economic Policy Institute, are they strategic in their own right? While the organizing efforts of immigrant farmworkers, janitors, construction workers and others have not occurred in industries held as strategic, they are responsible for most of the actual growth of unions in states like California over the past three decades.
They 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 therefore have a strategic role in changing it, is not just a theoretical question. It is one emerging from working-class upsurges in many countries.
A sober and historically accurate assessment of the farmworkers movement would have provided an entry point for examining this question, since it has played such a fundamental role in the position of Latino and Asian immigrants in the history of the U.S. labor movement. Some forms of oppression and control, like the labor contractor and contingent labor systems, were developed first in relation to the work of immigrants in agriculture. Workers' responses, going back even to the Wobblies and the depression, contributed some of the country's best labor organizers and radical activists, from Dorothy Healey and Larry Itliong to the young people who learned their first lessons about working class organization in the fields, and then used them to transform many unions. The Chicano civil rights movement and the immigrant rights movement both have roots in California fields.
The concentration of Black workers in steel and auto was a reason many radicals saw those industries as central to building a movement for fundamental social change. In the wake of the divestment of capital from those industries domestically, are the areas of the economy where workers of color, women and immigrants are concentrated the key to social progress in the same way? Many organizers of domestic workers, janitors, and others would certainly say so. In the book the movements of these workers are sometimes referred to as those of the "most oppressed," in distinction to movements of workers who may earn more, and even have unions, but work in strategically powerful positions.
Both Fletcher and Womack try to find a bridge across this divide. Womack describes a culture of comradeship and Bill Fletcher a culture of solidarity - either could be a way to overcome the tendency to pit one against the other.
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One element of labor organizing that needs more attention is the structure of the workers movement itself. Who is going to implement the various strategic ideas put forward? In the 1930s, the movement to organize the big mass production industries didn't depend so much on paid organizers as it did on the willingness of ordinary workers to begin organizing themselves, forming unions and starting the era's labor wars. What workers did have were Communist and Socialist parties, and a long history of popularizing the ideas of a socialist alternative to the existing capitalist system. Even those organizers drafted onto the staff of emerging unions were often militants who gained their political understanding in the parties of the left.
Many of the respondents talk about the labor left, that is, the inchoate group of people in the labor movement and working class organizations who self-identify as left in their politics. In the pre-cold war era, however, the left in labor was organized into parties, which gave it political strength and influence far beyond its actual numbers. Today's situation is very different. Political parties on the left in the U.S. are small, and don't play the same role in the mass education of workers.
The labor movement itself is fragmented organizationally, so that each union basically pursues its own course independently. The movement has great difficulty acting as a cohesive class organizer, as it does in other countries. The current French strikes are seen with admiration by U.S. union officers who can't conceive of the same thing happening here. A monolith labor is not.
All of the respondents voice the need to change U.S. unions structurally, in order to implement the strategic ideas they debate. Since a clear direction is necessary, Olney and Perusek might have invited participation from the United Electrical Workers, the stalwart left pole of U.S. labor. The UE recently revisited its long held set of principles for democratic unionism, and it is hard to imagine a large progressive labor movement that is not committed to them. The UE's five principles include aggressive struggle against the boss, rank and file control of the union, political independence, international solidarity and uniting all workers.
Union organizing today depends on staff organizers, yet the existing labor movement will never have enough of them to bring the hundreds of thousands of workers into its ranks every year needed to stop its shrinkage. Raising the percentage of organized workers in the U.S. workforce by just one percent would mean organizing over a million people. Only a social movement can organize people on this scale.
The labor movement needs a program which can inspire people to organize on their own, one which is unafraid to put forward radical demands, and rejects the constant argument that any proposal that can't get through Congress next year is not worth fighting for. Workers will fight for the future of their children and their communities, even when their own future seems in doubt, but only a radical social vision inspires this kind of commitment.
UMWA on a 13 month strike at Brookside mines and on the picket line at Highsplint mine. Harlan County, KY. Photo: Robert Gumpert 1974
How are the workers, in the positions where the technical relations of production potentially give them power, going to become politically conscious - able and willing to use that power? The contributor who speaks to this problem most directly is Melissa Shetler, a protagonist of the popular education movement founded by Paulo Friere: "To think strategically, union members [and workers without unions too - ed.] must learn to identify and interrogate the assumptions of the status quo." Shetler rejects education as a process in which those with knowledge "educate" those without it. "We must engage workers in collective action in which they are valued, heard, and able to leverage their power," she says, describing a participatory and egalitarian process. Perhaps this is one answer to the "how to" question about building the culture of comradeship and solidarity.
Peter Olney interviewed Womack at a cafe called, appropriately, The Foundry. The book's intention, in his hopes, is to develop a commitment among labor left organizers to concentrate on organizing Amazon, and to stimulate a debate over strategy that might succeed. As the book appeared, the mainstream press carried articles about a division in the leadership of the new union that won the first union election, at a distribution center on Staten Island. Chris Smalls, the drive's leader, has gone on to push organizing and elections at other Amazon distribution centers, trying to create a larger movement able to challenge this giant. The workers haven't been well organized however, and the elections held have been lost. Meanwhile, at the Staten Island facility another part of the union wants to concentrate on winning a contract, even by organizing a strike. They brought in Jane MacAlevey to help, but she was forced to leave by the internal union disagreements.
The strategic debates in Labor Power and Strategy aren't just discussions far removed from action on the ground. Is Amazon strategic? Which workers are the key to defeating the corporation? What tactics should they use? Labor Power and Strategy's participants have made a valiant attempt to steer workers and unions in this country into uncharted territory. Instead of muddling along as it shrinks in numbers and power, they together make a powerful call for labor to change course and concentrate its strength. The radical answers of earlier eras are here combined with new thinking appropriate to 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 debate is certainly welcome and needed.