Structure and Solidarity

Structure and Solidarity

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

Mathematics teacher Robert Jong at a Los Angeles Unified School District workers and supporters picket on the first day of a strike over a new contract on March 21, 2023. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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 and Strategy, two veteran labor organizers and strategists, Peter Olney and Glenn Perušek, interview John Womack Jr., a distinguished Harvard professor emeritus of history known for his studies of the Mexican Revolution. The interview takes up a theory of labor power Womack developed in an unpublished 2006 book-length manuscript, Working Power over Production, and how that theory might inform labor organizing. In the second half of Labor Power and Strategy, ten noteworthy labor activists and scholars respond to and comment on Womack’s theory and its possible applications. The book concludes with a short rejoinder by Womack.

Olney and Perušek hone in on a fundamental thesis of the 2006 manuscript: the power of working people derives entirely from their structural location in the process of production, as this position determines their ability to disrupt the operations of an employer with strikes and other job actions. This power of disruption is not evenly distributed among workers. Drawing heavily upon the analysis of Harvard labor relations scholar John Dunlop, Womack argues that there are economic “choke points” where a strike can paralyze an entire industry, even the economy as a whole. Workers at these strategic points possess greater power than other workers, simply because the disruptive impact of their strikes and job actions is far-reaching. Womack uses the term “technical power” to characterize the leverage that comes from being able to engage in economic disruption. This term is meant to underline his view that the power of workers is grounded not in their political organization or their cultural networks—the social relations of production—but in their relationship to technology. Labor Power and Strategy often references logistics workers in transportation, distribution, and communications as examples of workers who possess this elevated power.

In order to grow their power, Womack concludes, unions and the left should prioritize the organization of workers at these critical intersections in the economy. Furthermore, they should employ the leverage that comes from their strategic position to advance worker organization and the objectives of labor.

Strategic Thinking, Past and Present

Womack’s theory is not without insights. It is important to think strategically about labor organizing, and to prioritize organizing work and drives that can have the greatest impact. Disruption can create leverage for working people, and disruption on a mass scale, affecting various sectors of the economy, can yield greater leverage. Serious thought should be given on how to amass and deploy leverage won through disruptive strikes and job actions.

None of this is entirely new or foreign to the U.S. labor movement. There have been numerous organizing initiatives over the last two decades—undertaken by Change to Win, the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, the Communications Workers of America, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and more recently, independent unions—that focused on the logistics sectors: transportation, distribution, and communications. What is missing is not a theory of why it is important to organize Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Walmart, but a critical inventory of these efforts—what successes they have had, where and why they have fallen short, and what could be done to move them forward.

Similarly, the most forward-looking contemporary union organizing employs strategic planning and campaigns rooted in the insights found in Labor Power and Strategy, with an eye to identifying and exploiting the vulnerabilities of recalcitrant employers. Disruptive strikes and job actions are key points of exposure for an employer. But they are by no means the only potential weaknesses that unions can target. Strategic campaigns build community support, employ political leverage, attack brand reputations, generate consumer boycotts, organize shareholder revolts against management, and use social media pressure. The more of these tactics that can be brought to bear, and the more they work in tandem, the greater the pressure on the employer, and the more likely a campaign will end in victory.

One of the responses in Labor Power and Strategy, “Thirty-Two Thousand Hogs and Not a Drop to Drink” by Gene Bruskin, provides a brief account of one successful strategic campaign in this vein, undertaken by the UFCW and workers in the world’s largest slaughterhouse against the meat processing and packing corporation Smithfield. After many years of unsuccessful efforts to win union recognition against an employer that flouted labor law, the UFCW organized a strategic campaign using many of the tactics listed above, which led to an employer agreement to halt its anti-union actions and victory. This example highlights the limitations of Womack’s singular focus on creating leverage through disruptions of production: strategic campaigns are designed to employ many different types of leverage against employers, most of which are external to the production process.

Related flaws in Womack’s theory are revealed when it is applied to labor history, including the two historic strikes that demarcate the period of U.S. labor strength. The 1936–37 sit-down strike targeted factories that were indispensable for the manufacture of cars across General Motors’ operations. Womack discusses at some length the UAW’s organization of the strike—especially its decision to focus on the factory in Flint—as an illustration of how his theory works in practice.

The 1981 PATCO strike targeted a strategic point with a potentially much greater impact: by withholding the labor of air traffic controllers, which was essential for air safety, it could cripple the nation’s entire system of air transportation, both passenger and freight. The shutdown would have disruptive ripple effects throughout the entire economy. It would be hard to imagine a context more aligned with a theory of targeting “choke points.” But the PATCO strike ended in total defeat.

Despite its signal importance in U.S. labor history, Womack doesn’t discuss the PATCO strike in Labor Power and Strategy; in a brief and almost parenthetical passage in the 2006 manuscript, he complains that none of the accounts of the strike had produced “strategic analysis of the industrial or technical reasons for [its] failures.” The idea that researchers studying the strike might have found no “industrial or technical reasons” for its defeat—that the problems lay elsewhere—seems unthinkable.

Yet it is obvious that the PATCO strike was lost politically, with Reagan’s decision to break the strike. PATCO’s major miscalculation was not about its ability to disrupt the air transportation system, but its naïve belief that Reagan wouldn’t respond to such a challenge with an all-out effort to kill the union and its failure to have a plan that addressed such an eventuality. This problem can’t be properly accounted for within the terms of Womack’s theory of labor power.

Seen in this light, the contrast between the 1981 PATCO strike and the 1936–37 UAW strike is instructive. After General Motors obtained court injunctions against the UAW strike, and after the strikers beat back an attempt by police to retake the Flint factory by force, both Michigan Governor Frank Murphy and President Franklin Roosevelt turned down pleas from General Motors to use troops to break the strike. The UAW had timed the strike to coincide with Murphy’s inauguration; this planning and their political influence with the new governor proved pivotal, leaving General Motors with no choice but to recognize and bargain with the UAW.

Politics is not the only factor sidelined by Womack’s singular focus on the technical relations of production. Several Labor Power and Strategy contributors discuss the significance of associational power, a concept borrowed from the sociologist Erik Olin Wright. They interpret it to denote both the ties of solidarity among workers (part of the social relations of production, which Womack disregards) and the connections of workers to the larger community. To put the issue bluntly, being in a structural position of technical power will do nothing for workers if they are not organized to engage in collective action. Womack attempts to address this question of worker agency with an appeal to a structuralist formulation in Marx: workers are “schooled, united, and organized by the mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.” But worker organization and collective action are not a reflexive byproduct of economic processes; it requires self-conscious activity by workers and their unions to build the bonds of trust and common purpose that are at the heart of solidarity.

A Changing Economy and Workforce

Womack’s writing has the virtue of being explicit about the theoretical framework he employs, which is inspired by syndicalism and a Leninist-inflected Marxism. But these ideological currents—with their single-minded focus on industrial production and their instrumentalist view of the state and politics—are particularly ill-suited to recognizing and understanding deep changes in the U.S. economy and political order that have occurred over the last four decades. On the eve of the PATCO strike, manufacturing was at its peak employment in the United States, with some 19 million jobs; today, over one-third of those jobs are gone. In some ways, those numbers understate the extent of this trend: manufacturing has lost roughly 60 percent of its share of total U.S. employment since its 1979 peak.

As the manufacturing and industrial sectors have declined, the healthcare, education, and high tech sectors have taken their place. They are now the main engine of the U.S. economy, and economic forecasting predicts their continued growth. The changing workforce that has emerged from this sea change is more educated: at the time of the 1936–37 sit-down strike, the median number of years of school completed in the United States was eight, while today over half of all Americans have a college degree or other post-secondary credential. It is also a more racially and ethnically diverse workforce, as a result of post-1965 immigration from Latin America, Africa, and Asia and the Great Migration of African Americans out of the rural South that took place over the course of the twentieth century. And with the influx of women into paid work after the Second World War, and again in the 1960s, it is now a workforce close to equally divided by gender.

These shifts in the economy and workforce have transformed the landscape of the American labor movement. As the industrial unions shrank in size and power, the public-sector unions that emerged out of the 1960s and 1970s became the center of a diminished labor movement, and the source of what dynamism it still had. Today, one in three public-sector workers are members of a union, a density more than five times greater than in the private sector. Those public-sector workers are concentrated in education and healthcare: the most common face of a union worker today is that of a teacher or a nurse. K–12 public education is the one large sector of the U.S. economy that has significant majority union density. Like the sectors in which they are based, these public-sector unions have a more educated, more racially and ethnically diverse, and more female membership than the old industrial and craft unions. The wave of teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019 was one of the first signs of a resurgence in the U.S. labor movement in recent years, signaling the possibility that the strike could be restored as an important tactic.

Yet in Womack’s 2006 manuscript there is not a single mention of teachers or nurses, and not a single reference to an education or healthcare union. Not one. In Labor Power and Strategy, Peter Olney coaxes some thoughts from Womack on the West Virginia teacher strike of 2018. He recognizes the importance of the 2018 teacher strikes for a labor movement that had little good news in the decades preceding them, and he praises the West Virginia strike as “independent, publicly defiant working class action.” While teachers do not fit easily or comfortably into his framework of technical power, Womack introduces a new, ad hoc category to explain how they might possess leverage: teachers are “socially strategic,” in that a strike on their part “threatened to disrupt the social lives of every family with children.”

Teacher Strikes and Leverage

As well-intentioned as they might be, Womack’s formulations reveal a lack of familiarity with the history of teacher strikes. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, teachers led a militant strike wave, organizing more than a thousand strikes across the United States. These strikes were pivotal in winning union recognition and first contracts, which led to dramatic improvements in teacher salaries. They established teacher unionism, and public-sector unionism more broadly, as a major force in the U.S. economy and labor movement.

But as the fiscal crisis of the state developed in the mid-1970s and state and local governments turned to policies of austerity, strikes became longer and more rancorous affairs, and the tactics that had been so successful for public-sector unions in the previous decade became less and less effective. Even so, in 1979 a new record for public-sector strikes was set. It was only in the wake of the PATCO defeat that strike activity would dwindle to a fraction of its former self.

In the strike wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s, teacher unions modeled themselves after progressive industrial unions such as the UAW; they understood their power to be rooted in the capacity of their strikes to disrupt, much like Womack does. But while a UAW strike harmed the bottom line of a General Motors or a Ford, a teacher strike disrupts first and foremost the education of students and the lives of fellow working people who rely upon public schools to teach and care for their children. The effects on the broader economy are secondary. (This is generally true of strikes in the public sector.) When teacher strikes were seen as entirely self-interested, which was the case during this period, they became deeply unpopular with the communities served by public schools. The longer such strikes went on, the greater the rift with the community, and the harder it became to win real gains. A theory of teacher power that relied solely on the power to disrupt proved fundamentally flawed.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, teacher strikes—and strikes in general—were rare. Yet the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike showed that properly conceived, organized, and executed, a teacher strike could be successful. And in so doing, it captured the imagination of American teachers. The teacher strikes of more recent years were inspired by the example of Chicago. Today, the strike is becoming a tactic that teacher unions once again can and do use.

What was different in the 2012 Chicago strike and the strikes that followed? They broke with the industrial union model and adopted a philosophy of “bargaining for the common good,” in which teachers and their unions advocated not simply for themselves, but also for their students and their schools. An important focus of their demands was full and equitable funding for public education, and for the schools and teaching and learning conditions their students needed and deserved. A great deal of organizing went into building community support for those demands. The result was unprecedented levels of public support—around 75 percent—for the strikes. Those who were most negatively affected by the disruption of the strikes—the families of public school students—had the highest levels of support, because they believed the teachers were striking for better schools for their children.

Imagine for a moment how the history of the American labor movement might have transpired differently if in 1981 PATCO had not singularly relied on its technical power to disrupt the air transportation system, but instead had made it itself into the public voice of safety in that system and organized the labor movement and the community on behalf of that safety agenda. We can’t undo our history, but we can choose to learn from it, to understand how our world has changed, and to forge a strategic vision for labor based on that understanding.

Leo Casey is a veteran teacher union leader and the author of The Teacher Insurgency: A Strategic and Organizing Perspective.