How Can Workers Organize Against Capital Today?

John Womack’s labor strategy is about workers finding the capacity to "wound capital to make it yield anything.” But the massive challenge in today’s deindustrialized economy is locating where that leverage actually lies.

John Womack's thought continues to challenge the usual ways we think about labor organizing. (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Labor Power and Strategy, the new book edited by Peter Olney and Glenn Perušek, officially aims to provide “rational, radical, experience-based perspectives that help target and run smart, strategic, effective campaigns in the working class.” But by the end of it, it is difficult to avoid the sneaking suspicion that Olney and Perušek have a different goal: to make clear just how far organized labor is from having a strategic conversation about its present impasse.

The book is organized around an interview with economist and historian John Womack about the twin needs for an analysis of the weak points (or “choke points”) in contemporary industrial technologies and for the labor movement to exploit that analysis to cause disruption and gain leverage. Womack supports the struggles of all workers to organize for better conditions, but he also believes the labor movement should focus not on raising the floor for the “most oppressed” groups of workers but rather on workers and industries where it is possible to gain the kind of leverage to bring the capitalist class to heel. In his words, labor “needs to know where the crucial industrial and technical connections are, the junctions, the intersections in space and time, to see how much workers in supply or transformation can interrupt, disrupt, where and when in their struggles they can stop the most capitalist expropriation of surplus value.” To do this effectively, he urges continual network analysis, or “grubbing,” to reveal the vulnerable seams in the fabric of modern supply chains — the places where ports and rail and warehouses meet, and thus where production and distribution can be effectively blocked.

Union power before the 1930s was drawn mainly from skill, or certain groups of workers’ specific position within the economy and the leverage it offered. The American Federation of Labor was thus a self-limiting organization at the time, and it took the challenge of the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to overcome its commitment to that limitation. In the common understanding, instead of leverage through skill, the CIO sought and gained leverage at the “point of production.” For Womack, this idea was “a mistake then, but now ignorantly, thoughtlessly used.”

At large in a nationally defined economy, in any industry, in any plant where there are technical divisions of labor there’s not one point of production, but several, multiple points, connected, coordinated in place and time to make production, not a point, but as Dunlop [John Dunlop, whose Industrial Relations Systems heavily influenced Womack’s views] called it a “web,” or as we had better call it now for the sake of analysis, a network.

For Womack, key CIO organizers like Wyndham Mortimer understood well that there was no single “point” at which power could be gained. The CIO knew it had to figure out where things connect, “where they’re materially weakest, maybe politically, legally, commercially, culturally strong, protected, defended, but technically weakest,” and the challenge today is to do the same for a deindustrialized, logistical economy.

Womack is engaging and nimble in conversation, which makes the interview a fun read, but his basic points are often ones that the labor left of previous generations would have found straightforward and uncontroversial. Here’s Womack discussing leverage:

No matter what workers are mad about, unhappy about, indignant about, feel abused about, it doesn’t matter until they can actually get real leverage over production, the leverage to make their struggle effective. You don’t get this leverage just by feelings. You get it by holding the power to cut off the capitalists’ revenue. And without that material power your struggle won’t get you very far for long.

To which I imagine leaders of the CIO responding, “Yeah, obviously.”

The interview is then followed by ten responses from leading lights of the labor movement that make Womack’s claims seem anything but obvious. Rather than think alongside Womack or extend his claims in various directions, most of the responses take issue with the priority he accords to “technically strategic power” and the kinds of workers who are in a position to wield it.

Katy Fox-Hodess, Jack Metzgar, Joel Ochoa, and Melissa Shetler all take exception in different ways to Womack’s prioritization of strategic power over the “forms of power that accrue to workers as a result of their collective organization in trade unions, works councils, and the like” — in sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s terms, his emphasis on “structural power” over “associational power.” Fox-Hodess asserts that “strategic power (or structural power) is deeply rooted in associational power”; Metzgar that Womack misses “the impracticality of focusing strictly on strategic positions that can upend capitalist power relations.” All four agree that the labor movement cannot in any way deprioritize the cultivation of associational power.

Bill Fletcher Jr and Jane McAlevey lodge a related but slightly different complaint: that Womack’s focus on strategic industries does a disservice to workers in supposedly nonstrategic industries. Fletcher, in a contribution tellingly titled “Should Spartacus Have Organized the Roman Citizenry Rather Than the Slaves?,” believes those sectors of society that are already in struggle must be supported, rather than the ones that are ostensibly more strategic. McAlevey meanwhile asserts that only “the gendered bias that power is exercised by mostly men in the dated conception of the male-dominant private sector” keeps us focused on logistics, when it is in fact “women, often if not mostly women of color” in health care and education who have shown themselves most capable of “exercising strategic power that deftly harnesses economic and social power that can’t easily be pulled apart.”

Regarding the first criticism, that Womack unjustly prioritizes structural over associational power, it should be said first that he in no way practically deprioritizes associational power. Without collective organization and the exercise of associational power at the necessary moments, he asserts, workers simply are not going to be able to take advantage of any disruptive position they hold. Metzgar points to the example of the failed 1919 steel strike, where workers “had insufficient associational power to take advantage of their structural power,” to show that you cannot have one without the other, but here he’s knocking on an open door. Womack is clear that workers cannot effectively use strategic power without associational power.

The latter should nonetheless be considered secondary, in Womack’s view, because true solidarity flows from an understanding of strategic power. Most workers, most of the time, are not going to put their own material interest on the line just to be good comrades. A culture of solidarity can and should be built within any union, but that culture is only going to attract so many; if they don’t think they can win by seizing the necessary leverage over the company, most workers are not going to engage in the requisite struggle, and if they don’t see their technical and industrial dependence on other workers, they are not going to be convinced of the urgent need for solidarity. As Womack says,

You can’t count on ding-dong lectures or jingles or pamphlets, “I’m my brother’s, I’m my sister’s keeper.” Sweet idea, but within hours at work you’ve got dirty jokes about it. But once you see the technical connections of one job with another, who can foul or ruin or stop whose work, who can in fact endanger whom, high and low, back and forth, like a team sport, a firefighter company, the armed forces, I think you get real attention to how much mutual dependence means, technical interdependence, the practice value and real advantage of comradeship at work.

The bigger objection raised by Womack’s critics, however, is that his technical emphasis privileges some groups of workers over others. Indeed, underlying the objection to his prioritization of structural over associational power is a worry that workers without the former are just being written off. Thus Metzgar’s claim that workers “cannot be counseled to simply give up because they are not strategic” and Ochoa’s hope that “organized labor can create momentum by organizing in nonstrategic sectors.”

Once again, the critics are tackling a straw man: at no point does Womack say that “nonstrategic” workers simply shouldn’t organize. When he asserts that the focus should not be on the “most oppressed” workers but rather on workers’ ability to disrupt production and distribution, his point is twofold.

First, in any economic situation, there are always going to be industries that, if left unorganized, will hurt organized labor as a whole. John L. Lewis did not start the CIO because he privileged rubber workers over carpenters; he did it because he understood that organized labor would never exert any influence in society until General Motors, Goodyear, U.S. Steel, and the other major corporations of the period came to the table. The situation is similar today with Amazon, Walmart, Target, etc.: until these companies are organized, labor as a whole is going to suffer.

Second, it is less that Womack urges the narrow organization of strategic workers than that he wants workers’ power as a whole to be more strategically exercised. Sometimes this means seeing some workers as more proximate to the nodes of disruption than others, but mainly it means viewing all workers’ power through the lens of their capacity for that disruption. This is where his central challenge to the labor movement lies, and what I want to focus on for the remainder of this review. Curiously, the challenge is relatively unexplored by his interlocutors.

Dan DiMaggio, Carey Dall, Rand Wilson, and Gene Bruskin provide more sympathetic reads of Womack than the other six respondents, but it is not clear that even these readers really want to go where he is pointing. DiMaggio sees “the bigger context for thinking about Womack’s points [to be] that any revival of the US labor movement will require the revival of the strike,” though withholding labor per se is hardly Womack’s focus. Wilson thinks “workers are almost always the most knowledgeable source of information about who is in the best position to disrupt the production processes or services and where management’s weaknesses lie,” though Womack is at pains to show that the highly complex distributional flows of the present require something like a labor institute of industrial technology to understand them.

In many ways, the essential reticence to accept Womack’s basic orientation is a function of the fact that labor and the Left are still both focused on the need, in Wilson’s words, “to realize labor’s potential power in the workplace.” This is a fine position to hold if power really flows through the workplace, as it did when there were tremendous amounts of fixed capital invested in gigantic factories. But today, points of leverage are very often outside workplaces, at those distributional nodes far from the shop floor, between companies, workers, and union jurisdictions.

One might say then that, for the labor left, Womack offends the basic imperative to descend into the hidden abode of production. For him, it is not the workplace as such that is important but the kinds of connections that the workplace makes possible. Some of those connections will be in the workplace, but many will not.

Wherever you put things together, there’s a seam or a zipper or a hub or a joint or a node or a link, the more technologies together, the more links, the places where it’s not integral. It is parts put together, and where the parts go together, like at a dock, at a warehouse, between the trucks and the inside, between transformers and servers and coolers, there can be a bottleneck, a choke point.

Womack challenges jurisdictional boundaries (he even suggests at one point the creation of a “US Transport and General Workers’ Union” combining the ILWU, ILA, IBT, and IAM), but more generally he questions the very basics of unions’ organizing orientation (insofar as they still organize). To be very simple about it, we might see Womack as wanting to replace the model of the strike with that of the blockade. Unions, of course, are not unpracticed in the latter, but it is not the organizing fulcrum that the former is typically made out to be.

Once we get here, a whole set of fascinating questions emerge: first and foremost, if many (though not all) of the strategic disruption points have moved outside of the workplace, is it possible to mobilize workers not simply to band together and withhold their labor but to seize these choke points in coordinated action? This would mean, for instance, turning one’s attention away from organizing particular stores to getting smaller cadres of employees to occupy key distributional nodes and getting masses of other workers to support them. Right off the bat, we can see that the distinction between supposedly strategic and nonstrategic workers begins to fade: longshoremen and rail engineers are not necessarily the only ones with access to the seams in industrial technologies.

Still, they’d need to be supported by research departments that have up-to-date and sophisticated analyses of particular supply chains. Is the labor movement up for such a task? What would it need to approximate something like Womack’s proposed labor institute of industrial technology? Somehow the “Freedom Convoy” found the one bridge where 25 percent of all trade between the United States and Canada is conducted. Why wasn’t it the labor movement that took advantage of this situation?

Then there’s the question of how to support workers at such critical junctures, when historically company and state violence have been exerted. If smartphones are recording every second of a blockade, will that prevent bloodshed? What does community support look like at warehousing sites far from any affected community? Consumer boycotts? Can they be timed effectively? Would such occupations only work if multiple nodes in a supply chain were seized?

There are also further questions around internal organizing that Dall raises in his helpful response. For Dall, activating already unionized workers at ports and in rail can help set the conditions for organizing other workers: “To organize Amazon workers, we must first internally organize union transportation workers whose labor on the seams enables Amazon to get cargo of Asian origin to their hellish warehouses and finally to the consumer’s door.” In the case of rail and airline workers, there is a particular law, the Railway Labor Act, that protects these transportation workers in some ways but heavily incentivizes them not to disrupt things in others. What are those ways? How can these unions be won over to the idea that they might need to break the law, or how can particular workers be convinced not to follow their unions’ dictates?

Finally, the basics of breaking the law — how, when, where, and why to do it — must be foregrounded in any execution of a Womackian vision. From roughly the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act until the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, labor had access to tools that are now off limits: recognition strikes, sit-downs, secondary boycotts. The postwar compromise was predicated on tolerating collective bargaining, provided those tools were put down for good. Experimenting with disruptive tactics again is likely to bring about forms of repression the likes of which we have not seen for a few generations. The possible benefits are enormous, but any action for which people might be put under the jail must obviously be undertaken with extreme caution.

At present, the Left is rent between those who emphasize the importance of disruption, rioting, sabotage, etc., and those who encourage us to stay the democratic course. The more anarchistic emphasis on dramatic disruption can often be fantastical, but given the constraints of modern labor law, where many ways of gaining leverage are straightforwardly illegal, it does seem necessary to start some conversation about the forms of strategic illegality that labor activists might want to take up. Womack allows us to begin to broach this question in ways that move beyond the dichotomy of blowing it all up versus working within the present institutions.

These questions, difficult and speculative as they can be, all follow from Womack’s analysis, and it’s notable they receive such little discussion in the responses. I have tried to get at the substantive reason for avoidance — that Womack moves us away from thinking about workplace organizing in the typical ways — but perhaps there are more personal and institutional reasons there as well. Some of what Womack articulates bears a resemblance to the vision behind SEIU’s “comprehensive campaigns,” which produced some impressive wins but fell far short of their stated goals. Some on the labor left still bristle at the “smart” strategizing of SEIU luminaries, and maybe Womack’s speculative hipshots are too reminiscent of former president Andy Stern’s thought.

But the stakes for labor today are too high for past grudges to lead to a dismissal of the need for broad strategic reconsiderations. At root, Womack’s labor philosophy is quite basic: “You have to wound capital to make it yield anything. And you wound it painfully, grabbing its attention, when you take direct material action to stop its production, cut its profit.” But how to make good on this idea, with a stolid labor movement in a deindustrialized, logistical economy, is a tremendously complicated matter. Operationalizing Womack would take not just a set of short responses but a research team with real resources. I cannot speak at present to the feasibility of many of Womack’s proposals or the possibilities latent in his thinking, but those proposals and possibilities should at least be recognized for what they are: a massive challenge to the usual ways we think about labor organizing.

What exactly would it take to wound capital today? Womack doesn’t provide all the answers, but he should at the very least get us thinking outside the typical boxes.

About the Author

Benjamin Y. Fong teaches at the Honors College at Arizona State University.