Which Workers Are “Strategic” to Organize?

Two key questions confront labor: should unions focus on organizing workers with major strategic leverage in the economy? Or should they welcome any workers willing to fight, since that organizing can constitute a major catalyst for other workers?

A robot, alongside a worker, sorts and stacks bins at an Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale, California on August 31, 2021. (Watchara Phomicinda / MediaNews Group / The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

The question about how to revive a shrinking labor movement has taken on great urgency in recent decades. The latest US union membership data is depressing, with only about 10 percent of the workforce formally organized, a proportion getting smaller every year. In the private sector, it’s at a crisis level of 6 percent. In a country where 71 percent approve of unions and half of nonunion workers want to be a union, the interest among workers is there, but the organizing environment is stacked against unions. Employers engage in union busting, and inadequate labor law lets them get away with it. The labor movement as a whole is growing weaker and less able to exert meaningful power.

In the midst of this dilemma comes Labor Power and Strategy. Edited by longtime unionists Peter Olney and Glenn Perušek, the book begins with an interview with historian John Womack Jr, who has studied workers and the labor process in Mexico; ten labor organizers and scholars then respond with their own thoughts about how the labor movement should organize and build power.

In his research, Womack became interested in “industrially strategic positions” that held the most power in the production process. This can then guide worker organizing, as it has throughout labor history, as in the successful 1936–37 United Auto Workers (UAW) strike at the critical General Motors parts-stamping plants in Flint, Michigan, which led to the key breakthrough in organizing the auto sector.

Womack asserts that workers in a production or distribution process are usually involved in several technologies that mesh together and which may create weak links or “choke points” that, because of their centrality in the activities that generate profits, can be used to force concessions from bosses. It often takes industrial research and analysis to uncover this knowledge (often the job of a union’s research department), with the workers’ participation in that analysis being essential.

“Labor needs network analysis to see where its industrial and technical power is,” Womack argues. “It 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.”

Developing this understanding never ends because, as Womack stresses, the ways capital changes its technology and processes, its new “innovations,” are not just important for increasing profits, but also central to fighting workers’ attempts to gain power. We need to understand these processes particularly in the logistics sector — the global supply chains of products, services, and information — which is under continuous reorganization and is of growing importance to capitalists’ strategy.

But what about other workers? When asked, Womack also recognizes that other workers are positioned to create disruption, as seen with a number of education and fast-food worker strikes in recent years. Those workers might not occupy key strategic nodes in global commerce in the same way that, say, an Amazon worker might, but they can catalyze a wider sense of labor upsurge that can spread to other kinds of workers. As Womack says, such a campaign can have a serious impact, “if it coordinated these struggles in a conscious, purposeful, working-class struggle,” and “gains power so that it can force changes for working-class purposes.”

Organizers Respond

Womack tends to focus on certain kinds of key logistics positions. Many of the respondents worry that this leaves out too many others. The range of responses to Womack’s arguments fall primarily into three main themes: who we should consider strategic, the necessity of building broader solidarity, and how labor should run its campaigns.

Some respondents want a more inclusive understanding of what qualifies as “strategic.” Bill Fletcher emphasizes that where labor should concentrate its resources can “emerge from an analysis of which sectors of society are in struggle” and where the “sites of struggle” are. He mentions the example of the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968. They were central to fusing the black freedom and workers movements, and labor’s failure to follow this with a major public sector campaign in the South was a missed opportunity, says Fletcher. A campaign like that could have had major implications for the politics of the South, which has an outsized influence in pulling national politics rightward.

Similarly, Jack Metzgar thinks Womack underestimates the potential of any group of workers in collective action, their “associational power.” If “nonstrategic” workers want to organize, they should not be dissuaded, because “no organizer is wise enough to know when sheer associational power can win something important to workers, how this might spur future organizing to build even stronger associational power, and then where that additional power might lead.”

Jane McAlevey wants us to have a better understanding of Womack’s concept of power and how to wield it effectively. “From an organizer’s viewpoint, the question is, are the workers capable of creating a crisis big enough that it forces the employers to make concessions?” She argues that the mostly women education and health care workers, who are located everywhere, are well positioned to create these crises with effective strikes, usually winning within a week. These strikes can “soften the terrain” to create the space for other organizing to flourish. She reminds us that we should reconsider the gendered idea that mostly male-dominated jobs (such as logistics and manufacturing) are where real strategic power can be found.

Katy Fox-Hodess worries that Womack pays too little attention to the necessary solidarity that must be built between strategic workers and others. Her research on dockworkers suggests that structural power needs larger associational power to function: “broad-based social support for this highly (technically) strategic group of workers is critical to maintaining their ability to exercise technical strategic power in the first place.” Unless structural workers have much broader support for the use of their power, the state will respond with repression, so finding the right strategic workers to act is necessary, but not sufficient.

Joel Ochoa agrees and believes labor needs to build more solidarity and alliances with other groups, including women and workers of color in jobs that may be considered nonstrategic. He gives the example of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which transformed over time into a powerful and progressive force. Ochoa believes a key reason for this is that in the 1970s, the local International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) prioritized partnerships with Asian and Latino immigrant groups, which led to more immigrants joining unions, wins in immigration policy, and ultimately more prolabor politics in California.

Other respondents stressed the need for labor to organize in ways that actually empower workers. Dan DiMaggio agrees with Womack about the importance of “figuring out which workers are strategically positioned to exert the most leverage, and how to organize them (and convince them to use their power for class-wide, rather than sectional, aims).” A poor alternative, he warns, is to look for leverage “outside of workers themselves” which creates a “middle-class advocacy movement where workers are props.”

Rand Wilson concurs, emphasizing that workers should be the primary source of the knowledge about strategic positions. He says, “Workers are almost always the most knowledgeable source of information about who is in the best position to disrupt the production process or services and where management’s weaknesses lie.”

Carey Dall looks at the heavily unionized US rail sector and sees problems. The massive potential power there is undeveloped because of disorganization and lack of cooperation. “The workers in these unions are not internally organized in a way that can use their strategic position to make deep changes in society.” The unions don’t collaborate, members are disempowered, and union officials are cautious. He calls for deep internal organizing and radical political education of members that can build the capacity to use their potential power.

What should this political education look like? Melissa Shetler challenges the typical kind of union political education that can create passivity and deference to experts. She says, “Union pedagogy . . . should inculcate both the skills of critical thinking and a vision of the student and worker as both the learner and the knower.” For an empowered membership that can disrupt capital, we need to “practice a participatory democracy, and a participatory pedagogy” and “engage workers in collective action in which they are valued, heard, and able to leverage their power.”

Finally, Gene Bruskin discussed the famous Justice@Smithfield campaign, where five thousand workers successfully organized a huge slaughterhouse in North Carolina. The campaign was an example of incorporating Womack’s choke point concept. He says, “In retrospect, some of his insights describe the strategies we eventually came to in order to gain leverage in this David-and-Goliath struggle.” In that campaign, the livestock department was identified as a key target for disruption. A work stoppage involving only ninety workers paralyzed production for the whole plant, contributing to an eventual union election victory — a story told in the documentary Union Time.

Which Way for Labor?

This entire discussion is useful because Womack’s proposal about focusing on strategic positions raised a host of related urgent issues by the respondents.

Personally, I’m sympathetic to Womack’s arguments. Find the strategic positions? Yes. Organize for disruption at the choke points? Absolutely. Should labor sponsor institutes for the study of production, supply chains, and capitalism? Also yes. Labor should be expert in all this, and it should inform campaign decision-making, without completely determining it.

While these kinds of strategic campaigns make sense, we will also need to push the boundaries of traditional organizing. Remember that iconic 1936–37 General Motors strike. Not only did the UAW workers strike the key parts-stamping plants, but they occupied the factory in Flint for over forty days. To win key campaigns involving strategic workers, it will be necessary during a strike to stop scabs from working, through plant occupations or other means. This may involve breaking the law, as the UAW did.

For this, as several respondents urged, we need large-scale support from others, which can lessen state repression. In Class Struggle Unionism, Joe Burns calls for unions to develop the capacity and will to break the law when necessary. So strategic campaigns will necessarily have to add this risky but essential element.

Another question is whether relying too heavily on strategic positions means ignoring other workers who want to organize. The labor movement has a moral obligation to help as many interested workers as possible, even if they are in “nonstrategic” positions. I hate hearing stories of workers itching to organize who call around to unions only to get no response. By most definitions of strategic, Starbucks baristas would not qualify. Yet this campaign has inspired many more workers to organize. These kinds of unexpected organizing outcomes are why I have volunteered for several years with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), whose network of volunteers will help any group of workers start organizing.

Moreover, as a number of respondents pointed out, unions must reorganize themselves in ways that empower members and the workers they are trying to organize. Labor movement growth and power will ultimately not come from top-down decision making and selective strategic campaigns run by union staff. But substantive union democracy is too rare and would make too many union leaders uneasy. Empowering members to effectively confront capital means they will also expect more from their own leadership. But there’s too much potential undeveloped power with how unions are run today.

The recent averted national rail strike, quashed by President Biden, is a perfect example of a huge missed opportunity in this strategic sector. As Dall discussed, we don’t fully use the power we already have in a majority union sector with over one hundred thousand union members. Could workers have successfully struck for paid sick days? Could they have struck for paid sick days for everyone? Could we rally enough public support for that disruptive action? This contract campaign should have been prioritized by the entire labor movement for massive coordinated solidarity. The recent United Electrical workers statement on nationalizing the rail sector points the way toward a bolder strategy. Let’s hear the labor movement’s ten-year plan to achieve that.

And if we were really serious, wouldn’t we have one rail union instead of a dozen, as Womack suggests? And shouldn’t their contract expiration line up with longshore and trucking to create maximum leverage throughout the transportation sector? The rank-and-file organization Railroad Workers United is engaging in that kind of cross-union organizing; we need a lot more of it to build more working-class power.

Our search for developing power in strategic positions is critical but must also be accompanied by building solidarity with allies, democratic reform within unions that enables militancy, and unleashing the energy and participation of millions of workers who are union-curious and need help. There are no easy answers on how unions should prioritize organizing work, but Labor Power and Strategy raises critical issues about building power that the labor movement must confront.