By Peter Olney and Rand Wilson for LaborNotes, published Feb. 15th 2023
John Womack is well-known in the United States as one of the foremost historians of the Mexican revolution, as the author of the seminal Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. However, his writings on strategic sectors and strategic workers have not received the same attention. In the current organizing upsurge, Womack’s thoughts on these subjects, which he shares in the new book, Labor Power and Strategy, have a lot to offer a new generation of union activists seeking to run smart, strategic, and effective campaigns.
And fortunately, in our just-in-time, next-day delivery, consumer economy, there is no shortage of opportunities for identifying chokepoints and taking advantage of supply chain issues to build labor’s power and promote solidarity. As one of the editors and a contributor to the book, we hope that this short volume will help workers and organizers at Amazon, Starbucks, or any other exploitative employer think about how to maximize worker power.
Ports and Rails: Key Nodes
The passage last year of the Ocean Shipping and Reform Act has empowered the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) to make new and revised regulations to control the movement of goods in the nation’s ports. The members of the FMC appointed by President Biden are grappling with ways to expedite the flow of goods economically with particular attention to the plight of domestic agricultural producers who cannot get space on outbound ships. At the same time the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is engaged in coastwise negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association for a new contract covering dockworkers in the 29 west coast ports. The current agreement expired last July 1.
Last fall, tremendous attention was placed on the negotiations between the twelve rail unions and the seven “Class I” freight railroads, which eventually resulted in a settlement imposed by Congress.
The media spotlight shone brightly on these two key nodes in the global supply chain. However, concern for workers in the public discourse extends only so far as to how their work impacts consumers and profits. Labor organizers, dedicated to building working class power, must look at the same “choke points” and strategize as to how workers through their unions can take advantage of these positions to amplify their collective influence.
Looking along the same supply chain, workers at two Amazon fulfillment centers, one in Bessemer, Alabama, and the other on Staten Island in New York City are similarly attempting to gain collective power at strategic choke points. Amazon “fulfillment” centers are not new age self-actualization salons, but giant, million-square-feet facilities that stow, store, and pick thousands of products for shipment to Amazon sortation and delivery centers in the e-commerce chain leading to the “last mile” of delivery. These facilities each employ upwards of 5,000 workers on three shifts and use a combination of manual labor and robots to move product to random spots in the warehouse. When an order for a product arrives, they are accessed using artificial intelligence and sophisticated algorithms for shipping fulfillment.
In the spring of 2021, after an aggressive campaign of harassment and intimidation by management, workers at the mammoth Bessemer fulfillment center voted against union representation with the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union (RWDSU). Amazon management committed so many blatant unfair labor practices that the NLRB ordered a new election. The second vote in March 2022 was much closer, but inconclusive, pending litigation to resolve the eligibility of challenged ballots that will determine the outcome. RWDSU also filed 23 objections with the NLRB regarding management’s conduct during the second election.
On Staten Island, the independent Amazon Labor Union shocked the world last April after winning the first union election at Amazon. It was the largest election win in the private sector since the Smithfield pork processing victory in Tar Heel, North Carolina, in 2008, which is covered in a chapter in Labor Power and Strategy by campaign organizer Gene Bruskin.
Who can jam up the works?
Labor strategists grappling with the future of organizing at Amazon know that an NLRB election victory, while an important step, is not the end game or even the only path to winning recognition. Regardless, how will Amazon workers negotiate a first contract that achieves the rights and benefits once they achieve recognition?
Given the weakness of U.S. labor law, the ability to win that first contract is a question of power. For workers, exerting power in a workplace is often understood simply to be the ability to paralyze production with a strike.
But a strike may not have sufficient member support or even be the best tactic. In fact, it might play into an employer’s hands. A strike in the off-season could benefit the employer by closing down the operation in a period when less work is required. A strike at one facility could be ineffective if a large employer is able to shift production, inventory, or delivery to another facility within their production system.
Conversely, the question needs to be asked whether a strike that closes an entire facility is actually necessary. What if certain workers hold the key to jamming up the works because of their skill, expertise and/or strategic position? Who writes the algorithms crucial to Amazon’s overnight delivery system? Who repairs the robots?
These are only a few examples of the strategic questions that Womack encourages workers looking to build power at Amazon (or any other major employer) to ask.
Womack’s analysis builds on previous work by left-wing organizers like William Z. Foster (Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry) and John Steuben (Strike Strategy), who wrote useful treatises on organizing and strike strategy that also dealt with the question of “strategic workers.”
The interviews with Womack published in Labor Power and Strategy are based on insights on labor strategy from a paper he first delivered in Helsinki, Finland, in 2006. It was later translated into Spanishand published in Mexico, but has yet to be published in English.
In the paper, Womack writes,
modern divisions of labor, however they change in modern economies, have some technically ‘strategic positions’ in them. Wherever these positions may be, shifting as they may, what makes them strategically important is that work there (skilled or not) matters much more than work in other positions (skilled or not), because it holds a division of labor technically together, in production. If work there stops, this forces extensive disruption of work elsewhere. And if the disruption happens in an industry ‘strategic’ in production at large, this forces disruption across the entire economy, even internationally.
Labor Power and Strategy provides an extensive interview with him where he expands on these themes of strategic workers and economic sectors. Following the interview, 10 contemporary labor strategists respond to Womack’s perspectives (the list: Gene Bruskin, Carey Dall, Dan DiMaggio of Labor Notes, Katy Fox-Hodess, Bill Fletcher Jr., Jane McAlevey, Jack Metzgar, Joel Ochoa, Melissa Shetler, and Rand Wilson.)
Our hope is that the book will serve as a guide to discussing and discovering leverage points useful to workers seeking power. As Labor Notes’ book Secrets of a Successful Organizer puts it: “Every boss has a weak spot. Find and use it.” We think that Womack’s insights can be helpful in thinking about these vulnerable spots and identifying places where the labor movement might want to concentrate its forces.
An excerpt from the Womack interview is applicable to thinking about labor strategy for dockers, railroad workers, and Amazon warehouse employees:
So in this kind of struggle, on supply chains, on industrial and technical exchanges, these sorts of connection, I want to argue hard that labor needs network analysis to see where its industrial and technical power is. 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.
Womack’s reflections are broad, ranging from workers on the Mexican railroads to auto workers in Tennessee and Mississippi. He encourages his readers to unravel the employer’s “seam” of production to locate the weak links where labor’s power can be most effectively exercised. Many of the contributors challenge us to also think also about the broader public and community landscape that production takes place in. The book ends with concluding remarks from Womack in response to the contributors.