Friday Jun 02

Spring 2023

EXCERPT - Strategic Workers and Supply Chain Chokepoints

From Labor and Strategy

As Director of Organizing at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union  (ILWU), the west coast dockworkers union, I had the pleasure of witnessing and organizing the power of workers on the waterfront to shut down key nodes in the global economy. Over time this power has been exercised to the benefit not only of dockworkers, but also for the benefit of liberation and solidarity struggles worldwide. I became aware of Harvard Professor Emeritus John Womack’s writings on this topic and began a long engagement with him on this subject. I decided that his thoughts needed to be recorded and popularized so I interviewed him twice in 2018 at the Foundry Restaurant in Davis Square, Somerville, MA.  Then working in collaboration with my co-editor Glenn Perusek, we decided to get 10 of labor’s best educators and organizers to respond to Womack on the topic of strategic position and strategic workers. That is the genesis of the newly published dialogical work from PM Press: Labor Power and Strategy. Here are some excerpts from the book:

Olney: How did you come to be interested in the topic of strategic sectors and strategic workers?

Womack: In 1978, after ten years of the research that I could do while teaching, I started writing a history of Mexican industrial workers, 1880–1910. This wasn’t to be a national history but a history of workers in the state of Veracruz, where several of the most technologically modern industries in Mexico then were transportation, textiles, electrical power, brewing, sugar, and oil, both production and refining. I wanted to go from the early stages of increasing capitalist momentum in Mexico, from the first major railroad in the 1870s, through British, US, and French imperialist conflict over predominance there (1880–1910), up through the Revolution. This was back- ground to explain what workers did—and didn’t do—during the Revolution (1910–20).

But I was trying to explain this history of Mexican workers mainly in a way that most historians of labor explained questions then, in terms of what they call social history. That is, ethnicity, language, social experience, social attitudes, and so on. I thought especially about internal migration, which I still think worked in Mexico rather as foreign immigration of labor works here. If people from Oaxaca, who spoke an Indian language, moved to work in a textile mill in Veracruz, where everybody is speaking Spanish, you might as well have been Italian and moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, and worked in a textile mill there.

But then I thought, “Wait. What are these people doing most of their waking lives? They’re working. That is to say, they’re on the job, doing whatever it is they get paid to do, and so I wondered, what is it they do every day at work?” So I tried to write, what does a railroad worker do?

This was the problem. There is no generic railroad worker. They work in different departments; they do technically different kinds of things from department to department. I realized it’s like work at Harvard. “I work at Harvard.” Well, do you work in the Police Department or the Development Office (“fundraising,” i.e., endowment accumulation) or maintenance or the administration or on the faculty, teaching? And which faculty? Law, business, arts and sciences, wherever—what do you do at work? I didn’t know what to call this kind of question at the time. But I began to study what people who did know called the technical division of labor, typically organized according to different departments.

What kind of analysis do labor analysts need to be doing?

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.

 How do we avoid sectional exclusivity?  

These technically strategic workers, crane operators, others like them, who are highly skilled and seriously experienced workers, need to know on whom they depend at work. If they don’t know it, they need the education to learn it. Except for artisans who not only know all the mysteries of their craft from start to finish, but actually perform them, everybody at work depends on somebody else, in modern industries on numerous somebodies. Those cranes need maintenance; I can’t imagine the operators do it, but they depend on it, so that maintenance is also technically strategic, not in the same way, not as positionally concentrated as direct operation, but essential for steady, safe operation. You can see some technical power wherever there are moving parts. It’s one of the reasons why I think machinists’ unions everywhere, a trade union, were so widespread in industry, and so powerful. It started already when machines were wood. The first machinists were carpenters, for water wheels and cranes and looms and wagons. In transport, on railroads, in trucking—you can’t run them without machinists. And try to keep a computerized project on schedule or a computerized network in smooth flow without “tech help.”

But it’s not only the technically privileged who need to know on whom they depend at work, the less privileged need to know who depends on them. I doubt they now typically do, especially young workers. Both the technically most privileged and the technically least privileged need to know, if only for prudential reasons, the technical complex of mutual dependence. And in the union or without a union the worker’s workplace council should be teaching it to them. Workers in all positions need this kind of engineering education. 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 in a team sport, a firefighter company, the armed forces, I think you get real attention to how much mutual dependence means, technical interdependence, the practical value and real advantage of comradeship at work.

Where do organizers need to focus?

But you organizers, refocus strategically: Most important for the labor movement, many jobs in manufacturing, transportation (land, water, and air), warehousing, and construction, are increasing faster than the average increase in overall employment, or at least as fast as average, and on the most credible projections they will be increasing fast for a decade or more. For labor these are strategic industries, and the jobs on fast increase, hundreds of thousands of them, are at technically strategic positions. Check the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook online, A–Z Index, for example, “Industrial Machinery Mechanics, Machinery Maintenance Workers, and Millwrights,” or “Passenger Vehicle Drivers,” or “Hand Laborers, Freight, Stock, and Material Movers.”1 The increase projected for industrially and technically strategic positions is far from the huge increase projected for jobs such as home health and personal care aide. But from a strategic perspective it is incomparably more important. In economically strategic industries workers at technically strategic jobs will have extraordinary collective power over US production, profit, and capital, and so will have new power in national politics. If deliberately organized, they could use the power for all working people’s sake.

Labor Educator Jack Metzgar responds to Womack:

Strategic position is as important as Womack claims but is not the only important thing. Nonstrategic workers, like those in retail and personal care, need to organize and form unions too. Nonstrategic workers already in unions, like hotel and restaurant workers, need to organize themselves to win better wages and conditions and so they can organize others. Unions always have limited resources, especially now, and that’s why they need to focus their organizing, as Womack argues, on workers in strategic positions that can win power not only for themselves but for other workers and for the working class as a whole. But all forms of organizing are about building associational power, solidarity, the power of numbers in organized collective action. Associational power is necessary (and not derivative) to turn technically strategic positions into powerful economic and political levers that can bend capital to the popular will.

JOHN WOMACK, JR. is the Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics, emeritus, at Harvard University.

PETER OLNEY is a retired director of oganizing for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Labor and Strategy is available from PM Press at