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Historian John Womack: Unions Need to Exploit “Choke Points” in Economy to Grow Working-Class Power

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As Hollywood actors enter their fifth day on the picket lines and some 340,000 Teamsters working at UPS prepare to carry out one of the largest single-employer strikes in U.S. history, we speak with historian and labor organizer John Womack Jr. about his new book, Labor Power and Strategy, focused on how to seize and build labor power and solidarity. Labor actions around the world are gaining headlines this week. In Italy, over 1,000 flights were disrupted as airport and airline workers went on a two-day strike for higher wages and better benefits. Members of the Union of Southern Service Workers at a South Carolina Waffle House participated in a three-day strike protesting safety and pay conditions.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, with Juan González in Chicago, as we turn now to the workers flexing power across the United States in what some are calling a hot labor summer. Actors in SAG-AFTRA have entered their fifth day on strike, after the union joined tens of thousands of members of the Writers Guild of America in a combined strike. Meanwhile, the head of the Teamsters has asked the White House not intervene if some 340,000 unionized UPS workers go on strike without a breakthrough on contract negotiations by the end of the month. This comes as workers at a Waffle House restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina, went on a three-day strike over the weekend to protest low pay and unsafe working conditions they say the company has refused to address.

JESSICA GANTT: I’ve been with the company 24 years. In this time, I’m only making $16 an hour. I’ve been through two robberies, and I’ve had guns in my face, in 24 years. I definitely think they could do better than $16 an hour. I’m almost 47 with a herniated disc in my back. You think they’re going to get me any mat or anything good to stand on back there on the concrete floor, while they brought me 17-hour shifts back to back? No. I think Waffle House Incorporated could do me better than that. I’ve blood, sweat and tears for this company over the years. They could do a little bit better than what they’ve done. After 24 years, that’s why I’m out here striking today.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by the legendary historian and labor organizer John Womack, one of the foremost historians of the Mexican Revolution, has also written extensively about Labor Power and Strategy, which is the title of his new book. It’s featured in The Nation in a piece headlined “What Does It Take to Win a Strike?” When Womack was recognized by the Mexico City government for his work in 2009 as it marked the bicentennial of Mexican independence and of the Mexican Revolution, he passed on his award to the electricians’ union in support of their struggle. At the time, they had been locked out by the public power agency in Mexico City and surrounding states as they demanded better working conditions. The Washington Post once called John Womack a “Marxist historian.” He is professor emeritus of Latin American history and economics at Harvard University, where he is joining us now.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Womack. Why don’t you lay out your arguments in this book, and why, as a historian of the Mexican Revolution, for which you are world-renowned, you are now focusing on labor power and strategy?

JOHN WOMACK JR.: Well, thank you for having me on the show.

I should try to — well, I started out working on Mexico, on Mexican history, and had concentrated on the Mexican Revolution. And while doing some research on Mexico City during the revolution, there were three general strikes in the city of then about 350,000. But crucial in them was the electrical workers’ union. Then, I thought, “Well, this is interesting. Where are they?” And it turned — there were various places in the city, but the main place was a power plant about 60 miles or so north of the city, and where there were only about a hundred workers. But when they shut down the power plant, they shut down Mexico City. I thought, “Well, that’s very interesting.” And then, further, there were major railroad strikes in the 1920s, but crucial there was the electrical — was the mechanic or the machinist workers, who were in the railroad shops — they weren’t on the railroads, but they were in the shops maintaining the trains — and the telegraphers, the dispatchers. And there were — 500 dispatchers across the country could shut down a railroad that employed 30,000. So, I thought, “This is very interesting,” and I wondered where else it’s happening.

And so, from there, I looked at other industries and then outside Mexico. And it happens anywhere, that there is a technical division of labor, on a small scale or on an industrial scale, where a few workers are at bottlenecks, or choke points, where if they act, if they stop work, lots of other workers have to stop work. And it’s clearest in transportation, where, quintessentially, the crane operators in San Francisco or Los Angeles, they can tie up the whole supply chain. But it’s not — or, on railroads, again, the people sending messages are crucial. The trains have to run on time, and quite on time, or they run into each other and there are derailments. And so, that impressed me.

But it goes much further. And it’s not only highly skilled people, like crane operators or dispatchers, but the people in the warehouses. If they don’t unload and load the freight, nothing moves, and things block up. It’s choked there at the warehouse. That’s how Hoffa built the Teamsters. It wasn’t so much from the drivers; it was the people in the warehouses.

But it goes further. It goes into services, like healthcare or public schools. The big California school strike this past year had a major impact on California’s budget, quite aside from the classrooms and everything, but it had a major impact on California’s state system. And the earlier, a few years ago, West Virginia and the Oklahoma teachers’ strikes had a major impact on the states where they happened and on the families, which need schools, if nothing else than to take care of their kids, quite aside from the education that the teachers are giving. But it’s not so — and all those are skilled, but there are other choke points, in buildings, where if you — in a major office building in any big city, or small city, for that matter, if the janitors don’t clean the building, it’s unbearable after a few days. And bus drivers, that’s a skilled work, but if bus drivers don’t serve the public school system, that throws a lot of disturbance into the cities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: John Womack, I wanted to ask you — in terms of this analysis of yours, clearly, capitalists are able to adapt and develop strategies to reduce the power of these workers that are in key sectors. For instance, in the transportation industry, clearly, the businesses have gone more and more to independent truckers to prevent precisely the kind of situation being faced now with Teamsters and the UPS drivers. What areas do you think labor is missing in being able to have this strategic approach to organizing? First, I think your book talks a lot about IT departments within companies. And obviously, the tech workers in any company are critical to that company being able to function. But yet labor law is weak in the U.S. on this issue. What are the sectors in society today that you see as critical to an organized labor movement becoming stronger?

JOHN WOMACK JR.: Well, technical work, of course. Anything that has to do with computers is crucial. And there are all sorts of levels of skill in technical, technically organized industries. But there are still old-fashioned parts of the economy — automobile parts, for instance, throughout the South. There are a number of plants there that could remake the UAW if they had a plan for — maybe they do. I don’t — it’s not clear. But if they had a plan for organizing those automobile parts, that would double the size of the UAW.

And in IT, it’s also maintenance. And that is a skill. And, for instance, in robotic factories or in robotically organized now warehouses, those machines are — they are machines — they have to be maintained. And the people who are in the shops where they maintain those things have a crucial power, a strategic power. That’s what the strategic is about. It’s about these particular choke points in any industry or in any plant.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk more about choke points in Part 2 of our conversation. We’re talking to John Womack, legendary historian and labor organizer. His new book, Labor Power and Strategy. He is professor emeritus of Latin American history and economics at Harvard University. He is the author of The Mexican Revolution and Zapata.

Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. To see the podcasts of our broadcasts, video and audio, go to The transcripts are there, as well. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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