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“Labor Power and Strategy”: Historian John Womack on Organizing the Working Class

Web ExclusiveJuly 18, 2023
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Part 2 of our interview with John Womack Jr., legendary historian and labor organizer. He is one of the foremost historians of the Mexican Revolution, author of the book, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. His new book is Labor Power and Strategy.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with John Womack Jr., the legendary historian and economist. He’s one of the foremost historians of the Mexican Revolution, author of the book Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. He 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?”

We thank you so much for joining with us. I wanted to ask you about what immigration, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, has to do with labor unions. You talk about the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s efforts at the time, now the ILG, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, joined with ACTWU, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, to form UNITE. And then they went together with HERE, hotel employees, restaurant employees, to be UNITE HERE. What did that original union, the ILG, have to do with the Immigration Act? And how did that affect labor in the United States?

JOHN WOMACK JR.: Well, the garment industry had been recruiting labor, cheap labor, unorganized labor, especially from — well, from very — all over the world. So, there were people from Mexico, people from the Philippines, people from [inaudible] — across Asia. And the ILGWU began to organize them. And they did it strategically. They would go to particular parts of the plant — for instance, the cutters in a garment factory — and organize them. And then that would get all the people who depended on cutters, coming to cutters and going from cutters, to organize.

And so that the ILGWU had a powerful interest in immigration. They wanted it to keep coming. But at the same time, they wanted to organize it. And so, it led in California to some major disruptions in the industry and to major organizations of labor and is one of the things that’s made L.A. such a dynamic part of the U.S. labor scene now. And there were other unions, as well. The movement of Janitors for Justice, the same thing. The SEIU has the same interest both in immigration and in organizing immigrants. And that, of course, raised all kinds of questions about racial differences. But one of the wonderful things about that movement was that they were able to overcome those kinds of differences, ethnic squabbles and so on, and form really unified labor struggles.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: John Womack, but following up on your concept of the strategic portions within any particular industrial union, like the cutters in the garment industry, wasn’t there also a problem, though, that as these — once the capitalists recognize who are the vital workers, they tend to pay them better and treat them, to some degree, better than the rest of the workers. And, for instance, in the garment industry, most of the cutters were white men, and then, increasingly, as the union changed in character, most of the seamstresses and the pressmen and the less skilled workers were all Black and Hispanic, and the union itself reflected those hierarchies within itself. What are the dangers of this concentration on a particular skill group within any industry as the heart of the union’s power?

JOHN WOMACK JR.: That’s a very good point. The people who run these industries, the capitalists and their managers, know perfectly well where these points are, or they can figure out where they are. And they’re always trying to organize the production, so as that they can control those points, doing favors for the people at the choke points.

So, this is — and it’s an ongoing process, that it’s never stable. By the time workers have figured out where the choke points are, the manager may well have figured it out already and reorganized the production. But so, it’s a constant struggle. And that’s why there is a movement that is dealing with it. You can’t just figure it out and then figure that that’s the way it’s going to be forever. It won’t stay that way. Technology keeps developing. The organization of production changes.

And workers, who know better than anybody else how production happens and how movement of goods happens and how the sale of goods happens and how the movement and sale of services happens, it’s workers who know better than anybody else where the choke points are, but that the choke points don’t remain the same. And so, workers — the labor movement has to be constantly paying attention to what the technical organization of an industry is, in order to stay ahead in their struggles. That’s the way capitalism works. It’s a constant movement and frequent change. And so, you have to really study it all the time or be aware of it all the time, in order to know where you can have most effect.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about a company like Amazon, for instance? Obviously, big-box stores in a consumer society like ours necessitate big-box warehouses for all of the products that these stores then need to be constantly furnishing or supplying to buyers. But yet, the Amazon, while there have been a few successes, given the size of Amazon, it doesn’t seem like the labor union has really tackled these enormous warehouses with thousands and thousands of workers in a way to really build union density at all. Your thoughts on that?

JOHN WOMACK JR.: Well, that’s true. The unions — or, the main union in Amazon is the one on Staten Island. There are recent ones, unions formed. Workers joined the Teamsters. Amazon workers joined the Teamsters in California. But it’s not — but Amazon is largely — it works through contractors. The drivers are subcontracted, and so — but that’s basically a scam. Amazon controls the people it contracts with. And so, you have to organize with a company that you are nominally employed by, in order to have an effect on Amazon.

And until the labor movement, the AFL-CIO or other independent unions devote some of their major
funds that they have in their treasuries to organizing at Amazon and organizing, above all, at the warehouses, because that’s where — that’s the choke point. There are major sorting centers that Amazon runs where the goods come in. They have to be sorted to put on the right trucks to be sent out to the final destination. But you can pick certain of those major sorting centers, and if several of those go to a union, that would make — it happens in a kind of, as I see it, and these unionizing movements happen in a kind of avalanche. That one rock falls, and that moves other rocks, and eventually the whole side of the mountain gives way. And that’s what you want in a company like Amazon or in the big three automobile industries. But Amazon, in particular, depends on those warehouses, and that, above all. And if they can organize several of the big warehouses, that, I think, would make a big, big difference.

AMY GOODMAN: How can the labor movement better harness the economic, social, cultural and political power of women workers, Professor Womack?

JOHN WOMACK JR.: Well, they are already in. There are a lot of women in the Teamsters. And they dominate the teachers’ unions and the healthcare industry. And so, I think they, by — and the airlines, the what we used call stewardesses. They have a major impact. If they don’t go on a flight, then the flight doesn’t go.

So, I think if the labor movement put — it has significant treasuries. If it put money into campaigns where there are women workers, it would make a big difference. It makes a big difference in the SEIU and in both the major teachers’ unions. And so, I think it’s basically a matter of the labor movement putting its money where sometimes its mouth is, and supporting the organizing campaigns where there are women, and that would make a huge difference to the labor movement and, I think, in our society at large.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the pandemic, do you think, change the picture for labor in this country? The whole term, the use of “essential workers,” yet, sadly, so often, as people referred to essential workers, they were referring to the people lowest paid in society.

JOHN WOMACK JR.: Well, the pandemic had massive effects of all kinds on the labor movement, on the supply chains, but also in something as simple as the grocery stores. So, the essential workers were — and often they’re, in some way, strategic. The checkout people, there are — in CVS, you can go through an automatic checkout system, but most people don’t do it. I don’t. And I don’t see many other people compared to the traffic that goes through CVS. So, those checkout people are crucial to the traffic and — the commercial traffic. But they all, as many as could do it, showed up for work. But, of course, as the pandemic has faded, though it’s not over, they didn’t get — they’re not treated any better than they were before.

And so, I think it’s in a crisis when you recognize what kind of workers you really need. But once the crisis has passed, it’s basically the market that takes over, and need is replaced by greed. And so, those workers really can’t — they should, but they can’t — get more, unless they unionize and demand it. There were threats here at major grocery chains some time ago in New England, and it made a big difference, threats to strike and to close the grocery stores. It’s true there are other grocery stores, but people have their habits, and there’s the time it takes to move to another store. So, the pandemic, I think, it showed up a lot of the choke points in the economy. But once the pandemic faded, and unless workers took advantage of those choke points during the pandemic, they don’t have much to show for it afterward.

AMY GOODMAN: A last question, Professor Womack. You were born in Oklahoma. You went on to become —


AMY GOODMAN: — this legendary historian, particularly of the Mexican Revolution. You wrote Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. What gives you the most hope now, as you talk about labor power and strategy and reflect back on your life, a professor emeritus at Harvard University of Latin American history? What gives you most hope?

JOHN WOMACK JR.: Well, that nothing happens unless people work. And that’s — people have to work in order to produce things or to provide services. And so, that gives me — I think I first became aware of that when I was in high school working on construction and at some — and some musical groups, folk songs. And Woody Guthrie was from Oklahoma, and that made a big difference to me. And so, but that’s a hundred years ago now. But there are certain things that don’t change much, and the one thing is that society depends on work. And as long as there are workers, some of them will see the benefits in organizing and using their power, particularly in strategic ways.

AMY GOODMAN: John Womack, we want to thank you so much for being with us, legendary historian — new book, Labor Power and Strategy — professor emeritus of Latin American history and economics at Harvard University, speaking to us from there in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also author of Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. This is Democracy Now!

JOHN WOMACK JR.: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much, John. All the best.

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

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