Review: Labor Power and Strategy: Learning from the Garment Workers
John Womack Jr.’s new book, Labor Power and Strategy (PM Press, 2023), edited by Peter Olney and Glenn Perusek and with responses from 10 organizers, labor activists, and educators, is a timely consideration of some basic strategic principles.
Womack maintains that the primary power that workers have is structural power—that is, power based on their position in the production process. Associational power—developed via collective organizations like unions—derives from this structural power.
My view is that whether associational power or structural power is primary is historically contingent, and that no matter which is primary at a given moment, they are closely linked in practice.
The early years of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union were a compelling example of associational power. Its principal organizing method was the general strike, as in the shirtwaist strike of 1909, also known as “the Uprising of the 20,000,” or the Cloakmakers strike of 1910. But in the practice of the general strike, whether a particular shop was shut down and the workers were on the picket line often depended on whether key workers with structural power—cutters, pressers, skilled sewers—stopped work.
In subsequent decades, as the garment industry turned more and more to outsourced production—what the union called the “outside system of production,” where the brands (then known as “jobbers”) relied on cutting and sewing contractors, the ILGWU adopted a structural power approach, getting key workers to stop work at critical points in the complex production network. Still, associational power was essential to the sustainability of the strike once workers were on the street.
The general strike was to reappear as a method to take on large numbers of employers in the 1958 Dressmakers’ strike and the 1982 general strike in New York’s Chinatown. But in those cases, in addition to the associational power of thousands of union members hitting the bricks, the ILGWU organizers and activists used their knowledge of structural vulnerabilities—they won by targeting strategic cutting facilities and distribution centers and exploiting the conflicting interests of Seventh Avenue “jobbers” and the Pennsylvania or Chinatown sewing contractors.
ATTACK THE RELATIONSHIPS
The very first session of the ILGWU Organizing Institute, which had been operating for two decades before I became an instructor in 1982, was a detailed examination of “The Jobber-Contractor Relationship,” focused on the dynamic and diverse relationships among the many types of production, distribution, and management sites in a typical garment production network.
This was followed up with a discussion of how to attack these relationships, put them under pressure, and break them apart—using the power and knowledge of the workers at key intersections of production, such as the cutters in the cutting contractors, buttonhole operators or sleeve setters in sewing contractors, struck work clauses in the union contracts of embroidery or pleating contractors, and knowledge of the production network by shipping clerks.
This understanding—the result of decades of experience in general strikes, jobbers’ pickets, and recognition strikes—was handed down by generations of organizers who had mostly been recruited out of the shops.
It resulted in a style of organizing that was based on the maxim, “Know the enemy and know yourself, and you need not fear one hundred battles.”
We had other maxims too: “If you can’t organize, disorganize”—recognizing that the complex nature of production makes the system vulnerable to partial or minority strikes at key junctures.
Or “When the wise guys show up, a week later we will have a contract”—understanding that the employers would soon run out of money to pay thousands of dollars to mob trucking firms for pickups and deliveries, and be forced to choose between accepting the mob as a silent partner or settling with the union.
This history of creative disruption, based on concrete knowledge and understanding of a complex production network, carried out by garment workers and organizers out of the shops, would have made a good story in the book.
THE GUESS CAMPAIGN
The Guess strike in Los Angeles was an example of the ILGWU (then UNITE) approach. The union spent months in investigation, analysis, and campaign planning, preparing for majority strikes in the strategic inside cutting and distribution center and minority strikes in most of the 30 sewing contractors, employing a total of 3,000 workers.
This was combined with a corporate campaign that cost the company millions of dollars in a depressed price for its IPO, an effective attack on the company’s public image, a wage theft case that settled for a million dollars, and the formation of boycott committees on university campuses that were the precursor of United Students Against Sweatshops.
Our attack was successful to the point that Guess’ production network, the largest employer in the Los Angeles garment industry, was completely disrupted; the company’s only recourse was to move production out of Los Angeles to Mexico. After meeting with UNITE and rejecting our proposed contract, Guess allied with the notorious “denim king” of Mexico, Kamel Nacif, and made use of the Nacif network of production facilities in Tehuacan, Puebla.
UNITE filed charges at the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the move to escape union organizing was illegal. This was one of the first cases considered after the enactment of NAFTA; the Clinton Labor Board ruled in Guess’ favor.
UNITE organizers went to Puebla and investigated the production network, and found the workers discontented and ready to organize. But we were prevented by UNITE President Jay Mazur from pursuing Guess to Puebla, ostensibly “for political reasons.” A few years later, workers in the Nacif production network rebelled, and most of the factories were closed. Guess moved production again, this time to China.
MISSING: INTERNATIONAL DIMENSION
The failure of the campaign at Guess, even after its domestic production network was shut down by the strike, shows that the lack of an internationalist dimension is really a strategic weakness of the US labor movement. This should have been an important part of the discussion in Labor Power and Strategy.
It is now 50 years after the passage of Item 807 of the tariff code, which encouraged the offshoring of garment assembly to the free trade zones of the Dominican Republic and Central America; 30 years after the passage of NAFTA; and 25 years after the Seattle anti-globalization protests—and we are still discussing strategy only in terms of domestic production?
Most of the production networks of the Fortune 500 are international, and a big reason (beyond the advantages of chasing the lowest wages) is to weaken the power of the labor movement. Any discussion of the United Auto Workers, for example, that doesn’t emphasize the consequences of globalization, or that discusses organizing campaigns at the nonunion “transplant” auto factories without considering how to exploit the vulnerability of their supply chains just across the border, is woefully incomplete.
I like the book, especially the interview with Womack and the chapter by Gene Bruskin on the Smithfield campaign, which shows in concrete terms at the enterprise level what Womack is talking about.
Had the Guess campaign, or the 1997 UPS strike, or the “writers’ strike” of 2007 by the Writers Guild been discussed, there could have been an example of how a strike in a strategic company (one that dominates the regional labor market or a particular industrial sector) or union (one that can shut down an entire industry) can have a powerful impact on a region or industry. That too is an example of labor’s structural and associational power.
Jeffery Hermanson is an organizer who has worked with the ILGWU (later UNITE), the Carpenters, the Writers Guild, and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. He is currently based in Mexico and working with the International Union League, an organization of garment and textile unions in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. For more on the Guess campaign, see “Guess Again: Revisiting the Last Major U.S. Apparel Union Campaign at 25” by Justin McBride, The Journal of Labor and Society, June 2021.