BOOK REVIEW: No Shortcuts

Jane F. McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press). Reviewed by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Jane F. McAlevey, a long-time organizer in the environmental and labour movements, comes to this book with a quite ambitious goal – to seek an explanation as to why the workers’ movement has suffered defeat after defeat to the forces of corporate neoliberalism over the last 50 years or so. She sums up her argument:

First, the reason that progressives have experienced a four-decade decline in the United States is because of a significant and long-term shift away from deep organizing and toward shallow mobilizing. Second, the split between “labor” and “social movement” has hampered what little organizing has been done. Together, these two trends help account for the failure of unions and progressive politics, the ongoing shrinking of the public sphere, and unabashed rule by the worst and greediest corporate interests. Third, different approaches to change lead to different outcomes, often very different outcomes. (Kindle location 140)

Great things were expected from the newer generation of union organizers who took over in the United States’ major union federation, the AFL-CIO, after 1995, whom McAlevey refers to as “New Labor”. And yet, the long series of defeats has continued over the next two decades (386). What has gone wrong?

McAlevey distinguishes three methods of organizing, which she calls the “advocacy”, “mobilizing” and “organizing” models. The advocacy model is the model which we are familiar with from social movements and NGOs. In this model, a professional group of advocates and campaigners acts on behalf of their membership, who are only asked to pay their dues and “help out” with activism organized for them:

Many small advances can be and are won without engaging ordinary people, where the key actors are instead paid lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations professionals, helped by some good smoke and mirrors. That is an advocacy model, and small advances are all it can produce… Advocacy doesn’t involve ordinary people in any real way; lawyers, pollsters, researchers, and communications firms are engaged to wage the battle. (222, 278)

An example of this approach given by McAlevey is that led by America’s SEIU union in the 1990s in the nursing home sector. This union went out of their way to build “partnerships” with nursing home bosses, where the union joined forces with the bosses to press state governments for more funding for the sector, and in return the bosses would remove obstacles to the unions organizing in (certain, selected) workplaces. The really perverse thing about this is that the union also actively discouraged struggles by their members while this was going on:

The employers would select which nursing homes could be unionized during the life of the accord. If workers at nursing homes not selected by the employer… wanted help forming a union, the union would be bound to decline. The union agreed to prohibit the workers from any form of negative messaging or negative campaigning during the life of the agreement” (1524, 1529)

For the union tops, expanding their dues base, by proving to bosses that union membership was “harmless” to their profits and privileges, took priority over the actual needs of their existing members.

The second approach discussed by McAlevey is the “mobilizing” model, in which union full-timers actively encourage workers to campaign and to take strike action in order to win better deals. However, the mobilizing model attempts to sidestep the difficulties and risks involved in all-out strike action by concentrating on other forms of action, which can be carried out by a dedicated, self-selecting minority of workers, with full-time organizers’ help:

Mobilizing is a substantial improvement over advocacy, because it brings large numbers of people to the fight. However, too often they are the same people: dedicated activists who show up over and over at every meeting and rally for all good causes, but without the full mass of their coworkers or community behind them. This is because a professional staff directs, manipulates, and controls the mobilization; the staffers see themselves, not ordinary people, as the key agents of change… (248)

McAlevey argues strongly that, while the mobilising and even the advocacy models can win reforms for workers from the bosses or from the state, only her third approach, the “organizing model” can create real, lasting changes in the lives of workers. This is precisely because it aims to create a majority or super-majority in the workplace, which is the only way in which an all-out strike can be won:

[organizing] places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved, who don’t consider themselves activists at all—that’s the point of organizing… Since organizing’s primary purpose is to change the power structure away from the 1 percent to more like the 90 percent, majorities are always the goal: the more people, the more power. But not just any people. And the word majority isn’t a throwaway word on a flip chart, it is a specific objective that must be met. (290, 314)

The “organizing” model therefore maps precisely onto those forms of politics which the late Hal Draper called “socialism from below”: an insistence that, as Karl Marx said, the liberation of the working class must be the product of working-class self-organization, not something done “for” them by kindly elites or a “professional revolutionary” minority. She contrasts this with both the advocacy and mobilization models. She links the increasing “professionalisation” of labour activism to the increasing influence of the ideas of the famous (or infamous) community organizer, Saul Alinsky:

Today, corporate campaigns continue to locate the fight in the economic arena by threatening to disrupt profit making, but not through workers withholding their labor. Instead, a new army of college-educated professional union staff bypass the strike and devise other tactics to attack the employer’s bottom line. New Labor’s overreliance on corporate campaigns has resulted in a war waged between labor professionals and business elites. Workers are no longer essential to their own liberation… Once the production-crippling strike weapon was abandoned, union leaders no longer saw a need to build a strong worksite-based organization among a majority of workers—one powerful enough that a majority decides to walk off the job, united, together, with common goals. (425, 442)

After 1995, following New Labor’s ascent to positions of power in the national AFL-CIO, justified by the Alinsky assertion “Organizers take orders—leaders lead,” professional staffing ballooned, with many new positions added—researchers, political campaigners, and communicators. People in these positions have at least as much real power as the organizers, if not more, further diminishing the importance and voice of the real “leaders.”

This is why workers, who were once central to labor actions, are now peripheral. The corporate campaign, emulating Alinsky’s tactical warfare, led by a small army of college-educated staff, has taken hold as the dominant weapon against corporations. (975, 999)

The greatest damage to our movements today has been the shift in the agent of change from rank-and-file workers and ordinary people to cape-wearing, sword-wielding, swashbuckling staff. To deny that having experienced staff can be the difference between workers winning and losing is ridiculous and counterproductive. Way more counterproductive has been the wholesale elimination of the crucial role of the rank-and-file workers (at work and at home). (3794)

In contrast, McAlevey explains how the core of the organizing model involves identifying existing worker-leaders, rather than building on the enthusiasm of volunteers:

Only true organic leaders can lead their coworkers in high-risk actions. Pro-union activists without organic leaders are not effective enough, and professional staff organizers certainly cannot do it (744)

Social-movement organizations (SMOs) … and now, unfortunately, unions as well, label as a leader just about anyone who enthusiastically shows up at two successive meetings (even one sometimes), making the words activist and leader interchangeable… But in any strategy for building power, all people are not the same. (952)

Crucially, the organizing model also involves community organizing – in the sense that of understanding that working-class people are embedded in neighbourhoods, ethnic or religious communities, sports teams, and other vitally important networks outside of their working lives. Support from these communities is vital for winning any real majority strike, and understanding this is the basis for McAlevey’s blend of the mobilizing and organizing approaches which she calls “whole-worker organizing” (501).

She particularly stresses religious communities, who – according to research – are the major influences on US working-class communities alongside the labour movement (1292). While many union organizers who come from secular middle-class or socialist traditions are wary of getting involved with religion, McAlevey’s case studies refer to Catholic priests and Protestant preachers playing vital organizing roles in support of successful struggles involving large numbers African-American and Latinx workers. Again, large emphasis is placed on developing existing networks of power and leadership in working-class communities rather than co-opting self-selecting militants.

Only this form of organization, argues McAlevey, can produce sustainable changes in working people’s lives, because what is won is not just concessions from bosses or the state which can be withdrawn at a later date, but real changes in how working-class communities live their lives and understand themselves:

where unions understand their members and unorganized workers to be class actors in their communities, and when the workers systematically bring their own preexisting community networks into their workplace fights, workers still win, and their wins produce a transformational change in consciousness. (510)

If individual actors believe that the purpose of the union is to enable a majority of workers to engage in mass collective struggle—for the betterment of themselves, their families, and their class—then in the related choice point, the role of the workers in the union drive, workers will not be mere symbols of the struggle; they will be central actors in it. If, however, the purpose of the union is only to improve the material condition of workers by increasing the share of company profits they receive, the workers’ role will be greatly diminished; they will function as symbolic actors, not central participants, much as they do in today’s fast-food “wage” campaigns. (1105)

if the workers don’t do the work of building their own union—including preparing for and having a fight—their leadership will not be tested or developed to the level of strength needed for a solid union, one where the rank-and-file workers themselves can govern the workplace after the election victory. (1683)

One interesting consequence of McAlevey’s argument turns on its head the received wisdom of a lot of writers on the labour movement: that the decline of manufacturing in the advanced capitalist (“Western”) countries and the rise of service work is a problem for organization. In fact, argues McAlevey, workers in the health, education and social services sectors potentially hold massive power:

these mostly female, multiracial service workers are as capable of building powerful organizations as they are of building a child’s mind or rebuilding a patient’s body. In fact, they are among the only workers today engaging in production-shuttering strikes. Their organic ties to the broader community form the potential strategic wedge needed to leverage the kind of power American workers haven’t had for decades. (581)

When Chicago’s teachers struck, it was a total disruption of the “production process,” not a merely symbolic action of the kind so common today. Sociologically speaking, the Chicago strike brought a major United States city to a grinding halt. (1683)

Many labor strategists, particularly men, can’t see past the need to reorganize the manufacturing sector… They implore labor to focus more on the logistics sectors, which makes perfect sense and should be high on the movement’s to-do list. But given the domination of the service economy today, we need a unifying strategic plan for and within the service economy. (3696)

In addition, these “mission-driven” workers, whose profession is care, have a fundamental orientation towards solidarity and collective behavior (3724) and have a social status which helps them mobilise the wider public in support (1858). Even the gender composition of this new workforce can be seen as a bonus for whole-worker organizing:

The large numbers of women in today’s workforce—saddled with wage work and endless nonwage work—don’t separate their lives in the way industrial-era, mostly male workers could, entering one life when they arrived at work and punched in, and another when they punched out. (1312)

McAlevey illustrates her argument with case studies from recent US labour history. She compares different methods of organizing in the struggles of nursing home workers in various US states; the successful fight of the Chicago Teachers’ Union against a neoliberal Democrat city leadership; a 15-year struggle for union recognition at a North Carolina pork products factory; and “Make the Road New York”, a social movement concerned with organizing Latinx workers in that city.

If there is a major weakness in this book, it’s that it’s written entirely from the point of view of the United States. Some of the issues with US labour laws coming out of the Roosevelt era which McAlevey discusses are relevant only to that country. That said, globalisation continually reduces the differences between nations, and the lessons of the North Carolina meatworkers’ struggle about building workers’ unity in a deeply ethnically divided workplace (2393), as well as the difficulties of organizing workers with uncertain immigration status, are certainly very applicable in our local context.

Honestly, what I would love to see is a similar book to this, written about recent labour struggles in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Our equivalent to the “New Labor” of which McAlevey speaks would be the kind of unionism which has arisen over the last 15 to 20 years, particularly in and around UNITE, but also pushed forward by young organizers in other unions. These new leaders – many of them with history on the revolutionary Left – have rejected the “partnership with employers” narrative and the “service model” (what McAlevey calls the “advocacy” model) which characterised New Zealand’s union movement after the defeats of the 1990s.

It would be very interesting to look closely at these new unions, and forms of organizing, and ask: do they fit McAlevey’s “organizing” model, or her “mobilizing” model? Are these new forms of worker organizing based on building a super-majority in the workplaces, built around natural worker-leaders, as well as the deep support from working-class communities that can carry out and win indefinite strikes? Or are the real protagonists in these organizations the union full-timers themselves (usually not from working-class communities), who constitute themselves along with a few self-selecting worker militants as a “vanguard” which can successfully carry out symbolic strikes and media campaigns?

The essential message of McAlevey is that, while the mobilising approach can win concessions and reforms, only the organizing approach can build real workers’ power and actually change the lives of working people and their community. But she also explicitly states that her book is about all organizing, not just labour organizing, and the problems of “professionalization” of activism leading to the exclusion of ordinary people extends to all the movements for social and ecological justice (373, 792).

It would be good to see the New Zealand labour and social justice movements grapple seriously with the issues she raises.

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