McAlevey no shortcuts

US union organiser, Jane McAlevey, gives us an outspoken and compelling argument about how union organising needs to change, argues Kevin Crane


Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press 2016), 272pp.

Not many trade-union full-timers can do a book plug at Congress House on Tuesday night and actually pack out the auditorium with a remarkably young and diverse audience, but not every trade-union full-timer is Jane McAlevey.

McAlevey caused a significant stir three years ago with her previous book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), a compelling and provocative memoir-cum-manifesto in which she laid out how she felt her experiences of organising low-waged service workers, notably private-sector nurses in US states with anti-union legislation, demonstrated important theoretical and practical points for the labour movement as a whole. Central to her argument is that the much vaunted turn to an ‘organising model’ by much of the trade-union movement in the previous decade has been deeply flawed by unhelpful ideas about what organising really means and the mistaken actions that flow from these. With the new book, she continues this argument.

In contrast to Raising Hell, No Shortcuts is a much more conventionally analytical work, focusing not on the author’s own experience but instead being based on research and interviews with people involved in a variety of labour movement campaigns in almost every corner of America. One of these, the Chicago Teachers Union, will be familiar to many readers in Britain as it was widely reported by the international left a few years ago, but the others are probably completely unknown to an international audience. The analytical approach means that McAlevey can demonstrate the applicability of her ideas, including examples where she believes they are proved in the negative by models of organising that she disagrees with, in a much broader range of contexts.

The book opens with an extensive discussion of what McAlevey believes a real organising model ought to consist. The debate on union organising in America has, for around a generation now, come down to a counter-position of a conservative and bureaucratic ‘advocacy model’ to a more dynamic ‘organising model’. We should be familiar with this in Britain, as the debate has been similar, although we have tended to use the phrase ‘service model’ in place of ‘advocacy model’. McAlevey, however, argues that the terms of reference have been fundamentally wrong. She acknowledges that there has been a shift away from a largely inactive advocacy/service model of what unions are supposed to do. The old service model amounts to not much more than to try to appeal to business and government at the absolute top levels, on behalf of members who are there primarily to pay their subs.

The new shift has been toward one that campaigns, that is political and reaches out to movements. However, she says that the way that many unions are doing this is failing to significantly break with the biggest problem of the older model. This is because it still relies on officials doing almost all the real work, calling workers only to show very passive support. She calls this top-down alternative the ‘mobilising model’, since it is based on utilising workers as a stage army. For her, a real organising model is another alternative that relies on getting workers to take their own direct action, which union organisers should support them in but never do on their behalf. When launching the book at the TUC, she said she thought of good union staff like good sports coaches: they help build and train a good team, but the players actually have to win the game.

The steps required to get to that model are explained in chapter two, complete with helpful diagrams. To say that one begins any organising campaign with research and mapping is not in itself a departure from the mobilising model of which McAlevey is critical – what she argues is that that particular model researches and maps workers and communities according to an illogical view that workers and ‘the people’ are in some way separate entities. The concept she advocated in the previous book, ‘whole worker organising’, is reintroduced and fleshed out as better way of doing things. The great mass of the people are workers, and relate to other workers, so any map of workers has to consider the relationships in their whole life. This includes not just work and politics, but also family, locality, religion, and even things like sports affiliations, which all add up to a working map of actual and potential power. This works from the point of view mapping the opposition, too, since a hostile employer or government administration will also be made up of actual people who are themselves not simply defined by a singular socio-economic role.

With maps in place, Jane then explains how to progress your project through the iterative use of what she calls ‘structure tests’. This is where you actually try to get your organisation to take some sort of action toward a goal, evaluate how well or badly it went and then set up a next test accordingly. This will, in these days of very weak unionisation and industrial action, inevitably have to start small. The featured example in the book is a simple collection of workers’ signatures to a simple demand from management. The twist on this basic bit of petitioning that defines it as an organising rather than mobilising approach is that no union staff gathered the signatures: workers had to get other workers to sign. Not all the workers you ask to do something like this will be able to do it, those that can are clearly leaders in the true sense that other people around them follow them. An interesting distinction is teased out in the book here between workers who genuinely act as leaders, and activists who may have ideological investment in a cause but do not influence other workers.

If a structure test goes well, you can advance to something a bit more challenging, with strike action being the final and most important example. If, however, workers cannot be confident enough to do basic things like petitioning and appealing to community or faith groups to speak and demonstrate in their defence, it is actually unlikely that they will remain solid in a strike. The problem with the ‘mobilising’ model as McAlevey identifies it, is that by getting sophisticated professional campaign teams to do this broad campaigning on workers’ behalf, the structures required for industrial action are neither built nor tested, and this is why, she argues, strikes have not risen despite significant reorganisation and re-politicisation of the unions since the turn of the century. I think we can recognise many of the problems she is talking about on this side of the Atlantic.

I heartily recommend this book to all socialists. There are doubtless some things we could all take issue with. Her telling of the history of community organising is not flattering and may be questioned by some who are more knowledgeable than me about the subject, and that’s before we get onto her scathing criticisms of US union leaders of whom she disapproves (did I mention she is notoriously unbothered by what other people think of her?). Being an American book, some of the terminology, despite a genuine attempt to minimise jargon, just doesn’t translate well, because Britain has different laws, different institutions and a different economy. I only know what the terms ‘union security state’ and ‘right-to-work state’ mean, as an example, because I read the other book.

This also extends very much to the political context: unions in America relate to the Democratic Party, which seems may seem odd to us, but there are quite simply no mass left-wing parties in the USA and, barring some significant changes, there is not going to be any time soon. However, what I would suggest is that we can learn from a really useful book like this, and produce similar studies of the labour movement in our context.

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