Review: No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age

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

Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts is an exciting book. It tells the stories of important struggles and it tackles the big questions facing the labor movement. McAlevey is a former staffer, organizer, and national leader of the Service Employees (SEIU) on the losing side of a power struggle, then an academic and now a consultant.

Readers will recognize the concepts McAlevey promotes as driving many of the rank-and-file struggles reported in Labor Notes over the years. She explains them well and provides historical context. If on some topics she “bends the stick” too far and misses some important subtleties or complications, she is bending it in the right direction.

McAlevey builds her argument with five cases. She compares the approaches of two nursing home organizing efforts in what she calls “Class Snuggle vs. Class Struggle.” She goes into depth on the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012, the successful organizing of giant Smithfield Foods in a right-to-work state, and the development of Make the Road New York, a model of community organizing.

THREE MODELS

McAlevey considers three models of action for change. She has least regard for what she calls the “Advocacy Model,” where the central form of action is staff lobbying or working with people in power. Corporate campaigns are an example if they do not engage and empower the workers the campaigns are supposed to help. “Advocacy doesn’t involve ordinary people in any real way,” she says. “Lawyers, pollsters, researchers, and communications firms are engaged to wage the battle.”

McAlevey then emphasizes the difference between mass mobilization and mass organizing. She doesn't give concise definitions, but essentially the organizing model is centered on workers being the primary agents of change—making the decisions, learning from their experiences, and then building to a new level. She also refers to this as the CIO model. The mobilizing model is an important tool, she says, but it too often depends on competent staff who solve the problems, make the decisions, and provide the leadership, while the “masses” are simply troops following directions.

The same activities organized by union members themselves not only create mass pressure, they also help members become self-confident leaders who can go on and organize others. That is why McAlevey champions the mass strike. Besides strikes' taking advantage of worker power at the workplace—the only place where workers have real social power—strikes also raise workers’ consciousness of that power because they are “directly linked to the ability of the workers to win for themselves the kinds of contract standards that are life-changing, such as control of their hours and schedules, the right to a quick response to workplace health and safety issues, the right to increased staffing and decreased workload, and the right to meaningful paid sick leave and vacation time.”

To win a strike workers must be both organized and active on their own behalf: dealing with scabs appropriately, discovering and stopping employer work-arounds, maintaining morale and physical support for long strikes. Presumably the same argument—perhaps even more so—applies to inside campaigns like “running the workplace backwards” and effective strike preparations that force management to back down.

TRANSPARENT BARGAINING

McAlevey rightly insists that unions must challenge the idea that “the union” is a “third party” in the relationship between workers and their bosses. She points out how unions set themselves up for this charge, most obviously during contract bargaining. Leaders frequently keep the membership in the dark while most or all of the real negotiators have no connection to the workplace. The answer to this, she says, is “transparency”:

"Three questions can determine whether or not the union is a third party in the renegotiation of a collective bargaining agreement: Does the process involve every worker? Are negotiations fully transparent? Can any worker attend?"

McAlevey has identified a critical problem, but simply opening bargaining sessions is not nearly enough.

Real negotiations require exploration of alternatives and the ability to brainstorm, which are not possible when anyone is free to listen in and publicize any remark that is made, possibly out of context. More important, negotiations are a continuous process over days. Workers who can drop in after work or during breaks cannot really judge what is happening, let alone be involved in the bargaining. This sort of shallow involvement is not by itself much of a democratic step.

Packing the bargaining sessions with scores or hundreds of rank and filers is indeed a good pressure tactic, and it can educate members—or community members, if they are also invited—about the nature of the struggle with the employer. But much more is needed. Negotiations can be the property of the members when the bargaining committee is expanded and is based on workers elected from all sections of the unit. They must be given the time off and technical training to be the real bargainers. They need to make regular progress reports to the membership and present majority and minority reports to the membership before voting.

POWER MAPPING

An important part of this book is its emphasis on power mapping. If you want change you have to understand where the power is in the system. You also need to understand the power on the workers’ side. Power comes from organization even if informal, and even informal organization has leadership. On a difficult issue most workers in a unit may look to one experienced worker. McAlevey, like most successful organizers, stresses the importance of these “organic leaders [who] seldom self-identify as leaders and rarely have any official titles, but they are identifiable by their natural influence with their peers.”

McAlevey bends the stick in counterposing the organic leaders to what she calls the “activists,” whom she defines as the people often most committed to the cause but with little following. In fact, both are needed. Organic leaders who are leaders in a status quo situation may be comfortable with that situation, and may have perks, as McAlevey acknowledges. It often takes the activists to create the opportunities for these organic leaders to move. Organic workplace leadership is often a team with people playing important but different roles

WHY DON'T MORE UNIONS USE THE ORGANIZING MODEL?

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McAlevey asks: “If the organizing model is so effective, why was it so widely abandoned?”

She lists many reasons, including labor's peace treaty with government and management during World War II, which gave up rank-and-file shop floor power; the Taft-Hartley Act; failures of the American left like the “self-inflicted wounds of Stalinism”; and McCarthyism, which drove leftists out of unions. But she barely touches these. Most of her fire is on Saul Alinsky, his ideology of community organizing, and the adoption of this strategy by reputedly forward-looking “organizing unions” like SEIU.

McAlevey argues that Alinsky shifted the organizing model of the CIO to the mobilizing model by:

  • Giving up on the goal of altering the power structure itself, in favor of winning campaigns within that power structure.
  • Making the issue the poor against everybody else, thereby separating unskilled workers from natural powerful allies—the skilled and semi-skilled workers.
  • Adopting the John L. Lewis obsession with top-down control of organizers.

There will be arguments about whether this is really the true “Alinskyism,” but it is an accurate description of much of today’s NGO community organizing and some union organizing efforts. McAlevey’s explanation should be examined carefully by those seeking system change.

Her chapter on Make the Road New York, a large worker center based among New York City’s immigrant communities, is instructive. McAlevey describes its development and successes, but says its organizers have not gone past being “superb mobilizers.” Its success depended on being in a strong union state with union support. “For all the incredible value of MRNY,” she writes, “[it] is an activist approach that wouldn’t stand up to the kind of employer opposition faced by workers in really tough campaigns.”

The heart of McAlevey’s proposals is that union members exercising genuine power, both in their workplaces and in their unions, is the key to rebuilding and transforming the labor movement into institutions that can actually win for working people. Labor activists have been trying many of these ideas for years, with varying degrees of success.

WHERE ARE THE REFORMERS?

But there is a strange hole in the book: there’s no discussion about how to carry on the struggle inside unions to change them to adopt these policies. McAlevey avoids this discussion. It's as if she hopes that current leaders will see the light and “empower” their members from above.

In reality, often they must be replaced, by opponents organizing themselves, running for office, and beating them. This kind of organizing can be just as difficult as the struggle against the boss, and just as necessary in order to get the union to a place where it can fight the boss.

Curiously, McAlevey makes no mention of Labor Notes, which has championed these ideas for decades. Labor Notes has not only provided workers with the tools for the “organizing model” but created a network for activists who are walking the walk McAlevey describes. If readers are looking to build unions along the lines McAlevey recommends, they should check out How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers, which is written to highlight the how-to of what the teachers did, and Secrets of a Successful Organizer. And then there are the invaluable workshops, networking, and sense of power that come with the national Labor Notes Conference.

Surely union leaders must recognize that the advocacy and mobilizing models produce limited results. Think of the United Auto Workers' continuing failures to organize auto plants in the South. So why aren’t more unions adopting strategies where members are in charge?

The answer is that training members as leaders and allowing democracy to flourish also empowers members to challenge for leadership in the union. That is one reason why unions prefer the mobilizing model, using smart staff, employed by and therefore controlled by the officers, instead of training and enabling members to organize on the job.

No Shortcuts is not a how-to handbook like Labor Notes’ books. It is a must-read, thought-provoking book for the bigger picture.

Mike Parker is co-author of Labor Notes' Democracy Is Power, 1999, a handbook on member ownership and involvement.