Stopping Labor’s Backward March

In an age of PR-driven union campaigns, one labor organizer argues it's time to go back to the basics.

Metrobus workers on strike in Arlington, VA in 1974. Washington Area Spark

“We lose when we don’t put workers into struggle.” There’s no more important lesson for the Left to learn from the past year, which began with flashes of hope and ended in disaster.

The saying is one of twenty aphorisms that make up “1199’s Advice to Rookie Organizers,” a document compiled in the mid-1980s when 1199 was a standalone organization, before its merger into other unions. This advice from a militant, left-led union now serves as the opening for No Shortcuts, Jane McAlevey’s newly issued set of case studies on organizing among the US working class today.

McAlevey is a longtime organizer and strategist in the student, anti-apartheid, Central American solidarity, environmental justice, and labor movements. She is perhaps best known as the author of Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), an account of her years on the staff of several unions.

The earlier book was stamped with the immediacy of an account by someone who had been in the thick of the fight. Its strongest chapters were also its most novel: they described the intricacies of modern-day union contract campaigns that are immediately familiar to anyone who has been through one, yet I can think of no one else who has ever actually written this stuff down — at least not in such detail. The more depressing portions of that book were also instructive, describing the demolition of a formerly strong union local due to infighting in the broader labor movement.

Readers of No Shortcuts will encounter a book that is markedly different, but insightful in new ways, because McAlevey draws from her case studies to develop theory for the rest of us — not in the academic sense, but in the practical one: insights from experience that can inform our strategy going forward.

No Shortcuts is made up of polished material from McAlevey’s recent time in a sociology PhD program at the City University of New York, so references to sociological literature can be found throughout (everyone from Robert Michels to C. Wright Mills to Marshall Ganz, as well as McAlevey’s own adviser, Frances Fox Piven). While the book is a departure from her earlier work for this reason, it is not difficult for the lay reader.

McAlevey’s case studies include three chapters on unions and one on a social movement organization. The case studies are bookended with chapters in which she argues that the Left’s approach to organizing — both in unions and in social movement organizations — has been largely wrong for decades.

The Left faces many external obstacles, not least the resistance of powerful enemies, but it is our task to win in spite of those obstacles. Therefore, writes McAlevey, “This book focuses on something movement actors can actually and easily control: their own strategy.”

She also focuses not on the more conservative majority of unions — which do not have much of a strategy at all — but on those unions, mostly in the service sector, which have committed themselves to new organizing both ideologically and financially. Unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Unite HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and several others all make up what is often called “New Labor.” McAlevey argues that despite their official commitments, their mostly bad strategy has contributed to unions’ continued decline.

In McAlevey’s view, their key error comes from an incorrect power analysis, which she traces back to the ideological forebear of community organizing in the United States, Saul Alinsky.

This observation is counterintuitive for most on the Left, because Alinsky is known precisely for his hardheaded view of power. Encountering Alinsky’s work for the first time is often liberating for young radicals, burned out from feel-good but ineffectual, symbolic protest: he invites you to get serious, to understand how to overcome our adversaries who have power (“the target,” in his lingo), and mobilize the forces to actually do so.

But McAlevey argues that, despite his insistence on understanding the worldview of the powerful, Alinsky did not understand the real source of power on the side of the people: namely, the already existing, resilient social ties that people already have with one another, which need to be harnessed to move a majority of people to action in making social change. In the Alinsky model:

The organizer is a behind-the-scenes individual who is not a leader, has nothing to do with decisions or decision-making, and must come from outside the community . . . The leader, on the other hand, must come from the base constituency and “make all the decisions.” This is a good narrative, but disingenuous: The organizers in the Alinsky model make many key decisions.

Drawing on secondary literature, McAlevey argues that the Alinsky model had influence not only on community organizing, but on the New Labor union leaders. The methods of work that flow from the model produce organizations made up mostly of the same self-selecting activists who always show up, rather than resilient organizations that reach deep into the base.

In the best situations, a keen understanding of a specific corporate target, combined with superficially militant tactics and good PR, can lead to some modest wins, especially when the settlement does not cost that much for the powers that be. But workers in this model are only one piece of the leverage in a corporate campaign designed to extract a deal from the corporate target. This model does not build real power.

McAlevey instead argues for a back-to-basics approach, returning to the leadership-identification technique of classic union organizing. In this model, leaders are not merely self-selected activists with the most progressive ideas at the outset. They are the people who other workers respect and listen to.

What the Alinsky model calls a “leader,” this model would call an “activist.” The two are not the same. Anyone can be an activist merely by showing up; leaders are defined objectively: they are people who have followers. It is impossible — in fact, deadly for a campaign — for an outside organizer to bring forward the most enthusiastic supporters at the outset as the leaders of the campaign. If they are not people who are already well-respected by their coworkers, the campaign will fail.

A good organizer has no choice but to recruit the people who are already leaders, coaching them through the process to move a majority of their coworkers to form their organization, and then be ready to take action as a majority. Where the Alinsky model is merely a mobilizing model, this is truly an organizing model. And as with the distinction between leaders and activists, the two should not be confused.

Crucially, in this model, the role of outside organizers is transparent. They can be paid staff organizers, or they can be volunteer organizers from already-union workplaces. The best unions will use a mix of both. But there is no doubt that the organizers are leaders, and that they are involved in decision-making. The union makes no secret of this, unlike the Alinsky model where this truth is obscured.

At the same time, unlike the Alinsky model, the outside organizer is not a wizard whose tactical brilliance brings down the adversary. It is the leaders in the unorganized workplace who do the work of organizing their coworkers and winning them over to take action in their majority. The outside organizers coach the rank-and-file leaders through this process.

Outside organizers are necessary, because they have experience in fights that the rank-and-file leaders have not yet seen and from which they will derive an indispensable benefit. But in the final analysis it is the rank-and-file leaders who are the real heroes.

McAlevey traces this model back to the CIO and specifically to the Left. While Alinsky wrote down his ideas on community organizing, which became the basis for plenty of organizing training manuals, there is precious little which has captured the old-fashioned union organizing methods on paper. Intriguingly, McAlevey manages to find a stellar example: Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, a 1936 pamphlet by William Z. Foster.

Foster was at that time the demoted former hardline leader of the Communist Party; he would lead the party again later after the war. But before he joined the party, he had been the organizer of the great 1919 steel strike.

The method of disciplined organizing within “the shop,” based on leadership identification, is still used by the best unions today. But McAlevey paints a picture of how the CIO organized, and argues for organizing strategies today that hearken back even further in the history of the Left. While she does not make this reference, there are obvious parallels here with Lenin’s description of the party’s tasks in What Is To Be Done?. The question of leadership is crucially important; the leadership can only succeed if it wins over the majority; it must deal not only with “pure and simple trade union” questions (what Lenin called “economism”), but with the big and ultimately political questions, with divisions based on religion and national oppression, etc.

The case studies in No Shortcuts include a comparison of two SEIU local unions of home care and nursing home workers: the state of Washington’s Local 775 and Connecticut’s 1199 New England. She points to Local 775 as an almost archetypal SEIU local. The ideology of the local’s leader, David Rolf, is identical to that of former SEIU president Andy Stern. Rolf’s strategy is a mobilizing model, in the Alinsky vein, which is geared to winning deals from employers, but does not build worker power through resilient organization based on organic rank-and-file leaders.

By contrast, 1199 New England — clearly McAlevey’s favorite local — is based on the CIO-style organizing model. Unlike 775, it relies on frequent use of the strike weapon. McAlevey provides side-by-side comparisons of the contract gains in Connecticut and Washington. The contract in Connecticut is stronger, and strikingly so.

We next read the story of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). This has been covered extensively elsewhere, but McAlevey goes over the deep history of how the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators turned around a formerly moribund union and waged a strike against a powerful mayor with the participation of the overwhelming majority of teachers and solid support from the community at large.

In the book’s best chapter, McAlevey tells the story of workers at the giant Smithfield Foods hog-processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, who organized with the UFCW. The company engaged in widespread intimidation and firings in two previous, failed campaigns; deliberately stoked racism and held racially segregated captive audience meetings; called down federal immigration raids on the Latino workers; and even organized physical assaults of union supporters.

At times, McAlevey’s telling reads like some of the best accounts of the real-time strategic debates within the Civil Rights Movement: workers who took action in response to threats; national union officials who wanted to pull back from the worker campaign at key moments, especially when legal threats loomed; but also the leadership of the national campaign, which trusted the workers and built the national campaign to support them, not the other way around. The Smithfield workers eventually won, and they achieved a fifteen-dollar minimum wage well before workers elsewhere achieved it.

McAlevey then turns to Make the Road New York, a mass membership organization with a heavily immigrant base, which among other things has waged winning campaigns against wage theft and immigrant detention, and mobilized workers to fight for dignity and respect in marginal industries like car washes.

While Make the Road relies on self-selecting activists, McAlevey praises their “high touch” model of organizing and deep political education. She concludes, however, that the organization is able to thrive as it does because New York City’s broader labor movement is still relatively strong.

It is no exaggeration to say that McAlevey’s analysis and her accounts of the case studies should be mandatory reading for left strategists in the current moment.

No one book can do everything, of course — and there are some pieces missing. For instance, early in the book, she discusses SEIU’s move after 2000 to build up large central funds to support organizing — or, as it was later deliberately recast in SEIU’s lingo, “growth.”

McAlevey correctly points out that this was connected to a bad strategy that de-emphasized workers’ role in their own liberation in favor of staff-driven “leverage” campaigns. But especially when we consider the vast regions of the country where unions are weak, it is not wrong in principle that there should be some centralized funds that are deployed to organize the unorganized. If those funds were deployed to support the approach that McAlevey favors, we could well get some good results.

Securing the internal support to pursue these strategies is a difficult task. In her theoretical chapters, there is arguably a too-easy line drawn between Alinsky-trained organizers and the misguided strategies of “New Labor.” Not only Alinsky-trained leaders, but many people trained in the CIO-style leadership identification techniques have also adopted the current strategies. In many cases, they have done so out of long, frustrating experience: years of banging out small wins nursing home by nursing home, or hotel by hotel, as the power of capital became ever stronger and workers ever weaker.

The case studies contain examples of how to win internal support for worker-centered strategies. The relatively well-known story of the rank-and-file caucus inside the CTU is one example. At Smithfield, there is also the story of how the left-wing campaign director, Gene Bruskin, insulated his campaign from more conservative pressures by setting terms from the outset:

I will go on loan to the UFCW if you want me to do this, I am going to hire my own staff, put together my own Smithfield team, control my own budget, and you can’t take my people away from the campaign for any reason, I don’t care if you have nine decertification campaigns going someplace else, you can’t touch my team.

Most of us are not high-level campaigners like Bruskin who are able to set terms like this, but the creative audacity of both the best staff and rank-and-file members offers hope that it is possible to turn the ship around.

To get out of the trap of the old organizing model, which was to build great unions in individual workplaces even as the political economy changed around us, and not in workers’ favor, McAlevey proposes a specific approach. She says that unions should chart the broader community, identify leaders, and understand where power lies, taking the approach to the community as seriously as they would take organizing within the shop.

Rather than allying with weak community groups or left-wing clergy who may be nice people, but have no substantial constituency, McAlevey says that unions should identify and recruit the real community leaders. And they should do so, she says, not by building relationships at the staff level, but by mobilizing the already-existing relationships that members have with these community leaders. Since many workers go to church, congregants’ relationships with their pastors are the primary example of this.

In No Shortcuts, McAlevey gives some examples of how both the CTU in Chicago and the UFCW in North Carolina did this. Some further theories, templates, and best practices would be useful for all of us to see. How do you “shift from staff-only corporate-focused research to worker and staff-led geographic power-structure analysis that involves workers themselves in the research process”? How, in practice, do you chart a whole community and move to change the power equation?

All of this would make for a great subject for the next book from a movement strategist who has already given us so much to think about. In the meantime, everyone interested in the labor movement and its future should read No Shortcuts.