In an era of weakened trade unions, dismal working conditions and a far-right emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, the release of Jane McAlevey’s new book No Shortcuts: Organising for Power in the New Gilded Age comes at a crucial time. This book contains important lessons not just for trade unionists looking to reverse the decline of our movement, but for all progressives who are serious about challenging corporate power.
Following on from her first book Raising Expectations and Raising Hell, an excellent first-hand account of her experience as a union organiser in the United States, No Shortcuts puts her practice of organising into a theoretical framework. McAlevey begins by outlining the reasons for the decline of trade unions in the United States. In a welcome departure from other well-hashed analyses of this subject, responsibility for the weakening of worker power is not placed merely on the shoulders of neoliberal stalwarts like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan. Instead, she breaks out of this comfort zone and examines the strategic mistakes trade unionists have made themselves over the past number of decades. Her central claim is that unions and, by extension, progressive politics, have declined because they have moved away from deep organising and toward shallow mobilising.
McAlevey outlines three methods which people of different political persuasions approach trade unionism: advocacy, mobilising and organising. Liberals generally follow the advocacy model, which sees paid officials lobbying and campaigning on behalf of workers. “Advocacy doesn’t involve ordinary people in any real way,” argues McAlevey. “Lawyers, pollsters, researchers and communications firms are engaged to wage the battle…advocacy fails to use the only concrete advantage ordinary people have over elites: large numbers.”
The second approach, mobilising, is one practiced by people slightly to the left of liberals and is generally the most common method used by trade unions today. This is the practice of maximising numbers at protests – usually the same activists who were at the last protest, and the one before that – and is generally directed by full-time officials.
The third approach, organising, is one engaged in by those on the radical left with a class analysis. Organising “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 organising. In the organising approach specific injustice and outrage are the immediate motivation, but the primary goal is to transfer power from the elite to the majority.”
There is no pretence on McAlevey’s part that her definition of organising is in any way original. Rather, organising is about going back to the basics of what trade unions used to do, particularly those affiliated to the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) in the 1930s: high participation among union members, class politics and extensive use of the strike as the key weapon to protect and improve working conditions. This model of “whole worker organising” recognises that people have a stake in wider society and not just the place they work. For instance, what good is a pay rise one week if your landlord puts up the rent the following week? Workers can face injustice in their communities just as much as they face it in the workplace, and it’s the job of unions to organise against these injustices. As McAlevey explains: “Most good unions that organise inside the shop mobilise outside of it: deep inside, shallow outside. It’s as if they can’t see the full extent of the battlefield or the vastness of their army.” She continues: “A one-dimensional view of workers as workers rather than as whole people limits good organising and constrains good worker organisers from more effectively building real power in and among workers’ communities.”
For me, one of the most crucial contributions McAlevey makes is her method of identifying leaders in the workplace. She argues that much of the success of a union campaign lies in organisers’ ability to identify what she terms “organic leaders”. They “seldom self-identify as leaders and rarely have any official titles, but they are identifiable by their natural influence with their peers. Knowing how to recognise them makes decisions about who to prioritise for leadership development far more effective. Developing their leadership skill set is more fruitful than training random volunteers, because these organic leaders start with a base of followers.”
No Shortcuts outlines a number of case studies to show that the organising model can achieve enormous gains for workers. Chapter 3, excellently titled ‘Class Snuggle vs. Class Struggle’, compares two separate campaigns led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to unionise workers in private nursing homes.
The first was led by the SEIU’s national leadership, who sought to unionise the workers a “top-down and top secret agreement” with the owners of the nursing home employers. Worker engagement was minimal and the union leadership conceded a number of clauses that limited the power of future members, such as a no strike clause. Starting pay in nursing homes covered by this agreement was $10.75 per hour – significantly below the living wage of $15 – while sick pay and health coverage were minimal or non-existent. The union’s alliance with employers provided virtually no material benefit for workers on the shop floor.
In contrast, SEIU Local 1199 New England applied the organising model which saw huge worker engagement in the campaign and the repeated use of strike to force concessions from the employers. As a result, the starting salary in these nursing homes is almost €15 per hour and workers have family health care coverage and up to 12 paid sick days per year.
Chapter 4 describes in detail the work that went into building for the massive Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) strike in 2012 and how the CTU transformed into an organising union after newly elected president Karen Lewis and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) won control of the union. Before going on strike, the union embarked on an intensive organising campaign in order to build community support for the strike and conduct mass political education. The strike was provoked by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s plans to close “failing” schools and cut teachers’ pay. The seven day strike ended when the teachers won a 17.6% pay increase over three years and prevented the introduction of performance related pay. By linking this dispute with wider political issues such as structural racism (the schools facing closure were primarily in black neighbourhoods) and the role of public education in society, the CTU secured immense community support. One other important outcome of this strike will be that the battle-hardened teachers of Chicago will be in a solid position to resist the attacks on public education and union rights that will inevitably come from Donald Trump’s administration.
Chapter 5 outlines how workers in Smithfield Foods, based in the traditionally anti-union deep south, won a €15 per hour wage, paid sick leave, paid holidays and health coverage. Again, this was achieved by high levels of worker engagement and by taking strike action. In Chapter 6, McAlevey writes about the Make the Road New York (MRNY), a social movement that campaigns on issues affecting immigrants and organises workers. Not discounting the positive work that MRNY has engaged in she points out that the organisation have not gone beyond the mobilising model.
No Shortcuts outlines some of the reasons for the decline of trade union power in recent decades, but crucially it also offers solutions. Those solutions lie in unions engaging in deep worker organising that relies more on class struggle in the workplace and less on legal manoeuvring or ‘clever’ negotiating skills. As McAlevey proves, when workers strike, they can win – and win big. And just as importantly, the experience of being on a picket line invariably builds the confidence of workers and provides them with vital experience for bigger fights ahead.
This is undoubtedly one of the best books written in recent years on trade unions and should be considered required reading for anyone with an interest in tackling the decline of the labour movement.