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.



Violence, disruption and intimidation have been common features of the on-going loyalist flag protests in Belfast. For most people, the movement that sprang up in December has its roots in a sectarian ideology and represents a deep crisis in unionism. Coming at a time when it is particularly relevant, a new book written by Pittsburgh University professor Tony Novosel has begun to challenge many commonly held preconceptions about Ulster loyalism.

Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, published earlier this year, charts the development of working-class loyalist politics in the 1970s. Novosel’s book contends that, rather than fulfilling the stereotype of “neo-Nazis and bodybuilders”, a significant group of Loyalist prisoners in Long Kesh began to formulate their own political programme, independent of middle and upper-class unionism. At the centre of this were UVF leaders Gusty Spence and Billy Mitchell. “The basic idea of the book is that the stereotype of loyalists being nothing more than neo-Nazis does not hold up,” said Novosel. “Sure, like all stereotypes there’s some truth in it, but it doesn’t hold. The book looks at this question. The book argues that there was a progressive political strand within Loyalism. This point tends to throw people off, I find.”

Novosel first visited the north at the height of the conflict in 1973. He admits he knew very little about the causes of the war, but set about to study it. Since then, he has visited Ireland more than 50 times and began researching his new book in 2006. Before carrying out his research, Novosel admits going into the project with a negative view of loyalism. “I thought of loyalism as nothing more than fascism,” he said. “To outsiders like me, they were Neanderthals. We thought of them as being similar to the Afrikaners in South Africa. This is very much a common opinion. For instance, I remember at the beginning of the project, a friend of mine asked me what I was researching. I replied ‘loyalist political thinking’. His immediate response back was, ‘do they think?’. That’s the general attitude that’s out there. However, when I started speaking to the people involved, I saw a very different picture. It’s something that’s difficult to take in at first.”

In researching the book, Novosel conducted extensive interviews with leading Loyalists such as David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson and Hugh Smyth, as well as combing through documents produced by the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando. Clearly written and free of academic jargon, Novosel’s book is an intriguing study of a subject area that has previously been largely neglected by historians of Ireland’s recent conflict. Indeed, the lack of information available about loyalism initially prompted Novosel’s interest in the topic. “I was fascinated by loyalism precisely because I knew so little about it,” he said.

At the outset of the book, Novosel condemns the hundreds of atrocities committed by loyalist paramilitaries, but presents the “progressive” wing of loyalism in a largely positive light. “Understanding does not mean condoning,” the author keenly points out. The second chapter of the book details how mainstream unionist parties “manipulated” loyalist groups for their own aims, accusing elements within the Official Unionist Party of conspiring to resurrect the UVF in 1966. He also reveals a number of remarkably progressive documents formulated by the UVF in the mid-1970s, which advocated power sharing between unionists and nationalists – a position mainstream unionists would have rejected outright at the time.

Novosel even goes as far as claiming that there were “socialist” and “social democratic” currents within loyalism. However, considering the majority of the UVF’s victims were Catholic civilians, as well as the group’s flirtation with fascist organisations such as Combat 18 and the National Front, it’s possible to argue that Novosel is guilty of reading at face value the claims of Billy Hutchinson and others with deeply reactionary past records. Despite these uncomfortable facts, along with its uncritical support for the British army and empire, Novosel insists that there is “no contradiction” between loyalism and progressive politics. “Going back even before the Battle of the Somme, there had always been that military tradition among working class Protestants,” he said. “They were prepared to defend the empire on the same basis that Old Labour supporters in Britain were prepared to do the same. They felt that the social gains were greater in Britain than in Ireland and wanted that to remain within that state. There was a feeling that the welfare state and everything that came with it would disappear in a United Ireland. Many loyalists saw themselves very much as Old Labourites. It’s not hard to reconcile that with socialist values, in my view.”

The arguments in Novosel’s book are well developed and present a thought-provoking view on a complex and a very much under-studied subject. Although it can be viewed at times as overly sympathetic to an ideology which uncritically supports monarchy, empire and imperialism, Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity is a valuable piece of research on an interesting – and important – aspect of recent Irish history.

Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, by Tony Novosel. Published by Pluto Press (2013)

Ever since the bank guarantee of September 2008, there have been countless attempts to explain the implosion of the Irish economy. Most of these explanations have taken a moralistic attitude, laying the finger of blame at the greed and recklessness of those at the tops of the financial institutions which laid waste to a decade of prosperity. There may well be some merit in these views, but the roots of the current crisis run much deeper than a handful of people behaving badly.

This week I finished reading what was undoubtedly one of the best accounts of what happened to the Irish economy four years ago. Published last June, Conor McCabe’s Sins of the Father takes a thorough and serious look at the causes of the country’s economic collapse. Although I own a copy signed by the author himself, Sins of the Father had been sitting on my bookshelf for almost a year before I bothered digging into it. Upon finally reading it, I regretted putting it off for so long.

Sins of the Father is much more than a mere chronological description of how the Irish economy imploded; In the book, McCabe charts in an easily accessible manner the deeply flawed and deformed way in which the Irish economy developed since the partition of the country, taking the reader right up through the bank guarantee, the creation of NAMA and the humiliating EU-IMF bailout of November 2010. Although Fianna Fáil was politically butchered by voters in last February’s general election for their role in the crisis, this book shows how successive governments since the state’s foundation laid the foundation for Ireland’s catastrophic economic collapse.

The book, which is less than 300 pages long, is divided into five subject areas, all of equal importance; housing, agriculture, industry, finance and lastly, the Fianna Fáil/Green Party government’s response to the financial crisis.

The chapter on housing, I found, was a particularly fascinating one, which convincingly demolishes the myth of a ‘property-owning’ gene in Irish DNA. McCabe correctly points out that the high rates of private ownership was a direct result of the political decisions taken by successive governments which consistently prioritised private ownership over much-needed decent public housing schemes. The fundraising organisation Taca, set up by Fianna Fáil in the 1960s, brought into light the shameless cronyism that existed between the political class and property developers, speculators and landlords.

Also wonderfully detailed in Sins of the Father is how Irish governments helped to fuel the rampant property speculation and booming house prices which plagued the country for the last number of decades. High prices opened up a new debt market for banks, while Irish people were forced into taking on ruinous mortgages in order to secure a home. A booklet issued by the government in 1967 advising citizens on home ownership told readers that “the amount you borrow should not be more than the 2½ times your annual income”. By 1998, house prices were almost eight times higher than the average industrial wage. At the height of the boom, McCabe found, “Irish property prices were between eleven and fifteen times the median wage”.

Another aspect of the book which I found not only interesting but profoundly relevant is the author’s criticism of Irish governments’ obsession with foreign investment, to the detriment of the state’s own indigenous industry. He points out that the benefit of having multinational companies based in Ireland was much lower than is often portrayed, stating that the “profits are repatriated to their country of origin”. He continues: “Given such a modest effect on the Irish economy – 7% of total employment and approximately €2.8 billion in corporation tax – why is foreign direct investment constantly put forward as the prime objective of the State’s economic policies and strategies?”

Sins of the Father, McCabe’s first book (and hopefully not his last), admirably challenges many of the lazy myths which pass for economic discussion today and should be seen as a vital resource for those seeking to understand why the Great Recession has had such a profound effect on Ireland.

Conor blogs at