Tag Archives: trade unions


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.



There are many issues which lay bare the subservience of Ireland’s political elite to the edicts of international capital. The bank guarantee of September 2008; the handing over of natural resources to multinationals; the miniscule tax rate levied on corporations; a crippling austerity agenda which continues to stunt the country’s economy – the list goes on.

This week saw yet another bleak day in the state’s history when gombeenism ran roughshod over common decency. On Monday (October 1), €1 billion was handed over to unguaranteed, unsecured bondholders of Allied Irish Bank, which is 99% owned by the state, as part of a pitiful bid to appease “the markets”. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition has claimed ignorance over the identities of these and other similar recipients of Irish state funds, although the list is widely known to include financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and Barclay’s. By the end of this year, a total of more than €19 billion will be paid to speculators who gambled in the boom years and now refuse to take a loss. In 2013, more than €17 billion of state money will be squandered in the same way.

This enormous transfer of wealth takes place against the backdrop of the largest spending cuts in the state’s history. In the demented political sphere of Ireland, where the nation’s economy is seen as a mere tool to service the needs of multi-national corporations, closing A&Es, reducing the wages of teachers and slashing allowances for disabled people are seen as “tough” decisions. Increasing corporation tax and forcing the super-rich to take a loss on their gambles are, apparently, weak decisions. A 15% unemployment rate on top of mass emigration, it seems, is the tolerable price to pay in the appeasement of “the markets”. Sacrifices must be made to save the European financial system, we have been told.

For all their talk of “injustice” and “unfairness” earlier this year, the GAA stars who rallied behind disgraced former billionaire Séan Quinn have remained remarkably silent on this particular issue. The handing over of scarce public funds to nameless professional gamblers merits no public demonstration of anger from Joe Kernan, Mickey Harte or the others who chose to support a corrupt billionaire. Nor were they as outspoken when Ireland’s economic sovereignty was handed over to the IMF in 2010.

Diarmuid O’Flynn, a hurling reporter for the Irish Examiner, has filled the void left by these sports stars and, of course, many other journalists. RTÉ, the national broadcaster, failed to report on Monday’s €1 billion bond payment. O’Flynn is one of the organisers of a weekly demonstration in his home village of Ballyhea in County Cork against the bondholder bailout. Now into its 84th week, the Ballyhea protest is a small glimpse of indignation among a population which has been renowned globally for its tame acceptance of harsh cutbacks. O’Flynn’s blog, Bondwatch Ireland, is an excellent source of information for those seeking to find out the true scale of the toxic debt plunged onto the nation’s shoulders. A result of meticulous research, the site details on a weekly basis the upcoming bond payments due at Ireland’s state-owned banks. Irish journalists should be well advised to consult the site.

Many of the attempts to explain what caused Ireland’s economic collapse have been muddled, causing much confusion around the issue. Some commentators point to the “cute-hoorism” prevalent among the Irish ruling and political class, while others highlight the outright criminality which existed at the top of Ireland’s banking sector. All of these arguments carry weight, but ultimately fail to provide a thorough explanation.

Ireland’s problems transcend its own national boundaries. Although all of the above were certainly contributing factors, the country’s collapse was part of a global calamity. Since the 1970s, capitalism was transformed from its Keynesian model towards a more radical neo-liberal one. Trade union influence diminished, financial markets were deregulated and public assets were privatised. Ireland was long touted as the “success story” of this economic arrangement.

The rise of neo-liberalism saw an unprecedented concentration of the world’s wealth into increasingly fewer hands. The demise of trade union movements in much of the west resulted in falling and stagnating wages for most workers. In order to make up for the loss of income, people were forced to take on ruinous amounts of debt to secure some of life’s basics, most notably in Ireland’s case, a home. The bursting of this credit bubble was inevitable.

In 2011, the British TUC released a report revealing the extent to which the incomes of workers had stagnated. It was found that UK workers would be earning a combined total of £60 billion more had wages increased in proportion to the growth of the wider economy. The same is true in many other countries. In the United States, the Irish bourgeoisie’s ideological home, this inequality occurs to an unnerving degree. The poorest 50% of Americans own a mere 1% of their country’s wealth, while the richest 1% own more than 34%. Or, to put in another way; the richest 1% of Americans own 34 times more wealth than half of all the American population combined. One family, the Waltons, who own Wal Mart, now possesses more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans. Such is the economic model our rulers aspire to.

During the boom years, with its unregulated financial markets and low tax rates for corporations, Ireland was held up as the poster boy of neo-liberal capitalism. The Celtic Tiger ran riot as the worst off in society were left behind. On 24 September, the Simon Community reported that homelessness has increased in Dublin, with more than 2,600 people seeking the housing charity’s assistance. This situation continues alongside the sordid spectacle of up to 400,000 empty homes scattered around the country – many of them owned by the state’s ‘bad bank’, NAMA.

Just as many of Ireland’s problems were rooted in a global system, so too do the seeds of a solution lie in other parts of the world. Although afflicted with a notoriously parochial political system, the population would do well to note the actions of people in other parts of Europe. Following its own crisis in 2008, Iceland refused to repay the debts accumulated by private banks, to the fury of the neo-liberal “experts” and “the markets”. Depositors’ money was guaranteed but private investors were forced to take a loss. These are real “tough” decisions. Iceland now has an unemployment rate which is less than half that of Ireland’s, and a growth rate of 3%. This political courage needs to be combined with the resistance of the kind shown by trade union movements in Greece, Spain and Portugal. Neutered as it is by a subservient ‘social partnership’ model, the Irish trade union movement, with honourable exceptions of course, has so far failed to inspire mass action. The leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions even refused to take a position on the EU Austerity Treaty in May.

Ireland’s socialisation of private losses is a national scandal which remains so far under-reported. It’s astounding that many fail to make the connection between this and the array of cuts to public services taking place right now.