No Shortcuts, but to where?

Nick Driedger reviews Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age.

There is an unwritten rule on the left: you only criticize people with a larger following than you, who have more of a base than you have, who take up more space close to the mainstream than you do. While the IWW has grown in recent years, we are not as big as Jane McAlevey by any stretch. So it is natural that we are going to sharpen our ideas against her, and she is likely going to be scarcely aware we exist. So it goes.

Let’s start with the compliments. McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age has popularized a way of thinking about organizing workplaces that is deliberate, coordinated, and strategic. Instead of just signing cards and rolling the dice, she distills what many campaigns do right in order to win. She does not present workplace organizing as a series of Norma Rae moments where things just come together, but shows how a good strategy and a plan can lead to ordinary people doing heroic things, over time.

The emphasis in her writing is on what she calls “bounded constituencies” like workplaces and churches, and she contrasts these with “self-selecting groups” — small groups of like-minded people networking for the purpose of coordinating disruption. She rightly points out the real limits of self-selecting social movements, and contrasts that with organizing.

This argument is not pointed at the average worker who wants to organize. No one in a chicken plant or primary school classroom cares about the nuts and bolts of how social movements are structured. The book is a political intervention within a certain layer of the left, maybe one activated as part of the Occupy movement or at the 2011 protests in Wisconsin. The audience is committed leftists who want to take their social movement work to the next level, people who probably have seen protest politics hit its limits. McAlevey cites many times the writings of William Z Foster, a one-time IWW member and long-time head of the Communist Party of America. His concept of the militant minority — the most forward-thinking and advanced of the workers — is likely very close to how McAlevey sees her audience.

Foster disagreed with the IWW, and eventually left it, on an important point: he believed that existing unions provided a framework that more radical unionists could enter into and adapt to their purposes. He also disagreed with his political overseers in Moscow during his first stint as head of the Communist Party of America that building unions from scratch was the way forward; that would be too time-consuming and difficult. Foster had a better plan — a shortcut, if you will. He advocated radicals act as a political minority in conservative unions and take them over. Conservative unions with radical leaders would then become radical unions. He called this “boring from within.”

Like Foster, McAlevey sees unions as a vector for politics, and to her that politics does not just come from inside the union, but from the militant minority. She sees class politics as holding a unique sort of significance in society and believes that class power is how we will win against those whose power has only grown in “the New Gilded Age.”

Constituencies and power

So, McAlevey sees involvement in unions as essentially political. She sees that involvement as part of a broadly defined tradition of radicalism that is inherent in the American labor movement, and she sees unions as having this potential because they are based on what she calls “bounded constituencies.” For McAlevey, the basic building blocks of organizing are these bounded constituencies or “structures.” They are what allow workers to exercise power and intervene in politics. In the whole book she centers the workplace, but she also mentions churches.

A church absolutely is a relevant community that needs to be considered when you’re organizing, and faith plays a central part of the cultural fabric of North America, especially in rural areas. But churches, like political parties, are based on self-selecting groups of people. An Occupy working group is really just a very small version of the same thing. So despite being against self-selecting groups, McAlevey gives a lot of nods to them.

This is where her notion of a constituency falls apart. It is not enough that a constituency simply have bounds. A constituency must have a certain kind of boundary. For example, an electoral district may be a bounded constituency, but those boundaries are geographic ones — they are simply lines on a map.

Workplace organizing is an example of organizing a bounded constituency that is subject to a power structure. The boundaries of that workplace are the boundaries of that power structure. You challenge the power structure by directly challenging the boss through the workers, because the boss needs the workers. If you do not have that relationship, between those who run the power structure needing the compliance of those who are subject to that power structure, you have no radical potential in your organizing. Organizing everyone to keep dogs out of the local park has no radical content because there is nothing inherent in the struggle that takes power away from those who have it and gives it to those who do not yet. Unions at work, tenants’ unions, organizations like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty — these are organizations that take power through disruption and noncompliance and use it to get demands met. This in turn builds the collective, social power of the people who are struggling. This is class struggle. It’s often very difficult and it is far from the only path available to workers’ organizations.

For McAlevey, union organizing is no doubt a good in itself and its strength is that it forces progressives who want to make change to deal with every single person in a constituency – not just the self-selecting activists — in order to build the strength needed to win. But it’s also in the service of a higher power. As far as McAlevey is concerned, unions are good for building a base for electoral politics.

This is where it gets complicated. While most of the book is solid advice on how to identify a constituency and build power, a lot of the goal of that power is to have it traded away. Many of the examples end with a short anecdote about the strategic significance of the union campaign to the Democrats or how these campaigns provided candidates for the Democrats from the trade union background. She talks a lot about union leaders making the leap to politician in discussing the Chicago Teachers Union in 2014. Similarly, the Smithfield campaign in North Carolina is contextualized in terms of the possibility of pushing votes towards the Democrats in a key swing state with low unionization rates. It’s abundantly clear that while the emphasis of the book is building power through unions, that power is subordinate to larger concerns.

Here is the thing. Unions represent something subversive to the existing social order. Every struggle they engage in has the goal of subordinating business decisions and the demands of the market to their own organization’s priorities. Every demand they make prefigures a different way of seeing the world. When unions make demands based on the needs of their members, their very existence flies in the face of a free-market system and management authority. Even more subversive is the fact that unions rely on the support of their members to have any power at all — through striking.

This subversion of the existing economic logic of society is why the right wing and business interests hate unions so much. But when unions break from this logic and enter conventional politics they find themselves drawn onto a terrain where they have no power. It allows union leaders (and high-profile union staff) to believe there is something other than economic disruption that gives them a bargaining chip. It’s not that union leaders can never have political influence inside the halls of power; it’s that the only influence they can have comes from laying down the source of their power. When a union leader has influence in the White House, it’s because they have struck a bargain, whether they acknowledge it or not. That bargain is that the White House gets influence in the union. Adversarial rhetoric with the upper class does not change the content of what is happening.

Every time a group of workers wins a big strike or other struggle with the boss, a move to get them into public office is a move towards removing what was disruptive in that part of the economy. It removes the independent power the workers have and draws their leaders into a place where they start cutting deals without leverage.

Leadership and militancy

McAlevey spends a good deal of time talking about leadership. She talks about the importance of finding the natural leaders on the job, and getting them on board with the organizing. This is again a crucial difference with a self-selecting group – union activists don’t bring the rest of the constituency into the union.

But McAlevey fails to draw a clean and clear line between the inherent qualities of leadership that you find in working people on the job (and elsewhere in society), and just what democratic governance by the many, for the many looks like. Finding the natural leaders is not the same thing as developing people who are not the natural leaders into union members who are assertive enough to disagree. As has been said elsewhere on this blog, leadership is not governance, and a plan to identify leaders without a plan to cultivate the capacity for leadership in an even and democratic manner is going to lead to organizing being a means to an end and easily used for something else. Signing cards, symbolic actions, and political campaigns do not build people up in the same way direct action on the job does. In a sit-down strike, every person plays their role and everyone as a group is needed. In a certification election, organic leaders are mobilized to sign cards and get people to join.

Identifying leaders in a constituency is key to building a group up with the power and solidarity needed to fight back. It is also going to be single biggest liability you have in the long run to keeping that group from being turned in on itself. More than one union leader-turned-politician has been a powerful voice for workers to settle for less or to go back to work. McAlevey criticizes the West Coast SEIU for engaging in “class snuggle” by shortcutting organizing the shop floor, and instead making handshake agreements with management over the heads of workers. But her model of engaging workplace leaders, without limits and controls, without governance and a strategy that puts power in the hands of the membership as a whole, will go down this path of cutting side-deals and leaving out the ranks again and again.

This path is so well-worn it is a trench that shapes working class common sense about union leaders, and it’s a constant source of ammunition for the right wing. The union leaders who make it big may be a more plausible rags-to-riches story than going to Washington or starting your own business, but unaccountable power breeds resentment nonetheless. Talking about union militancy and where it comes from is important; talking about how union militancy disappears is essential.

Where to from here?

McAlevey does an excellent job talking about SEIU 1199’s deep roots in the old CIO but does not talk much about what happened to the old CIO. She’s right that Saul Alinsky’s progressive liberalism was fundamentally created as competition against radical political actors in his time, to push people away from grassroots community power. She also correctly draws a straight line between Alinsky and John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers of America, who helped found and consolidate the Congress of Industrial Organizations and then took the UMWA out of the CIO. Lewis was a close ally of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a key player in brokering the class compromises of the New Deal. These trade-offs set the tone for labor relations for three quarters of a century and are only coming apart at the seams now. McAlevey correctly points out that John L Lewis purged the radicals from the CIO and points to the earlier days of the CIO as being a model for what unions could do today to rebuild their lost power and influence. The CIO minus Lewis is a sort of model of a labor movement that could have been.

As an IWW member I can relate to looking for examples like this but we all should look at them a little harder. Because if this model of organizing is so strong, if these tools are so powerful, why did Saul Alinsky and John L Lewis win and leave people like us and Jane McAlevey to interpret the long-forgotten wisdom of the ancients?

Again, if you have an account for how to build militancy that goes deep into the mechanics of how it is cultivated, you owe it to your readers to have an account of how it is destroyed. McAlevey has a few stories in there about union leaders, particularly in SEIU, who lose the thread and begin to develop a theory of union activism that at root is collaborationist and undercuts the power inherent in an adversarial union.

But is it as simple as bad leaders with bad ideas? On page 22, McAlevey systematizes her examples by describing them in terms of various factors, and one of them is the legal framework. That framework is seen as something that is a part of the terrain, something with which you have to contend but do not have a choice in how you engage. But that legal framework is political and it’s imposed and in a lot cases unions make calculated decisions to defy the laws. Whether it’s social pressure to pay your dues in a right-to-work environment or a wildcat strike during the life of a contract, unions despite the imposed limits on them often break out and represent a more authentic kind of workplace politics.

There are two sides to every union in the labor relations game. One is the side that organizes and mobilizes. They flex the muscle needed to bargain and they recruit the raw material that builds new unions and new bargaining units. The other side is the part that interfaces with power. This is the grievance machinery, the union leadership attending consultations, and the part of the union that talks to government or those who are hopeful to be in government.

Organic leaders from the floor are going to be faced with choices; often those choices are fights in which lives are going to be ruined. The stress is often unmanageable and it will seem like society to the very fabric of its being is attacking you. Then someone forward-thinking is going to suggest compromises, compromises that cut out your power. Sometimes this compromise will be something like the union getting special rights in the workplace in exchange for surrendering the right to strike during a contract, like much of the labor movement did (with the Communist Party’s blessing) in the 1940s. Sometimes the compromise will be that you stop making demands that affect the pace of work in exchange for regular pay increases, like the UAW did in the middle part of the 20th century.

Saul Alinsky and John L Lewis won for so long because they had the backing of the labor relations framework. In the halls of every labor board there are discussions of “responsible labor relations” and of who practices this versus who needs pressure to get in line and accept compromises. Some unions survived to represent a different tradition, as a unique minority that maintained some autonomy, like SEIU 1199NE, or as a small union that managed to hold onto its identity, like the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. But the compromises of John L Lewis were compromises made across the working class. No strike clauses, mandatory arbitration, management rights clauses and all sorts of other exchanges had long-term strategic implications. These compromises were also a part of the union’s strategy being subordinated to the political priorities of the leadership and their ongoing struggles to get and maintain influence in electoral politics.

In the end, that framework is what choked out the independent and militant unions and left Saul Alinsky and John L Lewis to have their legacy largely unchallenged until now. Militancy is building up again and workers are on the move, but the challenge for us now, when we look back at the 1930s, is whether we want to repeat that era or do better.

Nick Driedger is a former member, shop steward, Local Organizing Officer and National Organizing Coordinator for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. He is currently the Executive Director of the Athabasca University Faculty Association and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Nick Driedger

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