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Organizing For Power – the limits of the McAlevey model for new trade unionism

Peter Votsch, CUPE retiree

May 20, 2022
Jane McAlevey, a long-time social justice activist and a former union organizer with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has written several books calling for new perspectives and strategies on union organizing. Her ideas have led to a training program, delivered internationally, called Organizing For Power (O4P).
Her ideas for union organizing have been welcomed by left activists in the labour movement: a call for combative, class struggle unionism, based on rank and file involvement in organizing, and escalating workplace actions. McAlevey criticizes traditional top-down organizing models, led by professional union leaders, instead looking to times when unions were able to make significant gains: the Congress for Industrial Organization (CIO) drives in the 1930s and the Chicago Teachers’ strike in 2012.
Unfortunately, her organizing model falls short of the examples she sites and limits the role of the rank and file when they should be leading the struggle. 
McAlevey’s Model
McAlevey places the worker and working class communities at the centre of change. The ‘whole worker’ organizing model is one that brings union values into communities, not just workplaces, and makes these values their own – thus creating a new class consciousness.
She looks in particular to the 1930’s, when millions of workers in industry were organized into the CIO between 1933 and 1937. She quotes approvingly the work of socialists such as William Z Foster, member of the Communist Party of the USA, on organizing in the steel industry, and how members of left-wing organizations were embedded in the industries they aimed to organize. These organizers saw the role of rank and file workers as key, along with their families and communities. She sees this as the key to victories today. 
She credits this model of organizing with successful campaigning for the 8-hour day, health and safety, labour laws, and the end of segregation in the South. This she compares to 40 years of decline in the labour movement.
Similarly, she takes modern day inspiration from teachers in Chicago who organized their fight with the city around the needs of the students and the education system in Chicago as a whole, bringing together in a powerful way both teachers on strike, with parents and students from working class families, who saw their interests reflected in the teachers’ demands.
Unfortunately, she interprets Foster’s call for ‘careful training’ of left-wing workers as specialized training for “organic leaders” in the workplace, respected by both workers and management, who may not be activists at all – these ‘leaders’ would be trained by the professional union organizers, and lead the drives. The rank and file would play more of a cheerleading role – a clear departure from Foster’s model, and that employed in the drives of the 1930s.
She calls for “structure tests”, to test the strength of workplace organization, which might begin with signing petitions, but can escalate to shop floor actions, possibly including walk-outs. This would be a gauge of support for organizers on the outside, and a show of strength in the workplace to other workers and management.
While this is quite positive, McAlevey is quite cautious when she defines success as actions supported by at least 80% of workers. Similarly, when it comes to strike votes, McAlevey calls for a “super majority” of 90%, a threshold that must be reached prior to going on strike. This cautious strategy is explained in terms of the strength of corporate anti-union campaigns in the US. This criteria necessarily limits rank and file initiative on the ground, and the possibility of building support through taking action when activists in the workplace feel it is called for. 
She correctly states that what are understood as separate functions, organizing and certifying the union, then negotiating a first contract, should not be seen that way. That bringing in professional bargainers when the professional organizers depart leaves rank and file participation as minimum, and naturally leads to a lower level of success.
McAlevey feels that these tactics, taken together, can turn around many years of defeats for unions and the working class in general.
Union Bureaucracy and the socialist critique
Unfortunately, despite some important fundamentals, McAlevey sees democratic, rank and file led structures in unions as built from above, by more militant or leftist leaders, not by rank and file workers themselves independent of the union leadership. This means a reliance on the election of Left leaders of unions for the strategy to succeed, not in building rank and file networks that could build at the shop floor level, whether organizing, or fighting for a contract, whoever was elected at the top.
Socialists have an understanding of the union bureaucracy as a middle layer between capital and labour. They will at all times defend the structures in the union that give them their livelihoods, against bosses’ attacks, or against a rank and file that wants to go further than the usual negotiated norms. This is especially true when such a movement from below wishes to challenge the basis of the state and capital, their bargaining partners.
A most famous recent example is that of the Days of action, mounted by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) against the Mike Harris Tories of the 1990s. When Harris first came to power, he point blank refused any communication, even routine, with the OFL. This was clearly a challenge to ‘business as usual’, where union leaders lobbied politicians of all stripes for specific legislation and legislative insights. It led to the OFL calling a series of escalating city-based ‘general strikes’, beginning in 1995, and culminating in the Toronto General Strike of October 1996. At that point, there was tremendous pressure, brought by socialists and union activists throughout the labour movement, for the OFL to call a province-wide general strike. But this would have raised the issue of power, and who would govern – the OFL backed down. 
This is not to say that socialists do not favour left-wing leaderships in unions. Their presence in leading positions can often create openings for rank and file activity, as McAlevey suggests. However, the election of such leaders does not put the rank and file at the centre of union activity. Only rank and file led union organization, whether at the workplace level, or at a wider cross-industry level, can ensure that those activists on the shop floor make all the calls, no matter who is in the union leadership. 
This leads to McAlevey’s misinterpretation of Foster’s model for organizing when she emphasizes his stated need for training: Foster looks at training the most progressive and left-wing workers, and suggests that organizing work be opened up to the widest possible layers of rank and file workers. The contrast with the concept of the ‘organic leader’, is to be noted here.
She feels that if there is enough democracy and participation from below, these tendencies can be countered – however this is a misunderstanding of the union bureaucracy as a middle layer between workers and capital. Therefore, McAlevey maintains, with sufficiently radical leaderships, unions should be able to replicate the union drives of the 1930’s, the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012, and other teachers’ strikes throughout the US that took place in 2018-19.
Leadership from Below
It leads to tension in her analysis: can a rank and file union be built and sustained from above? Is that the lesson we should learn?
A deeper look at the CIO drives of the 1930s, and its rank file leadership from those who worked in industry at the time, and the important role of socialists at the workplace level, would seem to contradict this. As would the formation in Chicago of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in 2004, whose work in the teachers unions and in working class communities layed the groundwork for a mass strike that took place eight years later.
The successful unionization drives at Amazon and Starbucks would also provide a contradiction to any top down model being successful. Similarly, the push behind “Striketober” in the UAW, IATSE, BCTGWU and the Teamsters came from the rank and file participation and activity, and resulted in important gains. In the case of the John Deere strike, it led to major changes in the structure of the United Auto Workers, structures that had been in place for decades.
Struggles Going Forward
McAlevey’s analysis is a welcome addition to the ongoing discussion taking place in the labour movement as to the way forward in winning strikes and building union power – this is especially true of her commitment to ‘class struggle unionism’. However it underplays the role of the rank and file, and rank and file networks in the re-building of such a tradition in the labour movement. Electing pro-worker officials cannot be a substitute for action on the ground.
Certainly, the election of such leaders should be welcomed by socialists everywhere. But we need to understand the victories of the past, as being the keys to the victories of the future – putting union organizing, bargaining, and strike action back in the hands of the rank and file. It’s those victories won through wildcat walkouts, mass strikes and growing solidarity on the picket line that provided the victories of the 1930s, that of teachers throughout the US – and is the way forward for durable victories today and tomorrow.
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