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Book Review: No Shortcuts by Jane McAlevey

06-Jun-2019Philip Locker

A well-written, bracingly honest book which takes the big questions facing the labor movement head on.

Reviewed by Philip Locker, the Political Director of the campaigns to elect Kshama Sawant, the first independent socialist on the Seattle city council in 100 years.

No Shortcuts elaborates on valuable organizing techniques such as “power mapping”—systematically charting all the relationships among co-workers and their wider community. Another distinction McAlevey powerfully argues for is “structure tests,” a method of measurable assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the organic leaders and members. Structure tests can range from how many workers the leaders in each department can get to wear a pro-union sticker on a common day, to how many workers a union can bring out on strike. Having regular real world, specific, measurable structure tests is something that can and should be utilized far more by organizers in left-wing and socialist movements.

But McAlevey’s biggest strength is her insistence that the traditional strike is workers’ most powerful tool, essential to building their power. And by strikes she means “real strikes” which actually shut down the economic activity of a workplace or industry.

While we have seen a promising return of such “real strikes” in the wave of teachers strikes over the past year, it has not been the norm over the past several decades. McAlevey contrasts this to symbolic protest strikes seen in the Fight for 15. The same can be said about much (though not all) of the 2017 and 2018 International Women’s Day strikes in the US, or the all-too-common (losing) strike where the workers walk out but the company keeps running with replacement workers.

No Shortcuts demonstrates through a series of case studies how the organizing model is far superior to the prevailing strategy of the labor leadership in winning unionization drives, strong contracts, and building a strong union. Given this McAlevey correctly asks: “If the organizing model is so effective, why was it so widely abandoned?” This, however, is the Achilles heel of her book.

Models of Change

No Shortcuts sets out by distinguishing three models of change: advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing.

Advocacy “doesn’t involve ordinary people in any real way; lawyers, pollsters, researchers, and communications firms are engaged to wage the battle.” Mobilizing looks toward struggle, but is generally based on turning out the already committed activists, not the mass of the workforce and the community.

McAlevey argues for a third approach, “deep organizing,” rooted in the CIO tradition of mass organizing of the 1930s. Central to this classic union organizing method is the technique of “leadership-identification.” In this model leaders are not the most ideologically committed or hard working (activists in the mobilizing model), but those who workers listen to and respect the most.

This concept has real value but also raises some thought-provoking questions for socialists, who have usually been focused on bringing together the “militant minority” of workers. In their reviews of No Shortcuts, Sam Gindin and Mike Parker raise valuable and nuanced counter-points on the relationship between organic leaders and the militant minority—points that deserve further discussion.
Organizing, according to McAlevey, “places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved.” Campaigns, while important in themselves, are “primarily a mechanism for bringing new people into the change process and keeping them involved.”

This echoes the traditional strategic focus of Marxists—measuring the effectiveness of every campaign and every tactic by its success or failure in building the power of the working class through raising its level of organization, cohesion, and willingness to struggle. And it is in this sense that she hammers away that there are no shortcuts to building workers’ power.

Why do ineffective strategies dominate the labor movement?

McAlevey’s answer highlights the dominance on the left of Saul Alinsky’s ideas about union organizing. While such an analysis is important, her book is lacking in a systematic analysis of why these ideas have been so desperately clung on to by the labor bureaucracy, despite all the evidence of their ineffectiveness.
This is not a place to give a developed answer to this question, but suffice it to say that the bankrupt strategy of the union bureaucracy is rooted in their politics, which in itself reflects their interests, social position in capitalist society, and sociological makeup.

McAlevey’s analytic weakness on this question ironically leads her to take a “short cut” as Mike Parker points to in his review in his review in Labor Notes. “There’s no discussion about how to carry on the struggle inside unions to change them to adopt these policies… It’s as if [McAlevey] hopes that current leaders will see the light and ‘empower’ their members from above. In reality, often they must be replaced by opponents organizing themselves, running for office, and beating them. This kind of organizing can be just as difficult as the struggle against the boss, and just as necessary in order to get the union to a place where it can fight the boss.”

McAlevey locates workers, not staff or advocates, as the agency for a powerful labor movement. But she does not present workers as the agent for overcoming the failed policies of the current union leadership and forging an alternative strategy for rebuilding labor. The organizing model that McAlevey promotes requires a political struggle to implement it through the building of independent working-class activity and rank-and-file union caucuses that campaign for class struggle policies.

Capitalism and Politics

No Shortcuts acknowledges at several points that the successful CIO organizing in the 1930s was inspired and led by socialists. Yet McAlevey shies away from exploring why there was a close relationship between socialist politics and the kind of militant class struggle organizing methods she is arguing for.

The political approach of the labor leaders is shaped by their acceptance (consciously in some cases and unconsciously in others) of capitalism. Their class collaborationist outlook, their resistance to bold demands that raise workers’ expectations, and their respect for the law follows from this. To rebuild a powerful working-class movement, there will be no shortcuts—it will require the rebuilding of a vibrant socialist current that can popularize an alternative to capitalism.

McAlevey stresses the need to organize the “whole worker,” recognizing that union struggles can spill outside and draw strength from outside the workplace. It is therefore surprising that there is an absence of discussion on developing workers´ power by building a working-class political movement, or the need for workers to generalize their interests by building their own mass political party.
Regardless of these or other criticisms, there is no question that No Shortcuts is a very welcome critique of the bankrupt politics dominating the labor movement and the wider progressive movement.

It is a powerful intervention on behalf of a radically different model of mass organizing, based on class struggle methods, which centers workers and their ability to strike in any strategy for changing society. It deserves to be thoroughly read, discussed, and debated by the new generation of tens of thousands of organizers.