“No Shortcuts” was first published a month before Donald Trump was elected president, but that doesn’t really matter in terms of its analysis and conclusions. In some ways it’s better that author Jane McAlevey doesn’t need to reference the disastrous swing of the federal government to the right reinforced by Trump’s election. She doesn’t need to argue against the liberals who would just as soon write off people who voted for Trump or didn’t vote at all; nor does she need to excuse those voters for their choices. Her thesis, after all, is that progressive forces in the United States have been losing because they’ve been following the wrong strategy for the past 40 years.
For McAlevey, politics is not about getting the right frame to convince conservative voters; it’s not about mobilizing activists or liberals to lobby Congress or to fund issue groups; it’s not even, primarily, about holding huge marches of the already convinced. It’s about exercising power. The right is powerful because it’s advancing the agenda and funded by the rich, the ultra-rich and corporations. The left doesn’t have the resources to challenge the right on its own terms.
What the left does have, McAlevey asserts, is the potential power inherent in the numbers and the economic leverage of the poor and oppressed. She criticizes the left for moving away from the organizing model exemplified by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union movement in the 1930s, which, at its best, organized workers by identifying organic leaders and getting them to lead struggles themselves. Using their community ties, these leaders could build overwhelming support. Instead, she says, most union campaigns today are staff-run, often aim to collaborate with employers and generally ignore worker input and needs, except during campaigns when workers become poster children for the campaign.
McAlevey probably knows what she is talking about — she was an organizer and then a local union head in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) before quitting and doing an in-depth study of these issues at Harvard Law School. She asserts that because unions are unwilling to organize for and exercise their power — particularly by organizing strikes in a way they can win — they have become increasingly weak; because unions are by far the largest progressive organizations in the country, a weak union movement means a weak left.
The book distinguishes between three types of political mobilization: advocacy, mobilization and organizing. The first two, advocacy and mobilization, involve groups led by activists who mobilize people who agree with them to pressure the government or corporations. The third involves finding the organic leaders in poor and working-class communities, showing them how organizing in the workplace or the community for their basic interests — such as dignity, decent wages, environmental justice and racial and gender equality — will improve their quality of life. Then, using their connections to mobilize, thousands or millions of ordinary people can make change.
McAlevey uses case studies to make her point. The most compelling is the account of organizing at Smithfield Foods’ farms in rural North Carolina. Smithfield has the largest hog processing plant in the world at 32,000 hogs a day. The first two union campaigns in the plant lost, using the organizing approach McAlevey criticizes. The third campaign, a “deep organizing” campaign, identified organic leaders in the plant and gave them resources, as well as reached out to the workers’ faith communities and other organizations. This campaign not only unionized the plant but pulled off a successful strike that won a $15-per-hour base wage — in a part of the country where the cost of living is only slightly more than half that of Seattle (whose $15 minimum wage has yet to be realized).
Another chapter compares the experience of nursing-home workers in Washington state versus those in Connecticut, both organized by different locals of SEIU with contrasting strategies. In Washington, SEIU proceeded by negotiating sweetheart contracts with the nursing home industry, partnering with them to lobby for Medicaid increases at the Legislature. The agreements had explicit no-strike clauses, linked wage increases to levels of Medicaid funding and limited the number of workplaces that could be organized.
In contrast, the SEIU local in Connecticut organized the workers themselves, often went on strike and involved the community through personal links with the workers. The result? Unionized nursing-home workers in Connecticut are the highest paid in the country; unionized nursing-home workers in Washington make about the same wages as nonunion workers. More importantly, McAlevey says, nursing-home workers in Connecticut have significantly more control over working conditions and patient treatment and are more interested in social change, because they’ve experienced being powerful in their union.
McAlevey doesn’t pretend that the style of organizing she’s advocating is easy. But for her, it’s a necessity. The only real power ordinary people have, she says, is their numbers and their ability to disrupt the normal flow of the economy. If we want to turn this country around, we need to help people find their own power.
Wait, there's more. Check out the full April 18 - April 24 issue.