I am writing for anyone who is concerned about the lack of a serious worldwide approach to climate chaos, anyone who is concerned about racism, poverty, patriarchy, violence, poor health of so many, anyone who is concerned about peace — anyone who wants to participate in and see political change on these issues.
The great German physician Rudolph Virkow, a pioneer in the field of public health, once remarked, “Politics should be practiced as if it was medicine on a grand scale.” I am thinking about this as I ponder the weakness of the labor movement in the United States, the weakness of the peace movement, and the left in general. What is the diagnosis? And where does a cure lie?
If these questions concern you, I am writing to request that you gather a group of like-minded people in order to explore three books and how the wisdom in them can be developed and applied. These three books were written by the same author, Jane McAlevey. Their subject is complex and of the utmost importance. — how the vast majority can be organized to take collective control of their lives. The books are entitled in order of their appearance Raising Expectations and Raising Hell: My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement; No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age; and A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy.
Who is Jane McAlevey? She has a long history as a leader and political organizer beginning in high school and college around issues of women’s equality, the dangers of nuclear power, and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. After traveling and working in Central America she worked for the Earth Island Institute educating the environmental movement in the US about ecological consequences of US military and economic policies in Central America and then worked at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee on environmental issues. From there the New Voices leadership of the AFL-CIO recruited her for an experimental AFL-CIO organizing in Stamford Connecticut. The Stamford Organizing Project was working on a model for rank and file worker-based social movement unionism. In this project, in addition to focusing on workplace issues, unions connected workers to non-workplace issues that affected their communities. Union members utilized their connections to churches and faith based institutions, sports clubs, and social groups of all kinds to build alliances between labor struggles and community struggles. Following this work she joined the SEIU where she worked as Director of Strategic Campaigns and then as Executive Director and Chief Negotiator for SEIU Nevada in the process demonstrating the power of the Stamford approach.
The reason I recommend reading all three books is that taken together you get a rounded picture of McAlevey’s background, development, experience in and practice of an approach to union organizing and community organizing that is needed, if the vast majority are to be effectively engaged in tackling the pressing problems that confront us as capitalism collapses. If three books seems like too much, start with one. I want to emphasize that although union organizing and community organizing are not the same thing, what McAlevey discusses seems to me to be of great relevance to community organizing as well as union organizing.
The roots of McAlevey’s approach go back to the industry-wide organizing that was critical to the emergence of the CIO in the 1930’s. The books focus on the most difficult kinds of labor struggles, in which it is necessary to organize 90% of the shop floor and 90% of the community in support of the union, if the union is to be able to win. As described above, in order to accomplish this, it is not enough to approach workers as just people on a job. It is also necessary to see workers as whole people, as community members whose needs and interests extend beyond just wages and benefits. For McAlevey the union is there to aid in the struggle for wages and benefits, but it is there primarily as a means by which workers can take collective control of their lives. McAlevey’s approach is radically democratic with no such thing as a “labor aristocracy” or “labor bureaucracy”. There are the workers and there are the employers. The union belongs to the workers completely.
It is not by accident that this approach, which communists helped develop, was largely abandoned after World War II. Coming out of World War II “the powers-that-be” in the United States wanted to quiet the unrest that had developed in the 1930’s and to be able to pursue US corporate imperial interests at home and throughout the world. The population had to be propagandized to support the “Cold War” and to see the Soviet Union as their enemy. And there was a determined effort during the McCarthy Period to demonize communists and exclude them not only from the labor movement but from the life of our society generally. The “powers-that-be” needed to turn the US labor movement away from class struggle and toward what McAlevey calls “class snuggle”. “Class snuggle” is a process in which employers and certain labor leaders collaborate to narrowly define workers’ interests and in the process help labor bureaucrats become powerful, wealthy and corrupt.
Fortunately the approach that McAlevey describes was not completely abandoned, and where it is still being practiced, it has yielded some big wins. As examples amongst other campaigns McAlevey discusses the recent teachers’ union organizing and strikes in Chicago and Los Angeles.
As I read through McAlevey’s books I was stunned by the fact that what she was talking about was completely new to me despite years working within the left. Of the many things that impressed me I will mention here only four.
First, McAlevey emphasizes the importance of setting concrete goals so that you can know if you are succeeding or not. Contrary to this, most of the organizations, with which I have been associated, have pursued a line of action that could never fail and consequently could never succeed, because the goals of the organization’s activity were always vaguely defined.
Second McAlevey discusses the importance of making a power analysis of the community or group you are hoping to organize. Who knows whom? Who influences whom? Who are the community’s “organic leaders”, the people to whom others listen. These “organic leaders” often don’t see themselves as activists or leaders, but their opinions carry great weight with many others. If you are going to organize 90%, reaching these “organic leaders” and winning their active involvement is critical.
Third, McAlevey describes in detail what she calls the “Structured Organizing Conversation”, a specific way an organizer can go about connecting with organic leaders and uniting with them in the organizing effort.
Fourth, McAlevey makes a clear distinction between what she calls “advocacy”, “mobilizing” , and “organizing.” Advocacy involves advocating for something. This essay is an example of advocacy. Mobilizing involves calling out the people who are already on your side. Organizing involves reaching and involving in the struggle the vast majority, those who don’t yet understand that they have a vital interest in being actively involved. From this perspective, the organizations, with which I have worked, have been involved in education, advocacy, and mobilization, but not really organizing. This is why what these books can teach us is so critical.
Becoming an accomplished organizer is no small achievement. It is every bit as complex as becoming a true artist in any field. So reading these books won’t turn anyone into an accomplished organizer. But they can provide crucial insight into the science and art of organizing. Reading them as a group may ignite a desire in some to begin experimenting with organizing in a different way. Such an endeavor will need the support of a group. At the very least these books will help partisans of a people’s movement to more concretely conceive of how radically democratic labor unions and communities can be organized for the political battle that is needed.
Dr. Schotz is a child psychiatrist who is active in the peace movement in Western Massachusetts