revolutionary reflections | Rank and File Organising – Lessons from America 1

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The International Socialist tradition has always believed in socialism from below –which means that socialism can only come about by the self-activity of the working class. In this interview Rob Owen spoke to labour organiser Jane McAlevey about her experience of rank and file organising in the US since the 1960s, and their views on developments in Britain.

Next week revolutionary reflections will be publishing an interview with the US union activist Kim Moody.

A number of us in rs21 have read your first book, Raising Expectations. Could you explain the distinction you make between the organising and mobilising model, and why you make this a central plank of your thinking.

I talk a lot about organising and mobilising in Raising Expectations, although I don’t know if I do it with the kind of clarity I have had since. There was an article I wrote this time last year, published in a journal called ‘Politics and Society’ and that article is the place where I really commit in theoretical writing the difference between organising and mobilising. The article was a mini-preview to the next book in which I elaborate quite a bit more on the distinction.

In summary the key distinction between organising and mobilising lies in the answer to this question: where does the agency for change lie? Is it a fulltime union-staff-centric model, where the primary decision makers and central actors are the union staff, or is the primary agency for change ordinary rank and file workers?

What’s changed in the US over the last 25 or 30 years is that a new model emerged, something called the mobilising model, and it’s really taken hold. It’s very confusing for people. Many who deploy the mobilising model, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and most unions in the USA, claim they are organizing, and have been using a language for decades where they say what they’re doing is organising. This is something I have challenged, as I don’t think a model that places the primary agency for change on union staff can be called organising.

We see how this plays out, let’s say, in negotiations, where you have a negotiation conducted behind closed doors between a handful of people. That’s a typical example of the mobilising model, where you see neutrality agreements or card check agreements which are negotiated with union staff and the employers after a so-called leverage campaign, but there aren’t any workers in the actual negotiations. In the organising model, negotiations means something else, they mean big, open negotiations where any rank and file worker can participate in the negotiating process. What I think is happening with the mobilising model in the US, is that there’s a ton of union staff who are in control and making the key decisions. They involve workers, and get them to mobilise, put up some flags, march, testify at a hearing, have a press conference… but it is a minority of rank and file workers being asked to mobilise, while the professional union staff hide behind closed doors and hammer out an agreement. The workers aren’t involved in any key negotiations. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig: it is not organising but they call it ‘organising’.

I want to address this question of the role of the union staff versus the rank and file workers because people assert that there are disagreements between Kim Moody and I, though I am less convinced there’s a big difference. The organising model that I advocate does involve union staff: it absolutely does. It’s just that the primary agency for change remains with ordinary rank and file workers. The role of the union staff and rank and file workers in the organizing model is really different than the role of the union staff and rank and file workers in what has evolved in the ‘new labor’ model in the US – which we’ve exported to the UK and Ireland. New Labor and mobilising is about elite power and about the staff being in the driver’s seat of the ultimate decision-making.

The Chicago Teachers’ Union strike and 1199 New England, one very specific Local [union branch], are the two examples of the organising model I use in my latest book. I’m looking at unions that are still engaging in strikes where a super majority of rank and file workers walk off the job, which I distinguish from the fashionable new fad of the fast food workers led by SEIU, who use the word ‘strike’ – but in fact I argue they’re not strikes. A strike means that most people walk off the job, and the SEIU is dumbing down the concept of the word strike when one worker pops out of McDonalds and finds a bunch of activists who don’t work at that same McDonalds outside ready to protest and then they call that a strike. That is not a strike. It’s a perversion of the concept of a strike, and it’s not creating a crisis for capital. That’s the mobilising model: it takes some really important core concepts, like the idea of organising and the image of strike action, and dumbs them down to something far less effective than what we need to successfully challenge global capital.

One of the messages that has been taken from the fast food strikes, from Britain at least, is the idea of trying to push union organisation into areas where it’s previously been either non-existent or very weak. A number of younger activists have taken the idea of the ‘fight for fair tips’. They are trying to build the Unite union in smaller shops and smaller chains of restaurants. What is the impression of these actions in the US?

I won’t comment on the UK – I’m not there and don’t know what’s happening. But what’s happening in the US is a slippery slope: a slope to advocacy or the mobilising model. Advocacy being a third option [besides mobilising and organising] that doesn’t even pretend to involve working people. The people behind the advocacy and mobilising model that’s taken hold in some well-known US unions like to say they are engaging in “narrative change.” And here again is the problem: narrative change is a tactic, not a strategy, but they are making it into an end game, into strategy. Narrative change lacks the power to challenge powerful corporations and the systems that back them up in the new version of the global economy.

In the US there are a tiny handful of places, one of them being Chicago, where I have been persuaded that the fast food work is turning into something more substantive. But the vast majority of the fast food so-called ‘strikes’ are not strikes at all, and while they may have the support of activists, they do not have support of the workers themselves: that’s not enough to bring a giant corporation to its knees. On the one hand it’s exciting and no one wants to bad-mouth any workplace where there’s a dynamic energy. But I feel that it is a distraction, ultimately, from the work that we have to do. If your theory of change is narrative change, than hooray, they get headlines. But from #OWS on, I haven’t seen actual changes aside from headlines. It’s good that there’s more pundits talking about income inequality, but it would be way better to do something that reverses income inequality. I have seen no evidence at all that protecting let alone winning new pensions, defending let alone winning new and robust safety rules and workplace rule making, or winning life altering raises is happening off of all the narrative change. There is evidence that real strikes still hold and expand real and serious changes that benefit workers.

In the US it’s very hard to organise in small retail, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons about whether it makes sense to organise in small retail stores. Not that it’s a bad thing; the question is: ‘is that really the best use of people’s time?’ Not really. Because we know there are more useful things to spend our time that can advance a struggle for working class liberation more quickly than activist dominated protests and what feels ‘fun’. Protests always feel fun unless you have the shit beat out of you. But we don’t have a lot of time to waste, certainly given the climate crisis, on doing things that aren’t particularly focussed on how we’re building power. I don’t see any of the fast food work in the US really building power – and that’s really a strategic imperative right now.

One criticism that has been raised about Raising Expectations was that the model of organising stressed in that book – partly because it was talking about your own experiences – was very much reliant on resources coming in from the outside. I’ve been to workshops where you’ve talked quite convincingly on how the model could be applied by individual activists who find themselves without that level of support. Could you expand on how you think some of the ideas from your first book can be applied by people who don’t hold positions in the trade union movement?

It’s a perfectly legitimate critique of what people might take away from the book. Obviously if you can hire some high quality full time organisers, people I think of as coaches, who are helping develop rank and file workers day in and day out, coaching and mentoring from the sidelines, so that the rank and file workers understand how to develop a really tight worksite structure, so that they understand the moves the boss will make next, etc., that’s very helpful. More will get done with more resources, assuming the strategy is good and the resources are deployed effectively. I keep coming back to this point: it helped the Chicago Teachers Union in very concrete ways once the caucus won the election and suddenly had a serious number of people being paid to do the good work they were doing previously in between and on top of their teaching schedules. When people no longer had to teach kids and instead could devote fulltime to coaching and mentoring their colleagues, and we talking about thousands of other teachers, well hell, of course they got more done. The challenge is how to shift to being full-timers without getting entangled in organisational bureaucracy that can sometimes be very self-limiting. But beyond whether you have resources to do it fulltime or not, there are some very basic principles in the organising model and the method or craft of the organising discipline that don’t require fulltime union staff, or what you might call ‘outsiders.’

For example, there’s a tremendous confusion about what I call an activist-oriented approach versus the organic worker leader approach. You don’t need a penny to think strategically about which co-workers who you’re going to try to focus on and deliberately engage if you are an inside rank and file organizer without the resources of the union. You still have to make the decision about who it is you’ll try to recruit first to whatever kind of union you’re trying to build. There are still a series of choices that need to be made about who it is we’re targeting and recruiting to get the work done in the most effective way possible. A lot of left activists and organisations spend way too much time talking to themselves and preaching to the converted. That diverts the focus of energy away from the larger masses who are not yet persuaded to the cause of challenging international capital!  So if at work we have worker activists on the inside spending most of their time talking to the workers who most want to talk to them, you are left with an activist approach, and you simply won’t get to the scale of power needed. You have to spend most time talking with and engaging the people who don’t want to talk to you. You have to devote time to understanding who the most respected workers are and seeking them out as methodically as possible. You need a plan for each organic leader. This isn’t full-time union staff dependent, but it’s sure going to help if you have someone coaching you in how to do it.

Rather than talking amongst ourselves we need to teach the method of identifying the most respected workers in any workplace. In my experience I’ve found they are never or certainly rarely the people who want to talk to us first or earliest in campaigns. They’re generally reserved, sitting in the background, waiting to see if our efforts are credible, if there’s a realistic plan to win or make any real change in the workplace. Part of why organic leaders are often waiting and observing is that they often have a sense of their own individual power in the workplace. They’re often considered the best workers and are the workers that people look up to and rely on and trust and turn to for help. This means management also pay attention to them. They won’t jump on board if someone puts out a leaflet saying ‘World Revolution Tomorrow’ or if someone tells them: ‘All we have to do is sign you up and we’ll have a strike in two weeks’. People who are serious about building power and using power, whether or not they use those words, want to see a more credible plan.

This is all a long way of saying that we, who want fundamental change, need to think seriously about who we talk to and why we seek to recruit them. Then we have to think about how we do it, which gets into methods like semantics, the steps to a successful conversation, and a whole series of other methods.  You don’t have to be or pay a professional to do these things, but you do need some experience of doing them and understand there are successful and not very successful approaches to this work.

There’s really an art and a science in how we successfully challenge capital. This isn’t a new idea, I am not suggesting I just discovered this for goodness sake! In the US, the Trade Union Unity League, starting in the 1910s until 1940s advanced the same types of approaches that I’m talking about today. They had a method: you can read all about it in William Z Foster’s book Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, published 1936, and other places.[1] We have to get serious about rediscovering the methods that led to mass scale organising.  It wasn’t just because there were immigrant men in factories toiling under bad conditions and willing to take action, but also because political parties had a clearer sense of strategy and method than today.

You spoke with Kim Moody at the Historical Materialism conference, and have read some of what he has written recently. He raises the question of how we go from having a relatively weak workers’ movement in Britain and the US, to gaining the strength we need to win. You and Kim come from quite different traditions. What would you now say are the areas of convergence and disagreement between your perspectives?

I agree with much of what Kim Moody has written. One difference is on the question of methods. I feel he’s bound up in some of the criticism that comes from certain left quarters in the US, that there’s an over-romanticisation of the base: that people wake up, radicalised, knowing how to take on a sophisticated union-buster. That’s bullshit. Just the other day, I spoke to an acquaintance – a nurse – who is a member of a union he gave support to for a long time, the California Nurses Association (CAN). She had just been on a strike. She and her co-workers are trying to win a contract in the hospital where she works. I was high-fiving and celebrating with her and I said: ‘So how long was it?’, and she said: ‘It was a one-day strike, and the next thing we have to do is go to mediation.’ So I paused, and said: ‘Well you don’t have to go to mediation, and you didn’t have to have a one-day strike. Those are decisions that the leaders of your union made, which you were apparently not involved in at all.’ Had she been, she would have known that the decision to mobilise for a one-day strike is a different decision than to mobilise for an open-ended strike, for example.  And she would have known that mediation isn’t mandatory coming off a strike, but they were too weak to sustain an open ended strike so that’s what the union’s fulltime staff leaders set up, a one day strike. And this great rank and file nurse had absolutely no idea about the real strategy because no one was letting her or any other ordinary worker in on the real plan.

This gets to a lot of my frustrations. When an ordinary nurse in the States goes to nursing school, guess what they don’t teach her. They don’t teach her strike strategy or the art of war or labour law. They don’t teach her how to win a big fight. So where is she supposed to learn? When I told this nurse: ‘You didn’t have to hold a one-day strike. You could’ve had an open-ended strike.’ She told me: ‘No, we were told we have to do a one-day strike first and then go to mediation.’ I explained to her that she definitely could have had an open-ended strike, which has much more powerful than a pre-announced one-day strike. Now whether they were capable or ready is one thing, but it’s not the law or written in stone that she had to do a one-day but she really believed it was!

The main quibble I have with some of the more explicitly left groups is that it’s almost anti-expertise: the idea that there is no organising craft, people can come together, be pissed off, decide to do something, and that can be just as successful. But in terms of what the goal of the work is and who should be the primary agent of change –ordinary people and not full-time union professionals – I think Kim and I agree.

One method that is most alien to a British audience is the idea of being specific about the semantics of language when we’re talking about union organising. Could you touch on why you think language and semantics in the union are so important and give examples of how it can be used?

I really do think semantics matters a lot, and I give the issue space in my new book. This has nothing to do with whether you’re union staff or not. There are plenty of union shop stewards I’ve met who are as bad in their semantics as any paid rep or organiser.

Here’s what I hear a lot of shop stewards say: ‘I represent my workers on my floor and on my shift. It’s my job to make sure the boss doesn’t mess with the workers on my shift.’ Almost everything about those two sentences is anti-collective action. It’s a very poor choice of words, and both staff and rank-and-file leaders say things that convey that they and they alone can fix problems. If we dissect those sentences, you realise that the shop steward is promoting the idea that they are the solution to the problems of the workers, because they say ‘my shift’ and ‘it’s my job’ and ‘my members’. The members aren’t anyone’s. It’s not one single person’s job to stop the employer from doing something wrong. And in fact, one shop steward can’t, they can only win anything big or hard if they are good at engaging the majority.

The idea of semantics is that every single word we use should convey what collective power means, what is looks like, how it works. For example, let’s say you’re an activist trying to build your union, and you sit down with someone and have a terrific conversation for 30 minutes at the end of a shift. You say to that worker: ‘Thank you so much for giving me your time!’ First, you have conveyed that the person is doing you a personal favour by giving you their time. That’s bullshit. It’s a value exchange. You as an activist can’t build the union without the person you’re talking to and that person can’t build the union or make the changes they want to see without you. So you need each other, no one is doing anyone a favour. You are trying to build collective power which is what is required to make changes against the power of the boss.

The biggest thing we have to fight in the US and definitely in the UK is combatting that there are individual solutions to individual problems. Everything we do is has to be about teaching that the problems are broad class problems or broad workplace problems and the solutions are collective action that builds collective power.

Semantics matters. I learned this when I was first starting work as a fulltime organizer in the trade union movement, I didn’t invent it. I had great mentors who passed the craft of organising down to me as it had been passed to them, in an apprenticeship model. I’m extremely focussed on what works and what doesn’t.

There is a different way the activist in the above scenario might have closed the conversation without saying ‘thank you for your time’: ‘It was terrific talking to you today. It was great to have this conversation because we’re going to need to have a lot more of these and with a lot more co-workers if we want to succeed together in holding our boss to account.’ Notice the nuance from: ‘thank you so much for your time today’, to: ‘It was terrific having this conversation with you: we need to do a lot more of this if we’re to stand a chance of winning.’ Those two conversations convey something very different. Saying, ‘Great spending time with you’ allows you to be enthusiastic, to convey a sense of urgency, which is really important too.

Semantics to me is how people learn. We learn from books, we learn from conversations, we learn from action or doing. But semantics is about the art of the words we use in conversation, and I think we have to be incredibly deliberate about them.

How do you see the development of a critical mass of people using these good organising practices? The situation in Britain is that the vast majority of the trade union movement, and the majority of the activists trained by their experience within it, operate very much within a mobilising framework. Your story of the nurse who had gone through the one-day strike is the story of almost every national trade dispute we’ve had in Britain in my political lifetime.

What is your thinking about how we go from the situation we have now where very few people are trained in good organising practices to a situation where we have enough people to make a decisive difference?

Right now I split my time quite equally between two related but very distinct sectors. The first is local and regional trade union leaders and their organisations. Most Locals, as we call them in the States—what you call branches like the Chicago Teachers’ Union, have a lot of power to determine what to do on their own, and I think the same applies in the UK. Can the union bureaucracy and the national leadership shut things down? Of course. But look at Chicago. And Los Angeles teachers, too, where good rank and filers also took hold of the leadership and the purse strings of a big branch. We need to do way more of this and hopefully people can spread the method faster than we have in the past.

I spend a chunk of my time working with more explicitly political groups and projects like rs21, because people in them are serious about wanting to win and build radical power. But in many of these left parties I find weakness as big as in the unions, just different root causes for the weaknesses

I’ll do my damndest to spend as much time as possible with people who are serious about finding better ways of organising,

My final question concerns the Chicago teachers’ strike. This is probably the most talked about strike within the British trade union movement and has been for some time. Micah Uetricht’s book Strike for America was very widely read and the teachers’ unions here were inspired by it, although they did take what became known as the ‘social movement’ model of trade unionism from it. This is the idea that the key dynamic in the Chicago teachers’ strike was its outreach to parents and the community, rather than looking at what drove the dynamism of the strike itself. What do you feel was the key dynamic which made Chicago such a successful strike?

There were several factors. The single most important factor in why Chicago was successful was that a rank-and-file caucus took control of the union and elected a leadership who actually believed in enabling the workers to fight, as opposed to constraining workers at every turn, which is what the problem is with about 90 per cent of the trade union movement right now. I argue, in my new book in the chapter about Chicago, and my chapter about several other successful strikes in the US, that service workers, mostly women, can build very powerful unions. Chicago is a great example but it’s not the only one.

Part of what I say is that there’s so much pent up, natural, informal anger in most of the working class in the US, and I’m sure in the UK, about what’s been happening to people for so many decades, that given just a little encouragement, and some methods and systems and strategy, people can fight in very powerful ways. Yes, the methods will help you do that, but the first and most important issue is that the union leadership enable rather than constrain the members of the union in their fight. It’s so fundamental.

A whole lot of radicals are now full-time professionals in Chicago and it doesn’t mean they became bad people. Being paid to do this full time rather than be teachers in the classroom gave them the ability to become full-time organisers inside the union. They worked on organising every minute of every day in every school they could. They decided carefully and strategically which schools to go into, going to the big schools as fast as they could, having multiple meetings a day per school and visiting multiple schools each day. When you go from being a volunteer activist to being paid by members of the union, it magnifies what you can do! They had 18 months to suddenly work fulltime to rebuild a union of 30,000. And working fulltime through 2010 and most of 2011 they walked into every school and asked: ‘What do you think this next contract’s going to be about?’ ‘You tell us what you think is going to happen when this contract expires. Do you think this contract will be better whether we get a one, two, or three per cent raise?’ ‘Or do you think this next contract fight is going to be a fight for whether or not there is even a public school system left in Chicago?’

They took a bold conversation into the schools. They were brutally honest. They raised the stakes about what the fight was going to be about. Clearly, there were forces from Wall Street coming to privatize the schools, so the contract fight wasn’t going to be about how big the damn raise would be. It was a fight for their future and the future of public education. They raised workers’ expectations and made them aware that they could fight successfully. That’s part of why they built such a powerful movement in such a short period of time. People are pissed off that union leaders spend a lot of time in elite negotiations not involving workers, and not trusting that if they enabled the workers to fight they would fight way more than they’re doing now.


[1] https://archive.org/details/OrganizingMethodsInTheSteelIndustry


Jane McAlevey is a union and community organizer, educator and author. Her books include Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement (2014), and her new book No Shortcuts: Organizing Power in the New Gilded Age, came out in October 2016. She also runs the website janemcalevey.com

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