No Shortcuts by Jane McAlevey.

Irami Osei-Frimpong

I’m three chapters through Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts, and I’m going to move through a few of the arguments. The book isn’t perfect, but it’s wonderful and important, and I think that I can fill in a few holes.

  1. McAlevey: What drives organizing campaigns isn’t the promise of more money; it’s the dignity of having a fair say in your work life. People get this confused, and no small amount of union corruption is because the ethic of the organizing campaign is narrowly centered on material gains. But when the ethic is about securing worker participation in negotiating rules, hours, safety, etc. bribery doesn’t work. She puts this as the characteristic difference between East Coast and West Coast Unions, where East Coast unions focused on material gains in a way that opened the door to corruption.

Irami’s take: There is a way in which people who think that money drives organizing also think that the US Revolutionary War was about getting tax money back.

These struggles are always about freedom, and how freedom can come to be institutionalized in otherwise oppressive spaces of human activity. There is a way in which making it about money is just the bait. That’s why when I talk about union benefits, I always talk about scheduled pay increases and a codified bonus structure. The increased pay and the bonuses seem to be doing the incentive work, but really it’s the scheduled and codified bit that works on people’s soul, because people need the schedules and codes in order to make plans for their lives, and in order to make plans for your life in a market society, you need to know how much money is coming in. And a whole lot of freedom is the ability to make a plan for your life and not be at the unmitigated discretion of someone else’s arbitrary will.

2. McAlevey’s work makes a tacit argument that we need to move from a mobilizing model that overly relies on professional staff and uses workers as props or mere numbers, to an organizing model that relies on the leaders that emerge among workers, where workers have a substantive say in negotiations and tactics. The goal is to find and turn the organic leaders who emerge within the shop floor, and these organic leaders are characterized by simply being the kind of folks other workers listen to. Because those are the people who will be able to get people to join high risk collective actions. The problem is that union activists, who are enthusiastic but nobody listens to them, may be pro-union and the organic leaders anti-union, so the trick is in how to turn the organic leaders into pro-union folks.

Irami’s Take: The term organic leader is doing more and less work than what McAlevey thinks it’s doing. An organism is characterized by how the activity of each part, i.e., organ, works in sustaining the animal. Organic leaders are organic leaders because the functioning of the company needs a certain set of non-titular managers to effectively control the workers. They are de facto company functionaries, just in non-obvious ways. These organic leaders aren’t arbitrarily anti-union, they survive because they are anti-union, or they would have been stamped out by company’s anti-bodies. The organic leader does not obviously positioned by the company. The organic leader is not obviously paid like a company functionary. The organic leader may not be conscious of themselves as a company functionary. But the organic leader is a company functionary who, in an anti-union shop, has been captured by anti-union ideology, even if he/she didn’t get that ideology in the shop. This is important because it gives the lie to the notion that arguments and hard questions are going to turn the organic leader McAlevey prizes.

Also, a great way to turn a shop is for the organic leader to be punished by the company because then that’s a company betrayal that’s unconsciously felt among those who follow the organic leader.

3. Organizing for the Whole Worker.

McAlevey: Again, there are two models, one is trained on winning concessions from the employer, where the workers are a factor but only one factor; the other is trained on getting workers prepared to struggle for their rights through a strike, so the real important factors are the factors that affect the workers’ disposition to strike, not the employers’ disposition to concede. The first model is popular but hollow. The second model requires workers who are prepared to engage in high risk collective action. In order to carry off the second model, we need to organize through the workers’ community institutions and see that workers are part of a broader community. We need to do this for a few reasons, including the fact that so many workers are service and care workers whose clients are in the community. She also mentions anti-union ideology pervading shop floors in anti-union states, and the thing about ideology is that it resists reason and evidence.

Irami’s Take: McAlevey’s analysis is just a little bit thinner than it needs to be here. In general, she does great work showing how some unions focus too much on fighting the ideology of the boss, and not enough on shoring up enthusiastic support from the workers. She talks about ideological anti-union employers, but she doesn’t consider the ideological formation of the anti-union employee who isn’t just scared of unionizing, but thinks of themselves as the boss’s property. Remember, it’s not just the boss who thinks that workers give up their agency as soon as they clock in. Workers are taught this same ideology. And they get this ideology from schools, churches, and families. There are parts where McAlevey seems to not appreciate that these community spaces themselves need to be ideologically shifted to pro-labor spaces if we want workers to feel empowered to fight. It’s not as if these spaces are neutral; rather, they are actively anti-worker rights. They have been ideologically captured. We lose the labor movement not on the shop floor, but in the classroom, church, radio, and family.

So a real labor movement needs a liberation theology or a labor Christianity/labor Judaism/labor Islam. It needs to fight to get a workers rights curriculum in the schools, and we need to inure families to the struggle, e.g., more union auxiliary spouses and fewer wet blanket spouses. And you can’t get these things if you focus on material benefits because then it just becomes a cost benefit analysis. And the cost and liability of union organizing is substantial, with the status quo being privileged because of the upheaval of the process. Dignity, however, is priceless.

We don’t lose workplace organizing fights in the workplace; we lose them in those institutions of cultural production outside of the workplace. Every institution that teaches people about risk in general, is also teaching them about where and whether you should join the union campaign.

5. Alinsky style organizing leads to popular but not durable progressive groups.

Irami’s take: I can write an entire paper on this. But to adopt a three little pigs analogy. At the end of the day, if you build your campaign out of feelings and polls, you are building it out of straw. If you build your campaign out of material benefits and market incentives, you are building it out of sticks. If you build your campaign by drilling down the right to participate in negotiating the activities of your life, you build it out of bricks.

We’ve ceded the Right all of our rights discourse, so that people think that they have a stronger right to a gun than they do to a dentist.

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