This Machine Kills Fascists

A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy BY Jane McAlevey. New York: Ecco. 304 pages. $27.

The cover of A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy

When Hosea Hudson, a labor organizer and member of the Communist Party (CP) in Birmingham, Alabama, approached potential recruits, he didn’t minimize the stakes of what he was asking them to do: “You couldn’t pitty-pat with people. We had [to] tell people—when you join, it’s just like the army, but it’s not the army of the bosses, it’s the army of the working class.” For a black worker in the Deep South of the 1930s, there was no way to justify lying to fellow workers about what they were signing up for. Assassinations of labor organizers, often simply recorded as lynchings, were not unheard of.

While organizing in the United States has become less deadly since Hudson’s era, the military metaphor remains apt: Organizing is still hell. At times, the labor leader Jane McAlevey’s latest book, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy, reads like an army field manual, with the author as drill instructor. Anti-union campaigns are “an assault on individuals and a war against the truth,” she writes, quoting the reformed union buster Martin Jay Levitt. In McAlevey’s view, labor organizing is all-consuming, demanding, and dangerous. In the face of a decades-long offensive against unions, organizers must marshal all their reserves of strength and solidarity.

McAlevey has served the requisite time in the trenches. As she recounts in Raising Expectations, a 2012 memoir about her first decade in the labor movement, she joined the AFL-CIO’s new organizing department in 1998. Dispatched to Connecticut to run the Stamford Organizing Project, an experimental multi-union, multisector campaign, she started doing “whole-worker organizing”: Rather than focusing solely on workplace issues, McAlevey’s team mapped workers’ relationships beyond the job—in churches, sports teams, housing projects, social groups—and drew on those networks to exert maximum leverage. In Stamford, this led the project to organizing around affordable housing. Though unusual, the approach was successful. Not only did their efforts help stop the demolition of four public housing projects, they also recruited 4,500 workers into unions.

Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Committee to Abolish Discrimination poster, 1951. Bernard Seaman/Tamiment Library, NYU
Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Committee to Abolish Discrimination poster, 1951. Bernard Seaman/Tamiment Library, NYU

From Stamford, McAlevey became national deputy director for strategic campaigns of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) health care division, then executive director of SEIU Nevada. Since leaving SEIU a decade ago, she’s continued consulting for unions and completed a doctorate in sociology at the cuny Graduate Center under Frances Fox Piven. That dissertation was published as No Shortcuts, McAlevey’s second book, which has become a totem among the post-2016 democratic-socialist Left: Striking West Virginia teachers and newly unionized Bay Area factory workers alike have cited it as inspiration.

Thanks to Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns—as well as his successors, the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes of the country—masses of people are encountering left-wing politics for the first time. McAlevey’s work is written for them. A Collective Bargain offers an introduction to the world of unions and their enemies, disseminating the how-tos of organizing to those people who lack experience in, for example, running supermajority strikes—which is to say, most people. McAlevey’s writing is an attempt to circulate organizers’ skills, breathing life into the long-quiescent labor movement.

Chapter one opens with a fundamental question posed by Bernie Minter, “a rank-and-file worker leader” from District 1199, a health care workers’ union that would merge with SEIU. “What is a union?” asks Minter. The book reproduces his answer:

A collective effort by all employees who work for an employer
To stop the boss from doing what you don’t want him to do. Discharge, unfair layoff, promotion, speed up, etc.
To make the boss do what you want him to do. More pay, vacation, holidays, health coverage, pensions, etc.
And, to be used in any other way the members see fit.

Through the stories of a health care worker in Pennsylvania, a public school teacher in West Virginia, and a hotel employee in California, McAlevey shows how “workers can still win big”: In addition to the “whole-worker organizing” of her Stamford years are “leadership identification”—the targeted recruitment of those workers who are trusted by their peers, without whom a campaign cannot win—and “inoculation,” the systematic exposure of workers to the boss’s arguments so as to render them immune. Indeed, A Collective Bargain is organizing-by-the-written-word: The table of contents resembles nothing so much as the FAQ section of the website a union sets up when a campaign goes public: Are Unions Still Relevant? asks one chapter; How Do Workers Get a Union? queries another. “Everything You Thought You Knew About Unions Is (Mostly) Wrong” is a chapter’s worth of inoculation, addressing and debunking common misperceptions about unions (Unions Are Only for Blue-Collar Workers, Unions Are Anti-Environment, Unions Are Racist, Unions Are Corrupt). We need many more labor organizers sharing the tools of their trade: A Collective Bargain, like the rest of McAlevey’s work, is indispensable.

What distinguishes this book from McAlevey’s prior work is her foregrounding of the political moment—namely, the Trump presidency and what has led to it. McAlevey thinks US unionism and US democracy are both in crisis and that these emergencies are interrelated. The gutting of unions has intensified the political power of elites, and the loss of the skills learned in union fights has eroded the public’s ability to fight back. “Unions,” she writes, “have so much value not just to build the power required to undo the rot of democracy and rampant income inequality, but also to teach Americans how to unite again.” Unions, at their best, are models of democracy, “the most important corporate power-balancing force this country ever had.” This is one of the reasons capital directs its firepower at them. Republicans not only target unions directly, but have “taken a page out of union busters’ playbooks” in their broader political strategy: stoking racial and ethnic divisions, hammering home a sense of futility to wear down the public’s belief in the possibility of a less Hobbesian world, and gerrymandering the vote in much the same way an employer contests workers’ inclusion in a bargaining unit.

McAlevey does not think unions are inherently good. (As the book opens, “Unions are such a pain in the ass.”) Rather, she is an advocate for a particular type of union: one that is democratic, with rank-and-file workers leading the charge. Militant; strike-ready. “A commitment to democracy,” she writes, “means breaking down the barriers—including directly confronting racism and sexism—that divide workers and weaken them in the fight for their common good.” And if there are “no shortcuts” to workers’ self-organization, certain conclusions follow: Only some industries have the leverage required to win against capital. For McAlevey, these are industries that can’t be easily offshored, in which employers are making good profits, and where workers have the “kind of moral authority in mission-driven work” that can’t be easily replaced. What kind of work fits these criteria? “Chiefly the service sector, where schools, universities, hospitals, and health care systems are growth industries—workers still have power.”

This perspective leads alternative approaches to come in for criticism. Liberal philanthropy, for example, fails to build democratic power because it’s predicated “on pacifying the majority while lawyers and specialists ‘advocate on behalf of others.’” Also drawing her ire over the years: “corporate campaigns,” a type of union effort that, in her words, puts “everyone but workers in command of the struggle against the employer”; the Fight for $15, for supposedly being more of a media event than a rank-and-file-driven union campaign; and nurses-only unions, for separating out the most highly skilled hospital workers from everyone else, and thus weakening leverage for all health care workers.

McAlevey writes of the need for “the rich to pay their taxes,” and for “unions to level the power of corporations,” but she knows as well as anyone that the boss and his backers will scream, assault, sue, lie, cheat, filibuster, threaten, arrest, and throw a tantrum at the negotiating table to win. If organizing is about “raising expectations,” what about the expectation that labor may, one day, defeat capital? McAlevey is friendly to the socialist Left; she has collaborated with the Democratic Socialists of America and contributed to Jacobin magazine, where I work. But A Collective Bargain is quiet about the role she sees for socialism, using the term “liberals and progressives” when addressing the book’s presumed readership. Is this just union organizing 101, a focus on issues rather than labels, or is there a disagreement with the Left as to the overall goal?

“Though unions have seen their ups and downs, the 1930s system can still work ninety years later,” McAlevey writes. But though she is right that militant unionism can be just as effective today as it was then, the labyrinthine structures of labor law, jurisdictional disputes, and fiscal responsibilities to members impose real limits on what unions can do. Take the recent strike at General Motors: The workers won much—though not all—of what they demanded. And yet there is no way for them to stop the company from offshoring its factories or force it to convert all existing facilities to manufacture eco-friendly vehicles.

Unions are defensive forces: History suggests that alone they are insufficient to combat rule by the rich, much less the wage-labor system. The Democratic Party hasn’t been adequate either; often, it hasn’t even been on the same side as labor. Without an independent Left, one capable of pushing unions and political parties alike, we may find ourselves stuck in an endless war of attrition. Sustaining the momentum of union campaigns requires an organized political movement with allegiances to the working class above all. The Left must patiently, persuasively make the case for an extension of the principles of rank-and-file-led unionism—socialist principles—to the political sphere. Hosea Hudson, when recruiting workers to the CP, adhered to what McAlevey calls “the long uncomfortable silence”—respect the recruit’s agency and promise nothing. And if you can’t get them to join? It’s not the potential recruit’s fault, says Hudson. “It’s my fault for not being able to convince you why you should be a member.”

Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin.