The Power of Deep Organizing

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by Sam Gindin
Jacobin magazine
December 8, 2016

The profound defeat of the US labor movement over the past three to four decades is usually measured by the loss of things that workers once took for granted like decent wages and benefits. A less quantifiable but ultimately more decisive indicator is the retreat from possibilities. By extension, the labor movement’s renewal (or reinvention) is inseparable from reversing, through effective struggle, this lowering of expectations. Jane McAlevey captured this sentiment in the title of her first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), a memoir based on her experiences as a labor organizer.

The underlying argument of Raising Expectations was that while the threat of globalization, austerity, and anti-union legislation is real, these factors can also be an excuse; the mantra of “Globalization (or whatever) made us do it!” was not of course an entirely incorrect sentiment, but it avoided asking to what extent the problem also lay with the unions themselves.

Raising Expectations was full of struggles that McAlevey was directly involved in — struggles that showed what could be done despite the overwhelming power of capital. It had a personal, chatty feel to it and had an instant and powerful impact on rank-and-file workers and labor activists, quickly and deservedly making McAlevey a hit on the labor circuit as a speaker, trainer, and strategist.

The crisis within the labor movement has had all kinds of unions scrambling to find “new” models. But leaderships that were averse to institutional risk and lacked faith in their members — or worse, feared an awakened membership — gravitated to alternatives that were no alternatives at all: corporate campaigns that substituted PR and moralizing for organizing, deals with employers that left the members aside, mergers that added size but no energy or strategy. Refusing to build working-class agency, their eventual failure should not have surprised anyone.

As the title of McAlevey’s second book asserts, there are no shortcuts. In No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Guilded Age, she argues that only a radical rethink of strategy — which implies a wholesale top-bottom restructuring of everything about how unions function and allocate resources; how they relate to their members, the community and employers; how they develop leadership and how they bargain; and how they understand “politics” — has any chance of rebuilding working-class power.

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