How Should Unions Organize?

Structure Tests

How should unions organize in today’s world?


In 2018, I was back home in the Seattle area, trying to understand the new texture of the place. There had always been pockets of wealth concentrated around high-tech companies like Boeing and Microsoft. But now, both in atmosphere and dollars, Greater Seattle had begun to feel like an Amazon company town. I wanted to know how non-engineers were getting by and whether longtime residents, low-wage workers, and newly transplanted coders could find common ground.

I began to sit in on meetings of the Workplace Organizing Collective, a group convened by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. The facilitators were current and former union organizers, but most of the people who attended knew little of the labor movement. They were baristas and retail clerks, food service workers and engineers. They went to commiserate and to brainstorm solutions to unequal pay, abusive managers, and schedules that spun their homelives into chaos. The tech workers also raised larger-scale grievances such as unethical outsourcing and violations of privacy.

At one of these meetings, a man named Ira Pollock gave a presentation. He was a recent transplant from New York, where he’d taught ballroom dance lessons and gotten involved in socialist politics. Now he was working at a UPS sorting facility in South Seattle, moving containers of boxes and driving a forklift. The plant had long been unionized under the Teamsters, but as he told the group and then me in a separate interview, “There was no shop steward. My coworkers were all part-time, and no calls were made to the union. They mostly didn’t even know the local.”

Pollock began organizing his coworkers, not for a new union but to give meaning to the one they had. He befriended the people on his shift and encouraged them to come up with a list of shared demands: relief from the smoke when fires raged across western Washington and more staffing to cover spikes in cargo. He and his colleagues started to act together in ways big and small—signing petitions, pacing themselves on the job, and taking regular breaks so as not to let themselves be overworked. “After that, management started staffing us,” Pollock told me.

Their manual was No Shortcuts, a 2016 book by the union strategist Jane McAlevey. In it she argued that gradual “whole worker organizing” and strikes, as opposed to quick, telegenic “mobilizations,” can transform not only individual plants and offices but the country as a whole. Pollock explained to the group in Seattle how he implemented this approach, creating maps of his workplace and community, identifying “organic leaders,” and guiding his coworkers through increasingly demanding “structure tests” that built their confidence and collective power. The room seemed as awed by Pollock as he was by McAlevey.

In recent years, McAlevey, now a senior policy fellow at the UC Berkeley Labor Center (and the strikes correspondent for The Nation), has drawn an enthusiastic following among activists, especially those in the DSA. She wrote her first book, a 2012 memoir and love letter to organizing titled Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), after staff jobs at the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union and, in a testament to her drive, while being treated for cancer. Then came No Shortcuts, an outgrowth of her dissertation in sociology at the City University of New York, where she studied with Frances Fox Piven. When the book went to press, McAlevey had no reason to believe that we would witness a resurgence in organizing and strikes. Yet in 2018 and 2019, hundreds of thousands of workers joined unions or walked off the job, provoked by decades of austerity, a blitz of union-hobbling court decisions, and Donald Trump’s election. No Shortcuts became an organizing bible for many, rivaling such classic guides as Labor Law for the Rank & Filer and A Troublemaker’s Handbook.

McAlevey’s latest book, A Collective Bargain, arrives in a new moment of danger and rebellion. The author’s signature arguments are all here, but in the form of a primer on labor and democracy and framed for a general audience. She wrote the book in a rush (just 45 days, she says in the acknowledgments), and the loosely structured content reflects this haste: a mix of organizing shop talk, myth busters, interviews, case studies, and commentary on everything from Silicon Valley and Chinese manufacturing to employment case law and gun violence. But that’s mostly beside the point. McAlevey’s influence is such that the book, like her first two, is certain to be passed from hand to hand—and what more could an author ask for?

McAlevey started out as an environmental activist, first with the Earth Island Institute in California and then at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. She advocated for Central Americans harmed by the US military and worked in communities of color facing disproportionate pollution. But after nearly a decade, she grew tired of the environmental movement’s frequent default to publicizing issues instead of organizing people. After a stint in philanthropy, she was recruited by the AFL-CIO and trained at SEIU 1199 Northeast, a large health care union known for its communist roots and commitment to rank-and-file power. There she absorbed two basic principles of organizing: first, to see workers as human beings, embedded in families and neighborhoods, and second, to use these personal and cultural ties to build clout in strategic industries.

The model of whole worker organizing was in fact the preferred strategy of the Congress of Industrial Organizations from its founding in 1935 to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. The CIO opposed the American Federation of Labor’s practice of sorting workers into separate craft-based guilds (for carpenters, pipe fitters, and so on), which sliced up the labor movement and excluded those with less bargaining power. Thus while the AFL spent its resources protecting highly skilled workers and trying to influence the emerging labor-law regime, CIO activists coordinated large-scale strikes and organized hundreds of thousands of manufacturing, mining, steel, and needle trade workers, including immigrants, African Americans, and women. These remarkable gains were slowed, however, during World War II, then quashed by the Taft-Hartley Act.

For McAlevey, the 12 golden years of the CIO before Taft-Hartley retain a near mystical power, and she has tried to replicate whole worker organizing wherever she goes. In Connecticut she led the AFL-CIO’s Stamford Organizing Project, a citywide multiunion campaign that aimed not only to unionize nursing-home workers and janitors but also to protect affordable housing. In Las Vegas and Reno, she helped revive a moribund SEIU health care local and recruited thousands of new, strike-ready members from multiple hospitals. It’s clear from Raising Expectations that McAlevey and her staff organized down to the bone—enough to know every worker’s network of friends, hobbies, clergy, and family members.

If this is real organizing, then what isn’t? In No Shortcuts, McAlevey distinguished whole worker organizing from two other modes of union activism—advocacy (lawsuits, legislation) and mobilization (public relations campaigns, protesters wielding picket signs)—and applied this three-part framework to a range of case studies, including the Chicago Teachers Union and its historic strike in 2012, a pork-factory union in rural North Carolina, and the nonunion immigrant worker center Make the Road New York. What we call organizing and imbue with street cred or back-patting self-acclaim, McAlevey argued, often constitutes little more than political performance. To win, she wrote, unions need to spend less time and money on advertising and litigation and much, much more on targeted workplace campaigns.

The Smithfield Foods saga proved her point especially well. For more than a decade, the United Food and Commercial Workers had tried to unionize the Tar Heel, North Carolina, pork plant using every mechanism of the National Labor Relations Act. But at each juncture, Smithfield flouted the law, going so far as to assault workers and deploy “their own police force dressed in riot gear” to suppress 
voting in a union election. The UFCW filed complaint after complaint, but the National Labor Relations Board failed to enforce the NLRA, and the case languished in the federal courts. This would have been the end, if not for a shift at union headquarters. In 2006 new leaders at the UFCW decided “to go all out to win at Smithfield, and to do it by radically changing their strategy.” They recruited a shop floor organizing committee, charted “social networks among the workers,” designed a series of “escalating ‘in-plant’ direct actions,” including a May Day strike, and with the help of outside activists like the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, built local, state, and national consumer campaigns against the company—a potent mix of organizing and mobilization. Finally, in 2008, 
5,000 Smithfield employees voted to join the UFCW.

The Tar Heel union did more than represent its members, McAlevey argued in No Shortcuts; it became a base of political support for health care access, immigrant rights, and fair wages “in a key national electoral swing state that still has the lowest unionization level in the United States.” Workplace democracy, in other words, could produce a larger democracy for all.

The tie between a sturdy union and a sturdy republic goes from being a secondary theme in No Shortcuts to the central thesis of A Collective Bargain. McAlevey dedicates her new book “to all the brilliant people who went on strike in 2018 and 2019…raising expectations that life should and can be better.” In the course of seven chapters—with titles like “Who Killed the Unions?,” “Everything You Thought You Knew About Unions Is (Mostly) Wrong,” and “Are Unions Still Relevant?”—she explains why CIO-style organizing is now essential to empower ordinary people and “change the direction of this country.”

“The experience of a well-executed union campaign,” McAlevey writes, “helps workers understand, on their own, that their employer’s effect on their lives goes beyond assigning them to an overtime shift and preventing them from getting time with their family.” Whole worker organizing reveals “that their employer is part of a bigger system that is contributing to the failure of their kids’ schools, the rollback of anti-pollution and anti-gentrification laws, [and] the gross inequities of the tax system,” which is, in part, why the right has tried so hard to destroy unions. It is also why McAlevey believes that the basic principles of workplace organizing can be applied to electoral politics, housing, and environmental justice.

As with McAlevey’s first two books, A Collective Bargain is strongest in its dissections of specific labor campaigns. In a chapter on hospital workers and corporate influence in Philadelphia titled “How Do Workers Get a Union?,” she vividly evokes an effort in which she played a direct role. The Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) hired McAlevey as a consultant in 2016 to help workers at the Einstein Medical Center win union recognition and to negotiate the first citywide contract in several other facilities. Her method at Einstein was simple but slow and granular: to get a supermajority of workers to actively support the union.

To build this support, McAlevey and her staff mapped out the hospital and identified organic leaders in each department—those who enjoyed the respect of management and held sway with their peers. The Einstein workers had won an NLRB election some weeks earlier, but the vote was close enough to signal weakness. Management responded by filing baseless legal objections and using “an A-level union avoidance firm” to turn employees against PASNAP. Among those turned was a charismatic, widely respected nurse—and indeed, when she tilted “no,” most of her department followed suit.

McAlevey and her team knew that without this nurse, the union would have little hope of negotiating a strong collective bargaining agreement. They approached her carefully, giving her a copy of the draft contract and appealing to her and her colleagues’ pride—“the same individuality they thought was threatened by the union.” They then persuaded the nurse to meet and walked her “through how negotiations worked in a good union such as PASNAP and how, in a democratic union, all workers were invited and encouraged to attend their own negotiations.” Less than 24 hours later, the nurse returned with 34 signed union cards. An organizer I know summed up McAlevey’s approach as follows: “You have to work the plan. If you work the plan, you will win.”

Few unions have worked this plan as well as the United Teachers of Los Angeles, which represents 34,000 employees in the LA Unified School District. The UTLA went on strike in January 2019 and won an unusually ambitious, wide-ranging contract that included caps on classroom size, increased staffing by full-time librarians and counselors, pay raises, legal assistance for undocumented students and their families, green spaces, and limits on charter schools—a major political force in California. In the chapter “How to Rebuild a Union,” McAlevey explains how the UTLA got to this point. She traces the victory to 2012, when one of her mentors, the Los Angeles organizer Anthony Thigpenn, partnered with rank-and-file teacher activists to pass a statewide “millionaire’s tax” that restored billions of dollars to the public sector. The teachers involved went on to win control of the UTLA in 2014, electing a “Union Power slate” that, in the words of Alex Caputo-Pearl, now the UTLA’s president, campaigned explicitly on the need for an “organizing union.”

Through interviews with Caputo-Pearl and others, McAlevey charts how a newly emboldened UTLA led its members through a series of structure tests, escalating actions “done by hand, face-to-face, across nine hundred schools” over four years. In the process of getting workers to attend a rally, sign new membership cards, or agree to pay more dues to fund organizing, the UTLA trained all educators to speak up. Teachers defined their priorities beyond pay and benefits, to target school privatization and the Trump administration’s abuse of migrants. Community concerns became union concerns and gave teachers the public backing they needed to win in 2019.

Writing about the UTLA, McAlevey makes the work of checklists and “one on ones” feel high stakes and urgent. And she adds a structural analysis, arguing that education and health care are crucial strategic sectors, priority “growth industries” that are not easily offshored. Because these workers “are hard to replace [and] have a kind of moral authority in mission-driven work,” she says, they possess the “capacity to hold the line on corporate greed.”

The downside of a book intended to inspire is that it omits the campaigns that failed, those in which whole worker organizing didn’t succeed. Surely there are times when, no matter how well union organizers chart a community or identify organic leaders or treat workers as networked organisms, they lose anyway. Reading A Collective Bargain, I wondered what we might learn from such campaigns and whether some contexts, such as construction day labor and informal domestic work, might require an alternative to CIO-style organizing.

One way of considering these questions is through a comparison of McAlevey’s whole worker approach with that of her old boss Andy Stern, who was the president of the SEIU. In the late 1990s he and a group of SEIU leaders developed a plan to unionize workers in fast-growing service sectors—and to do so quickly and in large numbers without deep organizing. They began with home care workers, the isolated, mostly female aides who serve housebound, low-income elders and people with disabilities covered by Medicaid. For decades, these home health aides and personal care workers were classified as independent contractors, despite being paid and supervised by state agencies. As a result, they had no right to the overtime pay, workers’ compensation, or collective bargaining that other public sector employees enjoyed. Stern’s idea was not to organize these care workers through a conventional campaign but instead to pass legislation, state by state, that would deem them public employees for purposes of negotiating a union contract.

In numerical terms, the strategy was brilliant. As collective bargaining bills were signed into law, hundreds of thousands of home care workers gained rights, and the SEIU joined with private home care contractors to force higher Medicaid reimbursement rates from state agencies. Workers saw material improvements, typically in the form of insurance benefits, paid time off, and a bump in their wages to just above the legal minimum. Yet most home health aides developed no meaningful relationship with the union, let alone one another. The SEIU neglected to match its visionary recruitment plan with the daunting but necessary work of door-to-door organizing.

For McAlevey, Stern and his protégés have long represented a neoliberal turn in union strategy, from real rank-and-file organizing to technocratic mobilization. And she seems to have foreseen the vulnerability of their method: Home care unions eventually became the target of the right-to-work lobby and a business-friendly Supreme Court. In the 2014 case Harris v. Quinn, the court found that aides compensated by Medicaid were only “partial” public employees and therefore could not be required to pay into the cost of union representation. The ruling threatened the viability of home care unions and, by extension, the earnings and working conditions of aides and the welfare of patients. In 2018 the court expanded the holding in Harris to apply to all public sector unions.

Many people in the labor movement share McAlevey’s criticisms of Stern, who now shills for the gig economy, and of his SEIU acolyte David Rolf, who has recently made a name for himself arguing that unions and collective bargaining are obsolete. Yet the strategy they employed in home care had its merits: Using legislation to unionize aides (and later, publicly subsidized child care workers) wasn’t intrinsically wrong; the problem was the lack of deep, complementary organizing. McAlevey is right that a whole worker approach is needed to create lasting strength, but in a given campaign, for a given set of workers, the precise alchemy and sequence of organizing, mobilization, and advocacy may vary.

This might be said of the Fight for $15 in fast food, a more recent legislation-heavy SEIU effort that McAlevey has criticized for privileging one-day walkouts and minimum-wage bills over organizing. It’s true that the campaign has yet to produce a union, but given the rapid turnover and poverty endemic to workers in the fast food industry, it isn’t clear how to organize them without first attempting to stabilize their lives. Raising the floor through legislation may be a critical first step toward finding a more durable collective form.

The case of low-wage immigrant workers further illustrates the inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all model. Workers may bring their own ideas, inflected by culture and life experience, to the question of how to gain leverage in a particular industry or community. They may also have no choice but to experiment, especially in sectors with large numbers of undocumented immigrants or in workplace structures stubbornly resistant to traditional unionization. McAlevey does not identify restaurants, nail salons, day labor corners, or private homes as strategic sites for organizing, but the workers in these spaces and the immigrant worker centers supporting them have developed their own ways to win self-determination and power.

Immigrant workers also remind us of the importance of transnational ties and cross-border solidarity, which CIO-style organizing, born of a less economically complex, less globalized era, does not necessarily take into account. In A Collective Bargain, McAlevey describes globalization as a convenient fiction, a way for American corporations to justify moving businesses from the unionized North to the right-to-work South or out of the country altogether. The rhetoric of globalization has certainly been used to enable union busting and profiteering overseas, but this only means that our scope of organizing must grow to match the ambitions of capital.

Describing the drift of manufacturing across the US-Mexico border, McAlevey writes, “As I drove to Nogales, I could smell the toxic exhaust emanating from U.S.-owned factories just outside the reach of much stricter laws stateside…. I understood that the free in free trade meant the freedom to pollute the planet, pay extremely low wages, and be exempt from all duties and obligations to society. American workers didn’t stand much of a chance competing against these conditions, and neither did the planet.” The villain is obvious—opportunistic American bosses—but by highlighting the chasm between “stricter” US laws and a foreign landscape free of “duties and obligations,” McAlevey both overestimates working conditions stateside and pays inadequate attention to labor conditions across the border.

Elsewhere in the book, discussing labor conditions in China, McAlevey notes that most Chinese unions are jointly run by corporations and the state. From this, she concludes there’s no labor movement in the country and extends this conclusion to the entire continent. “Do you wonder why CEOs of Asian companies can say what they like about their workers? Because the workers in some Asian countries are so explicitly repressed: they aren’t allowed to use an independent Internet search engine to read stories of workers forming unions in places where the government doesn’t attack them,” she writes. McAlevey should have spoken with people who know this terrain or should have at least given the topic a vigorous Google search, as there are countless workers, organizers, and lawyers struggling for fair wages and safe conditions across Asia, even in authoritarian countries. Consider the many strikes and organizing efforts outside the structure of formal unions tracked by China Labour Bulletin or the activities of the anti-militarist Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar, which, along with the AFL-CIO, is an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation.

These sections of A Collective Bargain suggest that, while CIO-style whole worker organizing has been critical to fostering radical, strike-ready unions, it can also nudge members to turn inward and protectively hoard their gains. This is a problem not only in light of our globalized economy, climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic but also in the United States if our goal is to build a sturdy welfare state. Something is missing in an approach that leads the United Auto Workers to strike for the closure of General Motors plants in Mexico or compels Unite Here to condemn Medicare for All. Whole worker organizing is necessary but insufficient; we must also enlarge the valence of our community.

On the one hand, it’s unfair to expect one book and one author to do it all. On the other, A Collective Bargain travels down enough tangents that my expectations were, well, raised. How can we connect shop floor organizing to global justice? Is it possible to bolster employment-based rights and benefits and tear down capitalism at the same time? And what does a movement of American workers mean in the context of US hegemony and an increasingly interdependent world?

McAlevey concludes her book with a warning: “Nothing can rebuild a progressive, ground-up base like a strike-ready union…. The choice is clear: build good unions, undo Taft-Hartley, and enable robust collective bargaining and strikes…. Otherwise, democracy ends.” Fixing our own democracy is hard enough, but what good is a fortified island in a thrashing sea?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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