Tim Nailsea reviews A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organising and the Fight for Democracy by Jane McAlevey, HarperCollins, 2021, 304pp.
A Collective Bargain is Jane McAlevey’s third book, following Raising Expectations (and Hell) and No Shortcuts. These are useful reading for trade union activists and are the basis of her international organising network, O4P, which boasts on its website that since September 2019 it has hosted nearly 25,000 organizers from 110 countries.
A Collective Bargain was written in the context of the Trump presidency and the crisis in the left that resulted. McAlevey argues that the organising method she has developed can be of use in the political arena.
In terms of organising, McAlevey advocates ‘two key methods’: structure tests—to gauge the popularity of the union, the commitment of members and their willingness to take action—and leadership identification, where organisers identify ‘organic leaders’ in workplaces to advance the struggle.
Both these methods can be useful for anyone who seriously aims to organise their workplace, but a lot depends on how they are used and by whom. For an organiser dedicated to building towards successful action using structure tests could be valuable. But for many union leaders, endless structure tests, consultative ballots or one-day strikes for example, could serve the purpose of marching workers up the hill and down again, sapping rather than building strength.
Likewise her fetish of winning a ‘super majority’ before openly organising, let alone taking strike action, ignores the lessons of centuries of communists, socialists and syndicalists who saw organising as part of the class struggle. True she does advocate mobilising social movements in support of unionisation but when the opportunity comes for mass strike waves all these super-cautious methods would have to be relegated to the background.
Her method also ignores the need to respond to serious attacks with immediate action, the radicalising effect of a strike and the fact that the great waves of unionisation did not and could not restrict themselves to workplace by workplace ‘structure tests’ or the assurance of a supermajority.
When it comes to leadership identification, people who put themselves forward as union activists may not be leaders. They might be, what McAlevey calls ‘loudmouths’, who may just be ignored by their fellow workers.
Instead she proposes the selection of ‘organic leaders’, people who hold influence over their co-workers because of their experience or skills, are charismatic or confident when standing up to management. A successful organising campaign should focus on winning such workers to tip the balance of power in the union’s favour, even if they are sceptical of or hostile towards the union at first.
But McAlevey underestimates how leader identification, when carried out by trade union officials, can become leader selection. If such an organic leader owes their position to the full-time organiser, not their workmate, if they can only be replaced by the union machinery, not those they lead, then in the long term this fails to increase workers’ participation in, and ultimately control of their union.
McAlevey, however, does support ‘two key principles’—democracy and participation. No campaign can be successful, she says, without workers feeling ownership of it and having a say in its direction. However, her understanding of union democracy is open to question.
While she does not explore this issue in any detail in A Collective Bargain, in her first book Raising Expectations she argues for a structure where professional union full-timers occupy elected positions. Union organising, according to McAlevey, requires professional leadership.
As we know from experience in British trade unions, where both rank and file workers and full-timers run against each other for positions, grassroots activists are often crowded out by career trade unionists who have access to the union infrastructure to campaign. Rank and file organisation, as at training ground for militants independent of the professional bureaucracy, remains a closed book to McAlevey.
How McAlevey thinks her methods can be employed in politics is not really explored. She is a US Democrat and sees the main weakness of the Democratic Party being that it does not utilise effective organising methods to mobilise its base. But she does not explore why that should be.
The Democratic Party cannot employ methods that would lead to workplace organisation and radicalisation, for reasons that should be obvious; it is a party of the capitalist class.
The LA teachers, to whom she dedicates a whole chapter, found themselves in direct confrontation with the Democratic machine. This is true for other public sector union activists in large American cities. McAlevey also points out the union-busting nature of Silicon Valley, which is almost entirely Democrat in its politics.
Of course, the Democratic Party is not in any sense a workers’ party—see the article on Biden’s removal of the railworkers’ right to strike on p9. But could McAlevey’s methods be tried inside Labour?
They were to some extent tried in Momentum, but it did not foster democratic control, leaving this in the hands of organisers chosen by Jon Lansman and Team Corbyn. Compromises and pacts were made to keep the right wing MPs on board, while the lefts in the constituencies became isolated.
Transforming the unions
A Collective Bargain is probably McAlevey’s least valuable book to date. Raising Expectations gave a useful narrative of workplace organising in America, and No Shortcuts is a clear and concise argument for her organising method. The latest book re-treads well-worn ground and the same strengths and weaknesses are therefore on display.
Above all she does not, whether as an organiser or an academic, understand the role of the trade union bureaucracy as a whole (as distinct from conservative top officials who neglected organising for so long.)
Paid full-timers and officials who run the unions are committed to preserving the wage labour-capital relationship. Indeed their social position depends on it. That is the source of their hostility to the rank and file ‘getting out of control’ by escalating disputes to the point where capital’s fundamental interests are challenged. This view also lies at the root of McAlevey’s strategy.
Workers on the other hand have no interest in maintaining the capitalist order, which constantly seeks to drive down wages, raise the intensity of work and periodically throw them out of work. Socialists seek to resolve this tension in the trade unions to the advantage of the workers by establishing workers’ direct control over their disputes and their union and in so doing dissolving the bureaucracy as a whole.
For all the useful organising methods that McAlevey advocates, this blindness to the bureaucracy is a fundamental flaw in her analysis and outlook that prevents her work from being a rank and file guide to transforming the unions and winning them to socialism.