Jane McAlevey’s organising model: is it a rank and file strategy?

Issue: 174

Paul Brook

The union organising model associated with Jane McAlevey has a growing influence among union activists in Britain and internationally.1 As a former union organiser in the United States, and now an advisor to unions and author of several books, her ideas appeal to many rank and file activists looking to connect workplace struggles with community campaigns and social movements.2 Key phrases from her organising model—“power analysis”, “organic leader”, “structural test” and “supermajority”—are increasingly heard in union debates on strategy and tactics from workplace meetings to national conferences.3 Indeed, Jane Hardy notes in her recent book on work and resistance in Britain, Nothing to Lose But Their Chains (2021), that activists she interviewed from several unions were influenced and inspired by Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts (2016).4

This percolation of McAlevey’s ideas among union activists is unsurprising; her international audience has grown impressively in recent years. In late 2019, McAlevey launched an online training programme, Organizing for Power (O4P), in multiple languages, including Hindi and Arabic, with over 3,000 activists participating from 70 countries.5 A year later, over 10,000 activists had participated.6 In Britain, the University and College Union (UCU) ran a national six-part “strike school” led by McAlevey and attended by over 400 members. UCU’s general secretary, Jo Grady, later wrote to all 120,000 union members encouraging them to attend O4P training.

McAlevey’s core argument is that union leaderships need to build combative, workplace-based organisation if they are to turnaround the long-term decline in union memberships in the US, Britain and other Western countries over the last 40 years.7 She argues that if unions are to recruit tens of millions of unorganised workers, especially in low-waged service industries, then workplace unionism needs to be based on high levels of member democracy and participation.8 McAlevey argues for organising campaigns based on class struggle politics that build high participation through a series of escalating actions culminating in supermajority strikes with active support outside of the workplace. She criticises most union leaderships for using an ineffective top-down approach to organising. This approach is tightly controlled by staff officials and supplemented by carefully managed, shallow mobilisations of members that only produce limited and often short-term gains.

McAlevey claims that her approach is based on union organising in the US during the 1930s, when millions of un-unionised workers across industries such as automobile production, steel, transport and docking flooded into the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and existing organisations such as the Teamsters Union.9 This transformation came from a wave of militant mass strikes, often in the face of employer and state violence, organised by rank and file workers and commonly led by left-wing activist workers.10 McAlevey characterises her own model as a 21st century update on this old CIO tradition, based on the potential of unorganised workers, not just the already committed, to be class actors—both in the workplace and in their communities, where winning struggles can “produce a transformational change in consciousness”.11

McAlevey’s ideas and activism make an important contribution, popularising debates on the politics of union organising and class struggle among thousands of activists. Crucially, she advocates a central role for rank and file workplace organisation and mass strikes. However, McAlevey’s model should be treated with caution for several interconnected reasons.12

First, she claims that, through increased democratisation of unions and mass participation, it is possible for officials employed by unions to share the same interests and objectives as rank and file workers, rather than representing the distinct interests of the union’s own organisational bureaucracy.

Second, McAlevey does not propose rank and file leadership in the workplace, with workers electing their own leaders and organising strike committees that are independent of union employed officials. She instead argues that the selection of workplace “organic leaders” should be done by professional organising officials on the union staff, who are physically and financially divorced from the workers they are organising. She explains that only professional staff organisers have the skills and expert knowledge to select and train the most effective workplace “organic leaders” to mount a successful organising campaign in an environment hostile to unions. In doing so, she marginalises the role of existing trade union activists and downplays the importance of left-wing workers’ leadership in the workplace. This runs counter to the claim that her model is based on the old CIO tradition.

Third, McAlevey’s organising model is an overly cautious, “one size fits all” approach, exemplified by her rigid insistence on strikes being supported by a “supermajority” of at least 90 percent of workers. This requirement underestimates and misunderstands the importance of unofficial, rank and file-led “wildcat” strikes for building struggles, with or without majority support. The supermajority threshold also gives union officials opposed to strike action a powerful excuse to refuse to sanction action, even where there is a majority.

These areas of tension and contradiction show that despite McAlevey’s apparent promotion of rank and file workplace unionism and mass strikes, she proposes a limited role for rank and file workers.13 Her approach leaves workplace leadership to the unions’ expert professional organisers drafted in from outside. This article commences with an overview of McAlevey’s arguments and model followed by a detailed discussion of the three main areas of tension and contradiction. The article concludes by considering McAlevey’s contribution in relation to current developments and debates on British unions and workplace struggles before and during the Covid-19 pandemic.14

McAlevey’s organising model

McAlevey sets out her ideas and organising model across three books. The first is Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), an autobiographical account of her decade as a professional union organiser, mainly employed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).15 Here she tells the stories of her successful organising campaigns among US government and healthcare workers. In doing so, she begins to set out the principles and practices of her approach to organising based on the need for unions to “massively invest in their most important relationship: the one they have with workers”.16

McAlevey offers the most detailed development of her ideas and model in her second book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age.17 This work assesses a variety of organising case studies, such as the building of the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) as a militant social movement union in solidarity with students, other unions and the wider community during their celebrated strike in defence of public education in 2012.18

In her third book, A Collective Bargain—Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy, she uses a wider lens to make the case for why trade unions remain the most powerful force in the battle against systemic discrimination, growing class inequality, anti-democratic corporate power and climate change injustice.19 Here she develops her argument that, if the labour movement is to defeat and transform the structures and institutions of exploitation and oppression, unions need to be revived from the workplace upwards. This would require mass member participation and militant strike action—“uniquely powerful under the capitalist system”—that also harnesses the solidarity of wider working-class communities and movements for radical change.20 Again, she offers a series of case studies of contemporary union struggles to illustrate her arguments, including nurses in Pennsylvania, teachers in Los Angeles and “tech” workers in California’s “Silicon Valley”.

McAlevey’s starting point is that, since the 1970s, the US labour movement has abandoned the organising strategies of the two most successful working-class movements in the country’s history; the CIO of the 1930s and the civil rights movement during the 1960s. This has resulted in “many of the biggest victories of the past 100 years…being all but rolled back” in the wake of what she calls a “sustained, multi-decade, multi-front campaign by the corporate class”.21 Nevertheless, she argues that these movements achieved durable changes because their victories became institutionalised as law and government policy. Importantly, their gains “became part of the everyday consciousness of most people”: the eight hour working day, health and safety at work, abolition of child labour and the outlawing of “Jim Crow” apartheid laws in Southern states.22 McAlevey asks why these two movements over 50 years ago were able to achieve such substantial change compared with the 40 years of decline in union membership levels and limited workplace and political victories. The main reason, she claims, is that the earlier movements were led by “ordinary people” with a “theory of power” and the “ability to sustain massive disruptions to the existing order”.23 By contrast, McAlevey argues that a different approach to organising has become prevalent in recent decades, which she calls the “mobilising” strategy.24 Here, large numbers of workers and movement activists are involved in workplace action and protests but “a professional staff directs, manipulates and controls the mobilisation.” The staffers “see themselves, not ordinary people, as the agents of change”.25 She argues that these mobilising campaigns tend to be focused on achieving limited, specific demands. These include the SEIU-led Fight for $15 campaign for a living minimum wage and union rights, which she refers to as a limited “wage campaign”, rather than one fighting to “transfer power from the elite to the majority”.26 Nevertheless, McAlevey recognises individual, specific campaigns are important, providing their primary purpose is as “a mechanism for bringing new people into the change process and keeping them involved”. However, this can only be meaningful if part of a bottom-up “organising” strategy.27 Therefore, she proposes a blend of the dominant mobilising approach and an underused “whole worker organising” approach, which is “a means to build deep solidarity and a way to embed unionism in the social and cultural arenas of society”.28

Whole worker organising for McAlevey is a continuous process rooted in a face to face dialogue that “seeks to engage whole workers in the betterment of their lives”.29 This is done by developing workers’ understanding that their workplace aspirations and struggles are interconnected with those in their communities and society generally. In other words, that their interests are class interests:

Whole worker organising…demonstrates that where unions understand their members and unorganised workers to be class actors in their communities, and when workers systematically bring their own pre-existing networks into their workplace fights, workers win, and their wins produce a transformational change in consciousness.30

McAlevey insists her approach to organising is not simply to increase the numbers of union members and unionised workplaces but to build worker activism, mass strikes and durable solidarity. Long-term, sustainable shifts in class power relations are only deliverable through expansive organisation in favour of workers’ interests in the workplace, communities and wider society.31 Therefore, she argues, rank and file workers must be the main players in trade union organising:

If individual actors believe that the purpose of the union is to enable a majority of workers to engage in mass collective struggle—for the betterment of themselves, their families, and their class—the role of the workers in the union drive…will not be mere symbols of the struggle; they will be the central actors in it.32

McAlevey claims that for unions to achieve this they need to return to the approach taken during the heyday of US union organising in the 1930s. At that time, millions of workers took part in mass strikes across a swathe of industries, notably automobiles, steel, transport and docking, and massively increased union membership.33 She explains that the “old CIO tradition” of organising was “based on a method of mass collective action and high participation, anchored in deep worker solidarities and cooperative engagement in class struggle”. McAlevey notes that, because the CIO was committed to “uniting workers across ethnicity, gender, level of skill and every other working-class division”, left-wing organisers “flocked” to it.34 Many of the “most successful organisers in the CIO came from the various socialist and Communist parties”.35 However, she acknowledges that left-wing organisers were mostly not employed by the union but “took jobs inside the factories so they could help workers overcome management’s tactical warfare”.36 She also recognises that “the unions led by these leftist factions were not only the most effective but also the most democratic”.37

For McAlevey the “old CIO tradition” is the successful approach taken by the left-wing organisers of the era who “understood that workers were embedded in an array of important workplace and non-workplace networks”. They also understood that all of these networks “could be best accessed—and, for organising on a mass scale, ‘only’ accessed—by the workers themselves”.38 In particular, she draws on a 1936 pamphlet, Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, written by William Z Foster, a leading member of the Communist Party USA at the time.39 Of special significance for McAlevey’s understanding of the old CIO tradition, and for her own organising model, is Foster’s statement that “organisers do not know how to organise by instinct, but must be carefully taught”.40 She quotes this requirement approvingly.41

How then does McAlevey translate what she understands as the old CIO tradition into an organising model for today? She commences by explaining that professional union organisers in the US are banned from private sector, non-union premises and operate in a hostile, anti-union environment. Thus, it is often only workers themselves that can build and lead an “inside campaign”.42 She then proposes how such a worker-led, inside campaign can be built. Significantly, however, she does so from the perspective of a professional organiser, not a rank and file worker:

To connect to rank and file dynamics in the workplace, union organisers use a mechanism called “organic leader identification”, in which they analyse the workers’ pre-existing social groups. This is done among the workers and in conversation with them, not apart from them. Workers themselves identify their organic leaders, who become the primary focus for full-time organisers. If these leaders are successfully recruited, they are taught the organisers’ techniques, so they can recruit supporters on the shop floor, where outside organisers cannot go.43

McAlevey’s assumption is that the best foundation for an organising campaign is the selection and recruitment of organic leaders by professional organisers. The role of workers is merely to advise on potential candidates. Furthermore, she argues that organic leaders tend not to be activists or even to have hitherto expressed an interest in being a union member. Instead, they are identified as potential organic leaders by virtue of being people “whom other workers trust and whom they turn to for help when they aren’t sure how to get something done”.44 Such people are often highly regarded by their managers, too.45 McAlevey, quotes an organiser in order to explain in more detail the type of person that is identified as an organic leader:

They’re almost never the workers who most want to talk with us. More often than not, they’re workers who don’t want to talk to us and want to remain in the background. They have a sense of their own value and won’t easily step forward—not unless and until there’s a credible reason. That’s part of the character that makes them an organic leader.46

Why then are existing union stewards, activists or even pro-union volunteers not selected as potential worker-leaders? Why should workers not elect their own workplace leaders? McAlevey argues that only organic leaders can convince workers outside of the already committed, self-selected group of pro-union activists to join the organising battle because they are “natural leaders”.47 She even claims that a worker who fails to mobilise their co-workers for a protest “is likely a pro-union activist, not an organic leader”; it is “leaders not activists who have the capacity to build strong worksite structures”.48 For her, “pro-union activists without organic leaders are not effective enough” at winning over large numbers of unorganised workers who are indifferent to unions or reluctant to be seen as pro-union.49

Once organic leaders are identified, it is then the task of the professional organiser to recruit them directly to the union as a “worker-leader”, which requires specialist union training in organising techniques.50 This is the significance for McAlevey of Foster’s statement that organisers need to be “carefully taught”:

Union organising…is a craft. The knowledge that wins a campaign is founded on experience. Workers who have never been through that experience—and most haven’t—need an experienced, skilled union organiser. This wouldn’t be true if the rules for unionisation were fair, but the rules are stacked in favour of employers.51

Nevertheless, she does stress the need for an organising committee leadership to include rank and file leaders because “the bigger the strategy war room, the better”:

I expand who should be in the strategy war room from people with recognisable decision-making authority, a position or title—such as lead organiser, vice president, researcher, director, steward and executive board member—to specific individuals who have no titles but are the organic leaders on whom the masses rely.52

Indeed, McAlevey acknowledges that during the labour upsurge of the 1930s, “the old CIO’s full-time organisers were ‘co-leaders’ with rank and file organisers, the organic leaders among the workers”.53

A major part of the organising training for organic leaders involves learning how to continually map workplaces in order to locate the strengths and weaknesses of the union’s presence. Assessing the successes and failures of the organising campaign helps decide the most effective use of resources and the next steps. This process is called a “power-structure analysis”, which McAlevey claims “enables ordinary people to understand their potential power and to participate meaningfully in making strategy”.54 This is because achieving a “supermajority” support for strikes is based on “a detailed analysis of exactly which workers are likely to stand together, decide to defy their employer’s threats of termination and walk out in a high risk collective action”.55 Therefore, such analyses cannot rely on a survey-type exercise, but must be primarily based on a series of “structure tests”. These are a set of escalating collective actions aimed at measuring, testing and demonstrating a high level of support for the union to management and non-committed workers, while building the confidence of already committed workers. In Britain, unions commonly use consultative ballots on strike action as a basic form of structure test, especially since the Conservative government’s highly restrictive Trade Union Act 2016.56 This is because union leaderships want to gauge support before embarking on an expensive and legally risky statutory ballot, which requires a minimum turnout of 50 percent for industrial action to be lawful.57 In addition, for workers in “important” public services, there is an additional requirement that at least 40 percent of workers vote for action.

McAlevey’s examples of structure tests in the US run from workers signing public petitions supporting the union at an early stage of a campaign through to disruptive, lunchtime direct action protests in the lead up to a mass strike. A structure test is deemed successful if there is high participation by employees and is bigger than the previous action. McAlevey explains that high participation is defined by union organisers as “a supermajority of 80 percent or more of any given constituency engaging with one another in a collective effort (for a strike no less than 90 percent)”.58 She is adamant that supermajorities are necessary to win a statutory National Labor Relations Board recognition election for union representation or a strike.59 To achieve this workers and their families must withstand a hostile, often intimidatory, anti-union campaign inside and outside the workplace. Often this is orchestrated by union-busting companies hired by employers. For these reasons, her organising model tends to assume a campaign that builds for a single major event that she claims demands supermajority-level active support from workers if it is to win.

McAlevey’s model presumes organising takes place in similar conditions to the US context. US unions confront largely unchecked opposition from employers and their powerful supporters, underpinned by complex, restrictive labour laws governing union representation and rights. The result is that in the US there are two distinct phases to organising campaigns: first, the winning of a statutory ballot on union representation rights and recognition in a workplace, organisation or company; and second, the subsequent campaign and negotiation to win a collective bargaining contract covering pay and employment conditions. However, even after winning representation rights, nearly half of newly recognised unions fail to gain a first collective bargaining contract due to continuing employer resistance. In response, most US unions separate the initial phase of organising for recognition from that of the second, negotiating a contract. As Kim Moody, US socialist and veteran commentator on US labour, wryly explains: “Once the union has won recognition, the organisers are pulled and sent elsewhere, and a new crew of professional negotiators along with lawyers are brought in. After all, negotiating a contract these days is complex”.60 For McAlevey, this disconnection of phases weakens a union’s ability to continue winning after gaining recognition by effectively demobilising rank and file workers and distancing, or even dividing them, from the union’s professional apparatus:

In the…mobilising model, collective bargaining is handled in top-down, staff-only negotiations with employers. If workers are present there will typically be very few—say, between five and ten—no matter how many thousands of workers are involved. Those chosen few are not expected or allowed to speak during the negotiations. This process creates and solidifies the idea that the union is, in fact, a third party.61

A similar symbolic role for workers in collective bargaining negotiations is widespread internationally, including in Britain. However, what is significant is that McAlevey implies the union bureaucracy, as represented by officials and other professional negotiators, need not be, nor appear to be, an external third party organisation for ordinary workers. For her, the test of whether a union bureaucracy is behaving as a third party is the degree of internal democracy and member participation:

The contract is not enforced primarily by the power of lawyers and arbitration, but on the shop floor, in direct actions led by organic worker-leaders, who ideally graduate from the organising committee to the bargaining team to a delegate’s or steward’s post. And to cement the idea of “three sides to two”—that is, that the union really is the workers and not a third party—a foundational principle of the union is that all workers are invited and encouraged to attend contract negotiations with employers… It’s also a good test of whether or not a union is democratic.62

She asks the rhetorical question, “If the union is truly an organisation of the workers, why wouldn’t any worker be invited to at least observe his or her own contract negotiations?63 Her response is to set three questions to gauge whether the union bureaucracy during negotiations is an organisation of the workers: “Does the process involve every worker? Are the negotiations fully transparent? Can any worker attend?”64 McAlevey’s answer is to advocate a “big bargaining” strategy that bolsters the negotiating team by mobilising rank and file protests and action, even strikes, during negotiations.65 This strategy simultaneously keeps the negotiators directly and immediately accountable through workers’ right to attend negotiations.66

McAlevey is clear that the core issue is not just which organising strategy is better to recruit members and win long-term union contracts but also what type of union—and society—we want to build. She understands that different union strategies produce different types of union: “If the purpose of the union is only to improve the material conditions of workers…the workers’ role will be greatly diminished; they will function as symbolic actors, not central participants”.67 She argues that a narrow view of workers as workers, rather than as “whole people”, limits “good organising and constrains worker organisers from more effectively building real power in and among the workers’ communities”.68

To support her call for unions to embrace organising strategies that are politically transformative inside and outside of the workplace she offers the example of the Chicago teachers’ inspirational mass strike in 2012. Teachers struck alongside city council employees, school students and community organisations, transforming politics in Chicago and helping galvanise a nationwide wave of teachers strikes that continues a decade later.69 For McAlevey, the “most profound success of the Chicago teachers’ strike was the building of powerful solidarities among teachers and between teachers and the whole of Chicago’s working class”.70 Just as the strike and the strategy that built it transformed working-class organisation and politics in Chicago, she claims the same approach of class-based, militant “deep organising” in the workplace and community based on high participation can similarly change the political climate throughout the US.71 This is because it is a “bottom-up strategy capable of movement building rather than mere moment actualisation” and is based on organising the whole worker.72

McAlevey’s high profile commitment to revitalising organised labour and other working-class movements in the US and internationally through class-based mass strikes is understandably very influential in current debates on organising, especially among new activists. Therefore, it is important to understand that her approach is flawed by misunderstandings and contradictions in key areas related to the nature of union bureaucracy and rank and file self-activity. These profoundly limit and undermine McAlevey’s declared goal of rebuilding a labour movement with high levels of rank and file participation in the old CIO tradition of the 1930s.

Union officials in tandem with the rank and file?

The principal flaw in McAlevey’s model is her argument that it is feasible for unions, as bureaucratic institutions, to be wholly “of the workers and not a third party” if there is a high degree of internal democracy, based on mass participation, especially during negotiations with employers.73 Clearly extensive internal democracy would strengthen the accountability of decision-making officials to ordinary members. This might take the form of direct democracy, such as opening up attendance and participation at negotiations, as McAlevey advocates, or even the regular election of union officials, on which she is silent. Such measures increase the autonomy of workplace union organisation from centralised control by officials, which in turn generates a greater degree of legitimacy for rank and file members to act independently of union officials. Indeed, the deepening and extending of union democracy can be so successful that it becomes reasonable to claim that a union is “member-led” to a significant degree. For left-wing factions inside unions, pursuing this is a primary purpose. For example, UCU Left states:

UCU Left is committed to building a democratic, accountable campaigning union that aims to mobilise and involve members in defending and improving our pay and conditions and defending progressive principles of education… We resist any trends away from member-led policies but cooperate fully with union officials when they act in the best interests of the union.74

However, no matter how deep and extensive a union’s internal democracy, it does not and cannot dissolve the distinctively different interests of union officials employed by the union bureaucracy and those of ordinary members. This is why in the final sentence above UCU Left implies that union officials are capable of acting both in the interests of members and against them. This infers that they are not, nor can be, “of the members”, contrary to what McAlevey claims. Such stances towards union officials from rank and file workers is a long established one. In 1915, the Clyde Workers’ Committee in Scotland declared in their first leaflet: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them”.75

To explain why McAlevey is mistaken it is first necessary to understand what defines a union official and union bureaucracy. Ralph Darlington and Martin Upchurch explain that a “trade union bureaucracy” comprises the union’s staff officials who are defined as “the paid professional functionaries of unions and act as specialist representatives of the broader membership”.76 These include “the senior, national leaders of unions as well as other regionally and locally based full-time officials”.77 As officials employed by a union they occupy a unique social position that is different to their members, whether employed in private sector companies or public sector organisations:

Rank and file workers are obliged to sell their labour power to an employer, and their immediate material interest is bound up with ensuring they get the maximum possible return for that sale. By contrast, though union officials also depend on a money wage, this is something that is gained from a union, not from an employer. The official’s very existence is indissolubly bound up with the existence of the union… As a consequence, they come under strong pressure to view themselves as having a vested interest in the continuation of the wage labour and capitalist order from which unions derive their function. In turn, this can lead to the establishment of accommodative relationships with employers and the state. Thus, the limits of union officialdom are determined by their social situation.78

As far back as 1906, Rosa Luxembourg argued that trade unions’ “specialisation of professional activity…leads to bureaucratism and narrowness of outlook”.79 This expresses itself in an underlying concern with preserving the union as a separate organisational and financial entity with its own buildings, income, assets and employees. For union officials, safeguarding the union as a going concern becomes an end in itself. This pressure is felt most acutely by the leading members of the bureaucracy: general secretaries and national officers with direct responsibility for maintaining the union. Even left-wing trade union leaders committed to building militant workplace unionism with a high degree of rank and file autonomy, such as Unite general secretary Sharon Graham, are ultimately tied to safeguarding the union; after all, that is the institution from which they derive their status and power as a leader.80 Although the political differences between left-wing and right-wing officials are important factors in the politics, strategies and tactics of unions, they are ultimately secondary to the common material position, role and interests that bind union officials together. This is especially so during decisive moments of workers’ struggle that threaten to destabilise a union bureaucracy’s pre-existing influence, organisation and financial security.81 Such moments include indefinite mass strikes that challenge the authority of the state and the relationship between capital and labour, as happened in Britain in 1919, 1926 and 1972.82

It is in the interests of union bureaucracies to pursue institutional and organisational stability through formal arrangements and mechanisms with employers and the state. Such agreements allows for the recruitment, retention and meaningful representation of members, thereby enabling union officials to legitimately mediate between members and employers, including the state. This is achieved principally through recognition and collective bargaining agreements with employers, which includes union officials’ representing the voice of workers from local workplaces through to national and governmental levels. These act as “integrating mechanisms” that tie union officials to the smooth, “normal” functioning of industrial relations institutions, structures and systems on a daily basis. In other words, the routine existence of the union bureaucracy is reliant upon maintaining the status quo of labour-capital relations:

Although it is undoubtedly vital that union officials (utilising the threat of rank and file industrial strength) can win material improvements for their members, they are also subject to powerful normative influences of “industrial legality”. The union official is under intense pressure to “keep faith” with negotiating partners and to regard each conflict as a “problem” to be resolved within a framework defined by the prevailing system. It is for this reason that they often tend to limit workers’ struggles and to end strikes on “compromise” terms in ways that can be detrimental to rank and file interests and aspirations.83

Even if some officials are committed to pursuing more radical approaches that encourage mass rank and file participation, as McAlevey did when an organiser for SEIU, they are ultimately required to follow the policies of their employer, the union bureaucracy, or risk losing their jobs. Therefore, the role of union officials is a dual one. On the one hand to give support, encouragement and “expert advice” to workers; on the other, to safeguard the union’s political, legal and financial interests as an institution by policing and steering workers’ demands and militancy. This is a contradictory, tension-ridden role. Officials often use their status as professional experts and representatives of the union to convince members to settle for less than their full list of demands, even if there is a willingness to fight among them. McAlevey tells of her own experience of doing this during a mass meeting of over 300 government workers in Las Vegas where she argued against a strike over pay:

Selling these public sector workers on the idea that they were not even going to ask for any addition, when our private sector members had fought pitched battles the previous year that had won unprecedented raises, was not easy… The meeting included some classic angry white guys who were adamant about going for big raises. But cooler heads carried the day, and our proposed goals passed with nearly unanimous support.84

As Moody explains, “Union organisers are accountable to the union officialdom that hired them…pay their wages…and supply them with resources”. They are not accountable to the members they are organising.85 This is true for all officials below that of the national union leadership, even if, like many professional organisers, they provide rank and file workers with valuable day to day support and tactical know-how: “Objectively, and regardless of whatever good work they do, they are part of the union bureaucracy”.86

This means that union officials are neither ordinary workers nor employers, but instead comprise a unique social stratum distinguished by having to balance uneasily between the inherently conflictual interests of workers and employers.87 They are what the sociologist C Wright Mills called “managers of discontent”.88 In order to achieve this union bureaucracies must pursue a balancing act between channelling and containing workers’ struggle so that it does not threaten the stability of capitalist relations. At the same time, they must avoid collaborating too closely with employers and the state so as to maintain the credibility of the union in the eyes of members. Members must continue to view the union as an institution battling for their interests, especially in the face of drastic attacks by employers and government.89 This is why both left-wing and right-wing union leaders can be compelled by rank and file members to initiate militant strikes. It is also why, at the same time, both seek to constrain the intensity and scale of action for fear of losing control of it to rank and file members, whose experience of the struggle is likely to be radicalising.

A notable example of this dynamic took place in 2018, when the UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, was pressurised into calling 14 days of strikes in universities over pension cuts after a dozen years of only agreeing to ineffective one and two-day national strikes. When she attempted to shut down the strikes midway through by imposing a compromise deal, it was met by a successful rank and file rebellion overnight with mass meetings on picket lines the next morning. This happened because the strikers’ experience of ever larger, more militant pickets and growing solidarity from students and other workers quickly built rank and file workers confidence.90

The importance of pressuring officials to call militant action was demonstrated on a much bigger scale in early January 2021 when the National Education Union (NEU) gave a lead to teachers’ successful defiance of prime minister Boris Johnson’s demand for English schools to fully reopen during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The NEU’s leadership had come under enormous pressure to give a lead to the struggle from a growing rank and file movement, culminating in a mass online meeting of at least 400,000 teachers.91

However, it is also during mass strikes that the core tension between union officials and rank and file members becomes more intense. As Darlington and Upchurch explain, “Though for workers a mass strike driven from below (for example, against both employer and government policies) can raise the prospect of the transformation of society, for the official it can seem a threat to their raison d’être”.92 In short, union bureaucracies are contradictory because they are conservative institutions whose existence is nonetheless dependent on their successful organising of a social movement of workers.

McAlevey is correct to argue that the union bureaucracy is not a third party, similar in weight and significance to workers and employers. However, she is mistaken to claim that it can be wholly of the workers providing there is enough union democracy and mass participation, even if these can act as strong countervailing tendencies to conservatism.93 Union bureaucracies occupy a contradictory, intermediate position in relation to their members that is inherently conservative when confronted by class-wide, militant mass strikes capable of transforming existing capitalist power relations. McAlevey does not distinguish between the ultimately conflicting interests of workers and union bureaucracies.94 Instead, she assumes that existing unions with sufficiently radical leaderships will be willing and able to pursue a class struggle strategy. Her expectation is that such a strategy would generate a 1930s-style upsurge in rank and file militancy, challenging the current structures and institutions of exploitation and oppression.

Rank and file leadership and socialists in the workplace

McAlevey’s core argument is that unions must become combative mass workers’ organisations at the heart of a resurgent working-class movement committed to class struggle politics. She is right to argue that such a transformation can only come from the revival of rank and file workers’ struggle built on solidarity inside and outside the workplace. However, her model is insufficient to achieve this. This is because she prescribes a limited form of rank and file autonomy in the workplace that bears little resemblance to the turbulent upsurge of working-class self-activity between 1933 and 1937 that led to the birth of the CIO.95 Nor does it bear resemblance to even the more recent Chicago teachers’ strike movement, which she nevertheless offers as an exemplar of her template.96

McAlevey’s states that the key element in her model aimed at building rank and file participation is the selection and recruitment of “organic leaders” in the workplace by professional organisers. These are then fast-tracked into the workplace leadership once they are deemed to possess the necessary organising skills, which only professional organisers are sufficiently schooled in to pass on effectively.97 Effectively she advocates bypassing established activists and other pro-union volunteers. When union bureaucracies deploy professional organisers to a workplace, their assumption is that existing workplace leaders lack the leadership qualities to win over enough non-members and are too inexperienced in taking on their employers and winning. This is despite the type of worker targeted as organic leaders being quite likely to favour collaboration with management and limited, token forms of action; after all, they were previously passive and respected by management and co-workers alike. They are also less likely to be won to a rank and file-led, militant class struggle approach because they owe their formal union position to their selection by professional organisers rather than election by their co-workers. In this way, they are distinct from other activists and workplace leaders, at least for the duration of the organising campaign.98

What does this tell us about McAlevey’s approach? Is she advocating a rank and file-led workplace unionism that is able and willing to act independently of the union bureaucracy when necessary? The answer is no. Her rank and file workers are unable to rebuild the labour movement on their own initiative but must instead rely on the expertise and leadership of union officials. This is because she believes that in order to counter fiercely anti-union employers and laws, right-wing political forces and a powerful union-busting industry, it is necessary to have a sophisticated, highly trained cadre of professional organisers.99 Only these officials have the specialist knowledge and experience of previous campaigns needed to lead successful disputes. McAlevey explains that lack of faith in the potential of independent rank and file action is because most wildcat strikes in immediate response to a management injustice fail, even if they initially win short-term gains, because they are isolated. She explains that, although these “hot shop” campaigns tend to temporarily wrong-foot employers, they are defeated once management is able to get in union-busting specialists.100 For her, it is preferable for unions to plan strategic industrial or geographic campaigns spearheaded by professional organisers who she claims have the skills, resources and experience to defeat employers.101

Despite McAlevey’s call for organising drives focused on high rank and file participation and militant actions, culminating in a “supermajority” strike and “big bargaining”, the organising drive is principally planned and supervised by officials. This is a model that encourages only limited rank and file participation in making decisions and leading actions. It does not advocate building autonomous organisation, which might involve workers directly electing their own organising or strike committees, capable of leading action without the agreement of union officials. It is difficult to disagree with Marian Swerdlow, a retired New York teacher and union activist, who concludes that McAlevey’s “method of leadership identification is profoundly undemocratic and limits participation”.102 This stands in stark contrast to the old CIO tradition that she claims her model is resurrecting and renewing.

Although McAlevey claims that her model is an updated version of the old CIO tradition, the history of the emergence of the CIO is quite different to her model of a centralised, structured and closely managed organising campaign. Rather it was a “disorderly strike movement”, as Moody describes it. This movement erupted in 1933, when the volume of strikes more than doubled and the number of strikers increased by over three and a half times. The wave of mass strikes reached its high point in 1937 with the victory of the illegal General Motors sit down strikes. After these, the CIO (founded in 1935) and its newly formed industrial unions, such as the United Auto Workers and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), were able to become established across many industries.103 The mass strikes were commonly given direction by Communists, socialists and other left-wing radicals who argued that workers should rely on themselves and working-class solidarity and that union leaders were not to be trusted.104 The historical evidence of this movement shows that workers were capable of organising themselves without help from the unions of the time.105 As Moody explains, “The era’s ‘organic leaders’ and activists stepped forward on their own as rank and file organisers (sometimes as part of worker-based political tendencies) well before there were any full-time organisers”.106 These activists volunteered their time and took jobs as ordinary workers to build the strike movement alongside other radical rank and file workers.107

McAlevey recognises that most successful organising during this period was led by left-wing rank and file activists.108 Moreover, “the unions led by these leftist factions were not only the most effective but also the most democratic”.109 She also acknowledges that these “left-wing CIO organisers…who were committed to genuine worker agency, were replaced after the Second World War by a massive bureaucracy”.110 This bureaucracy managed to control and suppress much of the rank and file militancy of the pre-war years. However, McAlevey fails to offer an analysis of why this happened and what it reveals about the underlying interests and politics of union bureaucracies. Despite her tribute to left-wing, rank and file leadership during the 1930s, her own model downplays or even marginalises the role of existing union activists and left-wing radicals, arguing that “self-selected” activists are probably not “natural leaders”.111 This is why McAlevey argues that only professional organisers can undertake “organic leader identification” and recruitment, thereby relegating rank and file workers and activists views to an advisory role at best.

McAlevey also claims, erroneously, that her “organic leader identification” process is drawn from “the old CIO craft of learning who organic worker leaders are and persuading them to support the union”.112 The primary basis for this claim is a short quote from William Z Foster’s pamphlet on Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, arguing that organisers need to be trained in the craft of organising. This statement, however, is taken out of context; Foster’s pamphlet advocates a worker-led, rank and file strategy that contradicts McAlevey’s own professional organiser-led model. Indeed, the pamphlet’s cover proclaims it was “written with the object of aiding the most active workers”.113 Inside, Foster states emphatically: “Organisation work must be done by a working combination of the progressive and left-wing forces in the labour movement… It is only these elements that have the necessary vision, flexibility and courage to go forward”.114

Significantly, Foster recommended opening up the rank and file leadership by drawing in “the widest possible ranks of the workers into the activities of the leading, decisive committees”.115 He advocated a “chain system” in which responsibility for organising friends, workmates and contacts lies with activists, who are committed workers and volunteer organisers.

A similar approach of open recruitment by activists was also advocated by Farrell Dobbs in his account of being a rank and file leader of the 1934 Teamster organising drive in Minneapolis. Dobbs was a member of the Communist League, a Trotskyist group, during the struggle.116 Like Foster, he stressed the importance of expanding workplace leadership beyond existing left-wing activists by opening up membership of a rank and file “voluntary organising committee”:

The first step…had to be the shaping of the necessary leadership to carry out a general organising drive. New forces for the purpose were at hand among the young militants who came to the fore during the earlier coal strike. They were capable recruiters, and they would also be on the lookout for new volunteer organisers as they campaigned. More than that, in the next strike they would go on to make up the hard core around which a broader combat leadership could be formed.117

What Farrell describes is how the dynamics of rank and file-led struggle generates new militant workers who become, often very rapidly, radicalised and experienced workplace leaders. By contrast, McAlevey has a tone of surprise when describing how shop floor leaders in Smithfield Foods in North Carolina had become “extraordinarily skilled because of their experience in struggle” prior to the organising drive.118 The prior experience had been two unofficial wildcat strikes in the plant led by immigrant Latinx workers, which took place before the union organiser arrived.119

McAlevey does describe “the old CIO’s full-time organisers” of the 1930s as “‘co-leaders with rank and file organisers, the organic leaders among the workers”.120 Nevertheless, this obscures the core issue—the mass strikes of the era were primarily initiated, organised and led by rank and file workers, with or without the support of union leaders and their organisers.121 Furthermore, the old CIO full-time organisers were not the same as today’s closely managed and directed professional organisers, who are directly employed by large, well established union bureaucracies. In the rapidly rising tide of struggle from 1933 onwards, the new CIO unions in industries such as steel and automobile production had to hurriedly recruit a mixture of full-time, part-time and volunteer organisers on similar wages to workers. Many of these were Communists and socialists.122 Similar processes took place even within existing unions such as the Teamsters. As Moody explains:

They did not have to do much organising as we think of that today. Workers were already pouring into or creating unions on their own or with the help of radicals and their organisations. Indeed, as industrial struggle grew and became more confrontational, the new unions became schools of class consciousness and leadership development. The 1934 strikes in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis had all been led by socialists of one kind or another.123

Therefore, McAlevey’s claim that there was co-leadership between full-time organisers and rank and file workers during the early days of the CIO is a misleading oversimplification. During this time the differences between rank and file leaders and paid organisers were often unclear, yet to take root and less formal compared with contemporary organising campaigns in which officials are omnipresent and directive.124 This was due to the new unions being launched rapidly in response to the wave of workers’ struggle, mostly with minimal resources and often little organisational back up. At the same time, the older unions’ bureaucracies were overwhelmed by the upsurge in workplace militancy. This resulted in blurred, overlapping relationships between workers and newly hired organisers. These paid organisers were commonly recruited from among militant workplace leaders and left-wing activists openly committed to building rank and file self-activity rather than asserting official control over workers’ struggles.

This brings to the fore the role of left-wing workers when building and winning workplace struggles. The most apparent difference that left-wing shop stewards and activists make is that they carry into the workplace a distinctive view of the antagonistic nature of worker-management relations, the merits of industrial action and how to build workplace organisation.125 In short, they prepare workers with a different ideological worldview by injecting politics into the workplace. This is especially so if they are part of a network of workers belonging to a socialist organisation that coordinates its members’ workplace activities, such as the US and British Communist Parties during the 1930s and the Socialist Workers Party in Britain today.126 Left-wing workers are often the most astute and militant, taking the lead in standing up to management, whether that involves merely speaking out or actually organising workplace action.127 They will often stand for election as union representatives and shop stewards, working with one another to build rank and file networks of radical and radicalising workers. These networks can lead struggles and challenge passive union leaderships that fail to pursue militant workplace struggle.

Left-wing workers also stand for election to their local, regional and national union leaderships, with the support of rank and file networks, on a platform of militant, politicised workplace struggle. There they pursue a strategy that is commonly characterised as “radical political unionism”.128 This is an approach based on repeated workplace mobilisations and strikes underpinned by clear ideological opposition to employers, government and the capitalist market. This includes supporting radical polices that fundamentally challenge exploitation, oppression, inequality, nationalism and imperialism. The Chicago Teachers’ Union is arguably a contemporary example of a union pursuing radical political unionism, although it does not characterise its strategy as such.129 In Europe, notable examples during the first decade of this century included the British rail union RMT and the French SUD-Rail union, in which established left-wing leaderships were supported by militant rank and file networks.130

McAlevey’s call for unions to embrace an organising strategy based on a class struggle perspective sounds very much like a call for a radical political unionism. Indeed, she claims that this approach would be “politically transformative inside and outside the workplace”.131 However, her insistence on an official-led approach to organising contradicts the historical and contemporary evidence on how to build rank and file movements that successfully pursue radical political unionism from below. In doing so, she disregards the potential for a “militant minority” of left-wing workers to play a crucial leadership role in organising contemporary workplace struggles.132 This is significant given developments in the US labour movement since the Great Recession of 2008-10. As Moody observed, writing in 2017:

There are thousands of union activists already attempting to change their unions into democratic organisations committed to strong workplace organisation, member involvement, racial and gender inclusion, rejection of labour-management cooperation in its many forms, and direct action where possible… To a greater extent than in the rank and file upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s, today’s movements for change in the unions share these ideas and goals as something of a common program. This is a wave of rank and file rebellion that has taken hold among teachers, teamsters, transit workers, nurses, flight attendants, telecommunications workers, public employees, machinists and railroad workers to mention a few.133

More recent evidence for this emergent rank and file movement in the US lies in the strike wave of 2018 and 2019.134 This was headed up by the “great teachers’ revolt” and continued on a smaller scale through the first 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic with wildcat strikes by essential workers over health and safety.135 By late 2021, the movement was reviving in the so-called Striketober disputes among Hollywood television and film crews, John Deere agricultural machinery workers, Alabama coal miners, nurses in California, healthcare workers in Buffalo, New York, and food workers at Nabisco and Kellogg.136 This growing movement has largely been driven by ordinary workers rather than union leaders and has been generated by decades of poor pay, accumulated grievances and worsening working conditions.137 The recent resurgence of militancy comes in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. As Moody argues, this pandemic has “magnified and broadcast the accumulated inequities of society and the grievances they spawn”, but it has also revealed the vulnerability of capital.

Despite McAlevey holding up the Chicago, West Virginia and Los Angeles teachers’ strikes as examples of how labour should fight and win, she fails to examine the role of independent rank and file organisation in them. These struggles developed without the support of professional organisers at the crucial early stages. As Moody points out, the Chicago and Los Angeles teachers’ struggles happened in reverse order to McAlevey’s own top-down organising model:

First, the untrained rank and file workers organise, lead a series of fights and take over. Only then are the full-time organisers hired, most of whom come from the ranks and have no formal training…but a good deal of experience. In these examples and many others, it was in fact “wisdom emanating from the bottom” that made the struggle, and the transformation and democratisation of the union, possible.138

The building of rank and file organisation and wider support for the teachers’ struggles was often the result of several years of patient work by radical rank and file teachers. This was achieved often in opposition to incumbent union leaderships that resisted pursuing militant strike strategies in support of public education and teachers’ working conditions. In Chicago, activist teachers started organising from about 2004, eventually setting up their up their own rank and file organisation, the Caucus for Rank and File Educators (CORE).139 CORE committed to defending public education and “improving the CTU” so that it fights on behalf of both its members and on behalf of Chicago’s students. Even though CORE supporters have led the union since 2010, it continues to hold the leadership accountable to ordinary members through an organised rank and file network that is separate from the union bureaucracy.140

McAlevey shows limited understanding of the dynamics of independent rank and file organisation and leadership, even when it plays a central role in determining strategies, tactics and building participation. Because she downplays, even disregards, the potential for rank and file-led struggle, it follows that she does not argue for a worker-led, rank and file strategy, despite the evidence of its success in the past and present in the US.

Misunderstanding and downplaying rank and file struggle

McAlevey’s disregard of the transformative potential of rank and file-led struggle is highlighted by her argument for a formulaic, one size fits all strategy.141 This approach presumes US-type anti-union conditions, low union membership and scant workplace struggle. Indeed, these were the conditions prevalent during her own years as a union organiser. However, militant organising strategies should be flexible and responsive to specific national and local political and economic situation and the state of the class struggle. This is particularly so when there is the kind of change in the level of workplace struggle that we have seen in the US over recent years. By contrast, McAlevey’s model prescribes a rigid series of choreographed “structure tests”, culminating in a strike that she insists must be supported by a “supermajority” of at least 90 percent of workers before it can be authorised by officials.

By advocating a staged approach to organising, McAlevey’s model squeezes out the possibility of workers initiating and leading action within which they can respond flexibly to their own local management and workplace conditions. In this context, a day to day culture of resistance and solidarity can be built through the accumulation of big and small, often unplanned, actions that challenge management’s authority.142 This might involve individuals, groups or the whole workforce. These actions are often spontaneous responses to opportunities that arise to protest and are fuelled by anger at unacceptable management behaviour. They can range from workers using humour to mock management, flyposting and defacing noticeboards, withdrawing goodwill by working to contract through to unofficial walk outs.143 Sometimes wildcat strikes can be by a small group or minority of workers who are then able to snowball support for bigger strike action.144

In July 2019, a group of just 30 outsourced cleaners and caterers at the British government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) went on indefinite strike and won major concessions despite a ballot result showing uneven support across sections. This inspired other sections to join them in one-day strikes and gave confidence to other groups of outsourced workers in London.145 The BEIS strike would never have been called if it had to pass a “structure test” requiring a supermajority. Even the inspirational universities’ strike over pensions in 2018 would not have passed a supermajority structure test since only 58 percent of members voted in the ballot, despite 90 percent support for strike action.146 Despite this it saw mass pickets and huge rank and file mobilisation against a shoddy deal negotiated by the UCU bureaucracy. The universities and BEIS struggles demonstrate that strikes often gain momentum and build support the longer they progress. This can be the case even if they go down to defeat, as with British Gas engineers’ strike in 2020-21 against “fire and rehire”.147

Rank and file groups in the US, such as Amazonians United, use the tactic of wildcat strikes, often involving a minority of workers, as a way to build confidence among the workforce.148 For example, 36 out of 100 night workers in an Amazon warehouse in Sacramento, California, walked out for the remainder of their shift in late 2019. The strike was sparked when workers presented a petition with over 4,000 signatures to management demanding paid holidays for part-time employees.149 Their action then gave confidence to 70-80 Amazon workers in Chicago to walk out four times over unsafe Covid-19 working conditions in March 2020.150 There was no need to wait for a supermajority or the permission of union officials before taking strike action that kick-started a struggle inside the workplace and built solidarity outside among other workers. Although most workplace action starts with demands over pay, working conditions and saving jobs, as workers experience collective struggle and solidarity from outside, they gain the confidence to make wider demands on management and government. This is, indeed, precisely what happened with the Chicago teachers’ strike movement. However, McAlevey underestimates the potential of pay disputes when she refers to the Fight for $15 movement as no more than a limited “wage campaign”.151

McAlevey briefly acknowledges how effective wildcat strikes are for building confidence and experience among workers in her own study of the organising campaign in Smithfield Foods in North Carolina.152 In addition, she has called on workers to “emulate” two inspirational struggles from 2021. The first of these was a recognition victory in the US by what she calls “a tiny but mighty group” of Starbucks workers in a single Buffalo store.153 This was the first in the US to defeat Starbucks, an infamously anti-union multinational. Significantly, their campaign did not have a supermajority support and was led by the rank and file Starbucks Workers United.154 A month later, Starbucks Workers United led a wildcat strike in the same store over the lack of Covid-19 health and safety.155 The second inspirational dispute is the recognition victory by 17,000 academic researchers at the University of California after threatening a supermajority strike. Significantly, McAlevey concludes the article by emphasising the second strategy, saying “its revival is urgent”, but stays silent on the need to build rank and file organisation.156

McAlevey’s high profile and influence among activists means that what she says carries weight in debates about strategy and tactics inside union offices and on the shop floor. Her continued emphasis on securing supermajority support for strikes, even while acknowledging the successful actions by small groups of workers, makes it easier for union officials and conservative local branch officers to resist calling strikes, even where there is a simple majority in a ballot. It also discourages and undermines activists arguing for strikes among co-workers where they do not have a supermajority, especially if they are not overly confident a strike can win. This is especially important when workers are confronted by situations where they have no choice but to strike. Recent examples of this include the aforementioned disputes in Starbucks and Amazon as well as at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency offices in Britain.157 Such recent struggles have broken out over dangerous coronavirus working conditions, victimisation of trade unionists, and sudden workplace closures and job losses.

McAlevey is also clear that her model requires electing union leaders that are committed to pursuing militant strike action and wider class struggle politics in solidarity with communities and social movements. Indeed, the election of Unite general secretary Sharon Graham is a good example of just such a leader.158 Graham wants to build “strike-ready workplaces” because “we’ve really got to start looking at what wins and how we create power within the unions themselves.159 This commitment to building workplace organisation and encouraging rank and file militancy by the leader of one of Britain’s biggest unions should be keenly supported by socialists. After all it greatly increases the potential for workers to mobilise independently of the bureaucracy. Left-wing Unite activists will also have to keep the pressure on Graham and the union leadership to deliver “strike-ready workplaces”, the proof of which will be a rising tide of strikes. The contradictory nature of union bureaucracies means the more effective a “strike-ready” strategy is, the greater the likelihood of intense political battles over the direction and aims of struggles between rank and file leaders and the union leaders. This tension will become more pronounced as the scale of rank and file-led organisation and struggle grows, with the bureaucracy’s leadership increasingly challenged. Union democracy is then pushed to its limits during periods of militant, mass struggles when rank and file workers make radical demands that test the extent to which a union can be truly member-led. These same contradictions and tensions are also present in McAlevey’s model given its reliance on securing left-wing, militant union leaderships.

Conclusion: rediscovering workplace unionism from below

The interest in McAlevey’s ideas among tens of thousands of union activists internationally is welcome evidence of a thirst for a radical, transformative workplace politics that rejects business-as-usual trade unionism. Her accounts of her own battles as an organiser and their lessons provide plenty of valuable advice for activists, such as linking workplace issues to wider political questions through “whole worker organising”, and mobilising members for “big bargaining” to keep pressure on management and hold negotiators accountable. As a teacher activist in Britain commented, McAlevey’s writing helps to shift workers’ thinking to an understanding “that the union should not be doing what they could do for themselves”.160 Importantly, McAlevey broadly welcomes rank and file groups such as CORE, Amazonians United and Starbucks Workers United but it is unclear what role, if any, they play in her model. This is despite them practicing “deep organising” and “whole worker organising” by winning unorganised workers to unions and connecting struggles inside and outside workplaces.161 However, she is silent on how this is achieved by rank and file groups, often involving unofficial, wildcat strikes, and without help from professional organisers.162 She does not analyse their roots and dynamics, and a political orientation that is wary of, often hostile to union officialdom. Nor does her model allow for the possibility of independent rank and file leadership that offers an alternative strategy from below to that presented by “expert” union officials.

This lack of focus on rank and file workplace unionism is a consequence of McAlevey’s analysis being made primarily from the perspective of the professional union organiser, which assumes that the organising strategy, its direction and objectives are ultimately decided in a unions’ headquarters.163 Although high member participation is the crucial ingredient for success in McAlevey’s model, rank and file activity is ultimately subordinate to the leadership of the union bureaucracy. It is inferred that the role of shop stewards and other activists—even the “organic leaders”—on organising committees is principally advisory. Thus, her primary focus is on preserving and even enhancing the dominant role of professional organisers and by extension the union bureaucracy. Unfortunately, as Moody concludes, this bureaucracy “can miss or even discourage the most fundamental ingredient of power—collective worker initiative from below”.164

Despite McAlevey’s call for a class struggle politics based on the old CIO tradition with workplace militancy at the centre, her model is a prescription for control by union officials and limited rank and file self-activity. By contrast, Hardy’s recent Nothing to Lose But Our Chains: Resistance in Twenty-first-century Britain offers an alternative analysis of the variety of contemporary workplace struggles and workers’ organisations. Hardy places rank and file organisation and leadership at the heart of trade unionism, stressing the important role for socialists in the workplace.

The burgeoning US strike movement of recent years is re-emerging in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and there is early evidence in Britain of a tentative revival in the frequency of strikes across multiple industries.165 Now is the time to consider the experience of past rank and file movements, as well as lessons from today’s workplace battles, as we debate strategy and tactics in our workplaces and unions.

Paul Brook has been a trade union activist for over 40 years. He has written extensively on service workers and labour process analysis. He is Honorary Associate Professor of Sociology of Work and Employment at the University of Leicester.


1 Thanks to Bob Carter, Joseph Choonara, Jane Hardy, Mark Thomas and Martin Upchurch for comments on an earlier draft.

2 For details of McAlevey’s biography, writing, consulting services and campaigning work, see her website—https://janemcalevey.com

3 The idea of an organising model originated in the US from the strategy and tactics used by the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), which focus on building an active membership. McAlevey was employed by the SEIU as an organiser from 2002 to 2008. The SEIU is a member of the Change to Win Federation, which was formed as a breakaway from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 2005. The unions within Change to Win wanted to pursue more militant approaches to organising, especially among unorganised workers. After mixed results, Change to Win comprises just four unions in 2022 but still represents over 4.5 million members, compared with the AFL-CIO’s 57 affiliated unions representing 12.5 million members.

4 Hardy, 2021, p216.

5 https://janemcalevey.com

6 The Organising for Power programme is hosted by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation), an educational foundation affiliated to the Die Linke (The Left) party in Germany.

7 In 2021, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported its figures for trade union density in the preceding year: “Wage and salary workers who were members of unions…were 10.8 percent, up by 0.5 percentage point from 2019… The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.3 million in 2020, was down by 321,000 (2.2 percent) from 2019.”—Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021. In 1983, union membership was 17.7 million workers, equivalent to 20.1 percent density.

8 McAlevey, 2016, pp20-21.

9 The CIO was originally founded as the Committee for Industrial Organization in November 1935 in order to organise workers in mass production industries by industry, not by their occupational trade or craft. Initially, it was part of the craft-based American Federation of Labour (AFL) but broke away to form an independent union confederation in 1938, becoming the Congress of Industrial Organizations. It re-merged with the AFL in 1955 to form the current AFL-CIO, the main confederation of US unions—see Newsinger, 2012, pp111-117. The Treamsters Union, or International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was founded in 1903 and is the major US union for transport workers.

10 Newsinger, 2012, pp85-104.

11 McAlevey, 2016, p24.

12 For a brief critique of McAlevey’s model, see Banks, 2021.

13 For more on the history and politics of rank and file organisation and strategy in Britain, see Callinicos, 1995. For a US perspective, see Moody, 2014, pp75-161, and Moody, 2019.

14 See Hardy, 2021.

15 McAlevey was employed as an organiser by the US trade union confederation, AFL-CIO, from 1997 to 2001 and then the SEIU, the largest US service workers’ union, from 2002 to 2008.

16 McAlevey, 2014, p317.

17 McAlevey, 2016.

18 For a detailed account of the Chicago teachers’ 2012 strike movement, see Uetricht, 2014. The CTU also went on strike in 2016 and 2019.

19 McAlevey, 2020.

20 McAlevey, 2020, p9.

21 McAlevey, 2016, p7. For a detailed account of how capital has been reshaping the battleground of class struggle since the 1980s, see Moody, 2017.

22 McAlevey, 2016, p7.

23 McAlevey, 2016, pp8-9.

24 McAlevey also criticises what she calls the “advocacy strategy”, a less common approach deployed by trade unions that relies on professional lobbyists and lawyers to achieve change—McAlevey, 2016, pp1-12.

25 McAlevey, 2016, p10.

26 McAlevey, 2016, p56.

27 McAlevey, 2016, p10.

28 McAlevey, 2016, p24; Holgate, 2021, p4.

29 McAlevey, 2014, p14.

30 McAlevey, 2016, p24.

31 She insists she is not arguing for an alliance between trade unionists and the community but rather against the dichotomous view of the workplace and community as separate arenas of struggle—McAlevey, 2014, p15.

32 McAlevey, 2016, p54.

33 See Newsinger, 2012, for an account of US mass strikes and union organising in the 1930s, which he argues was a “turning point for the US working class”.

34 McAlevey, 2016, p30.

35 McAlevey, 2020, p50.

36 McAlevey, 2020, p50.

37 McAlevey, 2016, p32.

38 McAlevey, 2016, p33.

39 Foster led the 1919 national steel strike and served as national chairman of the Communist Party.

40 Foster, 1936, p6.

41 McAlevey, 2016, p33.

42 McAlevey, 2016, p34. She does not explain whether this worker-led inside campaign approach should apply in all organising, even where staff organisers are allowed into workplaces to recruit and organise workers.

43 McAlevey, 2016, p34.

44 McAlevey, 2020, pp156-157.

45 McAlevey, 2016, p36.

46 McAlevey, 2016, p34.

47 McAlevey, 2020, p156.

48 McAlevey, 2016, p36.

49 McAlevey, 2016, p37.

50 “Organic leader identification” by professional organisers is done by asking workers who is the co-worker you turn to when you need help understanding something—McAlevey, 2020, p157.

51 McAlevey, 2020, p156.

52 McAlevey, 2016, p5.

53 McAlevey, 2016, p38.

54 McAlevey, 2016, p6.

55 McAlevey, 2016, p4.

56 Holgate, 2021, p178.

57 Hardy, 2021; Holgate, 2021.

58 McAlevey, 2020, p157.

59 The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was set up to administer the terms of the National Labor Relations Act 1935, also known as the Wagner Act. This is still the primary legislation governing US industrial relations. The act was introduced during the Franklin D Roosevelt administration in response to the militant mass strikes and organising drives that began in 1933, then watered-down by the pro-employer Taft-Hartley Act 1947, which prohibited many union activities, including unofficial ‘wildcat’ strikes, mass picketing and secondary strikes. The NLRB has responsibility for supervising statutory recognition elections among workers, a procedure that has increasingly favoured employers’ anti-union tactics.

60 Moody, 2020, p2.

61 McAlevey, 2016, pp57-58.

62 McAlevey, 2016, p57.

63 McAlevey, 2016, p57.

64 McAlevey, 2016, p57.

65 McAlevey, 2014, p163.

66 McAlevey and Lawlor, 2021.

67 McAlevey, 2016, p56.

68 McAlevvey,2016, p59.

69 Uetricht, 2014.

70 McAlevey, 2016, p66.

71 McAlevey, 2014, pp16-17; McAlevey, 2016, p59.

72 McAlevey, 2016, p68-69.

73 McAlevey, 2016, p57.

75 Callinicos, 1995, p33.

76 Darlington and Upchurch, 2012, p80. Writing over a decade ago, they use the term “full-time official”, which is long-accepted in Britain. However, this is increasingly inaccurate, because union staff officials, as in most areas of employment, may work less than the traditional notion of “full-time” hours.

77 Darlington and Upchurch, 2012, p80.

78 Darlington and Upchurch, 2012, p81.

79 Luxemburg, 1986, p87.

80 Graham, 2021.

81 Darlington and Upchurch, 2012, p87.

82 Rosenberg, 1987; Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986; Darlington and Lyddon, 2001.

83 Darlington and Upchurch, 2012, p82.

84 McAlevey, 2014, pp188-189.

85 Moody, 2020, p5.

86 Moody, 2019, p3.

87 Unions employ administrative and support staff directly, but it is not this function that gives them their special status. Rather it is union officials’ unique role as mediators between capital and labour. See Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, pp27-29; Darlington and Upchurch, 2012, pp79-84.

88 Wright Mills, 2001, pp8-9.

89 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p27.

90 Høgsbjerg, Hearn and others, 2018.

91 Hardy, 2021, pp188-189.

92 Darlington and Upchurch, 2012, p81.

93 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986; Darlington and Upchurch, 2012; Moody, 2020.

94 McAlevey does acknowledge that most union leaderships refuse to tolerate successful, deep organising in the long-term because it is uncontrollable—McAlevey, 2014, pp310-318.

95 Moody, 2020; Swerdlow, 2020 and 2021.

96 McAlevey, 2016, p101-142.

97 Some are also recruited to become union employed organisers—McAlevey, 2020.

98 McAlevey fails to address at what stage, or how, “organic leaders” become democratically accountable to co-workers.

99 McAlevey, 2020, pp44-45.

100 McAlevey, 2020, p158.

101 McAlevey, 2020, pp158-160.

102 Swerdlow, 2021, p4.

103 Moody, 2020, p8.

104 Newsinger, 2012, p8.

105 Moody, 2020; Newsinger, 2012; Swerdlow, 2020.

106 Moody, 2020, p8.

107 There was a similar process of rank and file radicalisation in British engineering from 1934 to 1939—see Croucher, 1982, pp19-66.

108 McAlevey, 2020, p50.

109 McAlevey, 2016, p32.

110 McAlevey, 2016, p39.

111 McAlevey, 2020, p149.

112 McAlevey, 2016, p34.

113 Foster, 1936, foreword.

114 Foster, 1936, p3.

115 Foster, 1936, p3.

116 Dobbs, 1972, pp13-23.

117 Dobbs, 1972, p61.

118 McAlevey, 2016, p155; Moody, 2020, p10.

119 Moody, 2020, p10.

120 McAlevey, 2016, p38.

121 See Newsinger, 2012, pp105-117.

122 The most salient example was in the steel industry. In June 1936, when the newly formed CIO launched the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, it immediately set up 35 offices and recruited over 400 full-time and part-time staff. These included 60 Communist Party members and 40 other assorted left-wing activists. This was despite the CIO being led by the decidedly non-radical, Republican Party-supporting president, John L Lewis. Foster’s Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry was written to support this huge and rapid expansion—Newsinger, 2012, p182.

123 Moody, 2014, pp116-117.

124 Moody, 2014, p145.

125 Darlington, 2002, pp109-110.

126 Darlington, 2002.

127 For a first-hand account of a wildcat strike led by a left-wing worker at a New Jersey metal casting plant in 1975, see Fantasia, 1989, pp75-120.

128 Connolly and Darlington, 2012.

129 Uetricht, 2014; Moody, 2017, pp83-84.

130 Darlington, 2009; Connolly, 2010; Connolly and Darlington, 2012.

131 McAlevey, 2016, p59.

132 Moody, 2017, pp76-78

133 Moody, 2017, p86.

134 For up to date analysis of labour struggles and developments in the US, see Labor Notes, a media and organising project for rank and file labour activists, at https://labornotes.org

135 Moody, 2019, p3.

137 For an assessment of the 2021 strike upsurge in the wider context of a revival in class struggle and growing crises for US capitalism exacerbated by Covid-19, see Moody, 2021.

138 Moody 2020, p10.

139 Uetricht, 2014.

141 Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein explain that trade unions are “deeply affected by the situation in which they operate” and consequently vary hugely in form. See their comparison of the development of trade unions in Russia and Britain—Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, pp13-20.

142 For a discussion of workplace culture and class consciousness, see Fantasia, 1989, pp3-24.

143 On humour as a form of resistance, see Taylor and Bain, 2003.

144 See Hardy, 2021, p92.

145 Hardy, 2021, pp146-161.

146 UCU, 2018; Høgsbjerg, Hearn and others, 2018.

147 Ambrose, 2021; Squire, 2021.

149 DeManuelle-Hall, 2020.

150 Cohen, 2021.

151 McAlevey, 2016, p56

152 McAlevey, 2016, p155.

153 McAlevey, 2022.

155 Isadore, 2022.

156 McAlevey, 2022.

157 Clark, 2021.

158 Graham, 2021.

159 Chacko, 2021.

160 Hardy, 2021, p92.

161 For an update on CTU’s strategy, see Livingston, 2021, pp100-102.

162 DeManuelle-Hall, 2020; Isadore, 2021; Moody, 2021, p2; Uetricht, 2014.

163 McAlevey is not alone in her largely top-down analysis of contemporary organising. Jane Holgate does the same in her otherwise useful book on union organising in Britain—see Holgate, 2021.

164 Moody, 2012, p12.

165 See Thomas, 2021; Chacko, 2021 and Vernell, 2021.


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