No shortcuts, organising for power
By Jane Holgate
On Tuesday 14 February 2017, Valentine’s Day, there was a large gathering at Congress House in London––the home of the UK’s Trade Union Congress. Over 150 people had forsaken candlelit dinners, wine and roses, instead choosing to attend a talk by Dr Jane McAlevey, whose new book, ‘No Shortcuts, organising for power in the new Gilded Age’, was being launched in the UK. Professor Jane Holgate, from the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change, whose research work is around trade unions and organising strategies, was one of the organisers of this event. The room was filled with young (and old) trade unionists, community organisers, and people just interested in hearing what needs to be done to organise our communities to challenge the unequal power in society that has left many people either without jobs, or in low wage work that barely pays a living wage.
Dr McAlevey, a long-standing organiser in unions, and wider civil society, has recently completed a PhD on what is wrong with much of the ‘organising’ that is taking place today in many organisations––and particularly in unions. In conversation with the regional secretary of the South and Eastern TUC, who was hosting the event in conjunction with the charity Hope not Hate, she explained the crux of her argument––there is too great a focus on mobilising rather than organising: ‘most unions and social-change groups will say they’re organizing. I’m arguing that most are not—which is part of why we’re losing. The core difference to me is: what’s the role of the workers in the actual effort? Are the workers central to their own liberation? Are they central to the strategy to win a change in their workplace and in their communities? Or are they one teeny piece of a really complicated puzzle in which the workers’ voice and opinions are actually not decisive?’
The process of mobilizing tends to avoid involving rank and file workers, or the wider community––instead, she argues, that it tends to rely on pulling out the same already committed activists to protest, and thus is doing little to build a movement from the bottom up: ‘mobilizing is an activist-driven approach. Activists are the already converted who are not full-time professionals, or it could be full-time professionals in the movement—either one—but it’s people who are already with us. They already agree that Wall Street’s a problem; they already think that climate [change] is a problem; they already think that racism is a problem. They’re already standing with Black Lives Matter.’
Instead what is needed is deep organizing where people are expanding the base, where workers are central in organizing around their own issues that really matter to them, and where they are able to bring people along, either from their workplace, or their lived communities. What is also missing, she explained, is a proper understanding of power and how to challenge this. Dr McAlevey repeated said during the evening conversation that ‘life is a structure test’ by which she meant that there is a need to continually undertake power structure analysis when organizing to understand your opponent’s power and to assess the power there is within the communities in which you are organizing. Only then, are you able to challenge that power and win concessions.
The problem with many trade unions campaigns today, she argued, is that they are top-down, where workers, if they come in at all, are pulled in at the end: ‘They are used as symbolic actors. They’re the face of the campaign. They’re trotted out to make testimony at the legislature about their bad boss, but they’re not actually central to the strategy. That’s the fundamental difference. The agency for change in the organizing model rests with ordinary people.’
The conversation with Dr McAlevey lasted two hours, but the evening of Valentine’s day wasn’t entirely without some reference to love. At the close, the audience was given paper hearts where they were asked to reflect on how they might organize differently reflecting on what they had heard. These hearts were put in sealed envelopes with the writer’s name and address and will be sent via post in a month’s time as a reminder of what they committed to this Valentine’s day.
‘No Shortcuts. Organising for Power in the new Gilded Age ‘can be bought from the publisher at Oxford University Press: