American democracy is in trouble. Yet in all the discussion about how to save it, pundits almost never mention the most effective way to counteract corporate power: strong unions.
That’s the argument that union organizer Jane McAlevey makes in “A Collective Bargain.” Recent union struggles and victories have brought significant changes in hospitals, schools and the tech sector much faster than any legislative process could have. “The mechanism for securing these victories was the collective bargaining process, and each involved strikes — the key leveraging mechanism of unions ... Strikes are uniquely powerful under the capitalist system because employers need one thing, and one thing only, from workers: show up and make the employer money.”
Furthermore, she argues, the techniques used by successful union organizers to win strikes require a commitment to consensus building among workers. “This commitment to consensus building is exactly what’s needed to save democracy.” To win, organizers have to stop talking only to people who agree with them on a particular issue and instead “devote most of our time to ... helping people who do not agree come to understand who is really to blame for the pain in their lives ... working through hard conversations, over and over, until everyone agrees.”
That, McAlevey says, is the key to taking this country back from corporate control. We need to build a unified consensus among working people about what they need and who their enemies are and use the willingness to strike as the strongest weapon against corporate power and misinformation.
While the frame of “A Collective Bargain” is the relation of unions to democracy — as McAlevey puts it, unions at their best are about democracy in the workplace — the bulk of the book is a kind of primer, with extensive examples about how unions work, how to run a successful organizing campaign, and how to win a strike by building unity within the workplace and support in the surrounding community. Specific examples include organizing among Philadelphia hospital workers, Los Angeles and West Virginia teachers, and women in Silicon Valley.
McAlevey emphasizes the importance of identifying natural leaders in the workplace — the people everyone goes to when they have a problem — and getting them on board rather than just telling the workers what to do. Organizers should be open and honest about the chances of winning the struggle, what it will require and what their risks are. Key to winning is finding opportunities to make the workers’ case to the public and getting the surrounding community on board, meaning parents in schools, customers in workplaces, patients and their families in hospitals.
The book devotes a chapter to the insidious and well-funded game plans used by union-busting consultants, who are almost always hired by for-profit and nonprofit companies when they’re faced with an organizing campaign.
Typical strategies include:
• Using misinformation to turn work groups against each other and against the union
• Buying off some workers with sketchy promises
• Convincing workers that they’re going to lose and might as well give up
• Limiting the work groups that can be included in a union election, sowing distrust of unions.
All these strategies have spilled over into our politics in general. In a sense, union suppression has been a testing ground for the many techniques of voter suppression.
The book acknowledges that many unions have had problems with sexism, racism and a lack of sensitivity to environmental issues. As democratic institutions, unions suffer from the same problems rampant in the society at large. McAlevey points out that many unions have explicitly set out to combat racism and sexism among their membership, and that the most successful recent organizing drives have been among workforces that were racially diverse and predominantly women. She blames problems with corruption on conscious efforts by management to corrupt union officials.
One weakness of the book is that it doesn’t include examples of how to reform undemocratic unions or challenge weak or corrupt union bureaucracies. McAlevey emphasizes the importance of transparency and including workers in negotiations, but she doesn’t make suggestions or give examples — of which there are many — of how rank-and-file workers can challenge entrenched union leadership.
In fact, that’s exactly what progressives face with the 2020 election. Leadership of the Democratic Party is, to put it mildly, ambivalent about challenging corporate power. Instead it “relies on data geeks zeroing in on minute numbers of voters getting ‘activated’ or ‘pushed to the polls for one election day,’ and then putting them back to sleep for four years.” McAlevey’s organizing model, instead, emphasizes combating voter suppression by building a “supermajority” for progressive policies and inoculating voters against feelings of futility and the “horrible things” that conservatives will inevitably say, and then keeping those voters active after the election is over.
McAlevey doesn’t say exactly how this model can be implemented for this election or if somebody is doing that — but, win or lose in November, it’s a strategy that could swing this country back from disaster.
Read more of the May 13-19, 2020 issue.