Saturday, July 25, 2020

Book Review: Jane McAlevey's A Collective Bargain

Memorial Day Massacre. Little Steel Strike 1937 4 Dead 100's Injured

Jane McAlevey’s A Collective Bargain
Is an Argument for More Bureaucracy in US Unions

by Marian Swerdlow *

In her introduction, “Twelve Years of Freedom (Almost),” to her most recent book, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy (HarperCollins, New York:2020), Jane McAlevey says that “this [book] is about how unions can get us out of the mess we’re in today.” [McAlevey:2] It would be more accurate to say, “this book claims unions could get us out of the mess we are in today, but only if they become more staff-driven and bureaucratized.” 

Throughout the book, McAlevely suggests unions, and strategies for union organizing, can reverse the savage inequalities in the contemporary United States, through both the workplace and on the terrain of electoral politics.

In Chapter 1, “Workers Can Still Win Big,” McAlevey asks, “What is a union?” and answers, “A union basically functions like a government.” However, to McAlevey, “two unique tools make unions different from government: collective bargaining and strikes  . . . Further, it is helpful to think of a union as a mechanism, nothing makes it inherently good or bad.” [op. cit.:16]  As for when unions are bad, McAlevey, with a Ph.D. and a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Law School, offers only a simplistic and reductionist explanation, “People are flawed, and unions are made up of people, so unions, too, can be flawed.” [ibid]

But the limit of her explanation is political, not intellectual: she needs to avoid any critique of the labor bureaucracy whose patronage she seeks.

The rest of this chapter is made up of case studies of collective bargaining.  In the one about the hospitality industry, we begin to see McAlevely’s real agenda in writing this book: to promote the idea that a layer of professional organizers - distinct from the rank and file - is necessary to build the labor movement.  This layer must be separate from the day-to-day work of the rank and file, because its specialized skills of organizing require years of training and experience that preclude wasting time doing the routine, repetitive jobs by which the rank and file earn their livelihood.

This case study [op. cit.:36] centers on Irma Perez, “because she was such a natural leader among her peers, her union UNITE HERE, leveraged a provision in their [contract that ] generally takes substantial union power to win in a contract, known as a union leave.”

That it meant to sound impressive.  However, union leave, in one form or another, is common in union contracts.  Even the American Federation of Government Employees, with very limited power, had it until the Trump administration took it away.  Very few members know it is bargained, basically, as part of the wage package: union members pay for union leave time in lower wages and benefits.

McAlevey’s vision of this professional layer includes people like Perez, originally workers, but chosen by the labor leadership - not elected by the rank and file - to become full-time or part-time union staff.  In cases like Perez’s, where there is union leave, the union member generally keeps union benefits like pensions, as well as “double dipping” pay, and gaining union staff benefits such as expense accounts.  They often work extremely hard, but also may become corrupt.

McAlevey concludes the chapter by putting collective bargaining front and center.  All the victories in these case studies, she says, were possible because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 institutionalized collective bargaining. “Part of what makes unions and collective bargaining so effective,” McAlevey effuses, “is that workers themselves pull up to the negotiating table, to decide how to distribute the profits they make for others.” [op. cit.:40]

They do?

They certainly don’t in the union campaigns McAlevey describes later in the book.  And they don’t in most unions.

McAlevey must reconcile her agenda of establishing a professional cadre of full-time organizers chosen by union leadership, with her appeal to the value of “democracy,” a word that she showcases in the subtitle of her book.  Thus she concocts this fantasy of who sits at the negotiating table that implies that the professionals - most of whom have never done the job of the members they are bargaining for - are one and the same as those “workers themselves.”     

In McAlevey’s second chapter, “Who Killed the Unions?” she continues to pursue her case for the need for full-time, professional organizers with specialized knowledge set apart from the rank and file, by arguing that the “employer class” has a parallel cadre of union-busters and that they are the cause of the decline of unions: “The primary reason for the decline of unions and the standard of living of most Americans rests with the extensive union busting industry that is almost entirely unregulated, absolutely vicious, and unique to the United States.” [op. cit.:44] Therefore, argues McAlevey, the labor movement needs a counterpart to the sophisticated, specialized, stand-alone union-busting industry: a sophisticated, specialized and stand-alone union organizing industry, staffed by people like her.  “The beginning of modern union-busting as a stand-alone industry took hold in the 1950s.” [op. cit.: 61]   

To give this impact, McAlevey has to show the heights the labor movement had achieved before, she claims, the union-busting industry brought it to its present ruinous condition.  Therefore, McAlevey describes the rise of the U.S. labor movement in the 1930s, and is right when she observes that “even though the [National Labor Relations Act of 1935] was passed, to actually make the law come to life meant  . . . bringing production to a standstill again.” [op. cit.:50]  


However, she distorts this history in order to make it consistent with her argument that organizers must be a group apart from the workers they organize.  For example, she claims that the CIO “organizers for the most part took jobs inside the factories so they could help workers overcome management’s tactical warfare.” [Ibid] The men who organized the sit-downs in the factories at Akron and Flint did not “take jobs  . . . to help workers.”  They took jobs to earn a livelihood, to support their families.  They were workers.  Even many of their leaders, such as Victor and Walter Reuther, and James Matles, who did not work in the factories, had working class backgrounds.  And many had worked in factories themselves before becoming organizers.  In the 1930s, “native workers” self-organized.  The leaders were the most politically advanced, not the “most experienced in the craft of organizing” as McAlevey claims organizers must be.  “They were driven by an ideological passion for justice.” [Ibid] For many of them, the passion was for the overthrow of capitalism.

Of the CIO organizers, McAlevey says, “they were highly effective teachers and coaches, helping workers themselves learn which organizing approaches were most successful.”[op. cit.:51]   This is her version of the relationship between organizers and rank and file.  It isn’t what happened in industries in the 1930s: the organizers were seen, or best understood, as the most politically advanced layers of workers.  They learned methods from Europeans and from workers of many other lands, and they employed their own creativity and ingenuity to collectively strategize and develop tactics [See, for example, Sidney Fine, Sit Down (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor:1970) especially Chapters I and X; and Philip Bonosky, Brother Bill McKie (International Publishers, New York:1953) especially Chapters 19 - 24]. 

When McAlevey gives an example of CIO organizing, she does not use a case of the organization of previously unorganized industrial workers, such as the rubber workers of Akron, or the autoworkers at Flint, or any sit down at all.  Her example [op. cit.:51] is the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which was founded in 1900 as an AFL union of mainly skilled workers. 

 McAlevey celebrates the CIO’s “entrance into politics in a big way” and attributes the victory at Flint thus: “the unions had worked hard to help elect a governor they could better control.”[op. cit.:53].  She cites Domhoff and Webber, Class and Power in the New Deal (Stanford University Press, California:2011), but gives no specific pages, leaving the reader to comb through that book’s more than 240 pages, to find only this:
Labor leaders also wanted to elect sympathetic governors in local officials in key industrial states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan [Domhoff and Webber:197]

 With New Deal Democrats in key positions of power, the newly hired organizers employed by the CIO targeted an automobile industry assembly plant in Flint Michigan in early January 1937 for a sit down strike which would serve as an ideal starting point and a signal of what was to come.[op. cit:199]

What Domhoff and Webber say about the Flint strike is:
The [Flint] automobile factory was chosen because it belonged to GM and was a critical link in the company’s network of factories  . . . Led in good part by Communist and Socialist factions in the fledgling United Autoworkers, the sit-downers held the factory for six weeks despite attacks by police, legal threats from local authorities and demands by the owners that the liberal governor put an end to this illegal takeover of private property (Fine:1969 for a detailed account).  However, neither the governor nor Roosevelt would accede to the corporation’s demands, forcing its leaders to negotiate with the union and thereby provide a major triumph for the CIO. [op. cit.:199-200]

Since McAlevey never cites specific pages, and this is the book’s only mention of the Flint strike, it must be concluded that McAlevey’s citation does not support her assertion that the victory was because “the unions had worked hard to elect a governor they could control,” and provides no evidence that unions “entered politics in a big way.”  Sidney Fine’s account (op. cit.)  more strongly indicates that the UAW took advantage of the popularity of the Democratic Party which arose from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It mentions merely that the Detroit Labor Council supported the candidacy of the Democrat, Murphy, for governor. Furthermore, Democrats in office was hardly a guarantee that strikers would be not be attacked or abused.  The Memorial Day massacre, less than six months after Flint, took place in Chicago, Illinois with Democrats occupying the mayor’s and governor’s offices, not to mention the Roosevelt presidency. 

Fine makes it clear that Governor Murphy and President Roosevelt wanted the sit-down settled without violence.  However, so did GM’s Executive Vice President William Knudsen:

GM shared [Murphy’s] views and feared that the loss of life in the strike might adversely affect the well-being of the corporation and the sale of its cars for years to come.  Knudsen publicly stated that GM wanted the strike settled by negotiation rather than by violence and GM officials told Murphy privately they did not want the strikers ‘evicted by force.  [op. cit.:236]


What McAlevey underplays in ascribing the success of the Flint strike to an unsubstantiated “big entrance” by the CIO into politics, is the courage and combativity of the strikers and their supporters themselves, as well as the brilliance of their rank and file leaders.  While Stein states “the favorable political climate in Washington, D.C. and Lansing was an indispensable element of the union’s success,” [op. cit: 30] he says also
    . . . a small group of UAW leaders at the national, local and plant level . . . had outmaneuvered GM from the beginning of the strike to its end.  The leadership by men like Travis and Roy Reuther was . . . brilliant  . . . the daring strategy  . . . in the seizing of Chevrolet No. 4, the sound car, the mobilization of women  . . .   The utilization of outsiders as a strategic reserve, and the staging of demonstrations at crucial moments . . .  a core of unionists . . . able to organize themselves into a community inside Fischer Body Nos. 1 and 2, and later Chevrolet No. 4, and been willing to remain at their posts . . .  despite a police attack and interrupted utilities, [water, heat, light -M.S.] and a civil injunction. [op. cit.:310]

Flint was a victory of rank and file autoworkers, rank and file leaders, and local leaders of working class origins.  Roy Reuther was the son of German immigrants who had worked as a tool and die maker in Detroit.  Travis, a Flint native, had been an autoworker and local president of a Chevrolet plant in Toledo, Ohio.  Not a professionally trained “expert” organizer like McAlevey in sight. 

In the chapter, “Everything You Thought You Knew About Unions is Mostly Wrong,” McAlevey explains:  
Liberal acquaintances of mine say that union members are spoiled, that unions protect incompetent workers, charge too much in dues and preclude business innovation. Liberals also see some unions through the dusty historical lens: they appear to be corrupt, racist and sexist
. [emphases added -M.S.] [op. cit.:83] 


Let’s leave aside well-justified questions about McAlevey’s dismissal of these criticisms as “dusty” or “historical,” for the moment.  Clearly, McAlevely wants to convince “liberals” that unions are good and important.  Why?  Because the “liberals” she describes are actually influential and well-resourced professionals, a milieu she aspires to belong to.  To get them to accept her, and her kind - professional organizers - as equals, and - more important - to fund their existence, they must be convinced of the value of unions.  This is one of the many times McAlevey, alongside explaining the real need for unions, whitewashes unions’ faults.

Her next chapter, “How Will Workers Get a Union?” seems aimed at union leaders, to sell them on the idea they should initiate organizing, and hire specialists, like McAlevey, to do it. McAlevey continues to make a case for why union organizing needs to be a profession.  In her view, this profession is (a) pragmatic: based on methods that she claims are effective;  and (b) ideologically neutral beyond the goals of increasing the size and power of the labor movement.   She states “The methods are leadership identification and structure tests [McAlevey has discussed both in her earlier No Shortcuts (Oxford University Press, New York:2016)]  and the principles are democracy and participation.” [McAlevey, 2020:156]   However, the method of “leadership identification” is profoundly undemocratic and limits participation.  And viewing tactics as “structure tests,” rather than as collective actions that build union consciousness, instrumentalizes organizing.  It makes the union an end in itself, rather than the “school for workers forming themselves into a class for itself” that Marxists envision.

“Leadership identification” is the professional organizer from outside designating whom they believe should lead workers.  The workers do not democratically choose their leaders.  Nor is there any concept of developing any other rank and filers as leaders.  In this outsider’s view of workers, some of them have the right stuff, the others are just followers, sheep who cannot make decisions - either individually or collectively through debate and discussion - and incapable of developing into anything more.

McAlevey’s idea of workers’ participation is their voting on actions designed by the professional organizers, and only actions that have a “supermajority” proceed, an extremely limited concept of participation. 

Democracy, says McAlevey, “means breaking down barriers, directly confronting racism and sexism that divides workers and weakens them.” [op. cit.:158]  This is essential.  However, union democracy is much more: it means the membership drives the union, puts forward proposals, acts on its own initiatives locally, forms its alternatives, and discusses and chooses them: not simply “yes” or “no” to the leadership’s proposals.

McAlevey claims that “most ‘hot shop’ efforts [in which the workers in a shop decide themselves that they want a union] in our current climate . . . fail, despite the agitation for a union.  Workers don’t carefully research which union they should reach out to for assistance.” [op. cit.:159] This implies workers are too naive to be trusted with the decision to take the initiative to form a union.  So, professional organizers, employed by international unions should decide which workplaces to organize.  “It’s more likely union organizers will apply [McAlevey’s methods] in strategic sectoral or geographic organizing. A strategic campaign begins with strategy and research.” These “strategic organizing campaigns tend to be fought by experienced organizers . . . ” [ibid] Like the UAW in southern auto plants? Those were top-down campaigns that ended in ignominious defeats. “The union has a vision for the workers’ future [and] the resources and staff capacity to back that vision.” [ibid] This is the most repulsive patronizing paternalism.

Then, McAlevey narrates a lengthy example of another organizing campaign that, in a bizarre twist, completely goes against everything she has just asserted.  It arises in a “hot shop.”  The workers succeed, on their own, in choosing an effective international union to join.  The campaign does not rely on people like McAlevey’s category of organizers.  It does not employ a series of “structure tests,” or what would be better conceptualized as solidarity building actions.  As a result of the latter, it is left in the lurch when the representation election is won by a thin margin and management’s union busting company stalls certification to allow union support to erode. Instead of admitting the failure, McAlevey uses this crisis as a selling point for her “profession”:

“These moments [are] when union staff that have experience in many rounds of employer warfare teach the workers.  We know  . . . We quickly called together a meeting and had to do what real organizers do [emphases in original][op. cit.:181].  So McAlevey amplifies the role of the professional staffers brought in to organize the shop, “highly skilled,” “the union was hiring and deploying more New England Nurses’ Association staff.” [op. cit.:188]

McAlevey describes how she personally carried out negotiations with company executives. She adds that this was done “in close collaboration with key nurse leaders . . .” but offers no information about this collaboration.   At the meeting with the rank and file, she relates, “I explained the deal,” (emphasis added) not any rank and filer, not even anyone even elected by the rank and file.  She rides off into the sunset “after teaching the Einstein [the name of the hospital; she isn’t being sarcastic -M.S.] workers how to build their worksite organization.” [op. cit.:189]

Another staffer, she asserts, “told me the only step she could think of in a very tough meeting [with the nurses in an anti-union unit] was to ask [them] to return and meet with me, the chief contract negotiator” [emphasis added - M.S.] [op. cit.:191]   The irreplaceable, unparalleled Jane McAlevey.

McAlevey states:
Union organizing, and - for that matter - most organizing is a craft and 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 organizer. [emphases added - M.S.] [op. cit.:156]

This says it all.   This is the main thesis of A Collective Bargain: there has to be a professional class of union organizers because it is the only force that can get the job - rebuild the unions and “get us out of the mess we are in today” - done.

* Marian Swerdlow is a retired teacher. She was a rank and file activist in the unions for 30 year as a member of TWO Local 100 and the UFT


1 comment:

Loren Goldner said...

Good stuff! I didn't realize she was THAT bad.