A grocery store worker reflects on his experience attending the latest installment of Jane McAlevey’s “Organizing for Power” series. This article was first published by Organizing Work.
Over the course of late May and June, I attended a training entitled “Workers Rising Everywhere,” part of the Organizing for Power (O4P) series, developed by Jane McAlevey and hosted/funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. The training billed itself as “focus[ed] on building large (super!) majorities in settings such as workplaces, unions, and housing complexes in order to win the toughest campaigns and organizing battles.” As a non-unionized retail worker for Canada’s largest grocery chain, the pitch was certainly appealing.
For a bit of background, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is affiliated with DIE LINKE (literally, “The Left”), the German “democratic socialist” political party which succeeded the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, who ruled East Germany from 1949 until 1989. Jane McAlevey is an American author, academic, and professional organizer who is best known for her work as a high-ranking staff person at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Other lead trainers were, as well, union staffers with impressive job titles like “Senior Organizer.”
I must confess that this knowledge predisposed me to view things somewhat cynically from the outset. My personal experiences with socialist political parties and with union staffers have been a mixed bag. Nevertheless, McAlevey’s work is highly regarded by many labor organizers, and I figured the skills being taught might be valuable regardless of whatever strategic disagreements I might have with the teachers.
Organizers versus workers
Right from “go,” it felt like I was not the intended audience for the training. This was by professional organizers and for professional organizers. Though the word “coworker” did appear in two role-play descriptions, the framing was never a meeting between equals; role-play scenarios were about “the organizer” trying to get “the coworker” to sign a petition. It was always implicit that “the organizer” was working for “the union,” and never actually working alongside the object of the conversation.
On an immediately practical level, there was no discussion whatsoever about any risks the organizer might face. The assumption seemed to be baked in that fear of retaliation was a problem for the people the organizer was speaking with, but never the organizer themself. It also seemed implicit that those of us in the training were above the messiness and complications of the workplace. We were never asked to think about our position, relationships, and so on.
This runs entirely counter to my own experience “in the thick of it.” It’s as though, as organizers, we were assumed to have no skin in the game; to be able to act without any constraint or need for relational awareness. Of particular note, there was no training whatsoever on asking workers to meet one-on-one outside of work. It was heavily implied that organizing conversations could be had in break rooms or around the workplace. My own experience tells me that this is a recipe for getting pulled into a one-on-one meeting with the boss. Needless to say, not a lesson someone should be set up to learn the hard way.
Anyway, if this framing of “the organizer” is problematic, its corresponding view of the people to be organized bordered on condescending. Despite the regular use of words like “empowerment,” and “participation,” it seemed that what was on offer was a model in which the organizer molds more-or-less pliable material. Questions about strategy, or even tactics, are never posed to the objects of organizing. While the organizer needs to understand the worker-object (e.g. to learn what their grievances are), this is solely so that the organizer can effectively pitch the way that their prefabricated solution will resolve those grievances.
Put in more direct terms, there was no point in the O4P version of the “structured organizing conversation” in which we were encouraged to ask questions like, “What do you think we could do about this?” “How have you dealt with this issue in the past?” “What do you think it would take to change this?” If workers had any insights into what resolving a grievance might look like, we weren’t being trained to seek out and hear them.
Unfortunately, in my view, this isn’t just an oversight or mistake. It reflects the essence of the strategy being promoted.
Where is power?
At the core of the Organizing for Power strategy is a particular notion of where power is located. In the materials we studied (chapters from McAlevey’s books), we were presented with victories won at the bargaining table and in the realm of legislation. The power we were being taught to organize for was never something exercised on the level of the day-to-day workplace, but always through institutional channels, always legalistic, and never oriented toward founding new types of power outside of these existing relationships.
For example, in most of our role-playing, the goal was to gather signatures for a “majority petition.” The purpose of this petition was always to bolster the strength of the union at the negotiating table. To be clear, I’m not necessarily opposed to petitions, and have had some success using them in my own workplace, but there is a crucial difference. In O4P, the petition was always subordinate to the negotiation of a contract, and is never an immediate expression of a demand.
Action was never about workers directly exercising their power on a particular problem. Even the the 2019 United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) strike is told through a lens which exemplifies the work of progressive union leaders and staffers in organizing the six-day strike, and declares an unqualified victory won in “twenty-two hour, marathon round-the-clock negotiation between the teachers’ union and management,” backed by the display of large rallies and marches. In this story, the teachers themselves appear as set-pieces, a sort of “Potemkin union,” displayed to awe the people McAlevey refers to as “political elites.”
In this context, the orientation toward “supermajorities” takes on a very different meaning than I might have hoped. Rather than a supermajority of workers organized to realize their collective capacity for action, what we have is more like a big number to impress bosses. Rather than a model for direct democracy and workplace control, we have an army to be marched out (and back in) by labor’s generals.
My primary point of reference for seeing these differences is the Industrial Workers of the World’s Organizer Training (OT) programme, which is attentive to the details of how power functions in the workplace between bosses and workers. The OT emphasizes the relationships between workers, and their strategic understanding of their own workflow. It aims at developing workers as class-conscious organizers capable of building grassroots workplace democracy and exercising power directly.
Where O4P tasks professional organizers with leading more-or-less recalcitrant workers to “victory,” the OT teaches workers to build solidarity with co-workers as peers. Where O4P encourages a specialized role for “activists” in taking action, the OT teaches building a workplace committee that democratically decides on actions. Where O4P sees “organic leaders” as necessary henchmen to be recruited, the OT sees leaders as embedded in a complex web of relationships which may need to be disrupted (see the excellent “Leadership is not Governance”).
The fact is, in my day-to-day as a worker, the applications of the OT are readily apparent, and feel rooted in my direct experience. In contrast, “Workers Rising Everywhere” reminded me of the training I received in a job door-knocking to collect donations for an NGO. I don’t make the comparison simply to be dismissive — the NGO in question was genuinely interested in building power (in the form of membership, money, and signatures) to make positive change (ending the expansion of the Alberta tar sands). However, when we signed up members, it was so that their voice could be expressed through the NGO, which had ready-made infrastructure, strategy, and political relationships. And in a sense, this model really does work as far as its goal goes of gathering names, getting people to hold signs, and lobbying for reforms. What the NGO didn’t do, or to be fair promise to do, was transform the everyday relationships of power that shape people’s lives.
In the end, my disappointment with what I learned about “organizing for power” in McAlevey’s training isn’t that the methods aren’t a “winning” strategy. I genuinely believe that, as far as the goals of workplace contractualism and electoral politics are concerned, they’re excellent. Organizing membership, regularly testing capacity, and endeavouring to enter any negotiation with a strong majority is all extremely practical. Unfortunately, for deeper, more fundamental change — for building working-class power as I conceive of it — they are insufficient. In the end, despite radical-sounding phrases being thrown around, the “workers rising” was just bog-standard business unionism reunited with the lost enthusiasm of its heyday.
x362014 is a grocery worker and IWW member living in Mi’kma’ki.