Raising Our Expectations

Published on The Bullet, Socialist Project’s e-bulletin no 970, by Sam Gindin, April 20, 2014.

Looking back to the defeat of the labour movement since the early 1980s, three lessons seem especially important. First, any gains made under capitalism are temporary; they can be reversed. Second, the kind of unionism we developed in that earlier period of gains was inherently limited; it left us in a poor position to respond to the subsequent attacks. Third, absent new forms of working-class organization and practices, fatalism takes over and worker expectations fall.  

Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), newly out in paperback from Verso, is part memoir, part organizing manual, and part rejoinder to that fatalism. Jane McAlevey is a long-time organizer in the student, environmental and, over the past two decades, labour movements. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at City University of New York, which she has integrated into her continuing life as a labour organizer. Her message, based on her experiences and achievements, is that as much as capitalism has diminished workers and undermined their confidence in affecting their lives, workers can overcome – but only if they themselves become organizers inside both the workplace and community.

While any such organizing begins with workers’ needs, it is workers’ expectations of their own ability to intervene – and of the support from their unions in doing so – that must especially be raised. McAlevey refuses to romanticize workers or glorify spontaneity. But she deeply respects working people and genuinely appreciates their creative potential, a respect reflected in her refusal to be shy about challenging workers to reach their potential.

Organizing Strategy: … //

… Unfair Criticism: … //

… The Nature of Organizing and the Left:

The larger issue here revolves around the nature of organizing. An essentialist view of workers as being inherently militant, solidaristic and strategy-wise doesn’t grasp the actual state of the working-class. If workers already had the needed capacities fully formed, they would have organized themselves long ago.

Organizing is about moving people from where they currently are to someplace that brings out their potential as social agents. It involves developing the individual and collective capacities – alongside the structures, tactics and strategies – that can match what workers are up against. Most labour leaders today, McAlevey asserts, think that in the “self-centered, plugged-in, globalized country this nation has become,” deep workplace and community organizing is impossible. Her experiences prove otherwise.

The organizing model McAlevey proposes, based on her experience and with roots in early CIO practices, demands a heavy commitment of union resources (McAlevey hasn’t shied away from supporting large dues increases) and depends on experienced organizers (who may or may not be staff) playing a catalyst role. The identification of informal leaders is given much greater attention than most unions’ traditional organizing models since the de facto leaders, as McAlevey repeatedly emphasizes, are not generally the formal, elected leaders.

Organizing is a continuous process, beginning with power mapping, testing to hone mobilization capacities, then acting. It connects individual and collective action and passes on analytical and strategic skills to workers. It develops workers’ self-confidence through demonstrating that employers and politicians can be taken on and demands won. It is suspicious of the legalisms of grievance handling, instead focusing on workers addressing grievances through direct action. It keeps the union members fully informed, opens the bargaining process to much broader direct participation, doesn’t shy away from strikes, and it looks to the workers themselves to organize their communities.

And yet for all the concrete demonstrations that this model of organizing works, it did not spread across the labour movement. The exciting example in Connecticut of unions cooperating with each other and moving into the community – and subsequently gaining members and first contracts, successfully intervening to save and improve public housing projects and gaining representation in local politics – did not spread. In Nevada, an impressive number of workers overcame the state’s anti-labour legislation and joined the SEIU, and the contracts won were quite remarkable, including the breakthrough in Nevada’s health-care sector for fully employer-paid family health-care. Yet this too faded, undone by both legitimate disagreements and petty turf wars. What are we to make of this?

The dilemma is that this organizing model rests on unions being open to real organizing, committing the resources, standing ready to accept some turmoil within their organizations, and trusting the members rather than looking to broker deals with corporations. But unions that would agree to such a program are distressingly rare. Creating them essentially requires revolutions inside unions – something that is unlikely to happen through any spontaneous dynamic strictly internal to unions.

Without the existence of a left committed to class struggle and with its feet inside and outside workplaces, unions that have transformed into the kinds of organizing machines McAlevey helped create will remain the exception. But such a left, with links to workers and a capacity to develop organizers where workers are looking for help and workers that might transform their unions, is itself at an impasse. Much as many of us might think of the Left as the most self-conscious part of the class struggle, their impasse is as difficult to overcome as unions’.

In this context, McAlevey’s book is timely and desperately needed because it convincingly demonstrates that the problem is not in the stars, but in ourselves. If we as the Left can get our shit together, it is possible to build groups of workers into a social force in spite of the times.

Where unions are ready to try, McAlevey presents a method for how to do this. And where unions are not yet prepared to take this on, it lays out a range of specific demands we should be fighting for within our unions. (The book is full of concrete examples of tools, tactics, and strategies that can win; it is practically begging for a follow-up detailed manual).

Every serious labour activist needs to engage this book, drawing out what is useful and experimenting with variations as appropriate. But we also need to go further. Indirectly, McAlevey’s book challenges the Left to stop lamenting its disappointments in the working-class and address, with humility, its own failures. The Left must raise its expectations of itself.

(full long text).

(Sam Gindin was Research Director of the Canadian Auto Workers from 1974-2000 and is now an adjunct professor at York University in Toronto. This article was first published on the Jacobin website. Other reviews and excerpts from the book can be found on Jane McAlevey.com. For more on this issue, also check out Sam’s interview of Jane in this LeftStreamed video).


Tom Engelhardt: Too Big to Jail? Why Kidnapping, Torture, Assassination, and Perjury Are No Longer Crimes in Washington, on naked capitalism, by Yves Smith, April 21, 2014; http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2014/04/tom-engelhardt-big-jail-kidnapping-torture-assassination-perjury-longer-crimes-washington.html

The second mystery around Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, on Intrepid Report, by John Chuckman, April 21, 2014;

Profit from Crisis: Why capitalists do not want recovery, and what that means for America, on Dissident Voice, by Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, April 19, 2014;

Nature before profits: some history, some theory, on political affairs pa, by LEN YANELLI, March 7, 2014;

Economic Crisis Shows: Capitalism is a System of Crisis and War, on Marxists.org/Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line, by Dan Burstein, (first published on Class Struggle, No. 3, Winter 1976; Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba, copyright: This work is in the Public Domain …)

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