We’re All McAleveyites Now 

Jane McAlevey’s emphasizes being “organizers” not “activists.” This represents an important development for the Left.


 

When did we all become organizers? Not too long ago, young people on the Left commonly called themselves “activists.” Activists do activism, which could mean anything from protesting at a World Trade Organization summit to guerilla gardening for a local co-op.

As a political label, activism was coded as left-wing. But unlike older generations of the Left, the activist scene was never comfortable saying what all its “activity” was ultimately trying to accomplish. As Jonathan Smucker pointed out, activism was a label without content, one that rendered Left politics and values just another niche postmodern identity. Activism – for the environment, for women’s equality, against war and exploitation, and much more – was something reserved for a certain kind of person, instead of a politics that could reach across identities. Birders watched birds, golfers played golf, and activists did activism.

Many of us today are likely to agree with Smucker. While the term “activism” is still around, (you’re reading this article in The Activist!), it’s increasingly being displaced by other political identities. One of them is “socialist,” a word that gives a name to the system we’re fighting to win. But many socialists today proudly claim another title: organizer. If “socialist” names what we want, “organizer” says something concrete about how we get there: by building organization.

In my YDSA chapter at the University of Oregon (UO), being called a good organizer is high praise and more experienced members put on organizing workshops for newcomers. Nationally, YDSA holds regular “Organizing 101” calls, where members learn how to do “1-on-1’s,” make “power maps,” and avoid the trap of something called “mobilizing.” 

These terms feel so natural now that it’s odd to think that we haven’t always been speaking and thinking this way. But this wasn’t the vocabulary and repertoire of yesterday’s “activism.” Where did it come from?

The rise of “organizing” discourse on the Left surely has multiple causes. One cause is the transformative effect of the Bernie campaigns from 2015 to 2020. His “war across six Aprils” pushed the Left to escape the activist margins by embracing a program that could reach tens of millions of voters.

Bernie gave us a new identity that named our goal – democratic socialism – and inspired us to approach politics with a new seriousness and confidence. He put us on new political terrain, with new and urgent questions to answer. The most pressing: how to build and sustain a mass Left politics without a socialist on the presidential debate stage – without Bernie?

The answer that newly-minted socialists arrived at was organizing. The first organization to build was DSA. Even with its problems, the construction of DSA into a stable mass-member socialist organization with chapters all over the country and a small but growing roster of elected officials, is a remarkable achievement. It’s also a big departure from the horizontalist fear of organization that ran through the activist Left before the Bernie campaigns.

With DSA in place, socialists are increasingly focused on building other forms of working-class organization, like tenant and labor unions. This sort of organizing means reaching out beyond our existing base: to workers, to tenants, to ordinary people in all their diversity.

Bernie set the stage and showed us that we needed to get organized. But for the specific vocabulary and tactics of organizing in DSA and YDSA today, we have someone else to thank.

No Shortcuts to building power

Jane McAlevey didn’t invent organizing, as she’s quick to say. But she did, in a sense, reinvent it, and introduce it to a new generation at just the right time.

McAlevy is a professional labor organizer and writer who has authored several books covering the recent history and strategy of the labor movement. Her perspective is set out most systematically in 2016’s No Shortcuts. I would wager that no book published in the last few years has had a greater impact on the post-2016 socialist movement than No Shortcuts.

The book synthesizes lessons from McAlevey’s own experience with case studies of union and community organizing campaigns past and present. The programmatic heart of No Shortcuts is found in its first two chapters, where McAlevey elaborates two theories of power: that held by liberals and progressives who can only see the power of social elites, and those to their left who can see the “power structures of ordinary people.”

Liberals and progressives challenge elite power through advocacy – by negotiating directly with elites without involving workers, or mobilizingputting a limited number of activist workers into motion under the careful control of professionals. McAlevey’s alternative is organizing, which “places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people,” who are involved directly at every stage of a campaign.

If we can speak of “McAleveyism,” this is its core principle: a belief in the agency of ordinary people. All the techniques laid out in No Shortcuts about identifying organic leaders, mapping workplaces, or building towards super-majority strikes flow from this principle.

McAlevey and socialism

McAlevey sometimes has critical things to say about the socialist Left. In a recent interview with Jacobin, she criticizes ultra-ideological socialists who “couldn’t win a thing” and who misunderstand how workers develop class consciousness: “What is going to help workers come to understand capitalism as a problem is not me telling them that – it’s actually them learning it” over the course of a campaign.

McAlevey’s criticism is of an ineffective sectarian approach to unions that has a long history of failure. Still, she respects those leftists who did know how to organize and win: the Socialists, Trotskyists, and Communists (like John Steuben) who built the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s. 

Likewise, she’s always been clear that the fight against the boss isn’t limited to the workplace, it’s ultimately a political battle for control over the state. But for McAlevey, that battle begins on the job and in our unions. As she puts it: “what’s better than teaching workers how to actually govern in the hardest place to govern, which is their workplace?”

McAlevey herself is sometimes criticized for defending the importance of professional staff organizers (or simply for being one herself), as opposed to some mythical kind of pure bottom-up unionism. But McAlevey’s ideas about organizing are perfectly compatible with the rank-and-file strategy, because that strategy isn’t crudely “anti-staff.” Rather, a mature perspective on labor can recognize that unions are by their nature reformist institutions, with a need for persistent organizational structure, including a bureaucracy, that can survive the inevitable ups-and-downs of social struggle in a capitalist economy.

The point is not to abolish but to control that bureaucracy, through rank-and-file organization and democratic struggle within unions. McAlevey’s distinction between mobilizing and organizing is an important conceptual tool for doing exactly that, by pushing against staff-driven, top-down unionism.

McAleveyism versus the rank-and-file strategy?

However, I do think McAlevey gets one thing wrong. In her interview with Jacobin, she claims that “whether the experienced organizer is positioned inside the workplace in the rank-and-file, or outside, like I have been, doesn’t matter. It’s what we are teaching the workers, how are they learning it, and are they learning self-confidence and the ability to win.”

She’s unequivocal on this point: “It doesn’t matter whether we’re inside the rank and file or outside the front gates – it’s what we are doing.”

There’s no question that skilled organizers “outside the front gates” can help workers win. But the location of an organizer does matter. In the last two years, YDSA chapters around the country have started campaigns to directly organize undergraduate student workers, and in these campaigns the location of organizers “inside the rank-and-file” has been vital.

At UO, where my YDSA chapter played a crucial role in a campaign to organize over 3,000 student workers into a wall-to-wall union, the presence of YDSA salts in strategic workplaces was essential. Salts could map workplaces, build the trust necessary to move workers into action, and ultimately build a union led by workers, not outside supporters. 

The story is similar at other successful, YDSA-supported union drives. It’s difficult to imagine how our generation of the Left can possibly succeed in revitalizing the labor movement, on or off campus, without a strategic emphasis on salting.

The reason we can’t afford to be agnostic about an organizer’s location – “outside the gates” or on the shop-floor – is that only those within the workplace can secure a long-term basis for socialist politics in the labor movement. The socialists of the 1930s and 40s whom McAlevey admires were ultimately purged from the CIO in every union except those where they had a strong base on the shop floor.

Fortunately, there’s no reason at all why McAlevey’s “structure-based” model can’t be integrated with the tactics of the rank-and-file strategy, like salting. The techniques described in No Shortcuts and her other books (like her fascinating recent work on open bargaining) are a blueprint for building democratic, high-participation unions that regularly strike and raise expectations for working people. 

We in YDSA aren’t activists anymore, but organizers. As the undergraduate labor movement takes off, we have an opportunity to prove it. No Shortcuts is still the best place to begin.