Historical Materialism 2014: Mobilise or organise

This year’s Historical Materialism conference included four[1] very useful sessions reflecting on the North American Labour movement.  In the first of three articles, Unite activist Ian Allinson reports on discussions about alternative organising strategies.

A strike by healthcare workers in W 2005
A strike by healthcare workers in 2005

Workers in the North America face similar challenges to us in the UK, but generally worse: low and declining union density; divisions along racist, national and other lines; a weak radical left; lack of working class political representation; anti-union legislation; anti-union media and hostile employers.

Some activists may question what we have to learn from the USA, given that the labour movement there has failed even more spectacularly than here.  However, just like the UK, the picture is uneven and there are good and bad examples we can learn from.  My impression from the conference is that activists in the USA are some way ahead of the British left in grappling with the problems.

Jane McAlevey[2] gave a fascinating talk about different models of organising.  She had originally been trained using ideas from Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” which she sees as the dominant influence on US union organising for the last two decades.  During this period, new leaders took over many unions and threw huge resources into organising, but failed to reverse decline.  Jane puts this down to failures in strategy and has developed a critique of Alinsky organising, contrasting it to what she calls the “1199” model[3] which she argues developed from early Communist Party influence and the key figures Leon Davis and Elliott Godoff.

Alinsky opposed any ideology and saw self-interest as the driving force for organising.  When applied in the unions by the new pro-organising wave of union leaders (confusingly referred to as “New Labor”!) Jane argued that this meant:

Alinksy – New-Labor model

1199-CP model

Workplace issues onlyMaterial conditions only Workplace and non-workplace issuesMaterial and non-material issues
No belief system “Class struggle” belief system
Focus on pro-union activistsStaff driven, no structures among workers

Train workers to be “authentic messengers”

Minority of workers involved

Focus on organic worker leadersDevelop organic worker leaders to staff level

Worker leaders run the campaign

Majority worker participation

Workers are an equal part of a complex system of “leverage” Workers are the primary form of leverage
RepresentationClosed bargaining ParticipationOpen bargaining with mass participation
Mobilising: herding peopleCampaign approach

Turning out those on our side

Staff mobilise “bodies” to “actions”

Issues attract people who agree

Doesn’t grow the base, neglects political education, demobilises and deskills base

Organising: base expansionMovement building approach

Win over unconvinced and undecided – expand base

Staff train grassroots leaders with the skill of struggle and history

Expands the base, builds capacity of organic leaders, creates fighting army

Behind all the detail, Jane’s central argument could be summarised as the difference between developing workers’ capacity for self-activity and self-emancipation rather than mobilising their existing capacity in pursuit of narrow self-interest.  To pick out some of the points which may be less familiar:

Organic worker leaders

In any group of workers, there will be individuals who are the most respected, who act as leaders on a day-to-day basis, and who people turn to with questions.  They are normally seen as good at their job, giving sound advice etc.  (Jane explained that some individuals in a workplace may also be leaders outside e.g. running clubs, churches and that is also vital to find out).  They may be anti-union or neutral at the start of a campaign.  These individuals are likely to be far more influential with their workmates than any organiser outside the group.

The 1199 model says that a lot of effort should go into identifying the organic worker leaders and winning them over.  Jane described correct identification as being a vital process, involving asking questions of the workers (e.g. “who would you ask if…”).  Once they are identified, the organisers would talk to them and find out what is most important to them.  After careful planning a further “hard conversation” was had, where organisers try to help the leaders work out that they can only get what is most important to them by organising collectively.

Jane is adamant that effective organising is democratic and has high participation, but this does not mean it is “horizontal”.  If some workers who are not respected by workmates “put on the union button first”, a campaign could lose.

Once the leaders have been correctly identified and won to the campaign, the aim is to skill them up to the level of union staff.  Jane described the vicious nature of anti-union campaigns in the USA.  Without worker leaders who know what to expect and how to deal with it, success is much less likely.

Once organic worker leaders have been identified and trained up, they can self-run their campaign.

Jane did not discuss how this approach could be adapted by grass roots activists as opposed to unions with paid organisers starting from scratch in green field sites.  Workers seeking to organise their own workplaces typically have no choice but to start with themselves and a few trusted like-minded colleagues, who may or may not happen to be organic worker leaders.  Initially, workers often have to organise covertly.  Trying to win over hostile or neutral organic worker leaders at an early stage would be a high-risk approach for them, so I think this model could not simply be adopted.

Authentic messengers, leverage, minority

Jane described Alinsky type campaigns that focus on finding a pro-union or pro-issue minority.  A few individual workers can be given media training etc to “front up” a campaign as “authentic messengers” speaking about their experiences.  These campaigns were driven by staff rather than workers and used leverage such as consumer boycotts, bad PR etc to extract concessions from employers, with the workers playing little role in leverage (which could be largely delivered by staff, social justice activists etc) and less still in running the campaign.  The workers were little more than window dressing for the campaign.

Jane acknowledged that such campaigns can win, but argued that they do little to expand the capacity or numbers of workers fighting for their interests.  She argued they were far less effective than 1199-style campaigns.

In contrast, the 1199 model would see workers in the worksite as the primary focus of power, with workers themselves changing the external climate as secondary power.  Jane recognised that additional leverage is often needed, but argued that must be built on the foundation of a strong worksite.

Open bargaining

I was familiar with the story of negotiations in the Gdansk shipyards during the height of Solidarnosc being broadcast over the shipyard tannoy, and the “influence” that hearing the workers’ reaction to what was said had on both management and union negotiators.  I didn’t know that this approach was being tried in the USA.

Jane described how open negotiations were part of the 1199 approach.  Negotiating teams were very big (1 person for every 15-25 workers), on top of which any worker could come and listen to the negotiations, which are held in large halls.  Their policy was that everyone had to come to bargaining at least once.  She described how this forced them to prepare properly – ensuring workers backed the positions the union would put forward, defining “we won’t settle without” issues up front, and defining strike issues in advance.  The breadth of the team enabled subgroups to split off to deal with issues affecting only certain sections.

The most powerful example was in a hospital negotiation where the union anticipated the management making an offer to the skilled nurses to split them from the lower paid ancillary staff.  When this happened, the union took an adjournment to discuss with the workers.  When management returned, only the skilled nurses in the room spoke, and all told management the proposal was unacceptable.  Jane argued that open bargaining prevented employers presenting the union as a “third party”.

Wall to wall organising

A central concept used by several speakers was “wall to wall” organising.  What they mean by this is the idea that you involve all the workers, irrespective of occupation, employer, employment status etc.  This is in contrast to “craft” or sectional approaches.  In the UK the term “craft” is typically used in relation to skilled engineering workers, but the HM speakers were using it in a wider sense, for example opposing separate organisation for nurses (as opposed to hospital workers) or teachers (as opposed to school workers).  Where a single union couldn’t organise wall-to-wall due to multiple existing unions, coordinated bargaining and cross-union structures (e.g. joint shop stewards committees) are vital.

Jane argued that the way to “create a crisis” for capital and win change was to build an army of thousands of skilled organic worker leaders who had been “battle tested” and whose politics and identity had been forged through struggle.

Jane had worked for 1199 New England, which had organised 100 strikes since 2000.  She claimed it had been routinely able to “create a crisis” for the employer, leading to the highest contract standards in nursing homes in the USA as well as political influence (“puppy training” politicians as well as influencing elections).

Jane talked in detail about organising health workers in the USA.  She focussed on a successful campaign in Nevada, a conservative and individualistic state with “right to work” anti-union legislation.  There was little potential for pressure through a social justice angle.  They had built a “wall to wall” union uniting skilled nurses with less skilled and ethnically diverse workers – and won.  The hospital workforce is typically stratified along gender and racial lines.  They won workers to the idea of wall to wall organising by discussing “power” and mass participation.  The campaign was helped by the inclusion of workers from countries and states with stronger union traditions, social movements and revolutions.  Discussions including these workers helped raise expectations that it was possible to change everything.

The campaign paid great attention to how workers talk about the union, which Jane argues is how they understand the union.  The wall-to-wall concept conveyed the power needed to win.  The union adopted a “patient centred” approach, rather than the traditional “profession centred” approach.  Jane explained how this helped win support for the wall-to-wall approach as workers understood that “it takes all workers in a hospital to make a patient well” from cleaning to catering to technicians to nursing.  Jane was highly critical of craft unionism.  She talked about how unions competed to organise relatively well paid nurses (who could sustain higher subs) and ignored lower paid workers, sowing division and weakness amongst the workforce.

Jane argued that it was important to start organising by focussing on the workplace, but that once workers began to organise, it was important to reach out and use the same methods in the community – both to address important issues for the workers themselves, and to “expand the army”.  Once there was a group of leaders who had been tested in struggle in the workplace, she argued for extending organising out through networks such as churches, clubs and community groups.  It was important to identify workers who were not organic worker leaders within the workplace but did play that role outside.

In Jane’s experience, the importance of non-workplace issues was highly gendered.  Men were more likely to identify workplace issues as their high priorities, women were more likely to identify issues such as housing, healthcare and education.  Often wages were not in the top three issues for women.  Even within the workplace, other issues could be more important.  She gave the example of a hospital where bosses changing shifts was the key strike issue, because of its impact on the workers’ childcare arrangements.  The workers won self-scheduling, which is very radical in US healthcare.  The deal was that if the scheduling failed three times and there was insufficient cover, it would revert to boss scheduling.  The workers saw this as so important that it never failed.

Kim Moody argued that spurts of union growth don’t come from nowhere, and agreed that the key task was to develop the layer of organic worker leaders.  Jane stressed that the “militant minority” is not the same as the organic worker leaders – who could be anti-union or undecided.  She argued that developing the organic worker leaders was more sustainable than relying on staff and activists.  She also argued for entrenching open and democratic practice (e.g. openness about staff salaries, open bargaining) in union rules to help sustain activism.  She saw short contracts, frequent battles and “floor fights” as more effective then grievances.

On the ideological front, Jane argued for helping workers “connect the dots” between their specific local issue (e.g. a bullying manager on one shift) to wider questions such as political power, the state, environmental issues etc.

While Jane felt confident the 1199 model identified how to win, she was not clear how to shift the movement to adopt it.  She is focussing on tackling the confusion between organising and mobilising – arguing for expanding the base of the movement, skilling up the organic workers leaders and demanding open bargaining.

Sam Gindin argued that while there had been various great examples, sustaining and generalising them required a radical transformation of the unions.  He reminded people of the limitations of unions – their tendency to be sectional, their bias towards instrumentalism, and their tendency to become institutionalised after fights.  The unions developed skills during boom years that aren’t that useful now, and they need to change in every way.  He raised the question of whether this was a problem of the left – how could the unions transform without left organisation?  Without left organisation there would be rebellions but they couldn’t be sustained.  He felt the left was almost in the position of “starting over”, having not focussed on the working class.

Sam pointed to important wins such as Republic Windows and the Chicago Teachers.  However, after their victories they didn’t generalise and were later defeated.  Sustaining success would require a wholesale transformation of the unions as there are limits to what individual socialists can contribute.  He summarised the conundrum for the left as the need for an organisation to build the fight, but the need for a fight to build the organisation.

Another speaker echoed Sam’s point.  It seemed unlikely that the 1199 model would be generally adopted unless there was an organised layer of activists committed to workers’ self-emancipation rather than a top-down statist model of socialism such as that held by the Labour Party or Communist Parties.

In the discussion there was criticism of Unite’s organising model as based on the SEIU one.  Even where people liked the ideas Jane was putting forward, they lacked the confidence in workers to adopt the 1199 model, reflecting the demoralisation of the left about workers’ capacity to fight.  They picked targets “from above” and used external leverage to raise workers’ confidence rather than putting workers at the centre of campaigns.  Jane responded that the key to successful organising was belief in the capacity of ordinary people – outside “wizards” didn’t work.  She had battled the SEIU research department who had no focus on the workers.  She felt that as capitalism beats down on workers, it was a disaster for unions to replicate this.

In the discussion, the highly budgeted Fast Food campaigns in the US, where there appeared to be limited opportunity for workers to participate and control the campaign, were contrasted with the more “from below” organising of the London cinema workers.

Charles Post ridiculed attempts to organise McDonalds “store by store” as being theatre rather than building real power.  Of the US unions he felt the SEIU had the worst “play book” and was concerned that Unite appeared to be copying it.  I thought the “store by store” comment was interesting when put alongside Jane’s emphasis on workers in the workplace being the primary power.  Her examples were from large workplaces and she didn’t explicitly address the issue of how this would translate to multiple small workplaces with less power in each.  It would be interesting to explore how her ideas could be fitted with Beverly Silver‘s exploration of different types of power in different production processes.

Kim Moody argued for explicit opposition to capital, rather than cooperation.  Avoiding antagonising the boss was not an effective way to save jobs.  Direct action, including strikes, was needed.  Grievance procedures were burying activists in casework.  Issues need to be collectivised and turned into direct action.  Reps should “take a mob” with them.

The debate about how to rebuild and renew workplace organisation and unions continues to rage in the UK.  This is a big step forward from the almost universal acceptance of “new realism”, partnership and concession bargaining which preceded the election of the “awkward squad” union leaders.  The commitment of many to organising has helped stem the decline but has not reversed it.  Different unions are trying different models with very different results.  USDAW has grown its membership through partnership, but delivered little for its members.  RMT has grown through a strike-based strategy exploiting members’ workplace power, winning far more for members.  Unite has tried out many interesting organising approaches, but failed to devote the resources to organising promised at its launch (or in its rulebook) and has suffered from the “top down” problems Kim Moody identifies with “conglomerate” unions formed through defensive mergers.  The British left hasn’t engaged adequately with the debates over organising, which have mainly taken place within union hierarchies.  It seems unlikely we will see the transformation required to revitalise the unions unless we do.  “Organising” more, rather than just “mobilising”, might help revitalise the left as well.

[1]The four HM conference sessions covered in this series of reports were:
“Explaining the Decline of Organized Labour in the US: Is Globalization to Blame”: Charles Post “What’s Globalisation Got To Do With It? The Decline of Industrial Unionism in the US Tire Industry 1966-2008”; Kim Moody “Is Globalisation to Blame? An Examination of the Data for the US”; Comments by Michael Goldfield
“The Crisis of Labour in the United States”: Jeff Goodwin “The Crisis in Numbers”; Jame McAlevey “The Crisis of New Labor”; Sam Gindin “Crisis of Labor; Crisis of the Left”
“Left Strategy and the US Working Classes”: Jane McAlevey “Wall to Wall Organizing: Health and Education Workers”; Kim Moody & Charles Post “The Politics of US Labour: Paralysis and Possibilities”; Sam Gindin
“Transforming Classes”: Hugo Radice “Class Theory and Class Politics Today”; Susan Ferguson & David McNally “Precarious Migrants: Gender, Race and the Social Reproduction of the Working Class”

[2]Jane McAlevey was a community and union organiser in the USA before writing her book “Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement”. Jane is giving a webinar for the Canadian Industrial Relations Association at 7pm GMT on Wednesday 3 December.  You can register free of charge here.

[25]This is named after District 1199 (now part of the SEIU), which was founded in 1932 to organise pharmacists and now claims to be the largest union “local” in the world, with nearly 400,000 members.


  1. The idea of mapping the workplace is also something explored in management science – so its not only unions that map the workplace, but also our rivals, managers. There are different kinds of maps that can be performed, sociograms and communigrams are two kinds. http://selfmanagementnotes.info/group-structure

    The idea of ‘organic worker leaders’ is also something confirmed by social psychology and organisational behaviour and was first seen in the studies carried out in the 1920s and 1930s at the Hawthorne plant in Illinois. You can read about this on my website http://selfmanagementnotes.info/group-formation#toc1

  2. The 1199 model is similar to the IWW’s organiser training program – I’d recommend taking it if you’re interested in the strategy of mapping the workplace to identify organic worker leaders. The UK section of the IWW offers it, contact them and I’m sure they can arrange it. It was developed by the US section and was originally based on the SEIU’s training program but with many adaptations to suit what the IWW’s model of organising termed ‘solidarity unionism’. The focus in the IWW’s model is to build a shop committee and use that as a base for activity. This model was probably best demonstrated by the US IWW’s Jimmy John’s workers union, which unfortunately lost the NLRB vote by a small margin, but still seems to exist.

    Wall to wall organising is also promoted by the IWW, and is termed ‘Industrial unionism’, which is why it is called the Industrial Workers of the World.

    Another interesting US union is United Electrical, which has a similar rank and file orientation and organising strategy.

  3. I’ve now had the opportunity to discuss this write-up with Jane and to clarify a few points. Updates below (my words, not hers!).

    1) The “most respected workers” or “organic worker leaders” are not only more important than any organiser outside the group, they are more important than “activists” inside the group too.

    2) I queried how this model could be adopted by workers themselves, given the risk of victimisation if individuals try to win over hostile or neutral organic worker leaders. A worker wanting to start organising their workplace would have to start by (often quietly!) identifying people they trusted or who were more sympathetic – irrespective of whether these were organic worker leaders. Effectively they would start by building a team of “activists” whose distinguishing feature was their commitment to unionisation, rather than how they are regarded by other workers. Jane argues that to be successful, these activists need to learn to act as organisers, not try to “lead” when thay aren’t the leaders. They need to learn how to map the workforce and identify the organic worker leaders. In approaching individuals, workers would start with the organic worker leaders who seemed sympathetic, then those who seemed neutral, leaving those who seemed hostile to last – as these present the highest risk. In many cases activists would be asking individuals to agree to meet outside work to discuss unionisation, rather than trying to do so inside the workplace.

    3) Jane clarified that though campaigns can win with lower participation approaches, or mobilising rather than organising, this is only possible for campaigns where the concession being sought is low. If workers want big changes, they need deep organising to build the power to win.

    4) I’d written “The campaign was helped by the inclusion of workers from countries and states with stronger union traditions, social movements and revolutions”. This didn’t mean that they were flown in to help, but that they were part of the workforce.

    5) As well as women workers being more likely to identify non-workplace issues as their priorities than men, Jane found that male organisers and union leaders were more likely to perpetuate a narrow focus on material workplace conditions rather than the “whole worker” who has concerns inside and outside work.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here