No Future Without Unions
A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy
By Jane McAlevey
Harper Collins, 2020
Reviewed by: Charles Du
For five years, Christian Smalls worked as a process assistant at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island. After at least two employees at the warehouse tested positive for Covid-19 this past March, he led his coworkers on a walkout to protest unsafe conditions. Amazon fired Smalls the next day for “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk” and immediately strategized to impugn him—as Amazon’s general counsel put it in notes leaked to the press, he was “not smart or articulate”—and to make him the face of all union organizing efforts at Amazon. It would not be the only example of astonishingly callous corporate behavior during the early months of the pandemic. Hospitals fired doctors
and nurses for speaking out about dangerous shortages of personal protective equipment.
Supermarkets prohibited cashiers from wearing face masks. These policies, clearly irrational from an employee safety and public health perspective, reflect a dark truth about our economy: the human beings who perform work “essential”
to the functioning of our society are treated as disposable by their employers. What makes this state of affairs possible is the staggering imbalance of political and economic power between workers and the capitalist class. Veteran labor organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey’s new book, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy, is about what unions can do to change that.
McAlevey . . . [insists] that today’s tech oligarchs do nothing but dress up the anti-worker tactics of the Gilded Age robber barons in millennial pink costumes . . .
McAlevey is direct about the problem and the solution. In her telling, the billionaire class has used its concentrated wealth to dominate the political system, forming a de facto “Party of Inequality” that effectively controls both Republicans and Democrats. McAlevey takes special aim at Silicon Valley, insisting that today’s tech oligarchs do nothing but dress up the anti-worker tactics of the Gilded Age robber barons in millennial pink costumes: “innovative my ass.” But unions are fighting back, led by women workers and workers of color in tech and in the service sector industries of healthcare, education, and hospitality. By organizing to launch supermajority strikes with genuine community backing, unions can still win real victories for the working class. And by adapting the organizing methodologies of militant unions to the electoral arena, we can reverse the deterioration of our living standards, our democracy, and our planet. As she sums it up in the book’s introduction, “In a world of widening income inequality, the foundering of the democratic electoral process, and rampant sexual and racial inequality, I take the side of unions.”
Of course, she has to “take the side of unions” only because so much of the public has lost a sense of their importance. A Collective Bargain is framed as a sort of “Unions 101” for a general progressive audience, an effort to demystify the labor movement in an era when it has been pushed to the margins in much of the country and overall union density hovers around just 10 percent. In addition to explaining the basic mechanics of union elections and decoding labor movement jargon, the book’s early chapters aim to bust what McAlevey considers “myths” about unions. Aren’t unions racist and sexist? Didn’t they support the construction of Keystone XL? Aren’t they corrupt, old-fashioned, and irrelevant to today’s service and tech-based economy? Answer: it’s complicated, and unions are not monolithic. But democratic, participatory unions that prioritize organizing have always been and will continue to be some of the most central, essential forces in the fight for justice and equality.
The book is replete with past and contemporary examples meant to debunk or counter these “myths.” For example, in her discussion of unions and the environmental movement, McAlevey highlights the leadership of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union in the 1970s through the early 1990s, when the union fought for just transition policies and helped to pass the federal Superfund law with its “right-to-know” amendment that required polluting industries to report their use of hazardous chemicals—a boon to the environmental justice movement. And in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a coalition of energy, transport, infrastructure, and public service unions in New York State formed a climate change working group in 2014 that ultimately resulted in the state committing to get half of its energy needs met through renewable offshore wind power by 2035 and to guarantee that the jobs produced be union. The deal, which McAlevey calls “the most radical conversion from fossil fuels in the United States to date,” was only possible because the unions had the power to shift public subsidies—that’s taxes—into a deal that enabled them to meet both scientific standards for emissions reduction and the good unionized wage and benefit standards that members expect and are willing to fight for. McAlevey’s argument is, thus, not only that unions are not intransigently anti-environment when it comes to protecting members’ jobs. Her
message to fellow progressives has more far reaching implications: there is no realistic path to climate justice that does not run through the labor movement.
Making substantive progress toward any social justice goal requires strong unions and worker organizing. For example, on fighting sexism, McAlevey argues that the labor movement is, or is soon to be, “female dominated.” Many of the most successful, militant union struggles of the past few years have been in the predominantly female service sectors of healthcare, education, and hospitality. Reflecting this, the book’s first chapter profiles women workers in these three sectors and their leadership in successful union campaigns. McAlevey also points out that the laws governing collective bargaining give union workers rights that progressives have struggled to attain through other means, like the full pay transparency required to fight gender and racial wage gaps. She also attacks litigation-centric liberal reform strategies, which she considers ineffective under today’s reactionary Supreme Court. McAlevey argues that after the conservative majority on the court blessed mandatory individual arbitration agreements in the Epic Systems case, the only viable option for workers seeking to protect their full legal rights against sexual harassment is collective action, as demonstrated by the mass walkouts of Google employees in 2018 that began as a “day without women.” Based on this overlapping set of conditions, McAlevey can persuasively conclude that the “future of the union movement is even more so the future of the women’s movement”—a central theme throughout A Collective Bargain.
The concept underpinning all of these examples and forming the foundation of McAlevey’s approach to organizing is power. Specifically, she is concerned with how to build working-class power to overcome the domination of capital. As the book argues, in a context in which progressives cannot rely on the courts or establishment Democrats, unions are indispensable because they remain one of the few institutions with the capability to actually effect change and extract concessions from the corporate opposition. This power derives from workers’ ability to create crises through disruptive collective actions—culminating with the all out, supermajority strike.
McAlevey is at her best when she shares with readers the original source of much of this outlook: organizing campaigns she helped lead. The book’s themes all come together in the chapter about the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP). Drawing on her personal involvement with PASNAP’s first contract campaign at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, she offers a detailed play-by-play of how workers and their unions win transformative victories in the face of aggressive management opposition through courage, strategy, and solidarity. For a general audience, the chapter illustrates what organizing and unionizing look like in practice. For those active in the labor movement, it is a valuable case study in campaign strategy and tactics. PASNAP is the type of union McAlevey champions because it prepares its members to be strike-ready. “Being prepared to ‘strike to win’ is the mark of a good union whose members are serious about achieving real control and a decent quality of life,” she explains. “Being strike-ready requires building mass participation and a resilient workplace structure.” It is this approach that made it possible for two thousand PASNAP nurses at Temple University Hospital to go out on a month-long strike in 2010, winning the best pay and staffing ratios in the city. So in 2015, when Michael Winn, a nurse at nearby Hahnemann University Hospital frustrated with his hospital’s systematic practice of short staffing, called a Temple nurse to ask what she thought of her union, she said that she “loved her union and would never tolerate the conditions Winn described to her.” After an organizing effort in which PASNAP deployed experienced staff and Temple nurses volunteered their time, 850 Hahnemann nurses voted overwhelmingly to form a union. Winning begets winning in the labor movement, too.
The Hahnemann victory was part of a wave of unionization that spread to four other hospitals in Philadelphia that year. One of those hospitals was Einstein Medical Center, where nurses voted narrowly to unionize and where McAlevey was dispatched to help turn a group of workers basically split evenly on the union into a strike-ready workforce able to win their first contract. For McAlevey, a “credible strike threat” only exists if a supermajority of workers are unified—upward of 90 percent. But at Einstein, professional union avoidance consultants had built a solid anti-union bloc among nurses in the telemetry unit of the hospital. Impervious to earlier attempts at persuasion by pro-union nurses, the “Tele” group would have to be won over if workers were to get the contract they deserved.
McAlevey breaks down how the PASNAP workers eventually brought everyone together. She shows how effective organizing requires building deep relationships with worker leaders who in turn can influence their coworkers. At Einstein, this meant never giving up on bringing into the fold Marne Payne, a young Tele nurse who was zealously anti-union for much of the
campaign. These tenacious efforts at organizing Payne and the other Tele nurses dovetailed with a series of “structure tests,” which are escalating actions targeted at management and designed to assess the level of organization, unity, and commitment among the workers: a petition showing that a majority of the nurses continued to support the union; in-person delegations to hand-deliver the petition to members of the hospital’s board of trustees; voting to picket the Democratic National Convention; and voting to strike. In the end, Einstein nurses won a strong first contract despite the stubborn hostility of a rabidly antiunion management. Payne helped to spearhead the strike vote that clinched the victory. On the day the workers voted to ratify their contract, Payne texted one of the other nurse leaders at Einstein:
I know myself that I was not easy to deal with. I have very strong convictions. And so does my floor, telemetry. It was hard for myself and the floor to swallow that the union got in. I did not believe in the process. After last night and waking up this morning I have now realized that we are in fact stronger together. And we can accomplish so much in this profession together.
The nurses did not just win a union and a contract—they had themselves been transformed through collective struggle. Narratives like this help us move past individualistic notions of worker “free choice” in unionization and contract campaigns. They can inoculate the public against the common antiunion arguments that organizing is coercive in itself, that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) secret ballot elections are fair, or that management simply provides information and
lets workers “decide for themselves.” McAlevey shows that the outcome of a union election or a strike vote is not so much a reflection of each worker’s individual pro- or anti-union preference, but rather a snapshot of the degree of success in organizing workers to stand together and fight for respect on the job when up against intense anti-union propaganda, the risk of potentially catastrophic job loss, and a hegemonic culture of self-interest. Organic worker leaders like Marne Payne can inspire an entire department to go on strike because the courage to engage in high-risk collective action derives not from individual pro-union sentiment but from solidarity forged through relationships of trust.
Her argument for building power through deep organizing and personal relationships also has implications for current labor movement debates on the future of labor law and the prospect of sectoral bargaining. If workers’ power stems from their ability to engage in all-out, supermajority strikes, then legal reforms must prioritize making PASNAP-style organizing easier and more effective. And while sectoral bargaining is important for setting industrywide standards, especially where an industry is made up of many small employers or isolated individual workers, any future framework should recognize that without on-the-ground, shop-level worker organization and power, there will be little assurance that those standards are actually strong. The book’s case studies—particularly its chapter on the Los Angeles teachers’ union—also show that community support for worker organizing is more closely related to geography than to sector. Certainly, we can contemplate how a sectoral framework could help inspire organizing and collective action—the Red for Ed wave of teachers’ strikes was a powerful illustration of this dynamic. But McAlevey’s perspective helps us avoid the potential pitfalls of hollow reforms that fail to alter the fundamental power imbalance between workers and the corporate elite that drives the deterioration of our society.
Where A Collective Bargain treads new ground is in its contention about the relationship between unions and our democracy . . .
Readers of McAlevey’s previous work will be familiar with the themes described so far, as building worker power through strategic campaigns and CIO-style organizing methodology has long been her focus. Where A Collective Bargain treads new ground is in its contention about the relationship between unions and our democracy, which goes beyond the labor movement’s centrality to progressive politics. She goes further, arguing that the dynamics of civil elections are fundamentally identical to those of union elections. To exemplify the unfairness of NLRB elections, she compares them to the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial contest, where widespread voter suppression by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp secured his victory over Stacey Abrams: “If you understand what happened to Stacey Abrams . . . you can start to comprehend what happens to workers in union elections.”
If union elections and civil elections are essentially alike, then we can win both using the same techniques: Because so much of how Republicans won [in 2016] mirrors what union busters do in every hard union fight—be it a contract campaign or an NLRB election—learning the lessons of how the workers who are still winning today, overcoming stiff odds, is key to victory if we want a shot at turning our country around. Thus, according to McAlevey, the organizers’ tools of the trade—building supermajority participation by identifying and recruiting organic leaders, using structure tests, overcoming a sense of futility, and deploying inoculation against opposition propaganda—can be applied directly to the electoral arena.
This makes sense at a general level, but the similarities between union and civil elections are somewhat overstated. NLRB elections are unique because casting a vote for the union means to directly defy the power structure determining how you will spend the majority of your waking hours. Workers have to personally confront this power structure—their boss—on a daily basis. While elected government officials also wield power over our lives, the nature of the relationship is less direct and more impersonal. McAlevey also leaves largely unanswered the question of how to concretely implement each of these organizing techniques in local, state, and federal elections. One suspects, particularly at the state and federal level, that the sheer scale of electoral campaigns may mean that a “structure test” for a base of hundreds of thousands of voters would look entirely different from the version used in a five hundred-nurse hospital, for example.
Still, her point that we should approach electoral campaigns using an organizer’s mindset is well taken. After all, a healthy dose of inoculation from fear might have helped prevent Democratic primary voters, a majority of whom support Medicare for All, from consolidating behind Joe Biden, a candidate who said that he would veto such a bill as president if it came to his desk. And while it is up to her and others to expound on the details, outlines of the organizing approach to winning electoral campaigns are implicit in A Collective Bargain. Building on McAlevey’s history of bringing community organizing principles to the labor movement and her concept of “whole worker organizing”—that is, organizing around all of the issues facing the
working class, not just those in the workplace—the book’s core argument that unions are essential to achieving the goals of the feminist, anti-racist, and environmental movements suggests that the way to reclaim our broken democracy is to construct coalitions of progressive unions and social movement organizations.
This is not a new idea—but adapting it to time and place requires continuous assessment. How should unions and social movements relate to each other at the organizational level? For which issues is collaboration most promising? What examples of successful coalitions can we learn from? Questions like these are the prelude to reconstituting a progressive movement powerful enough to overcome our enemies. McAlevey’s newest contribution develops our organizing instincts so that we can seek the answers with confidence.
Charles Du is Policy Director at SEIU District 1199 New England.