Socialist Alternative

Review of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age

Published on

Oxford University Press (2016)

The spark ignited by West Virginia teachers in 2018 has given new energy to the labor movement. The dynamic teacher strikes which spread from “red states” to big urban areas like Los Angeles and Oakland, centered around mobilization of teachers themselves with active support from the community, demonstrated once again the potential power of the U.S. working class.

Just as important was the role played by key activists in organizing for these strikes. Inspired by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 election campaign, a handful of activists set in motion an organizing effort among union members and the community which forced a reluctant union leadership to accept their strategy of mobilizing members into decisive strike action. In both West Virginia and Arizona, these activists studied the book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane McAlevy and based their strategy and tactics around it.

In No Shortcuts, McAlevey critiques not only the failed business unionism adopted by most unions, but also what she describes as the “mobilizing” model adopted by many more progressive unions. The book describes a model of “deep organizing,” based on the methods used by the emerging radical Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions in the 1930s and ‘40s. This was a period when working-class militancy put its stamp on U.S. history. As a result of these militant strikes and struggles, the basic industries of auto, steel, rubber, and electricity were organized for the first time – changing U.S. history. She also discusses the central importance of community organizing as an essential companion piece to powerful workplace organizing.

No Shortcuts is tightly focused on methods of labor organizing in the workplace – a Marxist approach would be broader. This review will focus firstly on the important contribution she has made to help arm labor activists today with successful union organizing methods on the job. These are her strengths. During the review I will also discuss how she has only brought forward one part of the solution. The other issue is the need for emerging activists to arm themselves politically to navigate the difficult political terrain in which unions are forced to operate in a period of declining capitalism.

McAlevey has become an important figure on the left of the union movement. While many on the left have critiqued the business unionist methods adopted by the majority of unions in the U.S., the most important contribution in this book is her critique of the failed policies of many of the “progressive” lefts in the unions. She draws a sharp contrast between what she calls the “mobilizing” model of progressives compared to what she advocates: a CIO-based deep organizing’ model. She also places the key importance of a well-organized strike as a key tool of any labor organizing.

Three Models of Organizing

McAlevey draws a sharp distinction between three different organizing models: Advocacy, Mobilizing, and Organizing. She describes how “Advocacy,” the dominant method of mainstream union leaders, looks to use the courts and political lobbying to win one-time gains and does little or no mobilizing. It is ineffective and does not raise the consciousness of workers. Otherwise described as business unionism, it looks to work out an agreement with the bosses without mobilizing the workers.

The dominant section of the current union leadership see the power of the union rooted in their own “persuasive skills.” At the same time, they seek to find “common ground” with the boss. They see workers as bargaining chips. They see possible outcomes as limited by the “existing political climate,” i.e., the limits of capitalism. Example of this can be found through a quick glance at the methods of the current leadership of the UAW, the building trades, and Teamsters.

She contrasts this to the “mobilizing” model, which, while giving the appearance of being bolder and more dynamic, is very shallow and ineffective. Its central weakness is that it fails to organize an expanding base among workers, thus failing to develop the overall strength of the labor movement.

One chapter exposes the methods of David Rolf and SEIU Local 775 in Northwest Washington State, and the broader SEIU leadership among health care workers between 2005 and 2007 as a particularly obnoxious example of that strategy. In this campaign the workers were used as pawns in an elaborate scheme to use the union contract to get concessions from the Washington legislature to fund the employers, to then pay for a terrible union contract. In this whole process, the workers were passive by-standers.

Her model, by contrast is a return to “deep organizing” of workers in the workplace as done by CIO and that seeks to transform consciousness and is a starting point to sustained struggle.

Origins of Mobilizing Model

McAlevey identifies well-known organizer and author, Saul D. Alinsky, as an early proponent of the mobilizing model. He organized community struggles in Chicago and other cities in the 1940s and 1950s. His successes there were trumpeted by others. He later became a guru for organizing in the 1960s and 1970s. He wrote the very influential Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, first published in 1971.

However, his theory and methods were deeply flawed. There was no central ideology, and certainly it was not based on the key role of the working class. McAlevey gives a quote from Alinksy where he bemoans how he could not duplicate his early organizing successes. McAlevey describes the reason behind this. Central to Alinsky’s campaign, fighting evictions and agitating for public housing in the stockyards of Chicago in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was the power of the CIO Packing House Workers Organizing Committee. The existence of the CIO unions provided a working-class power base around which he was able to organize successful campaigns. McAlevey states:

“Without the real CIO unions, like those Alinsky knew in Chicago, the church and labor alliance can’t possibly match in 2016 what it accomplished in 1939.“ (p. 45).

Afterward his community organizing model was adopted by other campaigns. But without having a working-class power base, it failed. She gives examples of how many “corporate campaigns” that started to proliferate in the 1980s also saw Alinsky as their guide. Corporate campaigns looked to change unacceptable corporate behavior through highly publicized protests, political leverage, or media assaults. These campaigns focused the attention of activists on the interests of the “targeted” corporation, and not the workers they were meant to help. Workers were just there to provide a public face for these campaigns.

As these methods permeated more and more into labor organizing, labor leaders overwhelmingly hired organizers from colleges and their own organizing schools, rather than from the ranks of their unions. This was especially true with the “New Labor” grouping around SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and UFCW, which took control of the AFL-CIO in 1995.

McAlevey addresses an important question: who were the real leaders in these organizing campaigns? The answer was increasingly college-educated experts hired by the unions who relied on sophisticated “modern” techniques such as conducting polls to gauge public opinion, rather than talking to the workers themselves.

She quotes Peter Olney, national organizer of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU):

“Just before the split in the AFL-CIO, the convention [that New Labor was driving] was about how the workers really got in the way of organizing.”

McAlevey states how as far as New Labor was concerned: “Workers are seen as a largely undifferentiated mass…The power analysis widely accepted by New Labor, rationalizes the shift in focus away from workers as the primary source of leverage against employers to all other actors as equally important sources of leverage. In New Labor’s imagination, since workers represent only one of a dozen possible leverage points, it makes sense to rely equally upon the other eleven. Unfortunately, the workers’ interests also get only a twelfth-part consideration in whatever deal is made” (p. 51).

The end result was top-down organizing where workers themselves were passive spectators, and where clever media tricks and political experts predominated. Especially with SEIU, this included roving union staff who were moved from one struggle to another, irrespective of the resulting destructive role on workers and activists who had just been abandoned. The result was the workers’ hopes were raised and then dashed without leaving anything substantial behind.

McAlevey’s Organizing Model

McAlevey stresses that real power rests with the workers themselves. Her deep-organizing model can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Only strikes can win real gains and we need to build power in the workplace to win a strike
  • Success depends on workers building networks in the workplace
  • The first essential step is to identify natural leaders who can build such networks
  • That involves challenging these leaders to accept the risks and responsibilities
  • These leaders then need to build powerful teams around them
  • The strength of these teams needs to be tested through escalating public actions.

Workers need to build support in all areas of their life outside the workplace. The more fundamental the struggle, the stronger the structure that needs to be built. Only then will workers be prepared for what it will take to win.

She writes:

“I conclude not only that success is contingent on the organizing model as it has been deployed by a handful of successful unions in the workplace, but also, for even these unions to keep winning, the model must be expanded into the community via the workers themselves. For Labor’s community actions to be as successful as the best workplace unions, agency must rest with workers, not staff” (p. 207).

While she brings forward the issue of the “whole worker,” i.e. not just looking at a worker only through their relationship to work, she does not discuss what this would really mean. For Marxists, the broader idea of class consciousness is not a secondary issue. Winning real battles is not just a technical issue, but instead, a deeply political one. An integral part of the organizing successes in the 1930s was the transmission of the burning desire of CIO organizers for a new socialist society to developing working-class activists. While the Communist Party played an important role in this, they then misdirected this broader class consciousness into actively supporting Roosevelt and the Democrats rather building an independent political party of the working class.

Building Leaders in the Workplace

McAlevey places great emphasis on identifying the real leaders in the workplace. Quoting a current organizer using CIO tactics, she stresses the skill needed to identify the organizer. Organic leaders are:

“Needed for a serious struggle, such as a strike in which most workers must agree to walk off the job. In the CIO model – today as in the 1930s – strikes that cripple production are considered not only possible, but also the highest structural test of whether worker organization in a given facility is at its strongest. It is the culmination of a series of tests that begin by measuring and assessing individual workers’ power and end by testing the collective organization of the workers, worksite by worksite.” (p. 34)

McAlevey is correct about the need to root the organizing among all workers, not just the “political” ones as part of developing real power in the workplace. But that is only one side of the issue. The other side is the development of the political consciousness of workers. That means also looking for most far-sighted and sharp-thinking workers in order to build a leadership that can correctly navigate the complex political challenges any union faces inside and outside the workplace.

McAlevey does bring back, front and center, a key tenet of Marxism: that the working class must emancipate itself. This is something that has been rejected for decades by the union bureaucracy and is misunderstood by most of the so-called progressive union organizers. Yet it is essential and is an important starting point for building serious fighting unions, as well as broader working-class movements.

On the one hand McAlevey correctly stresses that no one can do the necessary tasks but the workers themselves. On the other hand, calling this “worker agency” is one-sided. Yes, the power comes from the engagement of the working class into struggle, and their growing confidence based on winning tangible victories. But, another crucial issue is building an overall class conscious leadership which can continue the struggle in the workplace when the skilled organizer has left.

Lessons from Chicago Teachers’ Struggles

One important theme that McAlevey stresses is the need to build community support. She gives the example of the 2012 strike led by the newly elected radical leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). She writes:

“When the Chicago teachers walked off the job in a strike that riveted the nation, they did so after several years of good work with the broader community and months of intentional discussions with the parents in Chicago. Their Community enabled that success by backing them against a vicious and powerful opponent who immediately framed the fight as ‘teachers abandoning their students and the community.’ And that framing failed the mayor precisely because the relationships between teacher and parent, and between teachers’ union and community had already being forged.” (p. 202)

While pointing to the dynamism of the 2012 strike as an excellent example of the power of a strike when driven by dedicated and mobilized members and linked to the community, something we agree with, she fails to address CTU leadership’s political weaknesses. In contrast, Socialist Alternative was quite clear about the challenges while actively building on the ground for the 2012 CTU strike, (, 9/20/2012).

Successful organizing is not a technical task alone. Yes, dynamic skills rooted in mobilizing workers into a powerful strike force is an essential first step. But a further step, building a class-conscious political leadership in the union, is necessary if any gains won in a dynamic strike will be built upon and cemented in future years.

While McAlevey describes the extensive outreach activities of the CTU in Chicago, she fails to identify the political failures of that leadership, and its consequences. While the 2012 strike was a limited victory in a pitched battle, there was no strategy put forward to win the wider war. A clear political alternative to the budget cuts of the mayor alongside a political strategy for teachers and the community was needed. CTU leaders failed to arm the activists about the way forward to win new gains.

For Marxists, the power of an organized and politically conscious working class is the decisive force for achieving real change. This requires a political strategy as well as an organizing strategy. At the end of the day all serious class battles have a political dimension. No wing of the Democratic establishment will ever be consistently on the side of workers in struggle. At root the Democratic Party is a corporate party that looks to defend and enhance the interests of the big corporations and capitalism over those of the working class. The CTU supported Chuy Garcia for mayor in 2015, a long-standing establishment Democratic candidates who poses as a “progressive.” In the 2019 mayoral campaign they supported the even worse Toni Preckwinkle.

Key to achieving the type of mobilization that can win decisive victories is to develop a bold fighting program which can concretize the needs of the workers themselves and link them to the needs of the broader working-class community. This puts the union in position to build a grassroots movement around that program to demonstrate in action those committed to fight for the working class. It is through such struggles that new independent working class political forces will emerge.

Need for Socialist Polities in Unions

While we agree with the McAlevey’s criticisms of the failed organizing methods of union leaderships in the recent period, the issue goes beyond just bad methods. Their bad organizing methods flow from their social situation and their whole political outlook. It is rooted in flawed understanding of the potential of capitalism to provide for the needs of workers, and their own social situation as union leaders under capitalism.

It is the elevated social position of union leaders, who have escaped from the day-to-day brutality of the workplace, that drives their policies. These privileges depend on them being able to keep their union positions. Workers getting more involved in “their” union and demanding new policies is a threat to their status. This leads most union leader to become more and more protective of their status and thus it is in their interest to strike a deal with the employer to protect that status.

In this period of capitalist crisis, the ruling class will always be looking to take back from unions. With the union leadership seeing its role as an arbiter between the interests of the workers and the bosses, this means negotiating cutbacks. Underlying this is their mistaken idea that capitalism is the only possible economic system, and that any union must limit the demands of “their” members to what the capitalist spokesmen say the system can afford.

The union leadership looks to negotiate with the “boss,” whether it be the CEO of a company or representatives of city government. But the city government is in the hands of Democrats or Republicans, both political parties of the bosses, and not on the side of workers. Thus, the need to build independent political power base of the working class. In Chicago, the attempt by the CTU leadership to make a deal with a wing of the Democratic establishment between 2012 and 2019 was shown to be completely ineffective, derailing the energy in the union by miseducated the workers as to their real tasks.

For all these reasons, Marxists stress the central importance of the political development of new emerging leaders in the workplace and in the union. This leadership not only needs clarity that real power lies with the workers themselves, but also trusts that these workers can and will learn the lessons as they go through struggles.

Only by putting forward effective fighting policies in the unions will we be able to transform them into tools in the class struggle. But this will bring the emerging fighting layer of members into conflict with sections of the union leaders. This is a conflict that cannot be wished away. Through the subsequent debate and struggle, members will learn rich lessons about what policies are needed and the positions of individuals in the existing leadership based on their response to being challenged.

The labor movement needs to build a political movement independent of both major parties as a step towards a workers’ party, separate from all wings of the ruling class. This is not an abstract question, but a burning necessity, as has been demonstrated by the political campaigns organized by Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative in Seattle. It was by demanding radical policies like a $15 an hour minimum wage, bold affordable housing policies and a Green New Deal, etc., and running campaigns independent of the Democratic Party that has allowed her elected office to be used as an effective lever to build powerful social movements outside the influence of the establishment.


Despite certain shortcomings, No Shortcuts is an important resource for those looking to organize in the workplace, and for those looking to understand the failed practices of most unions. Most importantly, it brings back the centrality of the working class in organizing, and the need to build real roots in the workplace and community to win strikes.

McAlevey gives important examples of successful organizing practices in different chapters. For example, she documents the dynamic organizing drive by UFCW organizers among slaughter-houses workers at Smithfield Foods in North Carolina. This organizing drive was much closer to the typical CIO self-organizing because of the national/community affinities of the workers and the need for serious workplace organization. Particularly interesting is how the organizing campaign overcame decades of employer-driven division between immigrant workers and African American workers. This resulted in the single largest private sector union victory of the new millennium, and the result led to the “Moral Monday” movement in North Carolina.

For new union activists, No Shortcuts it is a good counterweight to the ideas of business unionism, and the “mobilizing” model as described by McAlevey is very valuable. It was by adopting deep organizing methods that important victories were won by teachers in West Virginia and Arizona which helped spark the biggest strike wave in the U.S. since the 1980s.

Latest articles


UC Academic Workers Strike For Gaza!

On the night of May 1, LAPD, fully clad in riot gear, violently stormed the Gaza solidarity encampment at UCLA. Summoned by university administration,...

Where’s Our Contract? Embattled NALC Leadership Lashes Out Against Open Bargaining

Tyler Vasseur is an elected shop steward in NALC Branch 9, writing in personal capacity. Letter carriers at USPS have been working for a...

Southwest Flight Attendants Win 33% Raises – More Is Needed!

There are a quarter of a million active-duty flight attendants in America. Together they handle 5% of US GDP – of every $20 exchanged...

UAW’s April 19 Vote At Volkswagen In Chattanooga Will Set Tone For Unions In 2024

Across the nation, workers are talking about the United Autoworkers Union (UAW), its contract victory, and the approach of its new militant leadership. That...