No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane F. McAlevey and The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution by Micah White are both aimed at activists and organizers -- people who already believe in the need for social change and are trying to influence the world in a progressive direction. Both books identify pitfalls and shortcomings in the current ways we approach our activism, and they offer concrete ideas for change, along with theory and philosophy to guide our decisions. Both are beautifully written, powerful, and essential.
Advocacy vs. Mobilizing vs. Organizing
McAlevey, a long-time organizer and labour educator, identifies three systems of organizing, distinguished by the extent to which the workers themselves create a new reality, that is, worker agency.
The Advocacy model, where paid union staff, professional lobbyists, and lawyers work alongside the employer to dictate the terms of employment, is the least effective. Indeed, this model is not only ineffective, it is downright dangerous. It often results in concessions and wage freezes, and even more damaging long-term results. It poisons the very concept of union, teaching workers that unions are just another powerful force benefiting an elite few at the expense of the many. It's the perfect scenario for employers, and unfortunately is the norm in many unions.
Turning to the more positive approaches, McAlevey differentiates between Mobilizing and Organizing. In Mobilizing, a group of leaders make decisions and activate the workers to support them. All campaigns depend on some amount of mobilizing, but if the entire campaign is based on a mobilization model, a great potential is lost. The campaign may make some material gains, but it will fail to change the workers' relationship to their employer and their work; it will have failed to challenge the power structure. Any gains made will be superficial and short-term.
McAlevey shows that only the Organizing model builds worker agency to make significant, potentially long-term progress. McAlevey didn't invent this method, of course, but she's illuminating it and analyzing it for us -- showing us how it's done and why it works.
In Organizing, workers themselves create their own change. Workers make the decisions, learn from their own experiences, and build strength together. Organizing creates massive pressure on the employer, builds allies in the community, and -- most importantly -- creates confident leaders who can then organize others.
Given this analysis, it's no surprise that McAlevey champions the most powerful of all workers' tools: the strike. Strikes not only demonstrate and leverage workers' greatest value, by withholding their contributions, they demonstrate to the workers themselves how powerful they can be. A successful strike is a transformative event, as the confidence it builds becomes deeply embedded in the workers' consciousness. Successful strikes lead, McAlevey writes,
to the ability of the workers to win for themselves the kinds of contract standards that are life-changing, such as control of their hours and schedules, the right to a quick response to workplace health and safety issues, the right to increased staffing and decreased workload, and the right to meaningful paid sick leave and vacation time.To wage a successful strike, workers must be both organized and active. So the very tools needed to create the strike build the potential for success, in both the short-term and the long-term.
Case studies: the book's greatest strength and contribution to our movements
McAlevey offers many practical examples of the process of Organizing, such as transparency in bargaining and identifying leaders. These examples are beyond useful -- they are essential. But where No Shortcuts shines brightest, where it is the most useful and the most inspiring, is in the case studies.
McAlevey tells five stories -- four successes and one horrible shame. As a union activist, I found the stories of the Chicago Teachers' Union and the lesser-known campaign by workers at Smithfield Foods thrilling. Reading about them, I was filled with that sense of pride and joy that only the people's power can bring.
King County, Washington, has a population of two million. Ninety-three percent of its people are city dwellers; most of them live in Seattle. At the time I am writing this, the median household income is $71,175, and the average rent for a two-bedroom house is $1,123 per month. In 2014, there was a successful campaign to increase Seattle's minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2022 (by which time, incidentally, that $15 will not be $15; it will be worth less, since Seattle didn't index it to inflation). The story was banner news worldwide in print and broadcast media, and a cause celebre for many liberals.The story of how these workers organized themselves and achieved these gains is one of the most exciting labour stories I've ever read. It will astonish you.
Meanwhile, without the fanfare of a single national headline, another kind of contract in a very different region also introduced a wage of $15 an hour. Bladen County, in southeastern North Carolina, has a population of 35,843. Ninety-one percent of those people live in the countryside; the rest are in the county's few small towns. Thirty-five percent are African American. At the time of writing, the median income is $30,031, and the average rent for a two-bedroom house is $637 per month.
In 2008, in the county's tiny town of Tar Heel, 5,000 workers at the Smithfield Foods pork factory voted to form a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). It was the single largest private-sector union victory of the new millennium, and it happened in the South, in the state with the lowest rate of union membership in the entire country: 3 percent. The new, ratified contract not only guaranteed a $15-an-hour wage but also paid sick leave, paid vacation, health care, retirement benefits, overtime pay, guaranteed minimum work hours, job security through a "just cause" provision, and tools to remedy dangerous working conditions. The wage alone far outranks Washington's: given the dollar's buying power in Bladen County, King County workers would have to earn $26.40 an hour to equal it.
In "Make the Road New York", McAlevey tells the story of serious, strong, and sustained community organizing, not only for labour, but for an improved quality of life for the entire community.
Finally, McAlevey tells two stories about private-sector nursing homes. Incredibly, the examples stem from two locals in the same parent union -- one working within an Organizing model of true worker agency, the other run by a cadre of professionals who maintain comfortable conditions for the employer. What these so-called union leaders are is downright criminal. The expression "selling out" is too mild. They are every employer's and anti-union politician's dream. (Curious? Read the book!)
For several years now, we've been witnessing the re-emergence of organized labour as a vital force in our society. Inspired by the Fight For 15 fast-food workers, working people are fighting back, gaining public support, and activating themselves in great numbers. McAlevey's book is a road map to more of those victories -- which means it's a road map to a better world.
Micah White is a creative thinker, an excellent writer, a social theorist, and an activist. He is the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street (although this was not revealed at the time) and the originator of the idea that became the Rolling Jubilee debt forgiveness. He has been a human shield in the West Bank and an astute critic of clicktivism. He was named one of the most influential young thinkers alive today by Esquire magazine. He's a visionary, and you should read his book.
Is this thing on?
The premise of The End of Protest resonated deeply with me. Ever since February 15, 2003 -- the largest public demonstration in human history, which was ignored by mainstream media, and failed to prevent the US invasion of Iraq -- I have been frustrated and dissatisfied with the standard methods of public protest. The disastrous G20 demonstrations in Toronto in 2010 further confirmed my discontent.
Holding pens, free-speech zones, kettling, pre-emptive arrests, paid provocateurs, violent infiltrators, mass surveillence -- the ruling class has learned how to effectively neuter public demonstrations. The demos and the responses are predictable. They are theatre. They have symbolic value, they may build solidarity, and they may make us feel good. But they don't sustain movements and they don't create change.
There is value in being in the streets, especially when public protest occurs spontaneously. But many activists and organizations seem obsessed with how many people attend any given demonstration, as if a larger head-count somehow correlates with a greater likelihood of change. I've been involved in planning large-scale demos, so I've seen the vast amount of resources they consume. For what? Again, I'm not saying there is no value. But... can't we do better?
The End of Protest argues that our methods of protest are outdated, and that in order to be truly effective, we need to "break the script" of protest. We need to create fresh tools.
A framework for revolution
In the first part of the book -- "Today" -- White analyzes Occupy Wall Street, which he calls "a constructive failure". He beautifully articulates what was great about OWS, where it was successful, where and why it failed, and what lessons we can draw from it. He explores why dissent is necessary, and expands into a unified theory of revolution.
White creates a matrix -- or a Cartesian coordinate system (a term that was new to me) -- as a framework for analyzing different methods of protest, using four descriptors: voluntarism, structuralism, subjectivism, and theurgism. He describes each one in detail with very useful real-world examples. (A one-sentence definition cannot do justice to these ideas, hence I am refraining from doing so.)
In the book's second part -- "Yesterday" -- White analyzes protests from the recent past and the very distant past, situating each in his framework. The historic examples past are fascinating -- the massacre at Wounded Knee (1890), the Nika Revolt (532 CE), the Conversion of Constantine (312 CE), and the victory of Arminius (9 CE). In the modern examples, White trains his analysis on Palestinian solidarity, democracy movements in Greece and Spain, and the Rolling Jubilee.
In the final section -- "Tomorrow" -- White riffs on what is and may be possible. Very briefly, he offers a vision of a dystopian future, "an eco-fascist nightmare" that is all too easy to imagine. In fact, I found it much easier to visualize that potential reality than White's predictions of a unified, global, progressive revolution -- and it breaks my heart to realize that.
But White also reminds us that the future has not been written, and the path to that revolution is unknown. In fact, in White's view, it must be unknown, because we need to invent entirely new tools: "Innovation that breaks the fundamental paradigms of the protest model is the only way forward." White offers eight principles of revolution, realizing there are probably many more, but these eight were derived from his own lived experience.
What doesn't work
In case you are concerned, White eschews violence, believing that political terrorism is a dead end. He doesn't make a big deal about this, doesn't harp on and on about peaceful protest and a commitment to nonviolence -- a performance leftist activists are expected to make for the mainstream. He merely states, deep into the book, that political terrorism doesn't advance our goals, and we must look elsewhere for solutions. But although we reject militarism and terrorism, the far greater enemy is inertia.
Two bits from The End of Protest that I really appreciated are repudiations of both clicktivism and the so-called ladder of engagement. Clicktivism, White writes, encourages people to believe that "political reality can be altered by clicking, sharing, and signing petitions". It creates a false theory of social change, and deepens entrenched complacency.
About the ladder of engagement, White writes:
The dominant paradigm of activism is the voluntarist's ladder of engagement. In this model, there are a series of rungs leading from the most insignificant actions to the most revolutionary, and the goal of organizers is to lead people upward through these escalating rungs. This strategy appears to make common sense, but it has a nasty unintended consequence. When taken to its logical conclusion, the ladder of engagement encourages activists to pitch their asks to the lowest rung on the assumption that the majority will feel more comfortable starting at the bottom of the protest ladder, with clicking a link or signing a virtual petition. This is fatal. The majority can sniff out the difference between an authentic ask that is truly dangerous and might get their voices heard and an inauthentic ask that is safe and meaningless. The ladder of engagement is upside down. Activists are judged by what we ask of people. Thus, we must only ask the people to do actions that would genuinely improve the world despite the risks. Rather than pursuing the idea of the ladder of engagement, I live by the minoritarian principle that the edge leads the pack.I've learned a lot about the edge leading the pack through my leadership role with my own local union. Many people told me our members weren't ready to strike. But how would they ever be ready if no one led them to the barricades? Would there be a magical moment when members woke up suddenly organized and ready to walk? And how would we recognize that moment when it came? Our leadership evaluated the situation, assessed the risks, and articulated both risks and potential rewards to our members. After that, democracy ensured that our members were ready, with a 98.7% vote to strike. As our parent union says, "Be Bold. Be Brave." Those of us who have a fervor to be bold, brave revolutionaries have an obligation to lead from that edge.
Never be afraid of ideas
I fear that the lessons of The End of Protest may dismissed by the people who most need to contemplate them. White challenges several core beliefs of modern-day activism, and many of us cannot tolerate that kind of challenge. Organizers and activists may read this book, consider, and then reject all or some of White's ideas. But dismissing or ignoring those ideas would be a grave error. If our goal is to create revolutionary change, we owe it to ourselves and the world to read this book and engage with its ideas.
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