Organizing, Movement-building, and Winning

Democrats of Pasadena Foothills meeting

Jane McAlevey in her book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, proposes a blueprint for organizing in ways that should result in long-term successes. This blog post, and the following ones, will lay out the arguments presented by McAlevey and explore how those stances might play out in local organizing campaigns. We hope this series will educate you about the relevance of the models offered in No Shortcuts and inspire you to use them as tools to build power in your community.

Several major elements provided in the book can be seen in the title. No Shortcuts is meant to let readers know there is no easy road to organizing for change. McAlevey wants it to be understood that those proposing change in a community, be it a union shop or city politics, will need to put in hard work over an extended period of time. Organizing for Power suggests three routes activists take in effecting change: advocacy, mobilizing, organizing. Advocacy involves hiring lawyers to lobby government to make change. Mobilizing has staff making all major decisions and dole out repeatable tasks to volunteers. Organizing means putting real strategic decision-making power in the hands of the grassroots. Today, advocacy and mobilizing are often utilized to build power. Her message is that this third approach, organizing, is the strongest for action and most likely to succeed and remain successful over time.

A powerful subtext undergirding this book is the massive loss of political stature of unions and left-leaning organizations in the United States today. It feels that anti-union, anti-worker, and anti-voter forces are in the ascendancy and hold clear dominance in national politics. The Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) decision on June 27th this year (2018) was another nail driven into structures weakening unions and the left. Voting rights rollbacks in multiple states, and executive branch and Supreme Court validation of those retreats are slowing, if not reversing, the gains in civil rights and voting rights, enshrined from the 1950s and 1960s. Our civil and human rights protections are being eroded and dismantled. These losses point to a need for strategic change in how political organizing should be carried out by any concerned citizen.

The book’s ideas that are solidified into a set of models are based on real-life organizing examples from the past and present. Union organizing from the 1930s and civil rights activism in the 1960s are two major strains that offer the structures, directions, and justification for this book’s proposals. Saul Alinsky taught community organizing methods that were used by farm workers and civil rights groups. Historically, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was developed and led by radical leftist union organizers. The practices of these groups inspire, support, and flesh out the models produced in this book.

This book provides examples to support its proposals for action, most based in past union organizing. One case study involves Chicago teachers organizing and successfully striking. Another describes a union struggle among food workers in North Carolina. Also, McAlevey discusses approaches to build power with nursing home workers in Washington and Connecticut. These examples offer evidence that the methods proposed here are successful and can actually be used in the real world.

McAlevey’s argues that social movements have suffered declines in power and numbers over the previous fifty years because of wrong organizing methods. She attributes the cause of these declines to a move from deep organizing to reliance on shallow mobilizing. As a result of this loss of depth, we see increased power in the hands of greedy, moneyed interests. She believes organizing is the only way to reverse the losses, deepen the mobilizing, and hold onto long-term victories.

No Shortcuts criticizes the tendency of modern organizing tactics, inspired by Saul Alinsky’s method, to concentrate power and decision-making in professional staff. This leadership style goes hand-in-hand with limited engagement (shallow mobilizing) with the overall constituency that is trying to win a fight. Unions and community groups use a model of a limited number of professional staff to negotiate for concessions from the established power structure. This defines the style of change effort called mobilizing.

Mobilizing brings some constituent members into the fight, but they are a small group who are often already committed activists. This limited number of individuals is not the mass of the workforce and community. Witness any one of the recent countrywide marches, where crowds gathered for protest in the 100,000s plus. In mobilizing, professional staff sees themselves as the key agents of change. This differs from the leadership style recommended in No Shortcuts. As contrasted with shallow mobilizing, deep organizing develops the skills and power of a wider range of constituents.

Organizing places the development of leaders as a central feature of its methodology. Deep organizing focuses on making constituent members the leaders of the movement. The Incorruptibles is a group dedicated to deep organizing. We are rare in that we use deep organizing. We train people at the grassroots to make their own decisions about policy and candidates. Other groups make the decisions for you and then ask you to do the grunt work. Organizers goals should be to work with and help develop the skills of organic leaders, who direct the activism of the constituents at a broader range because of their closeness, rather than the remote tactic of the mobilizing professional staffs. This deeper community approach depends on reaching a large proportion of the interested individuals. So in a community organizing campaign, the effort would be to reach out to as many people as possible.

No Shortcuts as a guide for deep organizing can be a valuable tool for effecting change in communities and organizations. It enumerates the elements of an organizing methodology that includes power analysis, leadership identification and skills training, mass outreach and activation. It covers these points while emphasizing the importance of organizing to change the power dynamics in America — which in today’s world is so sorely needed. In follow-up blogs, I will delve more deeply into the elements covered in the book and show examples of how McAlevey’s callout of methods have been used in the world of hard knocks organizing. Please share your thoughts about the book and the blog in the comments.


No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane F. McAlevey, 2018, Oxford University Press

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