I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that in the last century, some of the most significant accomplishments made towards equality have been achieved through the labour movement. By the time I started working, unions were already mostly bloated bureaucratic structures more concerned with pay increases and job security (even for unbelievably incompetent workers) than any meaningful improvement in the quality of people’s work experience. And with that change came the rollback of a lot of those victories. No Shortcuts explores what happened and how unions can win real improvements in the modern environment.
The book relies heavily on anecdotes – one off campaigns or unions that were successful to impute a winning strategy. Typically I take issue with that because 4 wins do not a statistical significance make but when that’s what you’ve got, that’s what you work with – an organizing attitude if I’ve ever seen one. I do take issue with the blanket assumptions made in the applicability of these anecdotes. For example, the (much harder fought) win in North Carolina is considered better and longer lasting because it aligns with McAlevey’s proposed strategy best, while the (much broader reaching) win in New York is weaker because they used a different modelMcAlevey argues would never work in more adverse conditions. The logical response is that… well maybe different strategies work in different contexts? Just because something wouldn’t work somewhere doesn’t mean it’s not the effective somewhere else? Does she also only use windshield wiper fluid with de-icer when travelling in the south because in *some* climates water isn’t enough? There’s nothing to substantiate this ranking and it weakens the position she is advocating for.
The other piece I take issue with is that McAlevey begins the book with this lengthy rant about the exclusion of the labour movement from the study of social movements writ large. Totally fair. She goes on to say that it would be in the interests of social movements to correct that oversight, because studying how people have achieved huge gains in the workplace in very high risk situations can teach social movements a lot about making big change quickly. Cool. Only she does not deliver on this grand statement. Her strategy, and that of early labour activists, relies on having a clear “enemy” (the employer) and a clear audience with a built in community (the workers). It completely fails to understand the environment social movements operate in. There is no clear, identifiable “enemy” on climate change or racism or sexism and attempts to create one has only created an artificial fissure between people, turning factually driven issues that affect everyone into a partisan issue. And yes I realize this is an oversimplification but the point stands – the tactics used to find and develop leaders don’t exist outside of pre-exisiting structures and in structures where people generally come precisely because they don’t have a community on that issue. We don’t have the privilege of just finding organic leaders. We take whoever wants to join and going for “natural” leadership is probably a major factor in how much of social movements are dominated by the same social ills we’re fighting against.
As it is, this is an interesting read on the past and present of the labour movement, but it’s little more than that.