What Method of Organizing?

Marian Swerdlow

Steel strike, 1919. Although the strike was lost, William Z. Foster carried its lessons with him.

IN HER SECOND book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, paperback), Jane McAlevey spells out a method for organizing a work place, most explicitly in the chapter called “The Power to Win is in the Community, Not the Boardroom.”

McAlevey has accrued remarkable prestige and influence, including among young labor activists and organizers, and is seen as a labor organizer with the answers to how to revive the labor movement. In Jacobin (“Workers of the World Can Still Unite,” 12/2019), Sam Gindin writes,

“Jane McAlevey is everywhere these days. Recently appointed a senior fellow at Berkeley’s Labor Center, she is now also a regular columnist for both The Nation and Jacobin. Her webinar (‘Organizing for Union Power’) has a global audience. She continues to be called on to address unions and run training sessions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Scotland and Germany . . . ”

McAlevey’s method is distinctively reliant on the leadership of what she calls workplace “organic leaders.” These workers are already respected by and have influence over their co-workers before organizing begins. They not only lack enthusiasm for the union, they are initially indifferent or even hostile. They are often the favorites of their bosses and therefore the recipients of preferential treatment.

McAlevey claims this method was the one used by organizers in the 1930s to build the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), citing William Z. Foster’s pamphlet, Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, (New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1936. McAlevey’s centering her method on a specific form of leadership and her claim it accounts for the victories of the 1930s CIO invites us to revisit how successful organizers of that day actually viewed, developed and used leadership.

Therefore, this article will discuss the Foster text and then look at first-person accounts by other organizers of that era: James Matles’ Them and Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), Wyndham Mortimer’s Organize! (Beacon, 1971), and Farrell Dobbs, Teamster Rebellion (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2004).

Foster on Organizing Steel

Acknowledging that leftists drove the organizing upsurge of the mid-1930s, McAlevey examines Foster’s 24-page pamphlet to answer the question “What were the left’s winning tactics?” (33) She focuses on Foster’s “list” and “chain” systems, calling them “1930s terms for methods of building a network of the most respected workers inside and outside the workplace who could  then mobilize their own networks.” (Ibid.)

Foster mentions the “chain” system, calling it “one of the best means of individual recruitment. By this method, workers undertake personally to organize their friends or to furnish their names so they can be approached by other organizers.” (Foster, 14). Note that Foster says nothing about influential or respected workers in particular: nearly all workers have friends.

Foster describes the “list” system as useful in “difficult organizing situations … By this method, trusted workers, volunteer organizers, women, etc., get lists upon which to collect the signatures and fees of workers in various organizations, etc.” (Ibid.) Foster clearly is not talking about respected or influential workers here, either.

McAlevey’s claim that “the ‘list’ and ‘chain’ systems’” are “1930s terms for methods for building a network of the most respected workers … who can mobilize their own networks” (McAlevey, 33) is not supported by Foster’s actual text. He is not talking about what McAlevey claims he is.

For Foster, advanced political consciousness and leadership were inseparable. In his introduction, he states,

“The organization work must be done by a working combination of the progressive and Leftwing forces in the labor movement. It is only these elements that have the necessary vision, flexibility and courage to go forward with such an important project.” (Foster, 3)

Rather than rely upon a small number of respected workers, Foster writes,

“A central aim must always be to draw in the largest possible masses into direct participation in all the vital activities of the union: membership recruitment, formulation of demands, union elections, petitions, pledge votes, strike organization.” (6)

McAlevey (33) quotes Foster, “This work cannot be done by organizers alone,” but the entire quote better illuminates his views of organizing:

“Individual recruitment is the base of all immediate organizational work …

An elementary aim in the campaign should be to activize [sic] the greatest number of workers to do this individual button-hole work. The campaign can succeed only if thousands of workers can be organized directly in the enrollment of members. This work cannot be done by organizers alone. Their main task is to organize the most active workers among the masses in great numbers to do the recruiting. (Foster 13-14)

So, according to Foster, organizers are chosen for their radical politics and their main task is the organization of “the most active workers.”

James Matles on Building the UE

James Matles’ Them and Us: Struggles of a Rank and File Union is a first-person account of the building of the United Electrical Workers (UE), one of the largest, most militant and powerful of the new 1930s CIO unions.

Matles describes how in the earliest days of forming what would become the UE, he relied on workers who had been in The Metal Workers International Union, an affiliate of the short-lived (1929-35) Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), which had been set up largely by the American Communist Party as part of a dual union strategy to form industrial unions.

When Matles began organizing, the former Metal Workers’ members were the most politically advanced and dedicated industrial labor unionists in the shops where he started. He writes that the defunct union

“had established skeleton crews in dozens of shops in the machine, metal working and electrical industry. These active volunteer organizers were full of zeal and determination but very inexperienced organizers. They had to learn the hard way …” (emphases added, Matles, 30-31)

The work of organizing an industrial union of electrical workers, according to Matles, began long before the explosive upsurge of the 1930s. Discussing Section 7R of the NRA, he comments,

“Now the possibilities of the quiet work done over a period of four years by the pioneer industrial unionists, who had pulled together a leadership corps . . . in hundreds of shops became apparent. They were on the inside . . . in automobile plants, machine shops, large foundries, rubber plants and others.” (emphases added, 32)

In discussing struggles at Westinghouse in South Philadelphia, Matles comments,

“It is interesting to discover that the roots of Local 107 go deep in the soil of our history as a people . . . nourished in its earliest beginnings, long before any real trade union organization appeared, by principles of democratic, aggressive struggle imparted by just a few workers with deep convictions.” (180-81)

He goes on to describe the key men in the struggles of the late 1940s and early 1950s, who had been members of the Industrial Workers of the World in their early youth. He says they “were rank and file oriented … incorruptible.” For 10 years in the South Philadelphia plant:

“Wobblies numbered a couple of dozen at most … they never became discouraged. They continued meeting, talking and reading . . . They passed out literature, made their presence felt in the shop. Militant industrial trade unionism was their theme . . . they were helping to plant seeds of UE Local 107 … They and their allies — others with radical or strong trade union beliefs — laid the groundwork of the local …” (Ibid.)

Matles makes it clear the UE was built by the most militant, class conscious and aggressive fighters against the boss.

Mortimer on Auto Organizing

Wyndham Mortimer’s autobiography, Organize! My Life as a Union Man, describes how a union local was formed at the White Motor Company in Cleveland, Ohio, which had a regime of paternalistic management, with better wages, and good working conditions. “An absence of tension,” Mortimer describes it. (Mortimer, 41)

But there was also a dark side. “It was, of course, an open shop … Some workers would keep the bosses’ lawns mowed … the snow shoveled [or] kick back $5 on pay day.” (Ibid.)

As part of the “benevolent” model of management, “the shop committee or company union met on the last Friday of each month. A company official would give a talk … [and] ask for comments or questions. The real purpose,” Mortimer discerned, “was to find out what was on the workers’ minds. … If there was dissatisfaction … the company would learn of it before it became unmanageable.”(42)

Based on that insight, Mortimer cannily concluded that there would be no punitive consequences if he used that opportunity to raise the beefs of his co-workers and he did. Mortimer reports, “This question, and short discussion between Mr. White and me went through the plant like a forest fire.” He next wrote a letter to the company paper, disputing an editorial criticizing people “trying to get rich by their wits and not enough by hard work.” This led to a summons to a personnel manager, but not to discipline. (45-47)

“The following day,” Mortimer reports, “I had difficulty doing my work because so many workers wanted to know what had taken place in [the manager’s] office. It was episodes of this kind that caused me to be well-known throughout the plant and contributed greatly to the confidence so many of the workers had in me later, in the days when the union finally came to White’s.” (47)

Next, Mortimer writes, he “gathered around me a group of men whom I could trust.” (50) After he and another met with the American Federation of Labor officials and they proved unhelpful and hostile, Mortimer relates, “I called our group together. We met at my home. Dieter and I explained our experience … we must find a way to organize ourselves. Out of this meeting there came the beginnings of the union at White Motor …” (55)

Mortimer’s criteria are people’s trustworthiness and interest in a union. These were the people who successfully formed the union.

Dobbs on Minneapolis Teamsters

In Farrell Dobbs’ Teamster Rebellion, the methods used to organize the Teamster rank and file have many similarities to those used by Mortimer and Matles and advocated by Foster.

The escalating strikes that comprised the rebellion began with a work stoppage by the coal deliverers. Dobbs’ involvement began when the man who was helping him load coal talked to him about joining the union. The man was Grant Dunne, a member of the Trotskyist Communist League. (Dobbs, 27)

Dunne’s method was to “feel out” every potential union member, but not to find out which co-worker they respected.

“A careful method of procedure had to be developed … individual workers had to be sounded out in a careful way. The process would be a slow one at the outset. As additional forces thus gathered, they in turn would give fresh impetus to the campaign.” (emphasis added, 67)

Dobbs is very explicit about what makes union leaders — political consciousness and showing themselves to be the most astute and militant fighters against the boss:

“The key to [showing in the opening clash with the boss that the strike could be won] was the infusion of politically class conscious leadership into the union through cadres of the Communist League. Of course, they could not assume immediate leadership of the union. Their role as leaders would have to develop and be certified through the forthcoming struggles against the employers … ”(emphases added, 59)

Dobbs also explains the necessity and method of expanding leadership beyond committed revolutionary socialists:

“Ray [Dunne] and Carl [Skoglund] … both … knew how to teach younger leaders by precept and example. Under their guidance, a broadening leadership team was gradually forged … added to the team were militant young workers who began to develop as leaders during the struggle.” (emphases added, 60)

McAlevey’s Leadership Method

McAlevey’s method has three steps. First, identify the “organic leaders” in a workplace by asking the workers in each unit which co-worker they “most respected,” was most “influential,” and “whom they would most willingly follow.” The person they name is their “organic leader.” (McAlevey, 36)

McAlevey herself observes:

“Because these organic leaders are often considered good workers by management — for the same reasons that their fellow workers trust and rely on them — they are often favored in small ways, for example by being given desirable shifts.” (Ibid.)

McAlevey is very explicit: an organic leader is definitely not an activist. In fact, any union activism or any interest in the union is a sign the person is NOT an organic leader. McAlevey quotes approvingly from Kristen Warner:

“Organic leaders are almost never the workers who want most to talk to us. More often than not they’re the workers who don’t want to talk to us. They have a sense of their value and won’t easily step forward.”(34)

How to get these workers to agree to join the union campaign and be trained? According to McAlevey, the organizer has a one-to-one “organizing” conversation with each, tries to find something that they are dissatisfied with, and then challenges whether they are willing to continue to accept this, or take a risk to change it. (36-37)

An implication that slips in here undiscussed: How does the organizer have the standing to convince someone popular, well-liked, and often favored by the boss, to risk it all? Only organizers on the staff of a local or an international union have positions, patronage, and resources to offer. This makes the method problematic for workers who are trying to build an opposition within a bureaucratized, undemocratic, and unresponsive union, or building an action among unorganized workers, or laying the groundwork for a union where no existing union has initiated the drive. (McAlevey explicitly dismisses the latter two dynamics, which she calls “hot shops,” in A Collective Bargain (New York: Harper Collins, 2020, 158-159) as doomed to failure.)

In all three such cases, the organizer would be just a rank and filer who has no more, or even less, following. What would such a rank-and-file organizer have to offer these influential but unwilling co-workers to get them on board? So the “organic leadership” method implicitly depends upon union officialdom deciding to organize a new workplace, win a new contract, or launch a strike.

The second step is to train the organic leaders and them alone. In No Short Cuts, McAlevey says “developing [organic leaders’] skill set is far more fruitful than training random volunteers because organic leaders start with a base of followers.” (emphasis added, 13) (McAlevey is silent on the specifics of this training beyond saying “they are taught the organizers’ techniques.” (34)) But who are the “random volunteers,” “the workers who most want to talk to” organizers? They would be the most union conscious, even class conscious, workers.

Matles, in contrast, emphasizes the crucial role of already-radicalized workers such as the former TUUL members and the “Wobblies,” in organizing. Both Foster (3) and Dobbs (59) identify advanced political consciousness with leadership in labor organizing. Following McAlevey’s method, it is exactly the workers whom organizers depended upon during the 1930s upsurge who must be rejected as leaders.  The two methods are polar opposites.

The third step is the now-trained organic leaders take charge of their “followers,” and “get a majority” of them to do whatever they tell them to do. “A worker identified as an organic leader can get a majority of her shift or unit to agree to a public and therefore a high risk action,” to wear a color shirt, sign a membership card, vote for a strike, walk out, etc. (35)

McAlevey is silent on who decides whether the action will be “signing a petition … pose for individual or group photos for a public poster, or join a sticker day.” McAlevey is also silent as to how organic leaders accomplish this. She is only concerned if they cannot: then they aren’t organic leaders and the search for one resumes.

Escalating actions are, among other things “assessments of the strength of each organic leader.” (37) “Only true organic leaders can lead their coworkers in high risk actions.” McAlevey’s method has no space for the possibility that, when it comes to risky actions and union matters, workers think for themselves, discuss it among themselves, or come to their own conclusions, individually or collectively.

This entire method is based on a static concept of leadership: a worker either is intrinsically an “organic leader,” or cannot be one. Each worker is either immutably a leader or a follower. Followers can’t become leaders.

This is antithetical to Mortimer’s account of how he established himself as a workplace leader by consciously choosing to stand up to the boss. (Mortimer, 45-47) It differs from both Foster’s (13-14) and Dobbs’ (67) emphasis on continually widening the number of workers who organize their workmates and Dobbs’ idea that struggle transforms a growing layer of workers into leaders. (Dobbs 59, 60)

An Inferior Method?

The fact that McAlevey’s method differs from the one used to build some of the most powerful unions through the struggles of the 1930s — despite her claim they are the same — suggests, but does not mean, it is inferior. Weaknesses in the method itself must be identified.

First, the organic leader that McAlevey tells organizers to rely upon is a weaker leader than the leaders Dobbs, Mortimer and Matles joined up with and, indeed, became themselves. McAlevey’s organic leader hangs back as others come forward to join the union.

McAlevey speculates why they “hang back”: they “know their own worth,” or “they are often favored in small ways; for example, by being given desirable shifts.” (34, 36) This is not the makeup of reliable and strong working-class leaders. They may be won temporarily to the union’s cause. There is no reason to think that they are the kind of people that will sacrifice their own personal interests for those of the class, or even of the people they work with.

The second weakness of the organic leadership method is that it is top-down and keeps the vast majority of the rank and file as followers who do things based on their organic leader’s personal influence. McAlevey doesn’t even discuss a role for organic leaders, let alone the rank and file, in taking initiatives or discussing or planning strategy or tactics.

Instead, McAlevey is clear in A Collective Bargain from whom the organic leaders get their “marching orders”: “These moments when the union staff have the experience in many rounds of employer warfare teach the workers.” (emphases added, 188)

In the union where McAlevey received this version of “CIO organizing,” 1199 NE, “organizers … are understood to play a leadership role. They lead the organizing committee. The organizing committee leads the workers.” (38) McAlevey makes it clear in No Shortcuts that using rank-and-file members as organizers at all is a necessary evil: “Because union staffers in a private sector union effort are banned [emphasis in original] from entering the workplace including its parking lots and cafeterias.” (34)

This “chain of command” and the reliance on personal influence are conditions that minimize the opportunities for workers’ consciousness to be raised to even a union consciousness level, let alone class consciousness or revolutionary consciousness. They simply follow the “organic leader,” who him/herself almost certainly has a low level of union or political consciousness or commitment.

The method explicitly rejects the organic leader training her “followers” to be leaders or activists as unfruitful (13) and McAlevey makes no mention of even educating them. The rank and filers are decision-makers only insofar as they choose to whether or not to obey their organic leader and take part in the action already formulated from above.

In reality, this method may succeed, but only temporarily. After an initial victory, the bosses inevitably begin a campaign to roll back the gains. Knowledgeable and selfless leaders and an educated rank and file are required to effectively resist. The workers organized through the organic leadership method are unlikely to have the level of motivation, conviction, and dedication to fight these assaults.

Indeed, in one of what McAlevey herself considers her most successful organizing effort, Catholic Health West, she herself describes how rank-and-file support for the union declined precipitously within two years. (Raising Expectations and Raising Hell, New York: Verso, 2014, 297-303).

As Executive Director, she eliminated workers’ right to a grievance procedure. Instead, a committee of workers and bosses “resolved” grievances ad hoc, with no protections against favoritism, arbitrariness, or “horse trading.” McAlevey admits part of the purpose was “weeding out workers who were performing poorly or were simply lazy.” (299)

When a different union launched a raid, part of its appeal to the members was that they should have the right to a grievance process. McAlevey’s union went from signing up 70% of the bargaining unit in 2006, to barely surviving two decertification elections in 2008. (301, 303)

The “organic leadership method” led to a leadership so out of touch with the rank and file it did not realize the unpopularity of this change, or the erosion of its support.

This method puts into the “driver’s seat” the top officers of the union whose lives are completely different from the rank and file on the shop floor. More often than not, they consider management as their peer group rather than the ordinary union members. They have a greater stake in preserving the union as an institution, rather than in increasing workers’ control in the workplace or improving their material conditions.

This perpetuates a conservative “business unionism” that is more likely to lead to concessions and suppression of rank-and-file militancy than to the kind of all-out struggles waged by Mortimer, Dobbs, Matles and other 1930s radicals.

McAlevey’s method belies the title of her second book, No Shortcuts. The organic leadership method is a shortcut, as well as top-down and staff-driven. It may produce victories but they are built on sand. The fact that McAlevey enjoys such credibility among, and influence on, young people in the labor movement risks costly failures down the road.

May-June 2021, ATC 212


  1. Excellent analysis of McAlevey’s conservative perspective.  Kim Moody reaches a similar conclusion in a long article sympathetic to McAlevey which is behind a subscriber paywall at the marxist journal “Spectre” – “Reversing the ‘Model’: Thoughts on Jane McAlevey’s Plan for Union Power”, November 8, 2020,  https://spectrejournal.com/reversing-the-model/

    When i first heard of McAlevey some years ago i did a bit of internet research to learn more about her.  As i recall her main personal organizing success claim to fame was being appointed to leadership in reviving an inactive union local already functioning with a contract, paid staff, financial resources.  I wasn’t impressed that activating a rather dormant union local on behalf of established union bureaucracy was comparable to organizing in general or organizing from scratch without paid staff.  It is more like reinvigorating the status quo ante.  I think McAlevey’s essential conservatism explains why the DSA’s reformist national staff finds McAlevey simpatico.

  2. It feels to me that the author read little beyond the narrow page range they cite — in No Shortcuts, the identification and training of organic leaders isn’t the be all end all as it is frames in this piece. In direct contrast to Swerdlow’s framing, McAlevey constantly emphasizes the importance of direct, mass participation by as many of the workers as possible, of having democratic, bottom-up unions, and of involving workers in every step of the process, including having them participating in negotiation meetings and organizing their communities and social networks. In my assessment, identification of organic leaders is the very first step to get workers on lists, sympathetic to the union, and willing to help more — and little more than that — whereas she argues that the sins of business unionism come from relying on organizers, staff, or even leaders alone, just as the author here wrongly claims she herself is doing.

    If you after reading this review are avoiding the book, I really recommend withholding judgment until after reading it — yes, she argues an organic leader approach to building union ranks at the start of a campaign, but that is absolutely not where she stops, and her arguments for direct, democratic participation in the union and against business unionism are some of the most important to share and distribute in this century of union decline and AFL-CIO hegemony in labor.

    1. Noa, thank you for this comment. I think this is absolutely right. Read McAlevey’s work and fairly represent her arguments before you critique it. I think the article here makes some good points with regards to how Matles and Dobbs understood class conscious, left worker leaders and McAlevey but totally disagree that it is polar opposite to the approach McAlevey advocates. She’s not saying you write off these rank and file radicals or don’t try and build all workers as leaders (and see how they become leaders and fighters for the class as a whole through struggle). But identifying and prioritizing organic leaders early in the organizing work is pretty god damn important. It’s not the be all and end all, and no where in her work does she argue it should be a staff driven process, although she does make a case for why and how staff organizers can play a role in helping workers build power and win.

      1. Hi Peter, I have read all three of McAlevey’s books, in fact. In her most recent book, “A Collective Bargain,” it is even clearer that she has a totally top down approach to organizing. She backs off the term “organic leaders,” but emphasizes repeatedly that only professional organizers can recognize which rank and filers should be leaders. I would like to see citations or quotes for your claims that she advocates “building all workers as leaders” or that they “become leaders . . through struggle.” From beginning to end “A Collective Bargain” is an argument that organizing is a staff-driven process. This is a link to my review of it: https://weknowwhatsup.blogspot.com/2020/07/book-review-jane-mcalveys-collective.html
        -Marian Swerdlow

  3. Danny Mitchell – After attending Jane McAlevey’s “Organizing for Power” sessions I am convinced that she hasn’t a clue how to organize from the “bottom-up” at all. Her entire workshop is about how one person, acting like a staff organizer can convince the right person to do the unions bidding among the rank and file. Instead of holding mass meetings to discuss and vote on the issues she advocates for one-on-one discussions to convince one person to tell everybody else to go out on strike. She advocates that you keep a chart of how many people you talk to but not actually bring the issue to a vote. This is certainly not the lesson I learned by reading about the formation of the CIO.

  4. Frank Emspak
    I think that the author is correct in her analysis of Jane McAlevey’s methods. The most important criticisms that I have go to the building of the local organizing committee. Only a strong autonomous committee can survive-and the strength comes from a democratic structure and practice in that committee. Mortimer as many know was also a committed CPer; it is also true that many of the activists Matles talks about were also class conscious people- again many in the CP. I had a chance to interview many of the people involved in the organization of CIO unions- the UE, UAW etc. They often refered to Foster, the Steel Strike and the need to have class conscious people involved in the organizing committee. A look at the history reinforces the idea that coalition of progressives and class conscious people is crucial. Not mentioned is the issue of race. It is inconceivable to me that the workers who are hanging back, or favored in some way have the capacity or commitment to build multi-racial organizations.

    1. Swerdlow writes that “organic leaders” were “often the favorites of their bosses and therefore the recipients of preferential treatment.” McAlevey’s method as described by Swerdlow resembles Saul Alinsky’s method of community organizing, which also relies on the “organic leaders.” In communities, this often meant working with established figures in the church, the homeowners association, or some ethnic organization. This, of course, tended to create moderate or conservative organizations in communities that then competed with each other government services or private sector investment.

      To complicate things a little, my reading of the same histories and biographies that Swerdlow cites indicates that some of the leader of successful union organizing drives were not only class conscious, but also sometimes skilled workers who because they were harder to replace could assist their sisters and brothers in semi-skiled or laborer jobs in organizing the union. Of course, not all skilled workers were class conscious, such as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers that Len DeCaux describes in his memoir Labor Radical. In any workplace, some workers in strategic locations or jobs will be key to success–if they are class conscious.

  5. I think this is a very good article. I have been baffled at how folks on the left/progressive wing of labor believe that McAlevey’s approach is left wing. It is rooted in a staff centered, SEIU approach. Beyond the points identified here, there is no attention to union democracy and organizing is essentially organizing on behalf of or in support of the established union’s project. Leadership is good or bad, according to her, in terms of whether they support her organizing approach not in terms of whether they are class fighters. Anyway, valuable contribution.

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