Some Thoughts On This Video From Jane McAlevey – Stuart Melvin

In this great short video released this week by the excellent Jacobin Magazine, organiser and academic Jane McAlevey uses the story of her experience organising Philadelphia nurses to explain what she means by real – or “deep” – organising.

In her story she explains how the nurses had already voted to unionise but now, in order to win the changes they wanted, the nurses had to strike. Here’s the problem: to successfully strike, the nurses needed 95% unity, and to be 95% united, they needed a particular nurses unit on board. But this unit had voted against unionising.

Jane goes on to contrast two nurses in that unit in order to illustrate the differences between “activists” and “leaders”. The first is the only nurse from that unit who attends union meetings. She is “brilliant” and totally onboard, but for whatever reason, she can’t seem to influence her colleagues to join the union. The second is the nurse that (after a lot of talking to nurses and mapping relationships) they identify is most likely to influence her colleagues, but who is unfortunately also anti-union (she ran the campaign against unionising).  

Through this story, and (spoiler alert) their victory in getting the second nurse on-board, organising the unit and winning their campaign, Jane illustrates her three key takeaways:

  1. Organisers need to map “real” social relationships (Jane contrasts this to those found on social media) in order to identify real, organic (i.e. trusted, respected, followed) workplace leaders;
  2. We need to identify those leaders’ self interest (i.e. what issues/changes they most care about that they can’t achieve on their own), and;
  3. We need to be prepared to be patient, disciplined and methodical in having difficult conversations in order to win the support and participation of those leaders.

Straight up, these are the key takeaways for anyone trying to organise workers or others at a local/workplace level. This video is brilliant, you should watch it and you should share it. However, there are points that need to go further to be of real help to organisers, and others that we really should think carefully about.

What moves you?

Jane makes a real point of illustrating how in Philadelphia, they found a practical issue that would materially benefit the leader and her colleagues, and used that to get her on-board. But that’s not always the only way, and sometimes not even a good way. Some of the best leaders I’ve worked with didn’t do the work to benefit themselves – in fact that’s often how they became leaders in the first place.

G, B and J are leaders who have respectively helped me organise workers to win pay rises and better redundancy payouts, and tenants to win better housing. In the case of G and B (who amazingly risked her job to tell management negotiators in no uncertain terms: “Pay up or we’ll strike!”), neither won a penny for themselves (G already had a good payout, and B was already paid more). J meanwhile isn’t even a tenant. When I did try pitching her on a material interest, I felt she was rightly offended. I’d misunderstood.

All these leaders stepped up for their values, their sense of self and what that means in terms of “small-p” politics as well as other interpersonal motivations. Jane is right that material interests are often the way to motivate people, but we should be careful and consider what else might move them.  

How to talk when you’re gagged?

Jane also makes a great point about finding leaders by figuring out who talks to whom, who sits with whom in the break-room etc, and then talking to them. But this week I had the pleasure of listening in on a conversation between Roger McKenzie, UNISON Assistant General Secretary and Andre Lewis, General Secretary of the Grenadian Trades Union Congress, discussing the difficulties of organising in call centres. How can we identify leaders and get them active when workers have no break-room and aren’t allowed to talk?

Here’s where social media comes in. Jane explicitly tells us to forget it, but I don’t quite agree. Workers can talk there. They can build relationships. They can arrange to meet and socialise in real life. They’re probably already doing this, but if they’re not, we can help. Deliveroo riders have used WhatsApp to organise. Uber drivers in Indonesia have used Facebook to build a huge union. My old colleagues all socialised (and talked freely) in G’s pub. “Online or offline” is as much a false dichotomy for organisers as “community or workplace”. Jane rightly proposes what she calls “whole worker organising”. Today, that means treating social media as just another venue. We can easily infer that Jane is referring to an all too common tendency amongst “activists” to only talk to a bubble of progressive friends and allies or to become a “clicktivist” – sharing the latest petition, meme or video. We can and must use online venues differently to this – although being aware of their limitations when compared to face to face conversations.   

How to organise a solution that matches the scale of the problem?

But these are small fry discussions compared to this one. In contrasting “activists” and “leaders”, in telling us to forget social media, Jane is setting up the point made in the final captions: “To defeat the forces that put Trump in power will require deep organizing, not shallow mobilizing. It will require a serious, sustained focus on organizing workers into unions”. The main point is 100% bang on. But it misses a trick. Jane rightly says we need to organise on a “massive scale”. But doing so slowly, shop by shop, driven by professional organisers, could take a generation or more. Or, lacking momentum, it may not even be possible. Meanwhile inequality is at levels never seen before. While 70% of British workers are financially “precarious” and real wages have barely risen since the 1980s, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is about to become the world’s first trillionaire. Want to know what a trillion looks like? Here you go. The top 1% now control £127 trillion, higher than global GDP. 8 people are as rich as the other poorest 50% of humanity. Ok, you get the point. But here’s some more: inequality is preventing us from dealing with climate change, while also fueling narcissism and the rise of the far right. In turn those things will drive inequality ever higher. We are entering a dystopian feedback loop.

So, it’s bad. But Jane’s video (as well as great articles like this one by my friend Callum of Notes From Below) are bang on: a revitalised workers movement can turn the tide. And that’s the point: movement. We need to not only organise unions, but mobilise a “union organising movement”. We need to mobilise 100,000s of volunteer organisers, who we can train and support to do the deep organising work in their workplaces and communities. Research by Hahrie Hann shows that the organisations that do best are those that both mobilise and organise. Perhaps unlike Jane, and despite being a true believer in deep organising, I believe social media and “shallow mobilising” (at least initially) could enable us to spark such a movement. Despite drawbacks, campaigns like Fight for Fifteen and the recent US teachers strikes,’s “Fossil Fuel Divestment” movement and the movements behind Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn all help light up the path (and good news, here’s the evidence – it’s working). What’s more it’s been done before. In the 1930s, the CIO sparked a movement that scaled US union density from around 10% to almost 50% within the decade. In the UK, US and across the world, we need to do it again. Let’s mobilise the organisers.

P.S. Ok, fair cop, it’s not quite that simple. We would need commitment – and serious money – from multiple unions and partners. If you want to help make that happen, let’s talk. Find me on Twitter: @UnionStu

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