“A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy,” – a critical review

Hardly anything has been discussed more intensively among trade unionists in Germany in recent years than the issue of “organising”. These have been in relation to organising concepts used, in one form or another, by IG Metall (metal workers) and ver.di (public sector and services) unions amongst others. This was seen, for example, in the Berlin hospital movement’s successful strikes, last year. 

One name always comes up in these discussions, that of Jane McAlevey. The US trade union organiser has become an important reference among left trade unionists in Germany in recent years. Two of her books have been published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in the VSA publishing house. 

This review critically examines McAlevey’s positions, referring, above all, to her most recent German-language book publication, a translation of “A Collective Bargain. Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy” (first published in 2020)

This book looks at several concrete experiences of successful union organising campaigns and labour struggles in the US, while presenting aspects of the history of the US trade union movement and the phenomenon of “union busting”, i.e. professionally organised anti-union campaigns.

It certainly contains many important experiences and advice for workers who want to organise or win collective agreements in their workplaces. McAlevey argues for certain methods, and reports how these have been important preconditions for union success among cleaners, hospital workers and teachers. 

Unfortunately, she presents these methods as the only way to proceed, not clearly relating them to political factors, such as the nature of demands, the relationship of unions to political parties, or the role and political orientation of union leaderships. Although McAlevey takes a stance that is at least critical of capitalism and argues for democratised unions, in which there should be strong member participation, she does not develop a perspective beyond the capitalist system or a programme for fundamentally changing unions into militant, democratic and anti-capitalist organisations. It does, however, convey a clear message: well-organised workforces can win! This is a valuable and important message that should be disseminated in the trade union movement.

Degree of organisation

McAlevey stresses certain methods that may not fit in every workplace, industry or industrial dispute. According to her ideas, different aspects are crucial: organising majorities of workers in the respective workplace or company, “structural tests” and winning the “organic leaders” from the workforces for the trade union struggle.

She writes: “Strikes work best and achieve the most when at least 90 per cent of the workers participate, have previously agreed with each other and have allied themselves with the ‘community’ around them.” (page 29).

The idea that you have to organise the majority of workers in a workplace and that their willingness to strike (documented, if possible) is a prerequisite for successful industrial action runs through the book. This may be understandable in the USA, given the restrictive trade union legislation and the very different collective bargaining structure from Germany and other countries. There, collective agreements are usually negotiated at company level and a majority degree of organisation is required for a trade union to be recognised, at all, and thus have collective bargaining capacity. 

However, transferring this to Germany or other countries carries dangers and is reminiscent of so-called “conditional trade unionism”, which, for example, makes the achievement of a certain degree of organisation a prerequisite for starting campaigns and preparing for industrial action. There is no question that a high degree of organisation can be an important precondition for industrial action. However, it is not necessarily a necessary condition. Most importantly, it is possible that such a level of organisation can only be achieved through industrial action itself. For example, a large proportion of union recruitment in the Berlin hospital networks Charité and Vivantes took place in the context of the Berlin Hospital Movement 2021 and after industrial action had begun.

The idea of ninety per cent organising is conceivable and possible in a single company of manageable size, as McAlevey himself points out. But that too depends on the concrete conditions. When ver.di started to fight for a collective agreement at Charité Facility Management (CFM – the outsourced and then partially privatised service subsidiary of the Charité University Hospital in Berlin), in 2011, only a minority of workers were organised. Many had only temporary contracts and did not dare to join the union or participate in the industrial action, and some cleaners were organised in the IG BAU (building, agrarian and environmental trade union), whose leadership sabotaged the strike. The militant ver.di activists, however, were of the opinion that the situation in the company could only be changed (and the degree of organisation increased) if the colleagues experienced the union as a seriously fighting, i.e. striking, organisation. They consciously decided to go on strike even as a minority. That was the right thing to do.

With an organising level of 16 per cent in Germany (it is even lower in the US), it would be completely wrong to consider majority organising as a prerequisite for carrying out strikes in industry-wide collective bargaining, where the organising level is much lower but even a minority strike can cause sufficient economic damage and political pressure to be successful – especially if the whole trade union movement stands by the strikers through solidarity campaigns. 

But there are other aspects that make the question of the degree of organisation more complicated. In Germany, trade unionists like to say that they have to strike like in France and often do not realise that the level of organisation in France is lower than in Germany. There, dynamic strike movements are more possible in some situations because the unions are weaker and the bureaucracy at their head can exert less control over the workforces. This does not speak against strong unions and the attempt to organise as many colleagues as possible, but it is an indication that strength also has something to do with the political orientation of the leadership and the self-activity of the workers themselves. That is why it is wrong to approach this question in such a mechanical way as Jane McAlevey does.

Structure tests

Another central idea in McAlevey’s conception is the implementation of structural tests by trade union organisers or company trade union groups. This means determining the willingness of the workforce to fight through concrete questioning and low-level actions, and also identifying the most important and capable activists in this process.

In the case of the Los Angeles UTLA teachers’ union campaign described in detail in her book, this included rallies, petitions, a vote on raising union dues, and more. In the Berlin hospital movement, too, the collection of workers’ signatures in support of ver.di’s wage demands played an important role in mobilising and organising colleagues. There is no question that such “structural tests” can play an important role. But even these cannot be discussed separately from the union’s policy and strategy. Many workers, especially in industry and the public sector, have had to experience all too often in recent years’ collective bargaining ( and also in political campaigns of the trade unions), that demonstrations and warning strikes were used by the trade union bureaucracy to let off steam and that there was no willingness to organise serious strikes. 

This has often led to poor participation in such forms of action, which was not necessarily an expression of a lack of willingness to fight, but an expression of frustration and disillusionment with the union leadership and the experience that such actions did not achieve much. This example also shows that the methods propagated by McAlevey cannot be applied to every situation like a blueprint, but that their effectiveness depends on the concrete situation. Furthermore, the question of the chances of success of a struggle cannot be separated from the political orientation of the leadership, the character of the demands (i.e. whether their implementation would lead to real improvements for all colleagues and thus have a mobilising character) and the question of the democratic structure of the union.

If the workers themselves are in control of their campaigns and struggles in democratic discussions and decision-making processes, they will also have the confidence that lower-threshold “structural tests” are serious escalation steps and not steam-blowing actions.

McAlevey also emphasises the participation of workers in their industrial disputes and extends this idea to collective bargaining itself. This concept, called “Big and Open Bargaining”, is intended to involve a large number of workers directly in collective bargaining. The Berlin hospital movement had also dared to do this by not electing a separate negotiating committee but letting its bargaining committee lead the negotiations – and letting them give feedback directly to the team delegates’ meeting in close proximity, which was undoubtedly a big step forward in democratising industrial action. But even here it is worth taking a closer look, because there was no inclusion of all strikers through taking a vote at strike assemblies on the final agreement which was reached. The three-month strike at the Charité Facility Management (CFM) in 2011 showed that this is also possible in a different way. Here, a trade union negotiating commission reached a negotiation result with the employer. This was then discussed at several strike meetings and the strike continued until all strikers had the opportunity to consult and agree.

The fact that the trade union leadership can also reverse democratic participation opportunities if it is worried about losing control could be observed in the social and educational services in recent years. In 2015, there was a strike delegates’ conference where the then ver.di leader Frank Bsirske was challenged when he presented a bad compromise and was forced to back down. In the subsequent bargaining rounds, this element of strike democracy no longer existed.

The “organic leaders”

McAlevey attaches great importance to the union organisers finding the “organic leaders” in the workforces to be organised and winning them over to the union and the struggle. This means workers who are highly respected among their colleagues, who are the contact persons for problems, etc.

This idea is not wrong either, but it should not be seen as a necessary condition for a successful trade union campaign. What would this approach mean if the most respected colleagues are more conservative and opposed to a militant trade union strategy? Does this mean that a struggle is not possible? And if the success of a struggle is so much linked to this idea, isn’t there a danger that it will lead to unnecessary frustration if these colleagues cannot be convinced? In fact, every trade union campaign and every industrial action is a very dynamic development in which people can develop rapidly and thus quickly become recognised leaders – or simply take the decisive initiatives for colleagues to drop the hammer. When the tractor manufacturer Deutz-Fahr announced the closure of its factory in the Kalk district of Cologne in 1995, there was great unrest among the workforce. At that time, a solidarity committee was formed in the neighbourhood, in which CWI members played a central role, arguing for strike action. A wildcat strike actually took place, i.e. a strike that had not been called or authorised by the union. The strike was initiated by a colleague who was anything but an “organic leader”, but rather a very quiet outsider in the workforce, but who at the right moment spoke out what others felt and called his colleagues to strike.

Outsourcing of industrial action?

McAlevey does not address a specific challenge associated with organising concepts she advocates: namely the danger that when workplaces are organised by outside organisers the union structures cannot be maintained when organisers are withdrawn. This is particularly the case in Germany, where some of the organisers are hired by a private service company called “Organizi.ng”. In the case of the Berlin hospital movement, there was a danger that this company would have to withdraw organisers because they were already booked for the next project, even though the strike had not ended.

The fact that it is fundamentally more than questionable when trade unions hire external companies to organise labour struggles, something that stands in contradiction to workers’ control and trade union democracy, is an issue in itself. The fact that this organising concept, regardless of whether the organisers are employed by the union or by an external company, entails the risk of a lack of sustainability, has not been sufficiently highlighted in the debates, so far.

For militant trade unions

Jane McAlevey has put valuable experience on paper and the book is recommended. However, her concept of organising stresses the organisational methods and places too little emphasis on the question of political orientation and the character of trade unions. The concepts of bureaucracy and ‘social partnership’ do not appear.

It is clear from her examples that she stands for a conflict-oriented trade union policy and democratic structures and she refers positively to the example of the trade union organisation Local 1199NE, in which the full-time functionaries are not allowed to earn more than the average wage of the trade union members. But she does not derive from this a political programme for the transformation of trade unions into militant and democratic organisations and does not see the existence of a trade union bureaucracy integrated into the capitalist system as a problem to be overcome. Consequently, the question of networking militant left activists and the need to build inter-union opposition structures does not feature in McAlevey’s book.

Instead of looking across the Atlantic, it is worthwhile to look to the UK, where a wave of strikes has been taking place for months, and workforces, such as the Liverpool dockers or the refuse workers in Coventry, have been able to achieve some impressive successes. In the British trade unions, which had been severely weakened by Margaret Thatcher’s anti-strike laws, there had been important political shifts in recent years towards a strengthening of left-wing forces on the executive boards, most recently expressed in the election of Sharon Graham as general secretary of the second largest British trade union, UNITE, in 2021. 

A not insignificant role in these developments in Britain was played by the traditionally existing left groupings within the trade unions, and the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN). Organised associations of militant and left trade unionists can be an important prerequisite for challenging the power and political orientation of the pro-capitalist trade union bureaucracy and for formulating political and personnel alternatives. In the past, in Germany, these were often only groups at the workplace level, such as “Trade Unionists without Borders (GOG)” at Opel Bochum or the “Alternative” groups in Daimler plants. With the Network for Militant Trade Unions (VKG), there has been an, albeit still modest, approach to dev eloping such networking in German trade unions since 2019.

Although McAlevey sees the union as a socio-political actor that should also play a central role in the fight against climate change, for example, she does not draw any consistent political conclusions. For example, as much as she criticises the openly neoliberal “Wall Street” wing of the Democratic Party, she does not question the fundamental connection of many US trade unions to the Democrats and does not raise the need for a political representation of the working class, i.e. a mass workers’ party.

McAlevey’s ideas and proposals should be discussed, but not simply adopted one-to-one. Then the discussion of them can contribute to the reconstruction of the trade union and workers’ movement.


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March 2023