Jane McAlevey’s organising strategy and the NTEU

Solidarity discussion paper by Marcus Banks, NTEU Delegate, RMIT University

In his April 2020 COVID-19 national briefing to university unionists, Matt McGowan, the General Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union, warned the union was facing an unprecedented crisis. Morrison and the Vice-Chancellors were on the rampage. The government were denying universities access to JobKeeper, with barely a whimper from those running the sector. Senior managers jumped a gear: competing harder with each other to best seize the restructuring opportunities to cheapen labour costs and funnel remaining staff into more profitable lines of business.

While the shock of this dual attack by the Liberals and Vice-Chancellors rattled and disoriented university workers, it also galvanised thousands to join the union. Membership hit more than 31,000 in April 2020—the highest ever. Despite 17,000 job losses in 2020, the NTEU held more than 30,000 members in early 2021. Given that the sector employs about 130,000 ongoing or fixed term staff, plus (conservatively) the same number of casuals, the NTEU still covers less than 20 per cent of the workforce.

The instinct of our officials like Matt McGowan to the COVID/economic crisis was very similar to the leaderships of most other unions. Instead of acting on the lead shown by the refugee rights campaign and the Black Lives Matter protests that showed it is possible and necessary to protest in COVID-safe ways, the union movement—like the environment movement—retreated into the virtual world.

Rather than turning to their members 12 months ago to build a fighting response to the carnage we were experiencing, our leaders pivoted to our employers to work up a plan: the notorious Jobs Protection Framework (JPF). The NTEU would agree to trade off wages and conditions if Vice-Chancellors agreed to set up joint working parties on their promise to keep job losses to a “financially sustainable” minimum.

In April and May 2020, campaigning by rank and file members to reject the JPF spectacularly broke the national deal. In the week before an all-members ballot to endorse the deal on 25 May, the officials backed down and scuttled the planned vote. Everyone—members, officials, employers and the government—could see that the JPF, as a nationally-endorsed strategy, was dead in the water.

The solidarity of Vice-Chancellors to jointly roll out the national strategy had crumbled. Martin Bean’s announcement on 21 May that RMIT wouldn’t be involved in any JPF scheme typified many other Vice-Chancellors’ positions during that month and the next.

Shaken but undeterred, the officials then pursued individual JPF deals with the few remaining universities still open to the plan. At Monash, for example, a JPF deal was struck. NTEU members were told to accept Vice-Chancellor Margaret Gardner’s forecast that the university was in an “unsustainable financial crisis” with further huge deficits to follow in the next couple of years. At members meetings, NTEU local, state and national officials echoed Gardner’s claim that Monash was on the brink of collapse.

In a statement to members on 18 June, Monash NTEU branch president Ben Eltham declared:

I genuinely believe this deal is the best deal Monash staff are going to get. It is the fruit of long and tough negotiations that sought to reconcile protections for jobs with cost savings to address Monash’s $350 million 2020 revenue shortfall.

The union agreed to 277 ongoing staff being sacked (instead of the 467 threatened by Gardner), a pay freeze, and the inevitability that hundreds of casual staff would also lose their jobs. A minority of activist members argued that the ominous management forecasts couldn’t be trusted and were deliberately overblown to scare members out of any effective response. It turned out these rank-and-file unionists were right. In early February 2021 Gardner finally admitted that instead of a $350 million hole, Monash made a $259 million surplus in 2020. Western Sydney University workers have just been treated to an equally atrocious charade.

The thousands of members exposed to attempts by the officials to ram through the JPF has had two basic consequences. First, many developed a sharper understanding of what was at stake in these types of corrosive, concessionary plans. It became increasingly clear that the union-management collaborations in 2020 undermined both their job security and the prospects for building a campaign that would defend decent workloads, conditions and pay.

Second, and equally importantly, they experienced how far the officials would go to get up the JPF. At mass meeting after mass meeting at the national, state and branch level held on Zoom, the membership was frequently put on permanent mute. Chat functions were disabled. Delegates were denied the ability to communicate with members in their own workplaces by email. Motions opposing the dead-end course the union was taking were frequently ignored or ruled out of order. At the University of Technology Sydney, the branch took the more straightforward approach of simply not holding any members meetings for four months.

In response, many newly energised (and re-energised) members began forming independent rank-and-file groups. Hundreds of members were coming to Fightback meetings before the collapse of the officials’ national JPF plan. The National Higher Education Action Network held some large meetings (up to 700) to discuss the possibility of building towards industrial action. New casuals groups sprung up across campuses. Existing, usually moribund, campus networks of casuals were revitalised. The rank-and-file groupings of casuals started to link up nationally into the now-named Casualised, Unemployed and Precarious University Workers (CUPUW).

Two immediate questions were hotly raised and debated by these new layers of active members wanting to build resistance to the attacks: “why are our officials acting this way?” and “how are we going to fight?”

Enter Jane McAlevey

Many of the most active NTEU members find compelling answers to these and other questions in the writings and training sessions of American author Jane McAlevey. Initially working for environmental NGOs, McAlevey was recruited to run the Stamford Organizing Project, her first foray into union organising. She developed a model for rank-and-file worker-based social movement unionism that McAlevey calls the “whole worker organizing approach”.

McAlevey was appointed national Deputy Director for Strategic Campaigns of the Health Care Division of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and then hired by SEIU Nevada as their Executive Director and Chief Negotiator in 2004. In the last 10 years she has published three highly influential books on union organising.

McAlevey’s arguments and advice about the need for all-out strikes democratically driven by rank-and-file involvement have struck a major chord among the active membership. McAlevey gives great heart and guidance to many unionists when she says things like “the cause of the union [is] class struggle” and “workers are the primary source of leverage against employers”. It’s no wonder her writings are being taken seriously. She outlines a detailed, momentum-building, organising plan: research into who holds power in an industry; mapping workplace union density and social relationships; worker-leader identification; tapping into workers’ community connections; which, when all done, provides the basis for an escalating series of “structure tests” to gauge member willingness to take bigger and riskier workplace actions building towards an all-out “supermajority” strike.

Building momentum through member-led struggle is seen by active unionists to be at the core of what McAlevey’s organising strategy is on about. Many NTEU members see McAlevey’s strategy as in stark contrast with that of the officials’ hide-bound, ad hoc, and top-down approach to organising.

For this view to hold water, you would expect her strategy to receive a cold reception from the officials. But no. The NTEU has officially embraced McAlevey. Helen Masterman-Smith, the Branch President of Charles Sturt University, was invited to lead off a recent NTEU National Council conference with a half-day session on how important McAlevey’s strategy was to the union. “Deep organising” is now the vogue term across all levels of the NTEU.

In the face of this official embrace, some rank-and-file members seek to distinguish between “our McAlevey” and “theirs”. They argue that her strategy—when applied from below—remains empowering. When bureaucratically rolled out from above, they contend, McAlevey’s approach is gutted of its momentum building potential. The task (and art) of workplace mapping and identifying “organic leaders” is stripped down to a passive, administrative exercise of filling in spreadsheets rather than actually building union relationships with and between members on the ground.

This distinction between “our” McAlevey and “theirs” describes how McAlevey’s approach is being (mis)used within the NTEU. But it does not answer why. This article attempts to address the reasons why McAlevey’s writings allow for such incompatible uses of her strategy. It centres on who she problematically presents as the key figure for change—the union organiser. Again and again, McAlevey insists and vividly presents workers as their own agents of change. Yet politically and organisationally, paid organisers emerge in all her writings as the means through which such change can occur. Her books are aimed to be more a “how to” guide for organisers than they are for the rank-and-file.

The article develops this claim about who McAlevey is centrally addressing through the two basic questions being posed by our members—“why are our officials acting this way?” and “how are we going to fight?”

Why are our officials acting this way?

In A Collective Bargain, published in 2020, McAlevey talks of unions as “conduits of worker demands” that have the unique “tools” of collective bargaining and strikes. She insists that unions “are structured and function in much the same way as democratic governmental bodies” (p19). This idea is central to her view of union structures:

it’s helpful to think of a union as a mechanism: nothing makes it inherently good or bad, though its internal rules heavily influence its effectiveness. As is also the case with a government… (p16).

In Chapter two of No Shortcuts, McAlevey draws on this understanding of unions to argue that it is only unions’ “governance method” that rank-and-file unionists need to get right. The practical impact of this understanding is that there is no necessary structural impediment preventing rank-and-file campaigners turning the union into a democratic body that is driven from below—whereby workers become “central actors” in the union. McAlevey argues that in the best and most effective unions there are not three sides (union officials, workers and bosses) but only two: workers and employers.

McAlevey is mistaken. Worse, she is misleading: rank-and-file activists will have their campaigning derailed if they take up McAlevey’s idea of “three sides to two”. The union bureaucracy has its own interests and so there are always three sides. These different class interests are structurally embedded in the bureaucracy. The independent role of paid officials—the Matt McGowans in every union—cannot be magicked away simply through changing union governance methods, as McAlevey proposes.

Union leaders have a dual, contradictory role. On one hand, paid officials—like the 100 or so employees of the NTEU—must keep the institution they are managing ticking over. Day-to-day management of the union means playing a brokerage role between employers and employees within the industrial relations rules imposed on them. At the branch level, industrial officers need to establish and foster relationships with their counterparts in HR to ease what both see and experience to be the daily grind of resolving individual member grievances. Industrial officers and organisers are accountable to their employer—the division secretary in each state. They attend weekly briefings with them to get directions on how union priorities may impact on their workplans.

These brokerage roles are often seen as a career. The more senior officials in every union liaise with the more senior policy-makers in government and industry—but the same dynamic applies. When the opportunity arises, the officials are keen to involve Vice-Chancellors.

The short bursts of strikes—essentially restricted to once every four or so years between enterprise agreement rounds—are not their bread and butter. What fundamentally drives the union bureaucracy is maintaining the profile and relevance of the organisation they must keep running when very little may be happening on the ground.

On the other hand, the strength of an official’s day-to-day capability to negotiate deals and resolve disputes is based on employer’s perceptions of how influential the union is. As McAlevey succinctly puts it, the employer weighs up two matters: what is the “cost of settlement” versus what are the risks the union has an “ability to create a crisis” for them? Here, membership numbers also matter as does member willingness to take action when called upon.

Even in left unions like the United Workers Union, bureaucratic interests will trump rank-and-file interests unless the membership can apply enough pressure on both the employers and the officials. The recent lockout by Coles of all 350 workers from their Smeaton Grange warehouse in Sydney is a tragic example of a winnable dispute being white-anted by the officials’ different priorities.

Last November, after Coles had announced the warehouse would close in 2023, the workers’ demand for a decent redundancy payout was met by Coles locking them out. Instead of building a proper strike fund to support the workers through using the union’s substantial assets, addressing site meetings at other Coles workplaces and approaching other unions, all the union did was release very limited funds and then simply set up an online Chuffed account for donations. Through three months locked out, members received only four $200 Woolworths gift cards from their own union. The UWU has more than $1 million in an existing strike fund which they would not release. They also had over $94 million in cash and equivalents at the end of last financial year.

Worse, the union leadership refused to spread the dispute to other Coles warehouses or back community pickets to stop loaded trucks leaving Coles warehouses that were doing Smeaton Grange work. The workforce was effectively starved back to work at the end of February.

The practical impact of draconian IR rules and fines is that the officials self-police their members. Rather than building mass protests to stare down Coles’ threat to use the IR legislation (a high-risk move for a “family friendly” brand), the UWU officials cultivated fear and weakness among their members. The workforce voted seven times against Coles’ deal—but for the officials, challenging the rules would put “their” organisation at risk through massive fines, so they essentially backed Coles’ efforts to secure a return to work.

NTEU officials at all levels also constantly self-police active members. At the University of Sydney, neither the NSW state office or local branch officials would endorse a walkout of Medical Science staff defending their jobs against a “spill and fill” attack. The branch committee refused to hold a members meeting to spread the dispute and insisted as a price of support that rank-and-file campaigners replaced the word “walkout” with the more mundane and less risky “protest”.

Instead of mounting what McAlevey would call a modest “structure test” of the university’s resolve to use IR rules on a half-day strike, the officials and (shamefully) the branch committee saw avoiding this legal boa constrictor as more important than building the dispute’s potential. The renamed walkout actually won significant concessions, but a realistic opportunity to provide formal NTEU support and spread the dispute by testing management’s resolve to actually use IR rules went begging.

While it is usually easier for rank-and-file members to work with left-leaning than openly right-wing officials, they will inevitably also confront resistance from the bureaucracy whatever its colour. Even the best unions are never simply “conduits of workers demands” as McAlevey would have it. A union cannot—even under the best democratic and active conditions—be reduced from “three to two” sides.

Activists can afford neither to ignore the bureaucracy nor to be drawn into purely electoral work to replace bad officials with better ones. Instead, activists need to learn to work with and against the officials, strengthening the union, and supporting the officials when they take a stand against university managements and the government, but at the same time building rank-and-file networks that can put pressure on, and act independently of, the officials to initiate (and endorse) further actions, actively drawing new layers of workers into struggle, and nurturing the strength of the union while raising the consciousness and capability to go beyond the officials if they will not act.

2020 sharply highlighted these contradictory tensions in the union bureaucracy. Pushing for a national JPF deal made sense to all senior officials. Matt McGowan was defending the NTEU as a relevant and influential player in the university sector. In his April opening comments to NTEU councillors he stressed the financial threat to the union of a collapsing membership in the next few years. He grudgingly acknowledged that membership had never been higher, but this only fed his pessimistic conclusion that membership would not hold up into 2021 and the EA round “won’t deliver us many new members”. Given this perceived threat to the union organisation, the bureaucracy relentlessly defended its plan. The shutting down of debate among the members was a logical step from those who had their own class interests to defend.

With the worst heat of the JPF fiasco behind them by October the officials began to change tack. With enterprise bargaining around the corner, Jane McAlevey’s ideas of “deep organising” began to be promoted to activate members. Organisers were tasked with mapping workplaces to identify “organic leaders” and highlighting the importance of “one-to-one conversations” with members. Missing from this scheme was agitation. What the union actually needs is to be far more action-oriented: workplace leaders who are aware of the issues in their workplace and agitating to take action around them. Agitation over every work issue—small and large—is always the key to building union power.

How are we going to fight?

McAlevey’s step-by-step strategy is centrally targeted to winning campaigns for union recognition and contracts in the United States. Her idea that a campaign should build power by escalating actions has been a basic truism throughout the history of trade unionism and other social movements. What McAlevey offers is a detailed plan peppered with new terms. Her model involves workplace “structure tests” to give organisers “intelligence” on how well the campaign is proceeding. An escalating series of small, but often risky, actions test the level of worker involvement (always aiming for maximum participation) in signing a petition, wearing a union badge, or putting up stickers in their workplace. The aim of the strategy is to build a “supermajority” of workers organised and willing to win a union recognition election (80 per cent) or carry out a serious all-out strike to secure a contract (90 per cent).

Paid organisers are at the centre of this strategy. They are the ones tasked to identify “organic leaders” in the workplace who, once convinced to join the union, are “given an assignment”. Organisers are given a “how to” guide by McAlevey to develop and run the plan, organise the workers to build their workplace power, facilitate the structure tests, train emerging leaders, set up big bargaining groups and run them through their roles, strengthen mass participation and workplace democracy etc etc.

This model needs upending. Member power in the NTEU can only be built by centring rank-and-file members as the key agent—not professional organisers. It is the initiatives and collective self-activity of members that generate the conditions whereby “organic leaders” can emerge. McAlevey is wrong to structure her model on organisers’ agency and initiatives. In the absence of workplace self-activity, an organiser giving an assignment to an organic leader they identify smacks of the very problem McAlevey criticises of “top down” unionism. She rightly argues what active unionists already know: members can’t be treated as “spigots” whose actions can simply be turned on and off at the behest of officials. Yet by privileging organisers in her plan, McAlevey falls into the jaws of the very same mechanical trap. A pre-identified “organic leader” given an assignment also treats members as a spigot. The only real difference in this analogy is that the tap is to be turned on more slowly.

Ironically, McAlevey’s focus on putting union organisers at the centre of her strategy draws inspiration from the union upsurges in the 1930s and the rank-and-file rebellions in the 1960s and 1970s. These struggles were highly influenced—and mobilised by—the politics and social movements of the time. McAlevey tends to downplay struggles over wages. She rightly argues that workers want more than pay increases but also “a safe place to live, meaningful work, control over their lives, more time off, clean water and clean air”. However, there is no contradiction in fighting both for wages and for wider social issues.

To illustrate how her organising model can bear fruit, she provides gripping case studies of the recent teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Chicago and Los Angeles. Yet, as US labour activist and writer Kim Moody observes about the teachers’ rebellion:

these were struggles initiated, organised and led in the first instance, not by professional organisers, but by workers who had “a job which is not running the union”.

By centring on paid organisers as the key fulcrum of her model, McAlevey decentres the capacity of the rank-and-file to initiate, organise and lead struggle. This goes part way to explaining why her approach can be embraced by the bureaucracy. Her bureaucratic distinction between mobilising and organising also sits comfortably with the officials.

Mobilising and organising: building in the here-and-now

McAlevey is primarily addressing organisers when she incorrectly warns that a sharp distinction needs to be made between organising and mobilising. She starts Chapter two of No Shortcuts identifying:

two distinct approaches to social change—the dominating mobilizing approach and the underused organizing approach. It proposes a blended approach called whole-worker organizing that tightly integrates workplace and nonworkplace issues, action, and learning into a holistic strategy.

Such “blending” can only be achieved by organising. Mobilising is dismissed both inside and outside the workplace:

such a fight rarely develops new organic community leaders—those involved are generally already involved, already pro-union priests and pro-union self-selecting activist types. They have not been recruited or trained systematically, and, so, this approach is not an organizing approach in the community, it is a mobilizing approach in and outside the workplace and isn’t expanding the worker army (my highlight).

Rank-and-file delegates know that this sharp distinction between mobilising and organising may fit with the way organisers operate but does not gel with their own experiences on the ground. For example, even building for a well-attended union workplace meeting that resolves to do something that matters to members involves both mobilising and organising. Members aren’t simply herded and organised by the delegate to come—they are motivated by a concrete reason for participating. Having debates prior to the meeting about what members should do about the issue they are confronting can turn the meeting itself into a form of action—a mobilising event.

Until there is a major social and political upsurge in Australia, it is improbable that 90 per cent of university workers would join the NTEU. Nor does the union need 90 per cent membership at a university to carry out actions that can win—as shown by successful campaigns among casuals at Melbourne Uni and RMIT, where overall membership is still low. We will go into enterprise bargaining with much less than 90 per cent membership, as we have before, but can still expect to win improvements in pay and conditions.

The aim of building, step-by-step, towards supermajority actions in the university sector is a naïve and disempowering distraction. In an industry where the NTEU currently covers fewer than 20 per cent of the workforce, such an approach sidelines the need for activists to seize every opportunity to build in the here and now—often by minority actions.

Kim Moody argues that McAlevey’s planned, step-by-step approach is a “static strategy”—far too prescriptive and apolitical to be used as a guide for activists seeking to build member power. Protests and occupations by unionists cannot be simply dismissed as navel-gazing performative pieces—a faux “mobilising” of already-committed activists. If timely and defiant, whether large or small, protests and workplace disputes are integral to building union solidarity and membership.

McAlevey has useful hints and methods for organising but, if used formulaically, these do not offer a practical guide to strengthen significant disputes and initiatives. The University of Melbourne campaigns show that rank-and-file unionists’ more dynamic approach of linking organising with mobilising through protests and occupations involving minorities has yielded spectacular results. Geraldine Fela, a union activist, explains their approach in a recent Solidarity article:

The casuals network at the University of Melbourne has grown to be one of the biggest and most vibrant in the country and casuals are now a force to be reckoned with on campus. Just two years ago, we were a small handful of union members who were sick of the systemic exploitation casuals face and disappointed with the official union response to casualisation. It was through taking decisive action, calling rallies in swift response to issues as they arose—whether it was the Working With Children’s Check, payment for lecture attendance, Covid leave or wage theft—that we were able to build activists and recruit people to the union.

The experience at the University of Melbourne shows that, contrary to the growing consensus around Jane McAlevey’s ‘No Shortcuts’, there is no step-by-step formula for politics. If we had waited to have a ‘super majority’ (or even a majority of casuals) recruited to the union to take action, we would still be waiting. It was the network’s willingness to take action quickly even with a small group of people initially, that enabled us to build the network and recruit to the union”.

Hundreds of casuals have joined the NTEU at the University of Melbourne based on campaigning that links mobilising with organising. Successfully pressing wage theft demands on management should not be counterposed to building relationships within the workplace, as McAlevey would have it.

It is a welcome development that activists are beginning to apply an adapted version of McAlevey’s approach that centres on the dynamic relationship (the “dialectic” as one CUPUW member put it in a recent chat thread) between mobilising and organising. Another leading activist in the campaign who is an avid McAlevey supporter, Annette Herrera, has coined a new term “strategic majorities” to help explain how minority actions can fit into McAlevey’s organising model. One could argue that deep organising is an essential but insufficient strategy until there is an equally deep strategic commitment to mobilising. There is also a more straightforward conclusion: at the University of Melbourne, an active delegates network was central as were one-on-one discussions led by these delegates. That is basic union organising. The Melbourne Uni casuals are winning because they didn’t wait around for a McAleveyian “majority” but often took risks and stretched themselves by, for example, marching into the Dean’s office.

The Casuals Summit recently held by CUPUW is adopting a somewhat similar organising-mobilising approach. In April between 60 and 70 casuals across many Australian campuses discussed the industrial, political and organisational issues they are confronting in their rank-and-file campaigning.

Building towards the Moment?

McAlevey’s model is a make-or-break set piece affair—all designed for building towards a big event, what she terms a Moment. In the United States this is either to achieve union recognition in a workplace or for an all-out strike to secure a new union contract. High hopes are placed in the Moment, as they should be. McAlevey dissects how the recent failure to get a union inside one Amazon warehouse shows these hopes can also be cruelly and unnecessarily dashed.

For McAlevey, “the craft of organizing helps people connect the dots between the critical, solidarity-affirming moment and the larger system it challenges”. NTEU members often take from this that the university-wide enterprise agreement disputes in the next 12 months will be their “solidarity-affirming moment” of serious strikes based on ambitious claims.

However, if rank-and-file organisation is to be sufficiently strengthened so that member ambitions are raised and strong industrial action has any chance of being realised, key aspects of McAlevey’s bureaucratic, step-by-step organising approach and her accompanying notion of “the moment” will need to be jettisoned.

The hundreds of new members joining the NTEU at the University of Melbourne were inspired, energised and organised by a series of petitions, protests and occupations over very concrete industrial issues in the last two years: payment for the $135 Working with Children Check required to teach students; COVID leave for casuals; backpay for each hour of essay marking. Workload issues were raised as a way of linking ongoing and casual staff into joint campaigns. The casuals network also supported political protests for trans rights and the release of refugees from detention.

None of this is part of McAlevey’s playbook. Protests and occupations are dismissed in No Shortcuts as the antithesis of organising, of simply “mobilising the already committed”. The rank-and-file experience of building successful campaigns at Melbourne University shows that being ambitious in organising protests is the key. Rather than one Moment, there are multiple “moments” from which member power can be built through the ambitious interplay of union actions and organising around a series of very concrete demands.

Working with and against the officials

Rank-and-file organising requires acting independently from the officials when necessary, but taking every opportunity to urge and encourage organisers, branch committees and senior officials into active support of their campaigning. The more effective any rank-and-file campaign develops, the more likely officials will come over to support it, thereby “giving permission” to more cautious workers to join the campaign.

At RMIT, the campaign by sessionals and other casuals to be paid the right marking rate exemplifies how rank-and-file groups work with the officials where possible but act independently when they must. The marking rate campaign is not only seeing big payouts for staff and management scrambling to check their books. Equally important is that organisers are recognising that these wins can help build confidence among all members and delegatesongoing and casual. The casuals network is being invited to speak at NTEU meetings across each school and work area. Members are endorsing motions that their delegate sends a demand to their Dean that casuals be paid the extra $19 per hour they are entitled to for marking. More casuals are coming to the RMIT casual network meetings where discussion about how and when we can escalate our actions into street protests is getting a preliminary hearing.

Tensions also emerge when the casuals network acts more independently. The officials agreed to take a long-running dispute in the School of Management led by the casuals network to the Fair Work Commission. The close collaboration between the casuals network and the local Industrial Officer over how to run the case broke down at the end of the hearing when Division and local officials decided to sign off on a settlement without agreement from the casuals network. As a result of their deal to keep confidential the workings of the joint management-NTEU working group set up to deal with the underpayments, the casuals network have been unable to use this dispute in their campaigning newsletter to members. Tensions also emerged in 2020 when the fortnightly newsletter published articles on CUPUW activities, the NHEAN public meeting and lessons from the UniMelb campaigns. Standing firm on the newsletter being sent out to the whole RMIT membership (by an organiser) is in a sense a continual testing of how building a bigger and more influential casuals network can put pressure on officials to “let through” articles they may formally disagree with. Shoehorning this way of organising into McAlevey’s model as “structure tests” does little to explain this dynamic between the rank-and-file and the officials. It also has nothing to say about tactically considering if, when and how mobilising could strengthen any campaign being run by members.

The upcoming NTEU elections

Appalled by their leaders’ JPF strategy in 2020, some of the best and most active NTEU members see the NTEU elections in mid-2021 as an opportunity to turf out some of the officials. However, most of the key national and division leaderships are not up for election this time round. All positions in branch committees will be contestable. NTEU members will also be voting for their division and national councillor representatives.

Nevertheless, the elections can be a significant opportunity to politically campaign for a fighting union, a platform—especially in the bigger branches—to organise a ticket aimed at helping build the actions they are involved in. Even in the smaller branches, rank-and-file unionists can use campaigning to respond to a central question of members—how are we going to fight against the crisis we face? Here McAlevey’s core idea of building momentum through member-led struggle held by many rank-and-file members is the main purpose to stand. Without having some significant local actions to politically argue for members to join in order to strengthen rank-and-file campaigning, there is little point in standing.

Simply bagging the current officials for not doing enough to build member power is not a strategy. It is no coincidence that both the officials and Fightback will be placing far greater importance on the upcoming elections than many activists. Rank-and-file groups not orienting to agitating and organising around concrete industrial demands have stagnated. McAlevey is being used by conservative and underconfident rank-and-file members on some campuses to excuse their inaction by arguing “we don’t have the numbers to call an action, we need to spend more time mapping” and so on.

In the early months of the crisis in 2020, NTEU Fightback’s opposition to the JPF rose like a rocket among disaffected members. However, by the second half of 2020, after the defeat of the national JPF ballot and the battles against the individual concessionary deals at some universities, attendance at Fightback meetings fell like a stick. At the University of Melbourne (where successful opposition to the JPF was primarily led by activists not associated with Fightback) rank-and-file activists kept up the momentum by quickly pivoting to an escalating series of actions around concrete industrial problems: wage theft; contracting out of gardeners; workloads. In contrast at RMIT, where Fightback had a larger presence, the only post-JPF actions to emerge (such as the campaign by Library members to defend their jobs and the Casuals Network campaigns around marking rates) had little to no involvement from Fightback. Instead of throwing themselves into building momentum through organising and mobilising rank-and-file campaigns, Fightback increasingly tends to report from the sidelines.

In many ways, Fightback, despite its radical rhetoric, now echoes the same conservative approach and argument as the officialsthat everyone’s energy should be centred on preparing for the forthcoming enterprise agreement round (due in mid to late-2021 in some states, and possibly 2022 in Victoria). Both the officials and Fightback lean on the more static and conservative elements in McAlevey’s writings to retreat into a step-by-step recipe of mapping topped up with a steady diet of EA-focused workplace meetings that do not deal with immediate, concrete issues members can take action around.

Vice-Chancellors must be laughing about such a conservative non-plan. Every action taken now is an essential element to building any successful union campaign in the future. McAlevey reserves her most caustic comments for those who think members’ action can be turned on and off like a tap. If asked, she would likely say that this is the opposite of her organising approach. Even through her restricted political and industrial lens, she is right to argue that it is members’ experiences of taking action (big or small) as soon as organisationally possible that paves the way for building member power to take the strike actions sorely needed in the next EA round.

The adoption of a more passive rendering of McAlevey means that neither Fightback nor the officials put struggle in the here and now at the centre of their strategy. Electioneering is just the flipside of this conservative approach—seeing a false shortcut to building the union without members taking action.

Strategically, rank-and-file activists need to avoid thinking that there is a simple electoral solution to the problems their members face by voting in “better” officials. The elections should be seen as a political opportunity for strengthening their rank-and-file campaigning. It is not an activist orientation for a candidate to say a member should vote for them simply because they represent a particular workplace, employment role (such as a casual), or even industrial approach (“more democracy” or “anti-JPF”). Standing has to be for building rank and file self-activity—for agitational reasons. Calling to build a fighting union without the candidate already leading a campaign on the ground is a dead end exercise.

Rank-and-file strategy and the NTEU

For many unionists, McAlevey’s strategy appears to make common sense. However, as Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci observed, there’s a world of difference (and also connection) between common sense and good sense. It may seem obvious that we need a plan—and McAlevey provides one. However, even the basic thrust of her approach—building member-led momentum—does not make good sense as it falls short of what is needed to build effective rank-and-file campaigns.

There are three areas where McAlevey is found wanting: the nature of the union bureaucracy, the decentring of rank-and-file self-activity in favour of paid organisers, and the too-prescriptive step-by-step plan to one Moment.

Building rank-and-file organisation means putting pressure on officials to support campaigns and attempting to act independently when they don’t. Organising from below involves protests and other actions around often small, concrete issues. It is through these moments that member power is built.

The campaigns at the University of Melbourne and Medical Science staff at the University of Sydney pushed away from—if not broke—most of McAlevey’s maxims. Organisers did not play a central role—the members developed their own leaderships and actions. Flexibility—not a static, staged plan of mapping and so on—was key to integrating agitation, protests and organising. Working with the officials—such as inviting a Branch Secretary to a protest—was balanced against standing up to them when barriers were placed in their way. This is not “three sides to two”. At the centre of any rank-and-file strategy is cohering and leading member-led action. To do so will mean seeking out and seizing every concrete opportunity to take minority and “ad hoc” actions at time—something that is anathema to McAlevey.

Digging underneath McAlevey’s approach reveals her promised model for activists falls into the hands of organisers—not theirs. Her misunderstandings of the nature of the union bureaucracy, placing the activities of paid organisers at the centre of her strategy, fixating on one Moment, and de-linking organising from mobilising all fatally weaken her model. We need to focus elsewhere: to look at how feisty rank-and-file networks are building their campaigns.

Responses and other contributions welcome either by email to [email protected] or by leaving a comment below


Luxemburg, Rosa. The Mass Strike: The Political Party and Trade Unions. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1971.

McAlevey, Jane. A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy. New York: Harper Collins, 2020.

McAlevey, Jane. No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Moody, Kim. “Reversing the ‘Model’: Thoughts on Jane McAlevey’s Plan for Union Power.” Spectre 1, no. 2 (2020): 61-77.


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