Dolber on Allinson, 'Workers Can Win: A Guide to Organising at Work (Wildcat)'

Ian Allinson. Workers Can Win: A Guide to Organising at Work (Wildcat). London: Pluto Press, 2022. xviii + 253 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7453-4781-3; $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7453-4782-0

Reviewed by Brian Dolber (California State University, San Marcos)
Published on H-Socialisms (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version:

Workplace Organizing Today

In the United States, support for unions is nearing an all-time high. According to a Gallup poll in 2022, 71 percent of Americans say they view unions favorably, a number not seen since 1965. Sixty years ago, however, about one in three workers were union members; today, that number is at an all-time low of one in ten. Within the private sector, it’s about one in sixteen. Clearly, the time is right (and, as many high-profile, independently organized campaigns indicate, it is possible) to organize large numbers of workers, particularly in industries that have long been ignored by the trade union movement, or that first emerged in the wake of the neoliberal onslaught—tech workers, baristas, app-based drivers, and delivery workers.

British workplace activist Ian Allinson’s Workers Can Win: A Guide to Organising at Work offers a useful handbook to help workers to seize this energy and build organizations themselves. The book is organized into twelve chapters, each of which concludes with a bulleted list of key points and several discussion questions, much like you might find in an intro-level textbook for a college course, and includes clever cartoons by Colin Revolting to help illustrate major points. The majority of the book outlines the necessary steps in workplace organizing and helps workers who might lack even a basic understanding of unions to begin to build power and move toward industrial action.

While the book’s nature is praxis-oriented and its style is reminiscent of the For Dummies series, Allinson’s theoretical perspective is rooted in a Marxist critique of capitalism. “Conflict is the inevitable consequence of how work is organized in a capitalist society,” he writes, “[which] can build immense power in the collective hands of people with good reasons to benefit the whole of humanity and our environment” (p. 8). As the aim, then, is to struggle for socialism, Allinson offers a nuanced perspective on the role of unions. Rather than being an end in themselves, Allinson sees unions as “imperfect tools,” providing structure and resources but never enough on their own to constitute worker power. “At one extreme,” he states, “there are those who see unions as businesses which provide services such as advice and representation to members. At the other, there are those who insist that ‘the members are the union.’... In truth, unions, once they achieve any scale, contain elements of both” (p. 19).

By centering the need to build power, Allinson’s guide is useful for workers in a wide range of industries who may or may not have unions, and who may or may not even have the right to collectively bargain. Importantly, he notes, “there are many workplaces where union members don’t stick together and don’t stand up to the boss. And there are some workplaces where workers act collectively without ever filling in a union membership form” (p. 14). He is also wise to draw attention to the crisis of misclassification, particularly rampant in the so-called gig economy, noting, “all employees are workers but not all workers are employees. You have more rights as an employee than a worker, and more as a worker than as self-employed” (p. 110).

Unions themselves, then, are sites of struggle requiring rank-and-file involvement to ensure that they best serve the aim of building collective worker power. Workers Can Win thus helps demystify the organizing process, which has become largely professionalized. This professionalization, according to critics such as Jane McAlevey, has been part of the US labor movement’s Achilles’ heel in recent decades, moving struggles from the shop floors to the legislative chambers, ballot boxes, and media ecosystem. As Allinson writes primarily for a British audience, he would do well to make his intervention more explicitly critical and show how similar trends have emerged in the UK context.

Allinson usefully notes in chapter 4 that the distinctions between different union models (servicing, advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing) are not quite discrete, as McAlevey sometimes suggests, but exist on a spectrum. Thus, in chapter 3 (“Starting Out,”) he argues that one of the first things workers interested in organizing should do is research their employer. “You will know quite a bit just from working somewhere,” he writes. “But there will be lots you don’t know, and some of what you think you know won’t be right” (p. 37). He suggests looking at public websites, setting up news alerts, reading public documents, and learning about competitors through the trade press. In so doing, Allinson makes an implicit case for workers’ ability to perform many of the roles that some unions reserve for well-educated and (sometimes) highly paid staff. Such practices have become more realistic for many workers with an interest in organizing to take on, given the accessibility of technologies, the precaritization of white-collar work, and higher levels of education among workers throughout the economy, particularly in the service sector.

Similarly, chapter 5 (“Choosing and Communicating About Issues”) and chapter 6 (“How to Organize”) explain tactics that are often the purview of media specialists and staff organizers. Allinson explains how to identify workplace issues through structured organizing conversations, and how to frame them in ways that advance strategic aims in personal conversation, written communication, and newsletters. Again, Allinson shows a willingness, rooted in dialectical thinking, to critically engage with compromised tendencies in the labor movement in order to achieve practical ends. “Sometimes we draw on ideas from managerial ideology …, trying to turn them to our own advantage,” he writes. “Workers can turn all these against management—but at the price of strengthening these ideas, which generally works against us” (pp. 61-62). Later, in chapter 8 (“Planning Action”), he refers to Antonio Gramsci and adds, “pro-management ideology doesn’t completely dominate—or there would be no resistance” (p. 150).

In chapter 6, Allinson discusses the important distinctions between leaders and activists and how to map and chart a workplace, perform structure tests, and build communication networks. Also as a challenge to the professionalized organizing model, Allinson emphasizes the importance of centering a commitment to democracy through the organizing process, noting “nothing significant affecting union members should be agreed without them having the opportunity to understand, discuss, and vote on it” (p. 102). However, he correctly balances this with an understanding that maintaining a strong, democratic union requires strong leadership. He recounts how his revelation at a strike meeting that management was preparing to victimize him “panicked and disoriented members rather than channeling their anger in a constructive manner” (p. 106).

Chapter 7 (“Using Your Rights”) helps explain legal knowledge to workers, and advocates for using the law as a means to advance organizing aims. Again, Allinson’s dialectical thinking is put toward praxis as he notes that “rights are double-edged,” the product of “victories of the past” while “belonging to the very states and employers that our organizing challenges” (p. 110). Touching on a wide range of legal issues, Allinson shows how labor law, even given the limitations, can be used as a powerful organizing tool, a perspective that few lawyers foreground. Allinson also suggests using employee forums and works councils as vehicles for building worker power. Here, the book may be less useful for readers outside of the UK, although the theoretical perspective on rights offers workers a useful way of thinking about their relationship to the state within all liberal democratic, capitalist countries. Chapter 8 also brilliantly explains various forms of power workers hold and aims to help organizers think strategically about how and where to exert it. Importantly, he discusses exercising leverage against secondary targets, illegal in the UK. As he states in chapter 9 (“Industrial and Direct Action”), “if solidarity is to go beyond messages and money, it often has to circumvent or defy the law,” a militancy rarely articulated among US union leaders (p. 179).

In the final three chapters, Allinson explains “the complexities you’ll face as you organize” (p. 194). He explores management tactics (chapter 10), dealing with your union (chapter 11), and common pitfalls faced during campaigns (chapter 12). In chapter 10 he explains how management initiatives to maintain control impact workers ideologically through work intensification and disruption, and offers practical advice for avoiding being derailed and divided by management strategies. In chapter 11 (“Dealing with Your Union”), Allinson states, “unions are inherently contradictory. They are organizations of resistance to employers but we also use unions to agree to the terms of our exploitation with management” (p. 210). Allinson offers suggestions for navigating this tension particularly as it becomes manifest through relationships between the rank and file and negotiators and paid staff. “The differences between members and paid officers mean that unions aren’t just tools for workers to fight employers and government, they are also sites of struggle” (p. 213). In chapter 12, Allinson focuses on the need to build organizational cultures that limit burnout. He goes on to explain how unions aren’t enough because “a better world, one not founded on the grotesque inequality of wage labor and the pursuit of profit, means replacing capitalist society with a socialist one, rather than just reducing the degree of our exploitation” (p. 230).

Thus, Allinson concludes by explaining how the labor movement needs “socialists within both [union bureaucracies and rank-and-file organizations] to fight in our corner,” as well as “socialists who are committed to completely replacing capitalism” (pp. 231, 233). Such an agenda would work, he argues, to “make connections between different parts of our movement, in work and communities, overcoming sectionalism and localism” as well as “those resisting other forms of oppression or environmental breakdown” (p. 233). Here, Allinson could do more to demonstrate how worker organizing might connect with other specific social movements. Further, while Allinson notes that “if white, male or able-bodied workers cling to preferential access to pay rises or jobs and don’t support their colleagues to fight racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression, then the whole workforce is weakened” (p. 201), the statement serves as a reminder that these issues should be considered more centrally within the author’s framework, or at the least, afforded a specific chapter. Allinson could better turn attention to the ways in which race, gender, and immigration status are used to structure labor processes, and how this offers both challenges and opportunities in the organizing process.

Overall, Workers Can Win is not only a useful “how to” guide but a powerful statement about the need and potential for rank-and-file organizing today. It would be best read among a small group of workers in the beginning stages of an organizing campaign. The book has great potential to stimulate discussion about the process of building power, while encouraging the development of a strategic campaign. Paired with books such as McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the Guilded Age (2016) and Joe Burns’s Class Struggle Unionism (2022), Allinson’s work expertly facilitates the much-needed opportunity for workers to think through how to approach their own liberation.

Citation: Brian Dolber. Review of Allinson, Ian, Workers Can Win: A Guide to Organising at Work (Wildcat). H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.