A Collective Bargain

Workplace democracy is a training ground for true national democracy.

Cory Doctorow


The cover of the Harpercollins edition of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain.”

I’m at the LA Times Festival of Books this weekend! Today (Apr 24) at 11AM, I’m signing for California Book Club at booth 111. At 12:30, I’m doing a panel called “The Accidental Detective” with Alex Segura, Margot Douaihy and SJ Rozan.

Now, if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong
But if you all stick together, boys, it won’t be long
You get shorter hours, better working conditions
Vacations with pay. Take your kids to the seashore-

-Pete Seeger, Talking Union Blues

For years — decades — unions seemed like a relic, an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. American union participation nosedived in the Reagan years and continued to decline, year after year, with no bottom in sight.

Until 2018.

Waves of strikes crisscrossed America: first teachers, then healthcare workers. Then unions began to pop up: Starbucks, online news sites, tech workplaces. Then, unions notorious for ossification and corruption underwent massive leadership shakeups: Teamsters, UAW.

And yet, amid the surge, there were setbacks and disappointments. The Amazon union won their vote in spite of the company’s all-out, money-is-no-object assault on its workers — but then, they couldn’t get a contract. Neither could those Starbucks baristas.

The bosses mobilized an army of high-priced white-shoe, anti-labor lawyers who found a million pretexts for fighting the union in courts, and sometimes they even won. It became increasingly clear that American labor law had been transformed into a tool for protecting capital from labor, rather than the other way around.

Is workplace democracy a lost art? Can the American worker even dream of a living wage, medical benefits, a decent retirement, family vacations and the right to a jobsite free from harassment, bullying and physical danger?

Hell yes.

Jane McAlevey is a union organizer. She started her career as an environmental activist, and that’s how she found herself fighting alongside labor organizers…