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Jane McAlevey on learning from the best traditions of labour organizing



Jane McAlevey,

Thousands of protesters gather on the last day of a three-day national strike in protest of the new law. Protesters clash with security officers on the final day of a three-day national strike over a new law that critics fear will benefit investors at the expense of labour and environmental rights in Malang. November 8, 2020, Malang, East Java, Indonesia. picture alliance / | Bayu Novanta

Throughout September and October, thousands of activists and unionists from seventy countries participated in the international “Strike School” organizing training led by Jane McAlevey and sponsored by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

Jane McAlevey is a union organizer, scholar, and author of multiple books including No Shortcuts (Oxford University Press, 2016). She spoke with Eric Blanc of Jacobin Magazine, where this article first appeared. Reprinted with permission.

Jacobin’s Eric Blanc spoke with McAlevey about the key lessons of the course, the reasons why this tradition has been marginalized within organized labour, and the ways smart organizing methods can help rebuild working-class politics and transform unions today.

EB: Can you talk about Strike School, who participated, and what its main purpose was?

JM: To be honest, we organized Strike School partly in response to the increase of talk about strikes and general strikes. A lot of people now are saying we need a general strike, so it seemed like exactly the right time to dig into organizing fundamentals and teach how to build to supermajority strikes—the kind that we need to stop the Right and turn things around for the working class.

Strike School has turned into an important space for the past two months—it’s really been something to see this blossom. There were thousands of participants from seventy countries, and all the trainings and materials are translated into Arabic, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Hebrew, and German. It’s sponsored by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, which is beautiful—to be able to carry on Rosa’s name today and to keep the idea of strikes, big strikes, alive.

We designed the course to emphasize the fundamentals of organizing—and linked these specifically to how we develop strike-ready unions. But there are also a whole bunch of fantastic tenants’ rights and climate organizations involved, who are also applying these lessons to their work.

I get so many emails that I can’t keep up with, where people say, “I want to learn the stuff you write about.” I decided one thing that I can do for those who can’t read the books—which is many people—is to partner with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung to get out there a couple of times a year to teach like crazy. This time, for this Strike School, we required people to register as groups. Getting strike ready is not about individuals—it’s about people who can form organizations together, even if they start small.

And if there’s one thing that unites Strike School, beyond its radical politics centred around bottom-up change, it’s a commitment to building a specific method of organizing: structure-based organizing. Because it’s not just enough to fight. What our side needs is to fight back and win. And to do that we need to learn and relearn the fundamentals of organizing.

One of the big arguments that ties together the specific trainings taught in Strike School, and that you’ve written about in books like No Shortcuts, is the difference between “organizing” and “mobilizing.” Can you spell out that difference and why you think it’s so important?

It’s really urgent that we understand this difference, particularly for leftists and progressives. Mobilizing means we’re talking to our already engaged base to take action. The act of mobilizing anyone into an election or into a strike or a protest by definition means you’re talking with the people who already agree with you.

Mobilizing is not organizing—it’s getting the folks who already agree with you to get off the couch and do something. The Left spends a lot of time mobilizing.

Don’t get me wrong, we actually also have to get better at mobilizing too, by learning to be more systematic. But before we can have a strike mobilization, the deeper part of Strike School is how to get to the 90 percent of workers you need to be ready to be mobilized for the strike. A strike vote is the ultimate test of whether the necessary organizing has been done.

The organizing work is much harder and it’s not very well understood and not as sexy. In the US, for example, to make a strike real and effective—and to have the power to deliver the kinds of demands workers are making—you need north of 90 percent to walk out.

That’s why what was won by teachers in Los Angeles and Chicago was so substantial. To get to that point is really hard work. And the broader and more diverse the workforce, the more complex the project of trying to build unity and solidarity across races, gender, immigration status, across shifts, across different identities.

So the question “how do you move workers to a project that they believe they don’t agree with?” is fundamental to the question of building power and getting strike ready. Most people, including most socialists, don’t understand that we don’t just call for a strike. It’s about building and expanding the universe of people who are with us in this struggle for justice.

The central concept of the course is that, for organizers, we wake up every morning asking how to engage the people who don’t agree with us—or who think they don’t agree with us. These folks are definitely not part of our social media feeds and they’re not coming to our activist meetings, they’re not there.

In Strike School, we do a power analysis of what it will take to get to something like a 100 percent strike. This means you are taking a lot of time engaging with those who don’t want to engage with us and for whom having some skills in your conversations is actually going to matter.

That’s why it’s so important to teach the difference between organizing and mobilizing, and focus on teaching the skills required to move the hardest to move people in order to bring about the kind of solidarity and unity required for a successful strike.

If this method of organizing is so powerful, why do you think this tradition has gotten lost not only in the US, but in so much of the world?

It’s a good question, but I’d like to reframe it: I think the tradition was not “lost”—I think it was beaten, jailed and (depending on the country) murdered out of most of the movement.

In the US, you can really look at [the 1947 anti-union legislation] Taft-Hartley and McCarthyism as a turning point. This was a moment when capitalists understood the very real threat of workers building class solidarity across race and gender. It was a period, with the complicity of some trade union leaders, where there was a real effort to destroy the traditions that built the powerful unions formed in the 1930s.

For those union leaders who were wilfully complicit in going along with the purges of radicals at the time, it showed a real naivety about the fact that, in the long term, their own unions and the lives of their members would eventually be destroyed or hugely undermined by these same capitalist forces.

After, with the turn to business unionism, many of these labour leaders thought workers would just stay put, that unions would have institutional security for life. That was a radical misunderstanding of how power works and how people work.

The skills we’re passing on in Strike School are skills I learned from extraordinary mentors in the real tradition from the old 1199 [health care workers’ union]. They’re skills that were beaten out of the movement and worse. You can see that looking across the world: many of the same methods of deep organizing cross international borders, and that’s why many political leaders in all sorts of countries jail and murder and do everything possible to beat the most effective leaders out of the movement. So the more we can teach these skills today, the better.

What do you think the Left and socialists can learn from this method of organizing for class politics more generally, not only for union organizing?

The methods and the discipline of structure-based organizing in the workplace apply generally to building a stronger Left. There’s a lot of those lessons.

The first is foundational: Do you spend most of your day talking to people who don’t agree with you? If you’re serious about building class politics, the answer is yes. That’s the first strategic choice.

Are you spending all your time in the units in the hospital or the schools in a district where people already agree with you and your numbers are pretty good? The answer, if you’re building a strike-ready union, is that you’re focused on the places where there’s real opposition and where people think they don’t agree with you. The same goes for how we build a strong Left.

The second big lesson is that there’s actually a method for how to do this. In the old days, the thing that really turned me off from the organized US left was that every time I would show up at a Left conference, I’d be immediately swarmed by white guys hawking papers in four-point font with their political line. And that’s not going to build a class-based, effective movement that’s tackling race and gender.

What you have to do is come to appreciate and understand the person you’re taking with, and really respect that they may have come to conclusions different from yours based on a set of social conditions in their life that might be radically different from the organizer’s. That’s one of the things that separates an organizer from an activist: We understand our job is to have patience and appreciate where the person you’re engaging with is coming from, why they might be that way, and how you can actually with that person help them come to the conclusion that they want a different country, that they want a different political-economic system than the one we have.

That type of change does not come from lecturing people, from talking at them, or making judgments about them.

I’ve seen some people claim—and I think it’s unfair—that the methods you teach are only relevant for union leaders and staffers, not for transforming the labour movement from the bottom-up. How do you look at the relationship between the methods taught in Strike School and the question of how socialists can most effectively help build and transform the labour movement?

First of all, whether you’re inside the rank-and-file strategically because you took a job there or whether you’re outside the rank-and-file because you mapped the entire national health care industry and you understand which eight cities can collapse the system—both are good ideas in our country.

For me, the question is whether you understand your role as an organizer as fundamentally doing radical political education. Are you skilling people up? And do you start by understanding that you respect the social conditions that formed and framed different people? That’s a respect, and a value, and a method of work that you can do effectively positioned inside or outside.

I think it’s great, as you know, for people to take jobs in strategic industries. But I think the over-romanticization of that can be dangerous. Part of why we’re doing Strike School is that there is a skill set to doing the harder work. It isn’t rocket science, but it is a skill set, whether you’re going into the workplace or whether you’re approaching the workplace from the outside. Winning matters—and so having some appreciation of the method and the skill really matters.

That’s why we’re doing Strike School, because people need to be exposed to what are the best methods to move a really hard conversation and why do you wake up focusing on the hardest to move unit and not on the unit where all the workers want to talk to you.

We’re trying to stitch together the talk about a general strike and the reality about how we get there. The same is true for class politics more broadly. When people ask me, “why don’t you teach a class on how to transform unions?”, my answer is that this is basically the same skill. Because if you can’t first build majority support for changing your local union, you need to stop calling for a general strike.

How do you transform unions? It’s the same skill. You need to learn how to build majority and supermajority support. That’s the real lesson from Chicago and Los Angeles. When you show you can win over a majority of your co-workers to a different version of their own trade union, that’s step one.

Everything we discussed in Strike School, starting with leader identification, how to have successful hard conversations, understanding the issues that matter most to each worker you are engaging, to learning how to make and move a majority petition—all that translates into learning how to win. Really good organizing is really good organizing.