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Jane McAlevey on the need for a powerful labour movement in our crisis-ridden world


Jane McAlevey speaking at a conference on trade union renewal organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Braunschweig, Germany, 16 February 2019. Photo: Niels Schmidt

Few figures in the labour movement have generated more attention in recent years than Jane McAlevey. The California-based labour organizer has spent decades in the trenches building powerful and effective trade unions in a number of industries, while also serving as a Senior Policy Fellow at the University of California in Berkeley and writing four books on labour strategy, not to mention countless articles and a regular column for The Nation.

Jane McAlevey has been an organizer and negotiator in the labour movement for over 20 years. Since 2019, she has led the training programme “Organizing for Power” sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

At the core of McAlevey’s message is the need for trade unions to engage in the hard slog of workplace organizing. She argues that trade unions have become too complacent over the last few decades, favouring institutional agreements, flashy public relations, and campaigning tools taken from the NGO world over the traditional approach of recruiting individual workers and fighting workplace by workplace. As the power of organized labour continues to decline across most of the industrialized world, she argues, the only viable pathway to a revival is the approach that established trade unions’ institutional strength back in the first half of the twentieth century: organizing.

That approach also guides McAlevey’s international training programme sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, “Organizing for Power” or O4P. Now in its fourth year of operation, O4P has trained tens of thousands of workers and labour organizers around the world, and is offered in eight languages on six continents. After wrapping up her most recent course, “The Core Fundamentals”, Jane McAlevey sat down with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Loren Balhorn to talk about how she became an organizer, why trade unions are essential to the fight for a better world, and where she sees the labour movement going in the years to come.

You’ve been a labour organizer and researcher for over three decades now, with four books under your belt and more successful campaigns than I can count. I’d be curious to know: how did you get politicized, and what drew you to the trade union movement as opposed to other forms of activism?

Trade unions were synonymous with apple pie and the flag in my household growing up. My father understood very clearly that his family only survived the Great Depression because of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. He was Scots-Irish, a very typical immigrant background. His family were all carpenters who came to America in the late 1800s, joined the trade unions, and fought like good leftists.

By the time I was born, he was a full-time campaigning politician in New York — Bernie Sanders-style, I would say — who was put into office and sustained in office by the trade unions. My mother died when I was three or four years old. Even as an adult, I can’t imagine what that was like for him, but as a little girl I had no idea — mom was gone, and my other siblings were in school.

As a little girl, I was literally embraced and raised by the working class in the unions. Since I wasn’t in school yet, my father would park me at the Carpenters’ Hall while he worked. I spent my childhood being raised by his secretaries, who were unionized, public sector employees, and by the Brotherhood of Boilermakers and the Brotherhood of Carpenters. When I went to school a couple of years later, I would joke that I had six real brothers, but I felt like I had 400. That had a real impact on me.

Coming from that kind of background, did you go directly into the labour movement after finishing university?

I was first involved in student politics, and that was significant for me because we had a strong student union. I learned a lot about what not to do: you don’t take people out on strike without a plan, you actually have to figure out who the decision makers are and how you can pressure them.

I also learned that from my father’s campaigns. Around the house, people would say, “They’re coming after us on this policy. How are we going to beat them?” I was just sitting there, being tutored by listening to these people. I denied it for years, but looking back, it’s so obvious. Of course, it all mattered.

Most people don’t know this, but I worked full-time in the environmental justice movement before becoming a labour organizer. Environmental justice was a people of colour-led movement that exploded around what was known as the “Right-To-Know Law”. In 1988, Americans were allowed to petition to find out what toxic pollution was coming out of the factories in their neighbourhood for the first time. That was a game changer, because these corporations were literally poisoning black and brown communities.

How did that experience shape your outlook?

I was in my early 20s, working in the American South at the Highlander Research and Education Center and on the National Toxics Campaign, trying to shut down these factories that were wiping out whole black communities. I worked alongside Tony Mazzochi, the leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, and a trail-blazing socialist who unfortunately died way too early. He was the first person to ever use the phrase “just transition”.

The trade union movement is a laboratory for understanding how to build unity.

As a union leader in one of the most planet-killing sectors of the economy, so to speak, he was the first to understand that this industry couldn’t be fixed. If we want to save the planet, we have to eliminate these technologies — but we aren’t going to do it on the backs of our union brothers, we’re going to make the companies pay for it. That’s something the climate movement is only catching up with now, 40 years later.

Under Mazzochi’s influence, I concluded that I had to go into the trade union movement. I cared about saving the planet, but there was simply no way to challenge capitalism unless we could build strong trade unions led by the workers themselves. Frankly, we couldn’t change these toxic, polluting industries unless the workers themselves had the power to demand the changes they deserved.

You came to the conclusion that the Left has to prioritize building trade unions through your experience in the environmental justice movement?

That was the lesson I took from Tony Mazzochi. If we understand that capitalism essentially requires only one thing, labour, and that we can control it, then the only way we can effectively vie for power under a capitalist system is if we really get the workers united to walk off the job and shut it down. I don’t mean a handful of people walking out with a sign, I mean really shutting it down.

That’s how we can contend for power in this thing called “democracy”, which is actually democratic capitalism. We can vote, sure, but if you look at the United States, for example, the key decisions about the economy are actually made by the business elite, who also control Congress. The Left can continue to win local and state elections as we’ve been doing, but unless we have what I call “governing power”, meaning strong organizations that can force politicians to do what we tell them to, they often end up being controlled by the big business folks anyway.

The alternative is not to abandon electoral politics, I’m a big believer in elections, but one won’t work without the other — we have to build governing power. That means we need strong trade unions that can walk off the job and tip the political balance of forces in our favour.

Trade unions are also crucial in terms of uniting people. I’ve worked with working-class people of colour my whole life — it isn’t like I don’t understand the depth of oppression that women of colour face in this country — but there won’t be a solution unless we can figure out how and where we can unite everybody, and that’s in the basic struggles for survival, for quality of life, for a decent job, healthcare, housing, or clean drinking water.

The trade union movement is a laboratory for understanding how to build unity. After all, the working class is multiracial. We’ve got to work around unifying issues. It’s not the Filipino nurse’s fault that her white co-worker’s wages went down, even if she might think that, but the hospital owner who is dividing them up among each other and paying all of them too little. If you want the Filipino, white, and black nurses to start talking to each other, you have to focus on the things they have in common, like their wage packet or staffing levels. Only then can you start to unpack other historical oppressions.

Let’s talk about trade unions in the US, where you’ve done most of your organizing. There have been a few bright spots, like the teachers’ strikes of the last decade, but on the whole, the rate of trade union organization in the US is the lowest it’s been in living memory. As someone who was involved in trade union “renewal” initiatives in the 1990s, how would you explain this ongoing decline — and can it be reversed?

The answer is in the title of my book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. When the book came out in 2016, I insisted that they leave the subtitle in. The inclusion of the term “gilded age” was strategic. I was trying to make a very particular point: we are back in an era of robber barons, and we have to fight like we did back then.

I worked for the New Voice leadership that took over the AFL-CIO in the 1990s, and for a few years, we did some great work. It was very exciting: we were organizing workplaces and changing the political structure of the whole region. We had all sorts of new rank-and-file workers who realized they could run for office. But they began to threaten the power structure in the national union, and pretty soon the money started to dry up.

People are not rising up on their own, it’s just not happening. They’re tired, exhausted, beaten down. People are angry, but how to fight has to be taught, and that anger has to be channelled.

So, that was part of it, the iron law of oligarchy — unions saying, “Yeah, we want to organize, but not that much.” But essentially, the renewal efforts were not renewal efforts based on organizing, but on mobilizing. The union leadership was very influenced by Silicon Valley at the time and was convinced that if we just got some telegenic workers in front of a TV camera with bullhorns, that would be enough. There’s this word “activate” — it sounds like you’re putting a battery in someone. I heard it all the time when I was working for a national union: “We’ve just got to activate 2 million voters this year.”

That’s the point I wanted to make when I wrote No Shortcuts: while the national leaderships are spending millions on PR and “mobilizing” and still losing, there are hundreds of organizers — I call them my “tribe” — who are winning with worker-centred organizing. None of the national unions are doing this. None of the national union leaders except for Sara Nelson are really interested in organizing.

I’m not sure that I quite understand the difference. How would you distinguish organizing from mobilizing?

A mobilizing or activist approach is about getting the people who already agree with you to participate — that’s what confuses people, because it is about participation. If you have 5,000 people at a climate march, that’s great! But the city has 10 million people. It’s good, but absolutely insufficient, and that’s where organizing comes in.

Organizing starts with the assumption that people are smart, and given a little time to understand why they are poor and struggling, they will fight for themselves. So, for organizers, the biggest difference is we spend as little time as possible talking to people who agree with us. We’re focused on mass political education and getting people to understand why they should stop blaming the immigrant worker next to them and start understanding that it’s actually the boss who is ruining their life.

The most important thing that my mentors taught me is that the working class is told they’re stupid every day. They’ve been conditioned to think the manager is the manager for a reason. An organizer’s job is to teach workers to have confidence in themselves and their capacity to act against their employer. That’s fundamental — the class can’t act if it doesn’t believe it can act.

That lesson goes back to when I was a kid. If we were out for a drive and my father saw a road crew digging a ditch in the rain, he would pull over the station wagon and make whoever was in the car get out and thank them for working in the rain. That was very foundational for me: you have to have deep respect for workers. You have to believe that you are surrounded by geniuses, that every nurse is just as capable of running the hospital as any manager.

So what, concretely, does that organizing look like? What makes an effective organizing drive?

Workers have to be able to build what we call a “tight” workplace structure — identifying the workers who are most trusted by their colleagues, whom we call “organic leaders”. Then, we have to focus on bringing them into the organizing.

Once we have organic leaders involved, we do what we call “structure tests”. That means we send them around the workplace with a pen and paper, asking their co-workers to sign up to strike. The goal is to get a “super-majority” to commit — not just 50 percent, but 90 percent. Then you go through department by department, making sure that you have super-majorities across the workplace and devoting your attention to the areas where organic leadership is weaker and maybe needs some help.

Like I said before, you don’t take workers out on strike if you don’t have the numbers and a plan to win. By building high participation, we can get to successful mass strikes and, ultimately, working-class power.

Are there any recent labour struggles that you could point to as embodying this kind or organizing?

There was an unprecedented strike in Ontario last November, one of the most dynamic in decades, with 55,000 childcare and early adult education workers from the Canadian Union of Public Employees, who had been hit by right-wing spending cuts. The specific organizers who led the strike had been taking courses with us at Organizing for Power, and I’d been working with them since my earliest work in Canada.

The truth is, I don’t think the strikes are going to stop. The question is: are we going to learn how to win?

They led what was almost the first general strike in Canada in 100 years. They notified the government that they were getting ready to strike, which they had to do because the government passed an unbelievably draconian anti-strike law. The new law mandated fines of up to 500,000 dollars per day for the union and up to 4,000 for workers if they went on strike. These are workers who earn 30,000 dollars at best, and under that pressure, they still walked.

A declaration of a general strike came out. The Ontario provincial unions came together and said: “If you don’t fix this problem, in a week the whole province is shutting down.” These 55,000 workers, a lot of them women immigrants, took on Canada’s most obnoxious, right-wing premier and beat him. He repealed the law within days, and they went on to win not a great contract, but a good contract.

It must be gratifying to see organizers you trained actually win.

It’s so gratifying, but especially for them! We finally had a win!

That’s something that really frustrates me about parts of the Left. People are not rising up on their own, it’s just not happening. They’re tired, exhausted, beaten down. People are angry, but how to fight has to be taught, and that anger has to be channelled. Some people claim that what I teach is a “top-down” model, but I think it’s the most bottom-up model there is. There is nothing I have said to an organizer that I wouldn’t say to any worker in every campaign I’ve organized.

Look at the resistance right now in Ukraine: you’ve got the standing army, the skilled experts, who have to train the volunteers to fight. I’m not sure if that analogy works, but I see my tribe of organizers as the standing army, the experts, who are very skilled and have to train the people’s army to fight. The class struggle is the same.

You mentioned Organizing for Power, the global training seminars for labour organizers you have been holding together with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation for the last few years. To what extent do your methods, which you developed in the US, translate into international contexts? Does each country or culture need its own approach to organizing?

When I was first dragged into doing these global trainings in 2019, I felt quite self-conscious about being a white person from the United State leading a training programme for people in other parts of the world. There were people in the class from unions like the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, people who had participated in revolutions that I read about in the 1980s, and I was like “Really, we’re training NUMSA?”

I had done some successful work in Ireland with the Communication Workers’ Union in 2013, so I knew the strategy could cross borders. But could it work in the Global South? Could it reach much different cultures? Would it work in Latin America, or in Africa?

I definitely had a lot of hesitation, but at the end of the day, capitalism is now global, and it’s exporting the same union-busting methods into all of our countries. We are not going to win this fight if it’s not a global movement. We’re not going to win this from the heart of Europe and North America. We’re going to win this all throughout the African continent, everywhere where a certain level of capitalism has been established.

Incidentally, that’s where programme attendees are showing up from. We’ve had Brazilian organizers attend in huge numbers, or the Colombian call centre workers whom we helped organize. A few years ago, the Utility Workers of Tanzania showed up to the programme. After the training, they sent us a note saying, “Our growth rate used to be a few hundred workers every year. Now we have 10,000 new members.” That’s what good trade union organizing is, and there are plenty of places you can do it.

We’ve seen an ongoing organizing drive at Starbucks and a series of strikes and walk-outs at Amazon over the last year, and a number of European countries are looking at big fights in the public sector in 2023. What do you think the future has in store for the workers’ movement — are more strikes on the horizon?

The truth is, I don’t think they’re going to stop. The question is: are we going to learn how to win? Can we get people ready to fight and teach them how to win fast enough? The militants — or at least, the militants who don’t believe in organizing — seem to think that there is enough heat out there and that the world is just going to rise up in struggle, but that isn’t how it works. We have to train people, and we have to do it as fast as we can because our tribe won’t be around forever.

That’s actually why I started to write: the generation that trained me is dying, and they didn’t write books. I didn’t get a manual when I started organizing. The only way to do the work was to be apprenticed by another organizer.

That also brings us back to how Organizing for Power got started: when the pandemic hit and the lockdowns started, we asked ourselves how we could keep training and passing on these methods we had inherited from worker-leaders before us. We got to brainstorming, and decided to experiment with massive, online training courses. It was challenging and intimidating at first, but I think it’s been a huge success.