Get Organized to Win! - Jane McAlevey Pt 1

One of the world’s leading “organizers’ organizer” Jane McAlevey has trained thousands of activists in building more militant unions and winning electoral organizing; she sees the fight for effective unions as critical to winning transformative climate policy. Jane tells her story to Paul Jay on Reality Asserts Itself.


Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on theAnalysis.news. I’ll be back in a minute with a guest I’ve been wanting to talk to for years, Jane McAlevey. Jane is one of the leading union organizers in the world. We’ll be back in a minute. 

Doing interviews on theAnalysis is sometimes frustrating. Analyzing the world, hopefully providing viewers with a deeper understanding about how power is wielded, how class society operates, historical context for seeing the patterns of the forces that drive our society, how the economy works, why there’s systemic racism, the dangers of militarization, climate change, and nuclear war, what effective solutions look like, and what a different kind of society might look like. No doubt all this work is valuable, but it’s not organizing. And without real, on the ground organizing at workplaces, schools, and communities, theAnalysis will remain just interesting talk.

I’ve always hoped what I do at theAnalysis will support the work of organizers in the field and that’s why I’m very excited about this series of interviews with Jane McAlevey. She’s the organizer of a series of sessions called Organizing for Power, which is a free online training and networking program for organizers worldwide. Jane has attracted more than 10,000 workers from six continents and 70 countries in the past 18 months. That’s the tip of the iceberg when you understand the organizing and training Jane has carried out for decades. Jane McCalevey is currently a senior policy fellow at the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center, part of the Institute of Labor and Employment Relations. Her third book, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy, argues that despite, if not because of, the withering attacks on working people from the U.S. Supreme Court, conservative state and local governments, and the corporate class, the survival of American democracy depends on rebuilding unions. Her first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell) was named the Most Valuable Book of 2012 by The Nation magazine. Her second book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, was released in 2016. From 2010 to 2015, she earned a PhD, followed by a two year postdoc at Harvard University Law School. She’s a regular commentator on radio and TV.

As viewers who know my work know, Reality Asserts Itself is a series I do that starts with a more biographical take. That is, why my guests think what they think and what helped form their worldview and identity. Then we get into more current issues and in this case, perhaps the most urgent and important issues facing humanity, organizing workers to change the world. So without further ado, welcome to the show, Jane McAlevey.

Jane McAlevey

Great to be here. Paul, thank you so much.

Paul Jay

So you’re not just about organizing, you’re about winning. But not just winning in the conventional sense. Winning in terms of advancing the power of working people. Your whole life has been about learning the lessons of how to accomplish this. So let’s start at your beginning. What kind of political culture was in your house? What were the influences that set you on this road? And eventually, we’ll try to find out why the hell do you think you can win?

Jane McAlevey

I really love the opening question and you’ve gone straight to one of my favourite topics, which is winning. I think there’s far too little attention to the actual concept of winning, why it matters and how we do it, which is pretty much my life obsession and making sure people know how to do that. I had an upbringing that was both tragic in some ways because I lost my mother as a toddler and then amazing in other ways because it meant that my political mentorship started at about age three. My father was a politician by the time I was born, an elected politician in New York, and he had already held quite a few offices by the time I came along as the youngest of a large family. I’d say right from the get go, first of I was his campaign prop. The best way I can describe it is I was the proverbial little girl that he would shove into a grocery cart in front of the grocery stores and let me hand out literature for him. Who wouldn’t stop to talk to the little girl standing in the grocery? Probably illegal these days to put a kid in a grocery cart like that. I was on bumper stickers. I went to rallies with him. I was always on picket lines with him because he was put into office one election after another by a much stronger trade union movement. He was considered the candidate of sort of every trade union in my childhood.

Paul Jay

And where was this?

Jane McAlevey

Just outside of New York City. He was born and raised in the city. My uncle Danny McVarish was actually the head of the Brooklyn building trades at the height of the trade union movement in the 30s and 40s. So a lot of trade union history in the building and construction trades, sort of Irish Scottish lineage on my father’s side.

Paul Jay

Before he was a politician, what did he do?

Jane McAlevey

Before he was a politician. He went essentially from being a kid who thought he would follow his father’s footsteps into the Boilermakers Union, which had gotten his family through the Great Depression, and then World War Two broke out. My father was the kind of person who lied to get in to the Air Force. He was 17, but he wanted to go fight the Nazis and he became a fighter pilot and he became the wingman to the ace of the German theater for the U.S. Air Force. So he was a very seriously decorated World War Two fighter pilot.

Paul Jay

You know, it’s interesting, my father did the same thing. I think when he was 18, he joined the Canadian Air Force and wound up in Bomber Command.

Jane McAlevey

Wow. See that. I mean, to me, all of this really does have a huge influence on how I think about the topic of winning for sake of argument. I can remember my father saying to me, his job was literally to defend the ace. His job was to take a bullet. They had way better planes than we did before the B52, before the Mustang came along on the U.S. side. So he lived through the time when the airplanes were really bad and then when they got much better airplanes. And Wetmore was the ace of the U.S. Air Force in the German theater. So my father used to say, if you mess up your power analysis and your strategy, the guys are not going to come home with you. They’re going to die. I feel like as a little girl, to me it was like, “wait, if you mess up your strategy, people are going to die?” I took that really seriously. When you have a dead mother and there’s a lot of kids and I’m pre-preschool, I’m a little teeny girl, I’m a toddler, I’m not in school yet. So he literally took me everywhere and I was either being raised by the public sector trade union secretaries, let’s be fair, he would just hand me to them, or he’d park me in the carpenter’s union hall from whence he came. That local was a very radical carpenter. It was a very good carpenters union. Good on immigration, good on race, good on a lot of issues back in the day and he would just leave me there as his form of daycare.

Jane McAlevey

So I used to literally think that I had hundreds of brothers because it was like I was surrounded by the Brotherhood of Carpenters. I was the daughter of a politician that they loved. So I also learned in the Carpenters’ Hall that if you didn’t win, there were consequences. Whether it was if you didn’t win a strike, if you didn’t win a good contract, or in their case, if my father’s election campaigns didn’t win, then a lot of the project labor agreements, a lot of the pro-union stances that were breaking out in a high construction building boom in the New York City suburbs, we’re going to go the wrong way.

Jane McAlevey

So to be honest, I think that I learned a tremendous amount. In my young twenties, I had a sort of rebellion and I think I did not quite appreciate just how intensely I learned at such young ages, not just that winning mattered, but that strategy mattered, that understanding your opponent mattered, that being able to outthink your opponent mattered, and that there were methods and disciplines that you could learn that would help our side win. That comes straight from age three on. And now I have a great appreciation for all the things I learned from my father when I was much younger.

Paul Jay

Now, what years are we talking about when you’re a toddler?

Jane McAlevey

Sixty eight, three years old. I mean, he eventually stepped out of the campaigns because he had a dead wife and a lot of kids who were in a lot of trouble.

Paul Jay

But your formative years are the 60s into the 70s?

Jane McAlevey

Well, no, I’m three years old then. My formative years are probably not till I leave a high school walkout and I’m suspended for that over grotesque gym requirements that were dehumanizing to girls.

Paul Jay

OK, let’s get into that in a second, because that’s a big part of the story. Just a little bit more about your father. What political tradition stream did he have. Is he out of a socialist tradition or kind of a more liberal labor tradition?

Jane McAlevey

Yeah, not easily pegged, which I feel like is also something I carry from him. We just lost him a few months ago, so I’m now extrapolating how he would answer the question, but he died just shy of ninety eight. I think his values were very socialist in nature. When he came home from the war, he became a pacifist. He was overwhelmed by the war. I should also say he didn’t come home that quickly. There were very few years between what he did in the war and then running for office because he got kept on for the Marshall Plan. So they put him in charge of rebuilding the railroads that we had blown up. So he was literally in charge of helping to rebuild the German rail system, which then set him up years later. He was a commissioner for decades on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the MTA, that governs all public transportation in New York City. That’s a gubernatorial appointment. He did that through multiple generations because of his experience rebuilding the German rail lines. But his influence was the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker movement, which is an interesting one to try and pin politically. So he comes home from the war. He’s completely overwhelmed. He’s lost most of the guys. Very few fighter pilots came home. He’s overwhelmed, PTSD and just trying to figure out what just happened. Very proud because they defeated the Nazis. But he saw a lot of death, as your father I’m sure did too. And many of them did. And many of the people going to Kandahar did. And it continues, that kind of trauma. So he becomes a pacifist. He gets caught up with Dorothy Day’s work in New York City. Almost like a vow of poverty to fight poverty. And he and my mother were both very influenced. She was also in the war. She was a woman who joined the women’s auxiliary. So she was also  considered a veteran herself from the United States military.

And I think he’s very much like the way I would describe Bernie Sanders or a Jeremy Corbyn. Maybe Jeremy Corbyn is a little more explicitly socialist because it’s safer in Europe than in the United States. But I think his politics could easily be described as Bernie Sanders-like today. He sort of accepted that we have a two party system. I’m going to run to the left of the Democratic Party. That was his philosophy. I’m going to take out the corporate Democrats and put in Democrats who believe in working people and trade unions. If someone said something bad about either black people or trade unions in my house as a little girl, it’s the only time he would ever raise a hand to anyone. And that included any one of my brother’s friends who were in the house. I mean, if you crossed a racial line or you crossed something that was overtly classist or against a trade union, you would never come back in the house. And this is a real story that’s actually quite fun. We were swapping stories because of his death recently. In the old days, they would have car caravans. This is the 60s and 70s. The Republican Party would still drive around in car caravans and had like bullhorns on the top of them. And they’d go up and down the streets and propagandize at election time. And my father would famously, all the time, gather up every neighborhood kid there was. He would guarantee that if they came to our house when the Republican car caravans were coming, everyone would get one or two dozen sets of eggs and they would they would climb over the wall. And the goal was to get it into the thing that projected the voices out above their cars. He called it a hole in the wall. If you could get the egg yolk in there it would actually ruin their ability to project. This was his approach to politics. “You’re going to come to our street? Oh no you’re not.” He was left of the Democratic Party and he ran to the left of the Democratic Party his whole life.

Paul Jay

So as you’re becoming more politically conscious, are we into Reagan?

Jane McAlevey

Yeah. I’m not even voting age, though, in the first round of Reagan. I don’t come of voting age legally until the second Reagan term.

Paul Jay

Now, when Reagan does win he wins in a landslide. The media is absolutely in love with the guy. They won’t lay a glove on him. The prevailing culture is a really renewed Cold War rhetoric against the Soviet Union and the ascendancy of the right. So how is this affecting young Jane, whose father is clearly on the other side of this equation? A lot of the identity of Americans is Americanism? How does that affect your Americanism?

Jane McAlevey

Well, I think I grew up in a very internationalist household because my mother was Swedish. So I always had an influence of like there was this better country where things were done better than in the United States. Where people were treated more fairly. So I think that Sweden always loomed in the back of my orientation. And I knew from being a little girl going over to Sweden to meet relatives, of which I have many and I’m frequently in Sweden still, I knew from visits when I was young that there was this other way to be a country that seemed a lot more fair to me. That you didn’t have to pay for your health care, that you didn’t have to pay for college, that you didn’t have to do all these things. So I think that I had the internationalist inclination, in part because of coming from a household where I was sort of first generation influence on this side. But I also think there was no question that the concept of Ronald Reagan was like the biggest offense on planet Earth for my father. So I was out of the house then. I left my house quite young, at 15. My father married many times. Trying to find someone who would take in all these kids. So I didn’t get along with the one that came along a little bit later, even though she was the leader of the teachers’ union, because who else would marry a left wing politician? She had good politics, but we didn’t get along very well. And I found myself out of my house at 15. And I left high school.

Paul Jay

Where did you go at 15? Where did you go live?

Jane McAlevey

I moved in with one of my big sisters into a black women’s lesbian collective in Harlem. She was the only white person in it.

Paul Jay

Until you got there.

Jane McAlevey

They adopted me. I was like their project, I think. And I thank all of them too. One of them is still alive and she’s an amazing person. The places I wound up put me in a position to be mentored by people who absolutely shaped me. So being around a bunch of black lesbian women who are reading our bodies ourselves when I was 15 was sort of this shocking thing that was so good for me to experience.

Paul Jay

And you’re living before gentrified Harlem?

Jane McAlevey

Yes, absolutely. And it was an amazing experience, actually, to live there. And then I went off to State University. 

Paul Jay

Well, hold on. Don’t jump over high school here, because there’s a point at which all these experiences, all these things that shaped who you are. And there’s a point where you say, “hell, no, I’m not taking this. I’m going to start organizing.” Which kind of sets the tone for your whole life. So tell us the story. When does this become a decision for you?

Jane McAlevey

I am 14. It’s actually interesting for how I think about organic leadership, which I write about in my PhD dissertation many years later. I realized in retrospect I was an organic leader in a high school fight. I’m in high school.  I’m a jock. I’m on the cross-country team. I’m a runner. I’m on the track team. We have to threaten a Title Nine, which had just been passed in seventy three. So in 1973 there were amendments in the United States that said girls have the right to play sports. So they wouldn’t let me do the hurdles. I don’t know if everyone knows what the hurdles are, but you run and jump and run and jump and run and jump. And they would not let me hurdle because girls were not allowed to hurdle. They didn’t think that girls could run fast and jump a series of fences the way boys could. So my father threatened a Title nine lawsuit. That didn’t take long for them to figure out they don’t want to mess with him. He’d been this famous politician in the county. So he wrote a very strong letter to my high school. I had skipped grades when I was younger. So I’m in high school young. And I think I’m 14 and he writes a letter and says, “you will let her hurdle or there’s going to be a legal fight here.” So I become the first girl who’s running the hurdles and I had to train with the boys team because the girls aren’t allowed to hurdle. So their compromise is “OK, you can train with the boys.”

Fast forward. So I’m winning. I’m setting some records, whatever. In high school sports and in gym, in a regular gym class, they announce that there’s going to be new gym uniforms that all girls and boys will have to wear. But the ones that girls are going to have to wear, let me just say, were grotesque. They were essentially like turning girls into little playthings. They were like v-neck, tight, super short shorts. And if you were anything but like a perfect bodied young girl, you were going to be horrified. I mean, you were not going to come out of the locker room. It’s hard to describe that this was like my first real campaign, except I was watching all these young girls. You know how sensitive teenagers are? I’m watching the devastation. A lot of black girls in my school, nice integrated school, who are particularly outraged about the uniform they’re being asked to wear. So we start a petition. This is ridiculous. And it helps, which is my analogy many years later to organic leaders that it helped that I’m like a star of the track team. I’m going to take this on as the star of the track team. I’m not going to let someone whose body is not good in the uniform. Like I can wear the uniform because I’m a jock. So I take it on and say, “this is totally oppressive, sexist, misogynist. Get these uniforms out of here. We’re allowed to wear baggy anything we want. We can put on our sweat pants. We can put on a big t-shirt and go to gym. We’re not going to be turned into sex objects at age 14 in public high school.” So we led a mass walk out. We shut down a two thousand person high school. They reversed the policy.

Paul Jay

So how did you organize that? Like practically, what did you do to get two thousand people to walk out of a high school? Because unless there’s some tradition of walking out of the high school, I expect that’s not so easy to do.

Jane McAlevey

You know, I don’t even remember the details, except I remember the press clips, as I’m sure my father was very proud of them. We started with a petition, which would be something I’ve been doing my whole life. I think he was coaching me, “like make sure that everyone really agrees with you first.” Don’t just walk out. You got to make sure people really agree. And it didn’t take long. We started a petition.

Paul Jay

Well, this is like your point later. Don’t try to send in for certification for a union till you got 75 percent of the card signers. So this begins here.

Jane McAlevey

I was very young, but that’s what I mean about his training. He said to me, “You’re going to walk out? Who cares if you walk out? Everyone has to walk out.” It’s my father. Everyone has to walk out. Can’t just be you walking out. And I was like, “oh, that’s a good point.” So I just went off and began to organize and we had a very successful walkout and reversed draconian, sexist uniforms.

Paul Jay

So you won?

Jane McAlevey

Yeah, we won. And I remember getting lots of the girls on the track team, I went to athletes. My conception of who needed to lead were the people who were the athletes. Not the people who didn’t have good nutrition at home, had reasons why their bodies didn’t look the same as the young athletes. So I understood the fight had to be waged and led. The administration had to see their star high school track players and baseball players and volleyball players leading the charge against these ridiculously sexist uniforms. Then I go on to college and, of course, become student body president very quickly of the twenty eight thousand person university and the first left wing candidate.

Paul Jay

Hang on. That’s a big jump here. You can’t just become student body president of twenty eight thousand students very quickly. Nobody even knows who you are. How do you get to be the president so fast? What does very quickly mean?

Jane McAlevey

The second year. The first year I got to State University I was totally broke at that point. I was waiting tables. I had moved out. It was a little contentious. I didn’t have a dime to my name except whatever I was making. So I learned to wait tables in New York diners. Boy, that’s a way to cut your teeth in waiting tables. But anyway, I was waiting tables and supporting myself starting at 15 and with the help of the collective I was living in with my big sister and I applied to the state universities just because I knew I didn’t have money to go anywhere else and they were cheap. At that time, they were still quite affordable. So I went to the State University of New York at Buffalo. It puts me pretty close to Toronto. We saw Toronto as a place to drive over the border and go get really high quality beer, but I digress. Anyway, I trot off to Buffalo, to the state university. This is an interesting line to today. The original Governor Cuomo, Mario Cuomo, has just been elected. Now he’s a Democrat. Now it’s important to know that he helped take my father out of office in the last primary he ran. So I already don’t like this man. I don’t care if he’s a Democrat. He’s a centrist Democrat, in my opinion. My father and he had very bad blood from the last primary fight that my father was in. Cuomo was going after someone much more centrist. So Cuomo was elected in 1980, I think on the Reagan ticket. Again, I can’t vote in 1980. It takes another couple of years before I turn 18 and I can vote. So Cuomo is governor. Mario Cuomo. Smarter than Andrew by a long shot. But anyway, politics were challenging. The first thing that Mario Cuomo does is he announces that he’s going to put through the biggest tuition increase in the history of the public university system in New York State. And I’m like broke. I’m a working class kid trying to figure out how to pay for school on my own. And suddenly the prospect of me having to drop out of school or work a lot more hours becomes very real. And I’m like, “oh, this is the Democrat?” Well we don’t realize this is the beginning of who the Democrats become in the United States. This is the Reagan era. This is the end of big government. Clinton will officially say it later, but Cuomo begins an austerity program in New York. And the first people he goes after are working class kids in the state university.

And so I immediately look to see who was doing what. A flier went up, “come to protest about the proposed tripling of State University of New York tuition.” And I go to the protest, which I think is badly organized by the way, but I go and it’s small. There’s not that many people there and I’m like, “OK, this is not going to work.” A small little protest on campus is not going to work. And there was a statewide student union of the sixty four college campuses. I would later go on to become the head of that. But we have a statewide student union for the sixty four public universities in New York State. It’s the second largest public university system in the United States. So now I’m at SUNY Buffalo and I say, “OK, well, of course I’m going to ride the bus to Albany, to go to the protest at the state capital.” And I get on the bus. We have one bus from our university. We do the five hour drive to the state capitol and I think I’m 17. And I get on the bus and I go. And actually the protest at the Capitol is quite good. And now I feel a little bit badly because SUNY had twenty thousand people, it’s a big university. Schools that had far less students were showing up with three and four and five buses. And I’m thinking to myself “now, why would a school with less students have four busses? And my university only had one bus. This is not good.” I’m just doing some analysis and we got to stop this tuition increase because it’s serious and it’s personal and I can’t afford to go to school.

So I start asking questions at the statewide rally and it’s four or five thousand students. It’s a good showing. We do a lobby day. We go lobby the legislature. We do this big protest and it’s organized by the statewide student union of all the public university students. And they will tell you that all the leaders are all over the trade union movement today. We’ve all gone into leadership positions in different ways. It was a great training ground to have a state student union. And my elders there would say that that very first day, they were like “get her.” And they grabbed me and said, “You know, we need a representative on your campus because it’s a pretty weak campus for the State Student Union. Would you run to become a delegate of the state student union?” So just like a union structure, like a shop steward, they said “We don’t have a delegate on your campus, which is part of why your turnout is so bad. Would you become a delegate for the State Student Union?” And I said, “I don’t know what that means. But if you’re serious about stopping the tuition increase, so am I. So sure I’ll do whatever it is.” And that was the beginning. So I first got elected and then I had to stand for office. So I got elected as State Student Union delegate my first year on campus. That was easy. We stopped the tuition increase. The next time we sent buses, we sent like nine buses. We defeated him in the tuition increase proposal, his first one. This became a war.

Paul Jay

Him being Cuomo.

Jane McAlevey

And then the very next year, I thought our student government was awful. It was like this pre-law school.

Paul Jay

Hang on. Nine buses. So at some point, you must have had to have stood up in front of a bunch of students and spoken, given a speech?

Jane McAlevey

No, I started to organize. I wanted one representative per dormitory. Then I wanted one representative for the off-campus students. And I wanted block captains for the off-campus students. And I wanted floor captains in the dormitories. And I began to build an entire organizing infrastructure because I understood from my father’s campaigns that no one is doing this alone.

Paul Jay

Well, this is one of the big lessons of McAlevey, which is that you build structure.

Jane McAlevey

You build structure. So we literally went into the dorms and built a serious structure because the dorms were the easiest place first. A lot of students were living in dormitories, mainly undergraduates. Graduates were mostly off campus. The undergraduates were mostly on campus. So we built a dormitory by dormitory structure. And that structure that we used to defeat the tuition increase and turn out for the buses one year later would become my electoral platform campaign committee. And when I decided to run for student body president it was against conservative white guys, like pre-law school students. They were just wasting money in the student government, in my opinion, doing absolutely nothing. So I was indignant about this. We kept getting more and more buses. We kept filling more and more buses. And we were like begging these pre-law school students to give us more money to fund the buses to protest the tuition increase. And I thought, “OK, these guys got to get out of here.” So we built the structure around the fight to stop the tuition increase. And then a year later, I remembered when my father, again, said to me, “you don’t run alone because you don’t want to take office alone. You want governing power.” So you want to put a slate together. This stuff is wildly untold, this part of my history.

So now I’m, I think, eighteen and I know we’ve got a base in the dormitories and no one sees it coming because none of those pre-law school students or the jocks or the athletes, the guys who ran the student government, they weren’t paying any attention to this. They didn’t care. So when we filed, we put a party together called the Spark Party and my sister, who is an artist who I was living with in the Harlem Collective, made literature for us. And she said, “You want to unfold the literature.” So I remember the day we bombed the campuses, all of them in every dorm. And the first thing we did was when people went to sleep, we wanted to shock people in the morning all over the big university. The first fliers that we put up said nothing but “spark”. And they had like a party logo and it was just “spark,” like a stick of dynamite. And they were all over campus and right away the student newspaper was like, “What the hell are these posters all over campus?” So we were just getting people to wonder what was spark and it was everywhere. So I put together a slate for every single office and the entire student Senate. We ran thirty seven people, I think, in total. President, vice president, vice president of student affairs.

Paul Jay

So this is not a small thing. You just said it like it’s nothing. You had talked to way more than thirty seven people to get thirty seven people to run.

Jane McAlevey

Oh yeah. And they all came from the fight to stop tuition. So this is my life lesson. You build a fight around an issue, you win the issue, and then you seize power. But the lesson from my father that was very important to me was that you must win governing power. You don’t want to become president of the student body and then fight all these dimwit pre-law school people who are going to battle with you. He’s like, “you want to knock them all out, every one of them.” So we literally swept every single seat in student government. Every single position. So I walked in and the entire student government turned over to a bunch of young left wing radicals who had stopped the tuition increase. And we had ten million dollars of money. We had a ten million dollar budget.

Paul Jay

What? A student budget of ten million dollars?

Jane McAlevey

Student fee money. That’s what dues are. And under New York law, you had to campaign every three years to have the student fees approved. And straight away when we won, guess what happened? The yaffers, the Young Americans for Freedom, which still exists. The Reagan kids came after me. Because we redid the speakers bureau. We began to bring Sandinista soldiers to speak and pay them five thousand to show up. We began to bring in people who were against the Star Wars program that Reagan was advancing. And we would write them checks for fifty thousand to give a speech on Star Wars. 

Paul Jay

At some point, the FBI must have shown up.

Jane McAlevey

Well, that was later. That was when I became State Student Union president, which would be the next year. So we stopped Reagan’s Star Wars program from coming to our university because they offered a ton of money to do the right wing research on campus. So we were immediately in this battle with the Young Americans for Freedom, who campaigned to defeat the student fee because it was coming up for a vote in the year I was student body president and I’m like, “wow, we got ten million dollars to spend in the student government. Who knew?” More than most union locals I was in when I was young. This all was before I was twenty. So then we had to defeat the Young Americans for Freedom. So that was literally my team who believed in taxes and student taxes going up against the Young Americans for Freedom boys who were the Reagan young Republicans on campus. And we defeated them like four to one in the approval of the student fee. That would then go on for another four years. Every four years, you had to run a sort of dues increase, but you had to run the student fee to keep it legal under New York law. So that’s campus.

Paul Jay

When Jane at that point is talking to Jane, are you at some point freaked out by all of this? I mean, you’re part of a leadership. And I assume this fight with the Reaganites would get rather bitter. And I’m sure they called you all kinds of names and threatened and did that ever cause you to question what you were doing?

Jane McAlevey

Never. And I think that’s where the fighter pilot gene comes in. I really do. I think my father gave me a fighter pilot gene somehow because they would just piss me off. My father’s campaigns were very intense. Going backwards for a minute, he built the first public housing in the New York suburbs, which may not translate depending on the audience listening to this, but that meant bringing black people into the white suburbs. That’s what it was translated as. And it was a holy jihad war against him by the racists in the county outside of New York City. I had a police escort at one point. We had a cross burned on the lawn. I had already experienced what happens when you stick your neck out for something like racial justice. Just watching my father fight for racial justice and keeping the building trade unions with him, which was crucial to him winning. He understood the formula was that you had to hold your base if you were going to head into really controversial work. So he said to the building trade unions, “You guys, the racists are coming. I’m going to guarantee you a great project labor agreement. You’re doing the highest paid union jobs in town. Everyone’s going to get top scale in the union and you’re going to defend my right to build public housing. And it worked. So he had all of the trade unions fight white building trades guys, Scottish, Irish, whatever, fighting the white racists because they wanted the really good jobs to build all the public housing. So these are like lessons from my childhood. So these Young Americans for Freedom guys would come straight at me. And I just didn’t give a rat’s ass what they said to me. When we beat them I was like, “Try again. Try again.” We had a huge, well-organized student movement that was winning everything. And that would then set me up to everyone saying, “OK, you’re going to run for state student union president next.”

Paul Jay

Because you’re not just fighting the right. You also took on the corporate Democrats and you won. 

Jane McAlevey

Yeah. And as State Student Union President, it would get even crazier because now I’m the leader of two hundred and sixty thousand students.

Paul Jay

What year are we in now?

Jane McAlevey

The year I become State Student Union President, I think, is eighty three.

Paul Jay

So around three years into Reagan.

Jane McAlevey

Yeah. And everyone is saying, “All students are all apathetic and pro-Reagan, which was making, as you might imagine, my blood curl when I would hear that from anti-Vietnam War era protesters who would be like, “oh, the next generation’s a lost cause”. Meanwhile, I’m like, really? We stopped Star Wars research on our campus. We defeated a corporate Democrat trying to do a tuition increase. We stopped a move to division one football. We had won so many things in one year on campus. So then people said, “You need to run for State Student Union President.” So I did. And you have to compete on all the campuses then. So I became the elected leader of the State Student Union. Which meant that I also became the official student trustee on the official board of trustees that governs the public university system. In a generation before me the students had won the right to one representative.

Paul Jay

Who else is a trustee? Are these people from business and whatever?

Jane McAlevey

Totally. Everyone else is appointed by the governor. So as you can imagine, we’ve been battling the governor. So now I’m sitting on a board and they can’t get rid of me because I’m an elected position. And the rest of them are gubernatorial appointees from Governor Mario Cuomo. So I’ll give you one example, because everything that’s new is old or old is new or something. The new secretary of state of the United States, Antony Blinken, is the son of Donald Blinken, who was a massive Wall Street investor. And I’m talking serious right wing Wall Street guy. He was the chair of the board of trustees when I was the student trustee. And during the first campaign that I would lead against the father of the current secretary of the United States was the beginning of the movement to divest our funds from South Africa. So I say, “OK, I’m the student trustee now. Give me the investment portfolio. Let me see it.” And I have all rights as a trustee. I’m a legal appointed trustee on the governing body of the second largest public university system in America. So I request our investment portfolio. So Donald Blinken, father of Biden’s Secretary of State, huge investment banker, super conservative. You couldn’t hate me more than this guy hated me by the end of that first year. The State Student Union President the year before me introduced the divestment resolution. She and I are still good friends, by the way. So she was only the second female president in the State Student Union. I was the third in the history of the, whatever, 40 years of state student union presidents. So she had introduced it, her name was Susan Ray. She introduced the divestment resolution the year before. And around a thousand of us were protesting and we were pretty resoundingly defeated. So I got elected president and then my very first meeting at the State University Board of Trustees after our summer convention, the statewide student convention, I say to everyone, “should I do it at the very first meeting?” And people are like “First meeting McAlevey. The first meeting of the school year, you got to reintroduce the divestment resolution.”

Paul Jay

Who says this to you?

Jane McAlevey

The people I’m representing, my delegates. So I have a binding resolution from the state convention of the State Student Union, which is probably eight hundred statewide student leaders. And we say let’s go for it at the first meeting of the school year. So we had to pack it. We got to have thousands of people in the capital, which is where the headquarters of the State University of New York are, right down the hill from the state capital. And so it’s my first meeting as the student trustee. So we get to the meeting and I, of course, had tried to propose it properly, but Blinken rejected me and said “You can bring something up under new business if you want.” OK, fine. So I bring it up and for procedural reasons, they get to delay me for like another meeting. So then we have to pack the state capital again. We’re learning how the rules work. So for the next meeting I say, “OK, now it’s actually come up for a vote because we’ve gotten through some procedural hurdle.” And I knew that we were not going to win the vote because I’ve been trying to be the young girl trying to win over the board of trustees. I’ll tell you one of them was, interestingly, Bill Moyers’ wife, Judith Moyers, was like the liberal on the board. And I didn’t know who Bill Moyers was back then, I’m young. So Judith Moyers was a liberal on the board. And she would make it so I could speak. She would say, “I’m sorry, chairman, you have to let her speak. She has the right to speak. She’s a trustee.” So Judith Moyers would play a role of making it so at least I had my right to raise my hand and speak. So we introduced the resolution. I think we picked up maybe one or two votes, but it went down badly. We had planned already, in a serious planning session, that if we didn’t win the vote to divest all of the state universities’ funds from apartheid South Africa, we were going to occupy the building. I wore a very strategic outfit. This is where the FBI comes in, by the way. So I had worn to the meeting a sort of tent dress on purpose. And I had chain wrapped around my body and padlocks.

Paul Jay

I hope there’s pictures of this.

Jane McAlevey

There is definitely news coverage. I wind up going to jail. So they send me to jail, which is a big overreach, and then we kill them in the next vote when I get out of jail. So I’m wearing thick chain around my body. I know we’re going to lose the vote. I’ve got a padlock that we’ve determined can’t easily be clipped. There’s a whole research team, recon of students doing the activist part for me. But I’ve got a security clearance pass because I’m a legal trustee. So the plan is if the vote goes down, I’m going to make it look like I’m going to the bathroom. I’m going to get up and excuse myself because there’s only like a certain number of students allowed in the room and the rest are downstairs. There’s thousands chanting, screaming outside the headquarters. And we had scoped the whole thing out and we knew only I could do it because I could get through all the doors. So I left the room, left everything sitting on the table. Made it look like I was coming back, you know, “I’m just going to take a bathroom break and clear my head.” Went down the elevator, went straight to the business office where all the investment portfolios were held, this was all pre-scoped. I open the doors and I had like 10 people with me who had gone downstairs as well, the 10 who were allowed up.

This is so intense. This is my first serious direct action. And I say to everybody very quickly, mostly women, secretaries, staff in this huge office of a state university, and we say to them very quickly, “We’d love for you to leave. We’re about to padlock the doors. So you can leave. We don’t want to hurt anybody in this room at all, but we’re going to padlock the doors in about a minute. So either get up and leave or you’re going to be padlocked in with us.” And every one of them just got up and left, filed out. And then we padlock the doors closed. We opened the windows. There were students outside with ladders. This was all scoping and planning. There were students outside with ladders and they began to pour in. Now, the police were already on the scene pretty quickly, but I think, probably about one hundred and twenty of us got in through the windows that I had opened before the cops were pulling ladders down and pulling students off the ladders. So now we were in a full occupation. The doors were sealed and padlocked together. The cops were staffing the windows outside. We were one story up, so it wasn’t a big climb and the occupation was beginning. We had a communications team because the State Student Union had full time staff. So the press was there taking our storyline right away. “What’s going on?” There’s a building occupation. Police are swarming the State University headquarters and it’s like a 12 hour standoff. And they’re demanding that we come out and we’re like, “Go reverse your vote. Go upstairs and reverse the vote. Tell the trustees to reverse the vote, and we will leave peacefully. No problem.”

But in the meantime, we were photographing everything in the investment portfolio files. So two of the people who came with me were like smart graduate researchers who were pouring through the investment documents and photocopying them. So we’re poring through documents that are in the file cabinets of the State University headquarters.

Paul Jay

How many students are outside supporting you?

Jane McAlevey

By the evening when they finally drag us out, there’s probably a couple thousand. And this is all in AP coverage. There’s plenty of historic microfiche. Someone went and dug it all out a few years ago. There’s a lot of microfiche on this. And it becomes a big deal because in the end we win. We get dragged out. We get taken to the county jail for the night. Then they want to charge us. This is called an overreach by the boss. It’s the same thing I teach workers. When the boss overreaches, you got to go right at him. So the overreach is Don Blinken, father of the current secretary of state, wants me removed from the board, says I have a conflict of interest, and wants me prosecuted. So they prosecute and the chancellor says we’re going to prosecute her. Big mistake. I’m 18, young, blond, athletic, student leader trying to get our money out of South Africa with a bunch of racist people shooting down black people in South Africa.

Jane McAlevey

Someone was giving them very bad advice. So they decide to go after me and several other students who become known as the SUNY Six. Everyone else cuts a deal, pays a big fine. And in my case, they weren’t letting me off the hook. In the case of five of my co-students we decide we’re in it to win it and we’re going to take a trial. So we’re going to force a trial on the State University. We force a trial on them. Everyone was trying to get the governor to give her a pardon or whatever. At some point they realized this was a big mistake. So now we’re putting the whole state on trial. And I get these volunteer lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild. They fly right in and say, “Oh, we’re going to take this case. We’re going to do discovery on the State University.” And I didn’t realize how fun the legal discovery process is. I don’t know anything about it. So we’re petitioning all these documents from the state of New York, the relationship between Mario Cuomo and the investment people, and are we double dipping, are there conflicts of interest? And we turn the trial of six students into like a massive media event every day in the court headquarters in the state capital in Albany, New York. We’re getting covered by the Associated Press, national news every day. Student leaders on trial. No other university was putting their students on trial. There were protests going on all over the United States, probably Canada. But this was the movement. It was the anti-apartheid movement. So nobody else was trying to jail college kids for doing occupations of buildings except our chancellor. Big mistake.

So we’re just like, “We’re going to keep going for it.” We have all these volunteer lawyers. The best day was when we got the African National Congress’ official UN ambassador brought up to New York on a train to testify on our behalf about the conditions in South Africa. And the judge found us guilty, which was also a stupid move. So the judge says, “I’m finding you guilty of just under a felony”. Like a high misdemeanor. I forget the charge, but it was just shy of a felony for property damage or some ridiculousness. And the judge is reading that decision in front of the courtroom. And everyone at this point is like, “what are they doing?” So the judge says “you’re guilty of whatever level of misdemeanor charges it was. And you either can do 30 days in jail or you can agree to sign a legal document that says that you will no longer engage in protest as long as you’re a student.” That took about negative 30 seconds for me to make the decision and the lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild were like “yeah, no deal.” And they sent six of us off to jail. Well, three more actually pled out at that point because their parents were terrified and they were kind of terrified, to be honest. So three of us wind up going to jail on a 30 day term. And I got like New York Times, AP coverage. It was crazy. We had a great communications director. He was like twenty two years old. And we were all over the national media. Student leader jailed, fighting racist apartheid regime. I came out of jail.  I go to the next meeting of the board of trustees after I’m released from jail. The meeting is like three days later, so the timing is great. I walk into the board of trustees meeting. I’m now like a nationally known student leader. I walk in, the board collapses, we win the full divestiture and it becomes the single largest divestment action at that point in the history of the anti-apartheid movement. And suddenly I’m getting phone calls from famous people in South Africa, congratulating us for the single largest divestment at that point in the movement in the United States. So those are all very early lessons about building structure in the dormitories, building block captain structures, and realizing the strategic tactical warfare of the media and of the court system and using it against the power structure.

Paul Jay

And winning.

Jane McAlevey

Oh, sorry, we won. In my mind there is no option that we were not going to win and become the first university to seriously pull hundreds of millions of dollars out of investments in South Africa. So we won.

Paul Jay

Well, you leave me with some hope here? This is part one of a multipart interview. We’re going to keep this going on for a few weeks. But by the time you watch this, we’ll roll them out once or twice a week. Thanks very much for joining me, Jane.

Jane McAlevey

Thank you.

Paul Jay

And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news. Please don’t forget there’s a donate button at the top of the web page and make sure to share this and subscribe and all of that. And we’ll be back again soon. 


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Get Organized to Win! - Jane McAlevey Pt 1

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