“We do workers and contracts. We don’t do faith and religion. We cannot afford to leave one ounce of power on the table.” Jane McAlevey joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news.
Hi, I’m Paul Jay, and this is theAnalysis.news and our show Reality Asserts Itself. Please don’t forget the donate button. Please also sign up to be on our email list and subscribe if you’re on YouTube. If you’re sharing from one of our podcast platforms or wherever you are watching and listening, if you can share it, that would be great. I’ll be back in just a few seconds with Jane McAlevey, the organizers’ organizer.
This is a continuation of my series of interviews with Jane McAlevey, which focuses on lessons and experiences that helped shape her worldview and built her approach to organizing workers’. As I said, this is a great time to get organized and learn how to organize better.
Jane is the author of several books, including, No Shortcuts and Raising Expectations and Raising Hell, which was named the most valuable book in 2012 by Nation magazine. Jane organizes and teaches organizing to organizers. Sometimes more than 10,000 at a time. Thank you for joining me, Jane.
Always a pleasure.
So, I’m guessing the resistance you get from more traditional union leaders is, oh, how on Earth do we have the resources for all this? I’m guessing your answer is, well, it’s the imagination and what you’ve said in a previous segment, it’s the genius of the ordinary workers that if you actually organize that way, it’s not a problem. You don’t need hundreds of staff. You need to unleash this force.
Exactly right. Yeah, exactly right, and that’s why I was trying to give the analogy, like, literally what Mary C. brought or what─ I could go through all the books in every campaign. I could walk you through examples from every single campaign that I’ve had the pleasure of running or being involved in, where the known or likely suspects in the broader community were, again, lovely people, well-intentioned, great activists, all that stuff, loved to have a beer with them or something, but there was no threat ability. They’re not scaring anyone.
If you’re an organizer and you’re trying to size up, again, first you have to be aware of the power analysis, then you have to make a decision to do what I call whole-worker charting. So, this is─ I think it’s more that, I mean, I don’t think it’s necessarily as simple as that it takes a ton of resources. Again, there are unions who don’t care, and that’s most of them. So, that’s a problem. Do you know what I mean? They don’t even care about working with the community. Still, of the eight to 10 unions that come to my mind, the big ones these days, whether it’s education unions, health care workers unions, a lot in the service sector, there is a commitment to a broader set of issues, but they’re taking a massive shortcut. As I laid out in my book No Shortcuts, in the section where I talk about this, you simply can’t do it. I mean, I literally quote one of my favourite mentors in that section of the book. It’s chapter two, I believe, saying to me there’s like a Leftist issue, “McAlevey, we do workers and contracts. We don’t do faith and religion.” It’s been seared in my brain and I’m still fighting with them 25 years later. It’s like, really? You can make that decision if you want to lose. Do you know what I mean?
We cannot─ I can’t afford to leave one ounce of power on the table. Not one ounce of power in any fight. If you’re going into the fight to win, you need to look for power sources everywhere you can get it. What’s absolutely right about what you said, and it’s what I’m trying to illustrate with Mary C.’s story, is that, yeah, tens of thousands of workers have these connections. So, what we do, once the shop is strong, once we’ve got workers charted, leaders identified, who are the activists, and who are the leaders, we’ve completed a couple of structure tests, what I call structure tests already. We know that we’ve got the majority of workers, keyword, majority of workers moving together collectively in a campaign. It’s at that point, as an organizer, that I said we begin to systematically chart whole-worker charting, and their community connections. Who are all the people they know when they leave work and punch the clock? I have an illustration of that, actually, in No Shortcuts, of what it looks like.
There are two images in the book where I contrast a traditional corporate campaign approach, which shows a series of ways that the more progressive unions understand how to do things like brand damage, shareholder stock actions, and things like that. It’s a wheel, and I intentionally took that image and just inverted it and put the worker in the middle instead of the corporation and then teased out, do they have a faith community? Are they part of a little league, soccer, football club or curling club? Are they part of a book group? Are they part of a knitting club? Do they have a faith? All these questions too prompt workers and this is worker to worker. When we do it, the campaigns are so big. There are usually thousands of workers, so there’s no way their staff can do it. We say to everyone early on, phase one is getting strong in the workplace, whether we’re rebuilding a union in a contract fight or we’re just forming a new one. Either way, organizing is reorganizing all the time.
We say, first, we have to get strong in the workplace. We say as soon as you’ve completed one or two really solid majority structure tests, we will then move to a structure test, which is, can we get a majority of the workers to interview each other and document all of their community connections? There’s more that goes with it because the opening question to get them thinking about their community connections is the following question. Again, the organizers live for the questions we ask because our job is to ask a lot of questions and then listen to what the knowledge the worker has.
So, to get them to shift gears from thinking about wages, health insurance, hours of work, vacation pay, whatever it is, and to get them to shift into thinking about all those people they know in their community because they literally get─ our movements have siloed the workplace from the community for so long that workers sort of do it, too. So, when they see someone, it’s like, oh, are we having a union discussion? They think that just means, like, hours and wages and work. So, we have to shift their whole mentality. The opening question is: if you were mayor tomorrow, what are the first three things you would do? By asking a worker if they were the mayor tomorrow of their town or their city, what are the first three things they would do, we’re going to get instant insights into what matters to them when they punch the clock and go home. They start thinking about, oh, well, if I was mayor and pedagogically like, literally, from a learning perspective, it helps them shift into thinking about all the connections they have in the community. So, like, everything we talk about, there’s a theory, there’s a vision, and there’s a method that goes with it.
Traditional, I would call corporate union leaders─ I know I was in a union for years. In my experience and having gone to other places, they think of the workers as cows and horses and all they think about is hay and grass. Then they wonder why nobody comes to a union meeting. Of course, they blame the workers for nobody wanting to come to union meetings, and they throw up their hands and say, oh, we might as well go to Ruth Christie’s and eat a steak.
I’ve seen the steaks, too. They’re like this big, and they cost 70 bucks plus the wine. When I asked you earlier about the Kellogg─ actually, I mentioned the Kellogg strike. There’s a lot of excitement on the Left. Oh, there are so many strikes, but your response wasn’t, oh, wow, there are so many strikes. Your response was, how many are going to win? And that’s really a question a lot of the Left never takes up in any seriousness. The militancy is enough in itself. If it winds up losing, oh, they’ll learn from that lesson. Yeah, what are they going to learn? Don’t go on strike again.
No. Oh, my God. You’re like nails on a chalkboard to me right now. Seriously, it’s true. It makes me crazy. I mean, we’re back to my favourite word. The favourite word is actually win. Win! Win! People have to see people winning. So, I couldn’t disagree more with the militancy rap. It’s the same crowd that believes everything is like this materialist. It’s all about material need, and it’s not, frankly. So, militancy is not enough and even winning a big race is not enough. So much of the struggle, as we know in general, with the working class right now is a struggle for dignity, a struggle for respect, and a struggle to be not heard, good Lord, heard and have things change in their lives. So, the whole-worker approach is literally the equivalent of a base building, bottom-up approach to a worker’s community through the workers themselves. That’s the big distinction between what frankly passes for, quote, “the community work,” which is talked about as if it’s a social disease. It always has, like, a capital the when I hear people talking about it. Time to do the community work. It’s literally said that way. Can someone do the community work now? I was like, guess who can do it? All those members who live in this community, who know it, and who knew it before anyone else showed up here. If you happen to be one of them living there, you already know that a ton of your coworkers have a ton of connections to their own community. So, as usual, the resource, as you say, is the workers themselves. They have hundreds of─ I mean, there are thousands of connection points.
When we were doing this in Philadelphia, we went unit by unit to each hospital, and we didn’t finish every hospital. But at Einstein, we began to go unit by unit and it was this really remarkable experience. People always say to me, why would anyone tell you about their personal connections to people in the community? Very skeptical about that, and I’m just like, why would they not speak out of line in a big open bargaining session? Same skepticism of the capacity of workers to actually know what matters. They’re smart, that’s why. I find it astounding. It’s like if you layout to people, in order for you to win, and in order for you to make the kind of changes that you want both at work and outside of work, there’s going to be a series of steps that we’re going to take for you to engage with the people and the players that you know.
Now, the key─ I’d say the last part of this, which sometimes goes─ no, often gets skipped or missed when people start to do it is that you’ve also got to be doing sort of this power. I mean, you’re doing the power structure project as you’re talking to the workers because believe me, if I say to the [inaudible 00:41:59] or a worker by asking a question like, at election time, have you ever seen politicians show up to visit your church? That’s the way we ask the question. At election time, are there some political people who might show up just to shake hands or do something at Bible study or be at the coffee hour after services end? If the answer to that is yes, that worker has just been an active part of the research project to map and understand her own power structure. That’s a data point. That’s serious data. You can’t get that data anywhere except by talking to the workers. There’s no database that you can put into, that some corporate researcher can plug into, that says, tell me all the faith leaders who have a connection to the political process. You’re only going to know that if you’re actually talking to the workers.
So, the first point is, there is literally a time, just like in the workplace, you’ve got to ask the workers. When the boss says, well, we staffed perfectly on that shift. We don’t know why you’re complaining about the staffing. It’s like, we don’t know. You just got to turn to the workers in the bargaining session, who are all from the unit that the manager just lied about and ask the workers, is that true? Were you fully staffed on X day? And the answer is no, and then they’re going to explain. The printed schedule shows that we were fully staffed, but the actual hands-on deck that day, we were not fully staffed.
So, again, that’s worker knowledge. Same with the community. There’s a whole set of things that only the workers will be adding to the research process to understand the power structure, but there is some stuff that a full-time kind of researcher could be doing. They could be looking at things like congregation size and overall budget. So, it’s iterative like everything we do. There’s a set of research that some people can go off full-time and do, and then things like, we can be pulling electoral contributions money. We can be looking at the packs. There’s a whole bunch of things that fill out a broader approach to the strategy in the broader community. There’s a ton of knowledge that comes from the workers themselves, and it’s not going to come anywhere else. The best info is going to come from the workers about their community and about their workplace.
Now, one of the things you said in a previous interview I thought was important is that the organizing is actually focused on the contract, on these issues. It extends into the community, the church and so on, but you’re not going to fight over political issues or ideological issues. You’re not going to fight over abortion. You’re going to fight over things that the workers have in common, and then in the course of that struggle, I think your words were, “people will see who the real enemy is.”
Yes. Although that has to be deliberative. It has to be deliberate. So, part of the whole-worker stuff is to be sure that they are starting to understand and make those connections. So, for example, if we’ve done the work the way that we do it, which is we’ve asked the workers if you’re a mayor tomorrow, what are the first three things you would do? We’re also tracking the issues that matter most to the workers in the workplace. What are the actual issues that they care about? Knowing that is going to help us understand two things. One, there may become thorny issues in the broader community that we have to take on. It’s part of our responsibility: gender, race; they’re real issues. The question is, how do you take it on? Part of what I’m trying to argue about, whole-worker organizing, is it’s a better approach to start moving into some of the broader issues that exist in the workplace if they exist. You know, racism, sexism, whatever; we’re going to take that on the contract, but there’s a set of related issues from poisoned lead drinking pipes to police shooting people, to─.
Well, there’s the other side of it. I was talking to a friend of mine who organizes in West Virginia, and she’s saying maybe the one issue for most of the voters outside of workplace issues is guns. They want gun rights. So, how do you deal with that as you organize if you’re organizing amongst coworkers?
I mean, truthfully, I’ve never been anywhere where a worker said to me my top three issues if I was mayor tomorrow was to get a gun. Never. Not once. Now, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter to people, but the point about grounding our work in a supermajority, like this matter, is what I was getting to. If you’ve done the work of asking a majority of workers what the first three things they would do as mayor are, you’re going to find unifying issues that matter outside of the workplace. Not necessarily divisive ones.
So, picking issues to work on as a trade union is best done when it comes from the workers themselves. Again, this is the stuff that makes me kind of crazy because, in the workplace, you understand that. You do a contract survey. You try and find out the top issues that matter or what workers want in their contract. Then labour leaders just, again, check their brain when they go to the community and just like— if they go to a weak community-based organization that wants them to take a position on abortion/choice, something that is easily divisive, then it gets weird. Then you’ve got people disconnected from the workers in the workplace making a decision to sign onto something that doesn’t come from the base. That’s where it gets problematic. If it comes from the base themselves, then they understand it. Let’s say this scenario where I’ve got some people in the base who want to say gun rights matter. I mean, I’m absolutely positive that some workers I’ve worked with think gun rights matter. No question. However, if you’ve actually systematically asked the majority of workers, I don’t believe it’s going to come up as the top issue among a majority of workers. Unless you’re organizing cops, then it might be the top issue, but I’m not talking about organizing cops.
So, if you’re talking about most of the workers who are out there in this country, I don’t believe that that’s their top issue. I don’t even believe it’s the top issue of most people. I think it’s a crazy right-wing narrative that makes us think it’s a top issue. For the workers who do think it matters, that’s fine, but we’re going to have charts and diagrams to show that 63 percent─ and I’m making this up. Still, I’m going to get around having to deal with the gun issue by saying the most unifying issue, it turns out, for all of your coworkers, 63 percent of you say that making the buses work on time, winning free public transportation, cleaning up a filthy-something down the road, a dump that’s been there for too long. It’s leaking stuff in the neighbourhood, or fill in the blank.
I’m going to work from─ I thought, we got to build unity. I’m going to work from if I asked what the three issues that you would do as mayor are, we’re going to look for the most unifying. Again, even if they are controversial, it’s going to be really helpful that the issues have been identified by the workers because then it’s not some outsider or some trade union person from their headquarters or their local branch saying, we got to work on this thing. It’s grounded in the experience of the workers, and that’s going to make the conversation a hell of a lot better than a coalition that we’ve signed onto and the union’s written a check to, which is working on these five issues that actually no one in the workplace seems to care much about. That’s a losing formula for how to transform, first your workplace, then your society.
We want to transform society by rebuilding a strong working-class movement that has the capacity to have a governing power. That means building strike-ready unions where workers can walk off the damn job and create a crisis for corporations, shareholders, and capital. This is not going to happen by weak unions writing checks to weak community-based organizations and weak progressive groups, which is the lazy approach or what I call the shortcut approach.
Okay. We’re going to do one more segment with Jane. I thought this was going to be the last one, but this one was too good. Now we’ve got to do another one. So, we’re going to do one on the importance of the strike. I just want to make one point to tease it. A lot of people say unions they’re over with. What is it, six percent or something, or less, in the private sector are organized? Unions are so weak. Okay, maybe all that’s true, but where are they? Transportation, communication. They’re running truck driving. Important strikes close the entire economy. So, even if unionization might be low, it can’t be more strategic. So, the importance of the strike is an issue for the whole society. It’s not just about oh, unions are weak, quite the contrary. If they actually lived up to their potential, there’s enormous strength there. So, thanks, Jane.
Yes. Can I just say one thing about that?
Oh, yeah. Please. Yeah, go ahead.
As a closing teaser? So, this will be a teaser for the next discussion. For your audience, too. Not just for you. Why this matters so much is because there’s something called the strike for recognition. In the United States, there are two ways to form a union. One is the one that people are more used to. Workers fill in a petition or fill in authorization cards. As you know, from everything I’ve said and written, I believe you have to get to 75 percent of them before you know you’re safe enough to survive in a National Relations Board election. Not the 30 percent that we’ve seen people─ that’s the law. You have to have 30 percent.
The alternative way to form a union which get right to the strike and to the logistics in the supply chain, and how strategic this is. The other way to form a union in the United States─ there are examples of this. Again, I could get into the nuance of everyone’s labour law from a bunch of countries, but I’ll just stick to the U.S. The second-way workers can form a union in the United States is to strike for recognition. It’s called striking for recognition. You make a demand to the employer. You show them, hey, 59 percent of us have filled in these authorization cards. And again, if you’re me, I’m going to say 75 percent because most of the time, the boss will say no. You make a demand for what’s called legal recognition or certification of the union. You demand that the employer recognize the union. A vast majority of us have made the decision that we want to form a union in this shop. You present that to demand. It’s best done by a bunch of workers and your top leaders, showing a majority of signatures to the boss.
This is old-school, real organizing— the employer who’s confronted by this. I’ve never seen one yet say yes on the spot, but they may come to a smart decision later because they see the evidence. That’s why the 75 percent matters. Oh, a huge majority of our workers and all these key leaders that they know are their best workers want to form a union. If the boss says no or box, you can organize a supermajority strike and walk off the damn job until the boss says, I’m going to recognize the union. That is a much faster way to form a union. That is a way that lets you know that your structure is strong from day one.
In the training I came from, we were actually trained. We never filed for the National Relations Board election. We first had workers make a recognition demand of the boss. Gave the boss the chance to voluntarily recognize the union, and if the boss said, no, we were trained to say, and all the workers were part of this discussion the whole time. We’re not going to file a National Relations Board election. We’re going to strike for recognition. So, you better be ready to win what it is that you want to win, and it’s a good time to start right now. So, the strike─ imagine that as the approach to the Amazon factories instead of trying to keep up with a bunch of people who are in high turnover workplaces and trying to keep up with the abuse that’s going on in the workplace. What if they walk off?
Okay, this is a teaser. So, we’re going to get into all this in the next segment. Thank you very much, Jane.
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“Jane F. McAlevey is an American union organizer, author, and political commentator. Since June 2019, McAlevey is a Senior Policy Fellow of the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center. She was also named Strikes correspondent for The Nation magazine.”