Ask Labor Jane: How Can We Build Industrial Unionism in Education and Health Care?

Jane McAlevey argues that to build the power required to make huge gains for workers, we can't organize different kinds of workers separately from each other. We need wall-to-wall organization in workplaces to build an antiracist, antisexist trade union movement.

Educators, parents, students, and supporters of the Los Angeles teachers' strike gather in Grand Park on January 22, 2019 in downtown Los Angeles, California. (Scott Heins / Getty Images)

Hello Jane, 

I just finished the biography of Eugene V. Debs, The Bending Cross, and it’s left me with a lot of reflections concerning the cause for industrial unionism, one of Debs’s major lifelong battles. I know your positions are not that different from Debs in this regard, since you’ve been openly critical of craft unionism in the health care sector before, pointing out the common and inefficient model of “nurses-only” unions.

The recent struggles and victories of educators throughout the nation have left many of us amazed and inspired. It’s come to my attention, however, that schools also are still organized along craft lines: teachers have their own two major federations, cafeteria and janitorial staff usually have their own union, bus drivers are also organized separately . . . 

What should we make of the fact that two out of the three strategic industries you regularly cite (health care, education, logistics) are still dominated by craft unionism? What effects do you believe this has had on the wave of activity and strikes in these sectors (if any)? Finally, what steps should be taken in the direction of industrial unionism in the health care and educational sector?

Thank you for your incredible work and insights.



Hi Alec in Atlanta,

I haven’t read that biography, but you mentioning it just put it on my to-do list, thanks.

Great questions about a topic that is not discussed enough: how to most effectively unite workers regardless of their skill, classification, or position as defined by the employer (or others in the political and economic elite). This is particularly important because so much of the US workforce is stratified racially, ethnically, and by gender, based on what are often biased measures (not always, but often). Many jobs performed by workers commonly referred to as “less skilled” or “unskilled” actually require huge skill and intelligence.

I wrote about some of my own direct experiences with building worksite and employer-wide unions in “Forging New Class Solidarities: Organizing Hospital Workers,” a 2015 essay for Socialist Register. It’s a five thousand-word case study of what it took to forge deep solidarity between workers traditionally divided by whether or not they hold this or that certification. But for this column, I’ll highlight a few key ideas.

Over one hundred years ago, through decades of struggle, Eugene Debs arrived at an understanding that workers had maximum power when everyone joined together in a single union. Why? The employer class has many sources of power (money, media, and militias, to name a few), but the working class has one: our large numbers.

But large numbers don’t matter if workers can’t unify and build effective workplace structures, covering every shift, department, and type of worker in any given workplace, by employer (geography and sector). Reflecting the dominant economy of Debs’s era, the strategy was known as industrial unionism.

His analysis of worker power and class struggle unionism is as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1919. Owing to the prevalence of the service sector, it is easier to conceptualize building the kind of solidarity Debs dreamed of then as wall-to-wall unionism today. A major obstacle to unifying the working class and manifesting the power of a united worker front is, of course, racism and sexism. These are major tools used to divide workers. As I wrote in 2015:

Developing workplace solidarities that bridge intra-class differences, such as racism, sexism, and more, has a ripple effect beyond the walls of the workplace, too. Forging a true labor alliance across skill, craft, experience, ethnicity, gender, and more helps transform how workers understand their relationship to each other, to their neighbors, to their nation, and even their world.

Most workers lack a union altogether, but those who do are often members of different unions. If we are honest, there are way too many contract settlements for one classification or group of workers that come at the expense of many others who work side by side or for the exact same employer. Often, the workers deemed “higher-skilled” — harder to replace, from a power analysis — wind up getting more than the workers who are more easily replaced. This unfortunate dynamic undermines worker unity at a time when we are desperate for human solidarity, and it’s often driven by the same endless competition among unions that existed one hundred years ago.

The brilliant rank-and-file leaders in the West Virginia education strike answered your last question best. You asked, “Finally, what steps should be taken in the direction of industrial unionism in the health care and educational sector?” In February 2018, on the heels of the one-day school strikes in southern coal counties, the officials in the two teachers and one service workers’ unions in West Virginia public schools decided they’d better quickly assess readiness for a statewide strike, since there was little question rank-and-file workers were readying themselves for a major walkout.

The leaders of the rank-and-file upsurge demanded that the strike vote — a structure test — would be conducted across all workers regardless of union or type of work, a significant change from the last time major strike activity took place in West Virginia’s schools, nearly thirty years earlier. Back then, some teachers went on strike without the rest of the workers. But in 2018, groups of rank-and-file activists who emerged from the 2016 Sanders campaign demanded a wall-to-wall strike vote.

The result of this very deliberate act of solidarity was a momentous strike over nine days where everyone — the teachers, bus drivers, cleaners, and cooks, not to mention the entire public sector workforce — got bigger raises and achieved bigger gains precisely because all the workers acting collectively produced way more power than had the teachers gone out alone.

In multiple interviews I conducted with the superintendents of schools in West Virginia during that first 2018 strike, when I was probing why there hadn’t been injunctions ordered against the strikers, every superintendent said they had to close the schools not because the teachers walked out, but because the bus drivers refused to drive the buses. Boom. West Virginia is a rural state and stranding children along roadways across the state was simply a safety risk the superintendents couldn’t afford. Nine days later, with every public school in the state closed, the workers, with the support of their community, created a crisis powerful enough to win.

To take another example, in Los Angeles, where the service workers are in a different union than the teachers, and each union is constrained by the oddities of labor law and distinct collective bargaining agreements, the strength of a united bargaining strategy is best illustrated by the one place where teachers and non-teachers recently used their collective power: district-wide health care negotiations in 2017. Even though the unions are separate, they bargain together in united health care negotiations and defeated a fierce effort to significantly cut their health care plans.

Rank-and-file workers across the country need to do what the workers in West Virginia did: demand united collective action, united and coordinated bargaining strategies, and hold to the strategy that no one settles agreements by undercutting their colleagues who work for the same employer.

Don’t get me wrong: one big union has always been my vision. But it’s complicated by the broader politics, or perhaps lack of them, in too many unions. Part of what I take up in the Socialist Register article is debunking the main argument officials in unions use to legitimate breaking worker solidarity, that different kinds of workers have different needs. So? There are simple solutions, including all unions within an employer agreeing to line up their contract expirations and then utilizing the aforementioned unity principle of no one settles till everyone settles.

The solution I’ve come to rely on was the strategic use of open and big negotiations. In Nevada, where every worker covered by the contract had the right to attend negotiations whether they were members or not, we elected very large negotiations teams. Precisely because of the large numbers of workers representing every classification across the hospitals, we’d form parallel negotiation side tables, in rooms right next door to the main negotiations room, where workers with a particular set of issues that required extensive conversations would carry on parallel deliberations.

An example in our hospital-wide negotiations, which covered nurses, technicians, aides, cleaners, administrative, and dietary workers, was nurse floating — the process by which nurses with a particular training such as intensive care would “float” to another unit on a temporary basis. Because we involved so many nurses, a cross section of nurses could stay in the master negotiations room while a second group would go into a side room, thus letting the overall negotiations proceed without slowing down. This cannot work with a small-negotiations-teams approach, where there simply aren’t enough workers to keep the process efficient and effective for all workers simultaneously.

If we are clear about building the kind of power required to make huge gains at the bargaining table and also in politics, the central consideration has to be whether or not the strategy is helping workers to overcome racism, sexism, and the other “isms” capitalists use as weapons to defeat building a powerful working-class movement. As I wrote in the 2015 essay:

Discussing the politics of race, gender, and education/skill were central to building and holding hospital-wide solidarity. And because the union drove a community and political program through the worksite structure and not outside of it, the workers were learning to overcome the bifurcation of work and home. Undoing racism and sexism at work, through collective struggle that demanded total unity, was forging a better class politics inside and outside the workplace.

The Left’s reaction to recent identity politics has been largely a failure, with far too many discussions about “class versus race” or “class versus gender.” It’s how class, race, gender, and more intersect, and in wall-to-wall organizing campaigns, workers’ chances of winning are best when the discussions of intra-class divisions are explicit, not denied.

To build the unbreakable solidarity required to overcome the forces that put Trump into the White House, wall-to-wall organization and unity are urgent. Building an antiracist, antisexist trade union movement is a precondition for class-wide solidarity. Workplace struggle is essential and will help build a stronger democracy.

Thanks for asking the question, Alec in Atlanta!


In Solidarity,

Jane McAlevey