Learning to Strike and Win

If we’re going to reverse the ravages of neoliberalism, we’ll need to rebuild a global labor movement that knows how to strike and win. A recent international “Strike School,” led by labor organizer Jane McAlevey, brought 3,000 trade unionists and activists from seventy countries to try to do just that.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of downtown Chicago to support the teachers strike in 2019. (Scott Heins / Getty Images)

Organizing trainings are not normally news-worthy events. But “Strike School,” which wrapped up its final session on October 13, is an exception. Led by labor organizer Jane McAlevey and hosted by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS), this six-session training brought together roughly three thousand individuals and groups from seventy countries seeking to grapple with the methods necessary to take on, and defeat, the powers-that-be.

The course took place at a particularly bleak moment in world politics, with the COVID-19 pandemic combining with a dramatic spike in unemployment to put working people even further on the defensive. Faced with austerity, climate disaster, immigrant scapegoating, and the reelection threat of Donald Trump and other reactionaries, the absence of a powerful, fighting labor movement continues to be the crucial missing link for progressive change across the globe.

Glimpses of the untapped potential for unions to turn around this state of affairs are not hard to find. The opening plenary of Strike School was launched by Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson, who in early 2019 helped stop Donald Trump’s government shutdown by raising the specter of a general strike.

“We organized Strike School partly in response to the increase of talk about strikes and general strikes,” says McAlevey, who was trained in the organizing tradition coming out of the US CIO’s militant unionism of the 1930s and the left-led Local 1199 health care workers union. “It seemed like the exactly the right time to dig into organizing fundamentals and how you can actually build the supermajority strikes that we need.”

Sara Nelson and Jane McAlevey.

Accordingly, the course focused on key tasks such as workplace leader identification; semantics and six-step structured organizing conversations; workplace and community charting; structure tests; and strike mobilization. Unlike the two past trainings put on by McAlevey and the RLS — a socialist foundation based in Germany — registration this time was opened only to groups and organizations, not individuals, to help ensure that the trainings were being used to help guide on-the-ground campaigns and build up collective organization.

For participants with no organizing experience, the content of the course was new. For others, like Lilia Rodriguez from UNI Americas, which helps unionize workers across Latin America, “the seminar was really helpful to ‘polish my skills’ on my work as an organizer.” And for Public Services International’s Everline Aketch, who trains organizers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda, “one key lesson for me was the importance of semantics: how we communicate and make the union recruitment process more inclusive than the ‘third party’ connotation we normally use.”

Strike School sought to tie these skills together through an overarching argument about the divergence between mobilizing — engaging those who agree with you — and organizing — winning over those who don’t. “The whole central concept of the course,” notes McAlevey, “is that, for organizers, we wake up every morning asking how to engage the people who don’t agree with us — or who think they don’t agree with us.”

A motif of the course was that the viability and power of this organizing tradition was recently demonstrated on a mass scale in the 2019 teachers strikes in Los Angeles and Chicago. After decades of retreat for labor and the Left, panelists argued, these victories showed that it is still possible to fight back and win — and to transform the expectations of working people in the process. Chicago Teachers Union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said in the closing plenary: “a strike can be one of the most spiritual experiences of your life.”

To outline the work and organizing methods that culminated in more than thirty thousand Los Angeles educators walking off the job in early 2019, the course tapped United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) organizers Jollene Levid and Brian McNamara. As Levid explains,

the organizing tools and lessons taught at Strike School are not a secret — they’ve been crafted over decades by generations of unionists and should be shared. They work. At UTLA, these fundamentals were used to build towards a supermajority strike and I participated in the course to share them with other unionists. There was nothing magical about what UTLA did: it was hundreds of thousands of organizing conversations, union-wide structure tests, charting, community engagement, and a lot of preparation.

Because of the interactive, practice-oriented nature of the course, participants were encouraged to directly implement these methods into their concrete campaigns. As the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee tweeted on October 16,

What’s the best thing to do after finishing #StrikeSchool with Jane McAlevey, Jollene Levid, Brian McNamara, & other amazing organizers? Start a structure test (group letter) in a 59-unit building owned by SF’s largest landlord. A tenant leader who took #StrikeSchool did just that.

A New International Left-Labor Network

What set Strike School apart from other trainings was not only its content but its ambitious scope. Thousands of activists from seventy countries, were brought together across industries, unions, and national borders.

For months, dozens of unionists from across the world worked with McAlevey and the RLS to plan the content and format of Strike School, cohering in the process the first steps of a horizontal transnational network of left-labor organizers. For the training itself, over a hundred twenty volunteer facilitators led the smaller interactive break-out groups through which participants were able to discuss methods and practice skills.

“The practice helped us identity mistakes we make so that we can do our best to avoid them when we go back into the field,” explained Bora Mema, an activist currently organizing support for striking oil-refinery workers in Albania.

To allow for global participation, the course was held twice daily and all material as well as trainings were translated into Arabic, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German. A list of international unions and organizations that ultimately participated in the school includes, among others, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the Palestinian Postal Workers, the Ghana Registered Nurses and Midwives Association, the Jordan Teachers Union, New Trade Union Initiative in India, E tū in New Zealand, Sinsaúde and the Sindicato dos Enfermeiros in Brazil, Red de Solidaridad con Trabajadorxs en Riesgo in Mexico, Fedotrazonas in the Dominican Republic, the University and College Union in the UK, the Algemene Onderwijsbond in the Netherlands, and numerous organizations from the United States and Canada.

Unions were not the only groups that took part. Also participating were numerous tenants groups, the National Students Federation of Pakistan, the Center for Migrant Advocacy in the Philippines, Comité Fronterizo de Obreros in Mexico, Fridays for Future in Germany, Agir pour la Paix in Belgium, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca in Spain, Core in Nigeria, as well as the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee in the United States.

Since the chance to exchange organizing experiences across national borders is so rare, the international breakout group sessions were a highlight for many. And despite differences in national contexts across the globe, participants generally said that the methods taught in Strike School were relevant for their particular countries.

Nisreen Haj Ahmad, one of the eight course participants from the organization Ahel — which coaches social justice groups in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan — explains that the course “opened our eyes to the degree of discipline and detail orientation needed when organizing a union or a strike.” For Randy Miranda of the Partido Manggagawa another takeaway was the utility of “big bargaining”:

Here in the Philippines, it’s a common practice by unions to have collective bargaining negotiations done by only a small group, usually the president and some officers only, who rely more on the wisdom of lawyers sitting with them in the negotiation. But we learned in Strike School about the importance of getting a larger number of workers engaged in collective bargaining. The lesson is: trust the workers, especially during negotiations.

In some regions, a tradition of serious labor organizing has had to be recreated from scratch. This was the case in Albania, where Bora Mema’s Organizata Politike lends organizing support to workers founding independent unions in garment, oil refining, mining, and call centers: “Albania has faced massive privatization and a lack of trade unions since the fall of the socialist regimes, which is why in our country its so important to restart organizing. Particularly because we’re lacking any tradition, learning from the school has been more than welcome.”

Course materials from Strike School.

When asked about the main lesson she took from the course, she replied that “everything was important, but first thing that comes to mind was a small-but-important point: it’s not only about ID’ing the leader in a workplace, but also about figuring out who is the first person you should approach who can bring the leader on board.”

The logistics of making space for thousands of people across the world to participate in an interactive training were daunting. One of the significant novelties of the course was the way it effectively harnessed new technology to promote old organizing techniques. While Strike School focused on face-to-face organizing methods that go as far back as the 1930s, the organizational structure of the training itself — with its reliance on digital tools and volunteer labor to scale up beyond the capacities of paid staffers — resembled the new “distributed organizing” model utilized by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, the Sunrise Movement, and the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee in the United States.

Though the jury is still out whether a “distributed” model can effectively promote organizing (rather than just mobilizing), the experience of Strike School itself suggests potential for rebuilding a robust labor-left infrastructure.

Since McAlevey and the RLS will be offering more international training courses in 2021 and beyond, two issues merit further consideration down the road. The first is how to further internationalize the training’s content and network, particularly to better reflect the Global South. Though significant strides were made in this regard, all organizers agreed that Strike School’s plenary speakers and participants were still disproportionately Anglophone and European.

Beyond efforts to deepen outreach to labor unions and organizers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, this challenge also poses the thornier question of how effective organizing methods can take on distinct forms in different political contexts.

For instance, because the legality of union activities and the level of repression varies significantly between countries, how might this shape organizing approaches? The particularly harsh realities of organizing in the Global South was hammered home during Strike School itself when a group of union member participants from Nigeria were arrested for their organizing efforts. Digging further into how methods can be “tempered” for specific countries — as well as specific industries — is an important question that could benefit from more international exchange and deliberation.

The second looming issue is how these organizing methods can help build class power in the political arena. Forging strong, strike-ready unions is urgently needed, but history indicates that there’s only so far working people can go without independent parties to represent their interests. To what extent, and in what ways, can the methods taught in Strike School be translated into political organizing?

It’s hard to imagine reversing neoliberalism, let alone winning a true political and economic democracy, without rebuilding political parties of and for the working class. But this poses a whole series of strategic tensions. How to balance shop-floor organizing with electoral work, and how to push for elected representatives to promote (rather than dampen) bottom-up action have long been thorny political dilemmas for leftists.

Answering these questions might lie beyond the scope of a training course. But over the coming years, the promising international network emerging around Strike School could play a significant role in figuring out how to effectively combine organizing in workplaces and neighborhoods with organizing inside the state.