Jane McAlevey’s Plan for How to Build a Fighting Labor Movement
As a longtime labor organizer, scholar, and writer, Jane McAlevey has repeatedly articulated how mass numbers of workers can organize, negotiate, strike, and change the world. In an extended interview with Jacobin, McAlevey reflects on her life and work.
- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
In the decades since publishing her first book, the memoir Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, veteran organizer Jane McAlevey has become a singular figure in the labor movement. She has written four books on labor, all focused on tactics and strategies to organize mass numbers of new workers into unions that wage mass strikes to fight employers, in order to revive organized labor’s flagging fortunes. She regularly comments on labor for national and international outlets, and she’s continued to work on a wide range of union fights throughout the United States and the world, both individual campaigns and in her “Organizing for Power” online training course taken by thousands of workers across the world.
Her latest book, coauthored with Abby Lawlor, is called Rules to Win by: Power and Participation in Union Negotiations. In it, McAlevey and Lawlor focus on mass-participation union contract negotiations with an eye toward engaging mass numbers of workers in those negotiations to force bosses to give unions what they want. The book focuses on several campaign case studies, including several that McAlevey herself worked on.
In a guest-hosted episode of the podcast the Dig, recorded at a public event at the People’s Forum in New York City on March 25, 2023, Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht spoke to McAlevey about her life and work. You can listen to the episode here. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
The Making of an Organizer
Before we get into your new book and any of your work, let’s start at the beginning. You write in your books about a history of coming from a political family and being a student organizer at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and working for a while in the environmental movement and politics, but you eventually ended up in the labor movement. On a more existential level, I’m curious: How did Jane McAlevey, the labor organizer, globe-trotting the planet spreading the methods that we’re going to be talking about in a minute, come to be such a person?
I am the daughter of a World War II fighter pilot. I think that the high-risk gene came a little bit from my old man, rest in peace. He wound up being the wingman to the ace in the German theater and made it home alive. I reflect a lot on being the daughter of a successful fighter pilot who fought fascists — I think it is not an accident.
There was no concept of something being too risky in my childhood, whether it was my brothers throwing me off of giant rocks or anything else. And then my father became a politician by the time I was born, so I was born into a very political household. He didn’t have a clear ideology, except justice. And he took a lot of risks in public office in the 1960s and ’70s. This had a huge influence on me. He actually knitted together racial justice and zoning laws, and fought for the first Earth Day and flew the Earth Day flag over the public office building.
He was mayor, then supervisor, then chair of the supervisors, all in Rockland County, New York. He created a zoning policy that went to the Supreme Court — it got rejected by the court, but everyone in zoning-law cases still studies it, because it’s essentially the precursor to smart growth. He’s credited with the first zoning laws that built public housing, that got me beat up in elementary school all the time for bringing black people out of the city into the country.
The zoning laws were called “controlled growth.” They taxed developers, and the developers went to war against us. My father actually figured it out, because he came out of a strong building-trades family: he had to bring the building-trades unions together in coalition to build the first public housing in the New York suburbs, for which there was extraordinary controversy.
That lineage, and a mother who died when I was very young, meant that I was my father’s campaign attaché on posters, on bumper stickers — the proverbial baby he was kissing a lot of the time. I had a crazy pack of siblings who had to raise me, because he was never home. I was either his campaign attaché, or I didn’t see him. I was raised by a pack of great wolves. So I think that is sort of the roots of like, knowing that methods mattered. And understanding that you couldn’t pass public policy if you couldn’t win the campaign; knowing that you couldn’t pass public policy, even if you narrowly won the campaign. You had to win the campaign and then you had to keep the power, and then you had to divide and conquer your opposition, which my father was doing constantly.
There were a range of progressive causes that you could have gone — and did go — into besides the labor movement, but you’ve dedicated the bulk of your working life to the labor movement. Why labor in particular?
Oh my god, because there is no other way. All of the work we do matters in the progressive movement, but we live in something called capitalism. It took me ten years of being in the environmental justice movement, the student movement, the peace movement, to realize that in a country without real democracy, the one thing that the employer class will respond to is when all the workers walk off the job and create a crisis. That, at the end of the day, is the most effective way to challenge unfettered corporate power.
While I think all the issues matter, the foundation of power that is required for the rest of our issue-driven movements to succeed is a strong labor movement.
I’m concerned with something called structure-based power. Obviously, the black church is a different kind of institution. But [in organizing through the church, organizers have] the ability to measure your power and know whether or not you’re ready to have the kind of fight that you need to have. That’s why, after being in the environmental justice movement, I lived in the South at the Highlander Center, where I was sort of doing a lot of the anti-toxics work. Early on, I learned a lot about the labor movement in the civil rights movement by being in the South, in a famous movement institution.
The Highlander Center in Tennessee was the official labor education center of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s and ’40s. It’s better known for being an education center of the US civil rights movement a couple of decades later. When I had the pleasure of first moving there to work, I was set up in the library, because there was no office space for me. I was in my mid-twenties. I started to go into the archives, and that was the first time I saw organizing manuals from the CIO and realized, “Oh my God, it’s always been the labor movement in the civil rights movement. These have always been inseparable movements.”
You joined the labor movement at a time when, on the American left and the global left, it wasn’t really the hip thing — it wasn’t where people thought the action was. The labor movement was seen as moribund. The story is a little different now. But when you started in the labor movement, there was a sense of dynamism missing. But you’re saying you looked at both arguably the two most important social movements in the history of the United States, and you realize that that’s indeed where the action is.
Yeah, and I was not, for obvious reasons, going to be a leader in the black church movement. I would say, actually, in all the organizing work I do, I’ve never stopped connecting the two. And as someone who does not practice faith, I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time inside the organized black church with the rank-and-file members of unions in every single fight, because in nearly every campaign I’ve ever run, helping members identify an additional source of power in their lives is fundamental, and the black church has been key to many of those struggles in my lifetime and every campaign.
What Is McAleveyism?
You’ve written four books now, and throughout those four books, you make your organizing strategies and philosophy very clear, but in the spirit of sort of crisp, quick communication, I want to take a stab at what McAleveyism is as a whole.
The thread that runs throughout the four books is that workers themselves have the power to organize and force significant concessions not only from their bosses, but from society as a whole. But because our current political environment is one that’s so hostile to collective action by workers, workers can only win by 1) taking militant action in overwhelming numbers together, and 2) simultaneously using every bit of leverage they possess, which means using the ties that they possess outside the workplace, in their communities, as well as in the workplace itself.
And the only way that they can do either of those things is through very rigorous internal processes of building toward serious action — what you refer to in all of your books as structure tests — and scaling up those tests until you’re at the level where you can pull off a mass strike, or even more. If workers can do that, they not only can beat their bosses, but transform all of society.
Am I missing anything that you would add to your definition of what McAleveyism is?
It has to be fun.
I think the one piece that I would add: the methods I was taught were about building worksite power, and then additionally, thinking about how workers come to see themselves as powerful actors inside of their communities. And you knit that power together — we should just say that it’s radical political education. The point of it all is to help everyday people connect the dots in their own lives about things that enable them to have confidence, because confidence is one of the most important things the working class needs in order to act.
What’s missing is that the methods carried out by those of us who continue to win (not always, but often) and win big (not always, but a lot) are part of helping everyday workers come to have more self-confidence in their capacity to win on the way to a big strike, or on the way to believing they can elect a great mayor. We are here to help people connect the dots. And if we’re not doing radical political education as we’re doing the organizing work, we’re doing something wrong.
The thread that goes through all of your work and is very present in the new book, Rules to Win By, is that nothing can be accomplished without workers themselves taking action together. You’re somebody who comes into these campaigns as a staffer, an organizer from outside the workplace. But the whole point of your methods is to actually generate worker engagement, and you say repeatedly in all your books that nothing can be won if the workers themselves are not taking action: and not just that the workers themselves, but a majority, and not just a majority, but a supermajority of workers are taking action together.
The number that always comes up in your books is 90 percent — the goal is for 90 percent of workers to get on board to take this action together, which seems to me to indicate a kind of radical democratic belief on your part. We’re at a time of extreme polarization in the United States and around the world; to insist that it’s possible to win 90 percent of people over to anything is kind of an incredible claim. If we’re to believe what you’ve written about the case studies that you participated in and others who have used your methods, 90 percent is actually an achievable number. Can you talk about that kind of belief, and how you make that 90 percent possible?
By actually laying it out to the workers from day one in every campaign. A sense of radical transparency in the conversation is a key part of the work. There is this return to this crazy, I think often absurd, discussion in the United States on the Left about the role of a full-time organizer, what some people call the professional organizer, versus rank-and-file leaders. It’s the most absurd discussion that we engage in. The way that workers come to win is by having organizers, and that could be full-time or not, in the workplace or not, but skilled people.
The point is, organizing is a craft and power-building is a craft. When it comes to organizing there’s this idea that anyone can just stand up and do it. On the one hand, you can. I have the most incredible belief in the capacity of every single person to act. But you wouldn’t hire someone who’s never held a hammer to build your house the first time. So building the kind of power required to get to 90 percent or more among tens of thousands of people isn’t something that you’re going to hand to someone who’s never tried to do it.
But I say in every book: if you don’t actually believe that everyday people can learn how to do this and learn how to do it quickly, you’re in the wrong movement. Because everyone can organize. We just can’t assume that they can do it without someone helping them understand the basic steps and the basic methods. That’s what a craft is by definition, is something that you get better at, and better at and better at every time you do it.
A lot of rank-and-file leaders who have never been full-time organizers the way I have are extraordinary leaders, because they’ve been in it for a while. They know the work because they’ve been through a strike or two or ten. And they’re just as good as or not better than anybody.
So you have to start a conversation with workers. Everything has to be totally honest. I’ve never kidded them: “I’m here for a little while, and my job is to get you as good at this as I possibly can as fast as I possibly can, because I’m not going to be around. So what I’m going to do is teach you every single thing I’ve ever learned. And I’m going to do that with a curriculum in my head. I’m going to teach you step-by-step in a way that’s going to make sense to you. And I’m going to do it with thousands of workers and struggle.”
There’s a series of steps that we move through to help people learn and build their confidence. That sort of mental curriculum of the organizer, which ebbs and flows just like a good teacher in a classroom, has to start with being open, honest, transparent. For people who don’t know it in the United States, in the private sector, we are not even allowed in the facility.
When I sit down with workers, and they have a list of things that they want to win, the first thing I say to them is, “That’s super exciting. You and your coworkers are so deserving of that. Here’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take you building 90 percent unity across this entire workplace, and knowing and letting the boss know that you’re at least 90 percent unity and are ready to make the kinds of victories on the demands that you’re making, and never being anything but brutally honest about that from day one.”
It seems also like the 90 percent figure and the methods that are about building these supermajorities come not only from believing that you can get 90 percent of the workplace on board, but also the incredibly hostile climate that workers operate under in the United States, which is something like an authoritarian regime when workers punch in on the job every day.
In the very beginning of this book, the first page of Rules to Win By, you tell an anecdote from a campaign in which you get in an elevator and are physically confronted and actually sexually assaulted by some pretty nasty dudes. They are hired union-busting goons, and their intention was to draw a reaction from you that would hurt the campaign. This is the kind of environment and these are the kinds of people that these petty authoritarian employers in the United States are using: they not only restrict your ability to have any kind of democratic say on the job, but also they hire thugs to confront union organizers in elevators and assault them.
So the 90 percent seems like a number that is necessary to overcome that and carry out democracy in an authoritarian regime.
The important thing about that opening story is that the union buster had been doing what he did to me in the elevator to dozens of nurses. He had actually been intimidating, and sexually intimidating, viciously. That campaign was the four years I spent in Nevada, which is a hell of a state with incredible workers in it. And what happened with that union buster is really what goes on in the United States: he’d wait at the time clock for workers at shift change, then walk right next to them to their cars in a dark parking lot. Then he leaned against their car and put his arm on the door to try to force the nurse to have a conversation with him.
The episode I tell about being locked in an elevator with him — all of which was litigated — was remarkable, but not remarkable at all. This is true at Amazon, Starbucks, and everywhere else. This stuff is not new. In the old days, it was done with Pinkertons and guns.
By the way, the for-profit hospital sector in Nevada mattered because it was the single highest source of income for every single for-profit hospital chain in America. The power analysis took us a little while to figure out: Why did they care so much? Because in Nevada, and in the Las Vegas casinos in particular, forty-four million people fly in every year to gamble. Every single person is out of network on their insurance plan. So it mattered so much. It was their own little mini Amazon or something, if you were the for-profit hospital industry. That kind of terror campaign led to us winning workers in that particular moment in that election.
Then the employer, within the seven required days under labor law, filed charges against us, saying that Jane McAlevey and a few other people have personally intimidated every worker to vote yes for the union after being assaulted in an elevator by them. So then we had to actually go on and litigate it and win.
If you want to win something really big, under an authoritarian-like regime . . . which is sadly, the state of Florida, Texas, if you’re a woman in the United States at this point, a black person, it’s always been like functioning under an authoritarian regime. So for people who think that they can just tweet, or hold meetings and have the same forty people show up at every meeting, that that’s going to get us to the kind of power required to challenge what is going on in this country and in this world — it’s really not just magical thinking, it’s bad thinking.
Rules to Win by is mostly about union negotiations. It’s specifically about an approach of yours called “open negotiations.” I didn’t really understand until I read this book, that the point of open negotiations for you is not just to throw open the doors to all union members in a given unit to join in, and maybe you’ll be more powerful because the boss sees that there’s more workers than they expected there. That’s part of it.
But really, the point of such open negotiations is to see contract negotiations as an opportunity to involve as many workers as possible, and to maximize all of the points of leverage that each of those workers bring to the table and involve them in multiple parts of the negotiations process.
In doing so, you don’t just win a stronger contract; you’re building (or rebuilding, in the case of a moribund union) that kind of supermajority worker power that we were just talking about, which can be then taken and used elsewhere within the union and beyond the union. Can you talk a little bit about that strategy of open negotiations and why they’re so important to everything that you argue for in this new book?
I believe you have to put workers at the center of everything. So this book focuses on how we put workers at the center of the negotiations process. (If I get to it, there’ll be another book about how to put workers at the center of power-structure analysis. The more that workers understand, and the more they bring their actual intelligence to the table, because they come with extraordinary intelligence, the better off everyone is going to be.)
In Nevada, there were a couple of places where we had a moribund unit, a dead union functionally, with twenty workers out of a thousand who were paying dues. That was a shocking thing for me to go from the comfort zone of the Northeast — at a time when everyone paid dues into the union that they’re a part of in non-right-to-work states — to the Wild West of the Southwest.
We were in the first two campaigns for meeting with workers who basically hated their union. Most of them wouldn’t join it, wouldn’t sign a membership card, thought it was a ridiculous organization. Not corrupt, just stupid.
To help them overcome their skepticism, and to help them really understand that the union was just them and their coworkers collectivizing their power against their employer, I was often battling with the longtime people there to say, “We’re actually going to let anybody come into the room who’s represented by the collective bargaining agreement.” That pivot was instrumental to us actually building a 90 percent union in a right-to-work state.
It sounds like you’re also describing it as a kind of recruitment opportunity for those who are not currently engaged in the union, or are even anti-union. There’s plenty of stories about that in the book. You bring these anti-union workers into this process, you show them what you are building and what a union looks like, and that the union is something they should want to be a part of, because they see how dynamic it is, and how it’s a force for them to change their life on the job.
There’s this rhetoric in the labor movement: “The ‘u’ in union stands for ‘you.’” Yet most unions haven’t made that real. So how do you make the “u” in union real to people? You involve them and put them at the center of the most important decisions in their own organization.
Generally, for workers, the most important part of their union that they decided to form or join or be part of, is their contract. What their wages are, what their terms and conditions are, how they get out of living in an authoritarian dictatorship called the employment sector of the United States. It’s not telling workers they are the union, it’s actually enabling them to be their own union.
When you open up the negotiations process, you don’t just invite all the workers covered by the contract — you demand their presence. We set a goal of trying to get every single worker, once. Electing a big committee is part of it. There is a sitting committee, and it’s much larger than what most unions in the United States engage in. There’s a standing committee that’s representative, every kind of worker, every kind of shift — they bring incredible intelligence to the meeting.
There is no way that any trade-union leader can tell me that having a ton of workers from every shift in every kind of work in the room doesn’t help negotiations, because they’re fact-checking the employer constantly. Like when the boss says, “Well, we were fully staffed for that week that you were suggesting that we weren’t fully staffed,” all we have to do is pause, take a caucus.
And there’s going to be thirty people in the room who can say to the boss, “You’re talking about the posted staffing grid, without callouts, and without you replacing people who were sick that day.” They bring you intelligence about how everything’s working. There’s no way an employer can go up against the intelligence of all the workers in their own facility. Compared to me — I’m just facilitating a conversation at that point, right? I don’t know what the hell is going on in their workplace, they do.
The State of the Labor Movement
In this book, and in basically the last three books, you’re focusing a lot on stories of this method succeeding, showing that it actually can work and explaining how it works. But I was also rereading your first book, which breaks a little bit from the other books. You like to win, as you’re constantly talking about. But the first book involves certain parts of the labor movement that you think were making very wrongheaded strategic decisions, particularly the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) at the time when you wrote the book, over a decade ago.
You talk in that book about the approach to negotiations that was being taken by SEIU’s national leadership at the time that took the opposite approach to these kinds of negotiations. Everything was about getting people in the door to the union — to begin with, flying a bunch of talented organizers to get people on board for this union, get them fired up about it, and then immediately leave town. Then the contract is completely out of those workers’ hands, turned over to the union. And they negotiated what were frequently quite bad contracts.
In No Shortcuts, you have a chapter on an SEIU local in the state of Washington that’s perhaps the most grotesque version of this, where the contract workers clearly have nothing to do with the negotiations of the contracts, and the contract is actually actively bad in many cases. That approach was dominant in some of the parts of the labor movement that considered themselves dynamic and active. Do you see that approach changing in the labor movement toward something more like what you advocate for? Or is this still the dominant way that most unions are handling their contract negotiations?
Sadly, I think that most unions still are handling their negotiations with very small committees, assigning gag orders, and not being transparent at all about the negotiations.
To go back to that moment that you’re describing, the early 2000s, in SEIU (though I think it applies across the eight or so unions that were still trying at that time, as opposed to the several dozen who weren’t even trying): it was so egregious back then. Unions were actually lowering expectations, if not smashing and trashing workers expectations.
Now, there is a theory that there’s no way for workers to win until a lot more workers are in unions. I just think it’s the most outrageous theory I’ve ever heard. Because if workers don’t experience actual material gain, dignity, and respect for real life in their contracts, you’re going to reproduce dead unions. And there’s no way we’re going to build the power required to do everything we need to do like save the planet, stop cops from killing people, and much more.
Every day for organizers, there’s a strategic choice, the possibility of choosing a way to win. I write books to call people out and say, “Let’s try to win today.” Yet there’s the majority of trade-union officials who choose every day, remarkably to me, to lose.
When you put it that way, why would you choose to be a loser?
They’re lazy, they’re risk averse —it’s a fairly long list. But frankly, it’s unacceptable.
The point of each book is to say, “Let’s focus on what we can control.” And what we can control is our strategy and our power analysis.
Twenty-five years ago, we would have this discussion like, “Okay, it’s a bummer they’re not choosing to try to win. Wouldn’t it be great if they tried to win?” And then you kept waiting: Is this the crisis that’s going to make them choose to win? Is it the invasion of another country? Is it a financial crisis that bankrupted the working class another time, like in 2008?
Is it an external event that’s going to spur people to action?
That’s right. Sadly, we missed that opportunity when they bankrupted everyone’s mortgage. Now we literally have a time clock on us.
I feel like looking at every labor leader and saying, “Is it that you don’t believe in science? Or do you want to die?” Because that’s actually the choice right now.
What’s beautiful about this moment is that workers are really challenging the power-holders in their unions right now. And workers are forming new unions. A lot of workers are clear that there’s been a set of unions choosing to lose for a long time. They’re trying to figure out how to take this instrument, a union, and actually turn it into the force for good that we know it can be. That’s what’s exciting to me.
Part of the point of the books and the training courses is to actually enable tens of thousands of people to understand that there is a choice they can make to win. It usually starts with challenging the position-holders in their unions to turn their organization into the kind of organization that can do what just happened in Los Angeles.
There’s a lot of big winning to be done. But the organization has to be democratic. It has to be a high-participation organization in order to win. And that’s what opening up the negotiations process builds: a high-participation union. High-participation negotiations mean you believe in the everyday intelligence of the workers. It means that as a union official, you’re not going to be allowed to sell them out cheap for a cheap contract, because we’re all going to be in the room holding you accountable. And it’s going to build a different kind of labor movement. That’s what we show in every case study in Rules to Win By.
One of the case studies in the book is of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), which to me was maybe the most exciting chapter in the book. It’s a case study of how you did exactly what you just laid out with PASNAP. Can you talk about that as a case study, and how you went about winning all that you won with PASNAP?
It starts with the foundation of a good union already being there before I arrived. I show in the chapter that in the decade or so leading up to those campaigns, that union had been constantly on strike. When workers were voting in 2016 and 2017 (it was seven different hospitals of mostly nurses voting to form unions in Philadelphia), they were doing it because they had seen a gigantic 2010 strike at Temple University Hospital, where the workers went out on an open-ended twenty-eight-day strike and took on management. In the end, they won pretty much everything they went out on strike for.
When I was brought in, I was doing my PhD. I needed to work during the PhD process. So I had carved out only one or two contract campaigns at a time — that’s what I could handle while also finishing my PhD in five years.
In 2016, when it was clear to the leadership that they didn’t even have enough people to negotiate the contracts, I began to get phone calls from the head of the union saying, “Something is going on in Philadelphia. There’s a whole lot of heat down here. We keep winning elections, and we can’t even stop to negotiate. Can you come down and start coordinating the first contract campaigns?” I keep saying no. Next thing I know, they invite me to be the keynote speaker at the convention. The whole leadership was organizing me, and I didn’t know it until I got there.
I go to their convention, which is in April, and I get surrounded by thirty-five worker-leaders from Einstein Medical Center who come up to me and say, “The employer filed charges against our election. The employer filed charges to get the election thrown out. This is the biggest hospital in the whole campaign in Philadelphia. And the employer filed charges against the National Labor Relations Board. We’re asking you to come down and help us get over these legal charges.”
We get there, and the truth is, what was tricky about the election was that the employer is contesting the election completely, so there is no union officially. The boss was putting out a message that says a majority of nurses never voted for the union — which is actually technically true. A majority of total workers had not affirmatively voted for the union if you counted those who didn’t vote. But by American democracy it was a slamming victory.
So the boss is putting out this constant message. That was the day-one thing. I met the workers, and I said, “To overcome that employer message, guess what you’re going to have to do? This thing called a majority petition, which is a petition that only you and your coworkers sign, no one else.”
That petition is going to say, “we demand the employer drop the legal charges, recognize the union, and get to the negotiations table.” These petitions are always very short. This is a structure test.
It was not easy, because there were whole anti-union departments at that point. The union busters don’t go away. They hadn’t left the hospital.
So this was an ongoing, daily, intense organizing campaign to get to that 90 percent supermajority across that hospital, even though they had already voted to form the union. It was constant organizing, and it was not until they hit barely a supermajority, 65 percent of them signing that petition — because we couldn’t move a couple of the key anti-union units [in the hospital] yet. So 65 percent of them sign a supermajority petition, saying it’s a lie.
And we immediately have the workers themselves blow the petition up into a gigantic poster. It’s called showing the boss. We immediately had delegations of nurses in their scrubs delivering it to every member of the board of trustees, the mayor, the city council, the media, everyone you could possibly imagine to say, “The boss is lying. The proof is in every signature on the paper.”
That’s the first pivot in the campaign. Meanwhile, the employers lose the charge, but they keep filing appeals. And we know that’s the whole point. The reason why PASNAP brought me there was because like at Amazon or Starbucks, the employer is going to continue contesting and using lawfare and the legal process to stop workers from ever getting to the contract, unless the workers can figure out how to create a crisis for that employer that brings them to their knees. Which is exactly what the workers did in Philadelphia.
In reading this part of the book, as a reader, you get to the point you’re describing, and you’re like, “Finally, the good guys overcome all the roadblocks and win in the end.” But then you’re like, “Wait a minute, no, this was all just so that the workers could get to the negotiating table” — so that they could start negotiating a contract, because the boss didn’t want to even get to that point. So you had to do all of this just to get to the point where you could then do the open negotiation strategy.
That first structure test, that first majority petition, didn’t even get us the table. We then held a strike vote, then threatened to disrupt the entire Hillary Clinton nomination at the Democratic National Convention. So there were several more steps before the power structure of Philadelphia would be forced by the threat of a strike by a mostly female workforce — the exact demographic that the Clinton campaign believed that it needed to win Pennsylvania.
The Democratic Party believed it needed black people to over-vote in Philadelphia, then white women in the suburbs. Guess who the one thousand nurses in the hospital were? Black nurses in the city. And white nurses from the Philadelphia suburbs, there were literally a thousand. We kept telling the power structure, “There’s a thousand people who are a microcosm of your strategy to win a swing state called Pennsylvania. And by the way, you’re going to lose, because not one of them wants to talk about Hillary Clinton — and if workers don’t want to talk about something, you’re in trouble.”
This goes to labor strategy that chooses to lose: the Philadelphia labor council had signed what’s called a “labor peace accord” a year earlier, which required that all unions not take any workplace action when the Democratic National Convention was happening in Philadelphia. But PASNAP was an independent union. Thus, the independent union was not bound by said agreement (which is a strong argument for union independence).
When I pointed this small fact out to several people in the power structure, the heart attacks began, because we threatened to put registered nurses in uniform in front of the nominating convention for Hillary Clinton if the employer did not drop those legal charges. And we’re going to negotiate an expedited negotiations agreement, on the back of people screaming at the top of their lungs at us for holding the nominating convention hostage.
Anytime we can hold the Democratic National Convention committee hostage, I’m for it. And it worked. Because we understood the power-structure analysis, which was that the local host committee was not going to tolerate picket lines. We were explicitly saying to them: “When the entire international media is here, we’re going to have a bunch of black and white women saying that you failed them. That’s your choice. Otherwise, fix the problem with the CEO in the hospital.” And that problem got fixed.
There’s much more to that story. People will have to get it in the book. But there is a very funny moment during those negotiations where you go into the negotiating room, and one of the boss’s negotiators has a copy of your first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell). He’s got it all marked up — there are tabs in it to show that he’s definitely read the thing. His basic orientation is, “Oh McAlevey, I’m onto you. I read your book, you spell it all out here in the book what you’re going to do to me during these negotiations. You idiot, why did you write it all down?!”
He’s trying to intimidate you and show that he knows what’s coming. But it ends up not really mattering that he knows what’s coming, because he can’t fight supermajority participation. There’s no way he can win, even though he knows what’s coming, because it’s such an overwhelming show of force by the workers there.
It was a very funny moment, because I actually forgot I had a book out. I often forget. He walked into the very first opening session, when the nurses forced that employer into the room. And he had the book positioned as the first thing you would see upon entering the room. There’s 150 workers in the room. I’m keeping poker face.
He literally says out loud, “Well, it’s just like the book says: there’s a lot of people in here. I bet you’re going to show an opening presentation next that only the workers give, right?” And I go, “Yes, could you please sit down?”
At the first caucus meeting during the negotiations, it led to the best fit of laughter that I’ve ever had with the negotiating committee. The first worker-leader got up and said, “Well, what an effing idiot. He read the book, and we’re going to kill him anyway.”
So the point is, it doesn’t matter. If the workers get organized and create a crisis, they can win.
I want to zoom out for a second and talk about your relationship to ideology. I’m interested in the tactics that you’re describing in the book but also bigger-picture questions. On the one hand, you don’t seem to have a lot of interest in or patience for ideology. You’re principally interested in winning. The other day, I told you about a book project I’m working on, about old socialists who were in the labor movement, many of whom lost quite a bit. And your response was basically, “Why would you waste your time? They didn’t win very much.”
So you’re interested principally in winning. On the other hand, in No Shortcuts, you go quite a bit into the history of the American labor movement. You have a very fundamental respect for the organizing done by the Communist Party and various kinds of socialists during the CIO’s heyday in the 1930s, because there’s a very clear scholarly consensus that these radicals were the most dedicated organizers in that period. You couldn’t have built the early CIO if you didn’t have radicals playing very key roles in such organizing.
You seem less interested in people who can cook up impressive theories and more interested in people who can carry out impressive wins. Is this an accurate description?
Yes. I’m much more interested in people who are teaching people how to win. And it’s not that I don’t think ideology doesn’t matter. I think what matters is: What are the principles on which we’re doing the work, and can we point to them showing success? Part of my cynicism, about not spending a lot of time on these questions for my whole lifetime, is rooted in several things.
One, there’s not a lot of great world-historic examples to show for in the name of communism or socialism. There’s definitely not good ones to show from capitalism. If as an organizer, day to day what I’m doing is raising people’s expectations that they themselves can build the power to change their workplace and win, having a long discussion about the debates of what did or didn’t work in the Soviet Union is not actually going to help the campaign at all. What is going to help workers come to understand capitalism as a problem is not me telling them that — it’s actually them learning it. It’s actually them experiencing the crisis that capitalism is creating in their lives.
I feel like I do ideology in every campaign and every day of the week, and I do that ideology by helping workers come to the realization that the system in the United States that they’re living under is an abject failure; that condemning people who make the profits to poverty is an absolute failed model. There must be something better out there. I’m pretty sure that that’s socialism, if you push me on it. The principles of socialism are good, but I’ve met too many people who call themselves socialists and are the biggest assholes who couldn’t win a thing. So I’m not going to spend a lot of time hanging out with them. It’s not helpful to me, and it’s not helpful to the American working class.
When we get close enough to being able to contest for state power, I’m going to switch gears a lot and focus on that. But at this point, we’re trying to teach workers how to control their unions, so that they can go on and actually win and challenge mayors and state power.
The methods I use are an ideology. Transparent, big, open negotiations are ideology. Being honest with workers about what it’s going to take to win is a form of ideology, showing them and helping them experience building democratic, collective worker majorities that can govern their workplace — what is better than teaching workers how to actually govern the hardest place to govern?
It’s not that I don’t think it matters. It’s that from age eighteen when I was student-organizer, and some schmuck from the Spartacist League slipped a four-point-font newsletter in my hand, I just thought, “Who are these losers?” Seriously, I didn’t even know what the Spartacist League was. I’m like, “Are you from Greece or Rome? Who are you?” And then at subsequent conferences, I’d be bombarded by like ninety other people handing me forty different versions of a badly put-together newsletter yelling at me. I just thought, “I’m not spending my time with these people.” That doesn’t count Jacobin.
And it doesn’t count, say, the Communist Party in the auto factories.
Of course, they get credit. In No Shortcuts, I show that what those Communists were doing is no different than what I’m doing. I tried to argue that whether the experienced, skilled organizer is positioned inside the workplace, in the rank and file, or outside like I have been, doesn’t matter. It’s about what we are teaching the workers, how they are learning it, and if they are learning self-confidence and the ability to win.
I absolutely believe capitalism is an absolutely failed model. There’s no question about it. I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what’s got to be perfect about the new system, because we’re so far from it. When we get closer, I’m ready to throw down and figure out what it is.
This leads to the point that you make in the conclusion of your previous book, A Collective Bargain, and you make several other times in your work, that while you’re mostly writing about strategy and tactics for organizing unions and negotiations, you say that the strategy and tactics that you’re laying out are not just about the labor movement, and in fact should be used as part of a broader, transformative project in all of society that can include politics and other kinds of social movements. Can you talk briefly about the potential for the use of these kinds of strategies that you lay out in these books as going beyond the labor movement?
The methods apply across the board. There are organic or natural leaders that exist all through society; the organizer doesn’t make leaders, leaders actually exist. Our job is to help coworkers, or tenants, or students — our job is to help people identify that there are natural leaders among the working class all over the place, and that we’re going to be more effective if we help lead with people who are already natural leaders, who will then need to be skilled up and taught the art of war, which is sort of what these methods are. That doesn’t just exist in the workplace.
I believe in something called “whole worker organizing.” It’s what the communists and the socialists were doing in the 1930s and 1940s, bringing workers’ own community into the fight. People will say to me (only in academia, not workers), “You can’t really do that anymore, though, because people don’t go to church, or they don’t have any more faith, or people are dispersed, or they don’t live together. It isn’t like factories in the 1930s and 1940s, where you had huge populations of immigrants living next to each other in a factory town.”
I’ve heard this so many times. But whole worker organizing just takes a little bit more work these days. We have to adjust the idea for the times. So how do you adjust?
The methods of identifying natural leaders, and then helping skill those people up to lead, whatever the fight they’re having is, to lead that struggle — that’s going to be more effective and efficient than just spending all of our time talking to the most committed people who come back to every meeting every day. We’re just not going to win by talking to ourselves. We are going to win when we train people across movements and across sectors in these methods.
Methods are adjustable. We adjust them to different times and conditions and settings. But the methods matter. And a core one is: stop talking to just yourselves and start spending every single day talking to people who you’re not talking to, because that’s the way we’re going to build the kind of power required to stop fascism.