Jane McAlevey Knew We Could Win

Among Jane McAlevey’s many audacious projects in the labor movement, her organizer training program, Organizing for Power, is one of her most innovative. Reaching tens of thousands of workers worldwide, her ideas and commitment will live on through it.

A packed room listens to Jane McAlevey speak during a book talk at UFCW 770 Union Hall in Los Angeles, July 13, 2023. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Numerous tributes to Jane McAlevey’s remarkable record — four books published in the past decade alongside a life’s work of training organizers based on well-documented campaign victories — will surely be published in the coming months in the wake of her death yesterday at age fifty-nine following her battle with multiple myeloma. I will not attempt to do justice to the fullness of Jane’s amazing life but rather focus on how I knew her best: as a big-hearted humanist and beacon to the international workers’ movement.

Jane’s father, John McAlevey, was a World War II fighter pilot who later became an important progressive politician in New York state politics. Her mother died when she was young, and she would often accompany her father as a “campaign prop,” as she would later say. From her father, she developed a lifelong hatred for fascism and learned what it takes to fight and win in the trenches of political struggle. From her mother, she learned that life is fleeting, and not a second of it should be wasted.

Jane got to work young, as a student organizer and outspoken critic of US foreign policy. As president of the Student Association of the State University of New York, she led a campaign that resulted in a historic act of divestiture from apartheid South Africa. After university, she traveled to Nicaragua to support the revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front. There she learned another key lesson from a Sandinista, who told her that if she was truly committed to dismantling US imperialism, she should go back to fight from within the belly of the beast. Always a close listener, Jane did just that.

Back in the United States, Jane spent several years in the environmental movement, followed by a spell at the Highlander Research and Education Center, which famously trained a generation of civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks. Jane would later speak about how popular depictions of Parks implied that she appeared out of nowhere on that bus in Montgomery, when in fact her act was the apotheosis of years of training and disciplined movement building.

While studying at Highlander, Jane had an epiphany that would stay with her until the very end: none of the most important struggles of our time — from women’s liberation to racial equality, from climate justice to ending war — could be won without bringing majorities of working people on board. She followed this conclusion to its only logical starting point, the labor movement, beginning with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and subsequently moving on to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Over the next two decades, she would work with more unions and campaigns than can be listed in the space of one article, and she remained in the labor movement for the rest of her life.

Fighting for Workers’ Rights

From Nevada to Philadelphia, Los Angeles to Berlin, Jane played a critical role in winning numerous high-participation union campaigns, bringing material gains to many hundreds of thousands of workers. As her fellow travelers are the ones who should write those battles’ elegies, I will limit myself to saying that she stared down long odds, tough opponents, and nasty union-busting campaigns with courage, conviction, and — most memorably — meticulous planning.

It was Jane’s deep belief that workers should never be led into a fight if they were not adequately prepared and did not stand a good chance of winning. That did not mean she was afraid of defeat — like any serious organizer, she did sometimes lose, both in campaigns and in the tough internal disputes that scar the trade union landscape — but she never threw workers to the wolves, and she never went down easy.

Jane’s core theory of labor organizing, as it developed through her campaign experiences, was that American trade unions had moved away from the kind of organizing developed in the first half of the twentieth century in favor of what she called “shallow organizing.” The same approach is more commonly known as “mobilizing”: essentially getting people to turn out to large demonstrations without any plan for what to do beyond the demonstration.

Jane argued that this trend must be reversed, for the sake of workers and the planet that we share, and that what she called “whole-worker organizing” was key to building disciplined, majority-led campaigns capable of credibly threatening and executing escalatory actions — up to and including strikes — to win demands. This argument, as well as a comprehensive outline of the methods that this deep organizing entails, was laid out in a series of books that she began to write with her characteristic frenetic energy after being convinced, at the age of forty-five, to return to graduate school at the City University of New York under the tutelage of renowned sociologist Frances Fox Piven.

Jane’s first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), outlined the core tenets of her theory of change as they developed across her first decade of organizing in the labor movement. It was named the “most valuable book of 2012” by the Nation magazine, where she later went on serve as “strikes correspondent.” Her 2016 book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, was based on her PhD dissertation and provides her most thorough theoretical analysis, arguing that lasting social change can only happen when organizing is built around workers and ordinary people. It is used widely in the labor movement as the basis for study groups by countless thousands of unionists.

Her third book, published in 2020, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy, broadened her lens, focusing on the links between attacks on the workplace and civil democracy, and how the tactics of the right wing can be overcome. Her most recent book, Rules to Win By: Power and Participation in Union Negotiations (cowritten with Abby Lawlor), was completed when she already knew her prognosis. In this final piece, she and Abby outline how to democratize union negotiations and build worker power by practicing transparent, big, and open negotiations.

Across this body of work, we see a rhythmic sway back and forth between micro-level campaign analysis and the macro-level implications of how our opponents understand and exercise power and what it will take to defeat them. Every step of the way, this interplay is guided by the voices, actions, and concrete experiences of workers.

Organizing for Power

I met Jane in 2019, as part of an experimental attempt to run an online training based on the methods she had honed during her decades of organizing. I was working for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, and a growing number of German organizers were asking for Jane’s support. At the same time, in the international progressive community, we were noting an uptick in demand for proven organizing methods that did not just churn out big crowds but actually built campaigns capable of winning.

Jane was skeptical. Like any good organizer, she placed huge value on one-on-one, face-to-face meetings — but the demand was too real to deny. Two thousand people came to that initial pilot training, and the six-week program, appropriately called “Organizing for Power,” or O4P, has since trained more than forty thousand people from 1,800+ organizations in 115 countries and nineteen languages. Participants join a plenary-style webinar, where an expert trainer (oftentimes Jane but increasingly other organizers from around the world) gives a lesson on a core organizing skill: leader identification, semantics, one-on-one conversations, list work, workplace charting, and building structure tests.

At first, we invited individuals to participate on their own. But Jane, always a believer in raising expectations while “raising hell,” demanded that it be a truly organizational training, with an initial threshold requirement of four people per group, later raised to ten. Members of our team, including me, were worried that this would lead to smaller attendance, but Jane argued just the opposite: higher standards would boost commitment and foster a spirit of solidarity to battle the attrition that often accompanies longer trainings like this.

She won that argument and was ultimately proven right. Raising expectations, if done well, can lead to better results. Now organizing groups are expected to do thorough preparatory work, meet for “campaign assignments” throughout, and break out during sessions to do small-group work in which they practice the lessons taught. Our most recent “Core Fundamentals” program, held in May-June 2024 and featuring Jane in its inaugural session, welcomed 7,500 people from 480 organizations. Meanwhile, O4P graduates have scored major organizing victories from Tanzania to Peru, Indonesia to Scotland.

Building on Jane’s Legacy

Over these past years, I worked with Jane on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Her work rhythm has been something to behold. I’m based in France, either six or nine hours ahead of the two places that Jane called home, New York and the Bay Area. We would joke that this made us perfect work partners, as I could fill her 6 a.m. meeting slot that so few others were willing to take.

The balancing force to this enormous drive was always Jane’s enormous humanity. When a participant in one of our trainings was arrested in a country with particularly oppressive labor laws, nobody fought harder than Jane for his release. When my son turned one, Jane was the first person to send us birthday wishes — from the hospital, moreover, where she was undergoing a medical procedure related to her condition — together with a request for photos to buoy her spirit. She cared deeply about all the people in her life, all the people whose lives she had touched, and the workers of the world whom she had never met.

Some would call this the mark of a good organizer, and, of course, it was that as well. But even when the cameras were off, when there was no ground to be won, Jane would be there listening, taking notes, and asking attentive, piercing questions that would shine light for her counterpart on their path forward.

She worked almost as hard as ever during her final months, slowing down only for her necessary treatments and the long bicycle rides along the Hudson River that kept up her spirits as much as her physical condition. Over this period, all the Janes were on display: she helped to run a blitz campaign in Connecticut, published articles on contemporary labor strategy, led a multiday training for the Irish union Fórsa, and worked to build out a team of organizer-trainers to take her place in Organizing for Power after she was gone.

She knew she was going to die, had known it for months, and raced against the clock to complete as much work as she could toward the organizing future she knew she would not see. That, ultimately, is Jane’s legacy — a gift to all of us. The work output itself, but also her commitment to that work, and the belief that we can in fact win, but only through real discipline and real struggle.

Her track record was formidable, to her opponents but also perhaps to young organizers seeking to follow in her footsteps. For foes and friends alike, Jane had something of a magical aura about her. That said, she always sought to shed that perception. Everything she did was the result of hard work and practice — and all of it can be reproduced by those willing to put in the time that she did.

So read her books and take her trainings, but don’t deify her — nothing could be further from her mission. Take them so that you can put into action the same methods that Jane McAlevey spent a lifetime practicing, modeling, and instilling in others. And then, as she would so often say at the end of a session, go forth and win.