Jane McAlevey Demanded We Go Beyond Speaking Truth to Power

No protest to simply register discontent, no preaching to the choir, no fool’s errand organizing campaigns: Jane McAlevey was deadly serious about smart, effective strategy for the working class, and she demanded organizers around her be the same.

Jane McAlevey on January 11, 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

For all her obsessive work teaching the fundamentals of organizing, Jane McAlevey grumbled that they alone were not enough — the Left and labor had to “learn real strategy.” In the years I worked under her assisting with strategic research, training design, and writing preparation, she’d say it over and over.

She was grateful that so many have put the organizing lessons she popularized into practice, teaching each other the spadework of developing the strike muscle that is the ultimate basis of workers’ power. She wouldn’t have spent so much time figuring out how to get people to internalize the principle that workers needed to discover and systematize their ability to act together to create a crisis for the employer class by durably and collectively withholding labor if she didn’t think so.

But Jane thought the labor movement also had to do much more: learn how to wield that power against the right targets, avoid overshooting or undershooting because of misreading the moment, as we transformed the power needed for individual contract campaigns to the power needed to win class-wide goals. This relentless demand to improve organizers’ ability to strategize was at the center of how Jane worked: given the stakes of the fight facing the working class, people who had committed our lives to the work of struggle had to hold ourselves to the highest standards, and then do one better.

Strategize, organize, verify, re-strategize, reorganize — until you land a real win, which itself alone won’t be enough. The highest praise from Jane you could hope for in a debrief was something along the lines of a very warm, “You’re good; I want you to be great.” Positive reinforcement from her always came with an urgent next step.

Strategy, Strategy, Strategy

In Jane’s view, working strategically meant ensuring that all the methodical work of building and testing a strike-ready power structure of workers was aimed correctly, so the work put into it could yield concrete, transformative gains. The Left as a whole has often struggled to have solution-oriented disagreements about what to do in strategic terms.

Does what we’re doing make a big enough crisis for the decision-makers with the actual power to meet our demands? Does it isolate and weaken the most powerful members of our opposition and their ability to enforce their agenda? Does it unite and amplify our potential allies’ power to tip the scales so that ignoring us becomes more costly than conceding? Does it fundamentally shift the balance of power for the next round of the fight?

Just as structure tests help avoid demotivating “death march” strikes by quantifying power built among the workers, our assessments of the power structure workers were up against had to be just as clear-headed. Even the most powerful all-out strike against an employer who won’t actually feel the pinch, or who genuinely (despite all the poverty-pleading) can’t meet your demands on their own (like some public employers or franchisers), could end up as a wash.

The lessons ordinary people draw from losing can negatively shape consciousness as much as a victory can galvanize it. Making and debating these assessments is hard, but thin moralism fetishizing particular tactics or righteous demands or political styles is no substitute for learning how to collectively consider and make the right call in organizing, based on evidence and experience. Talking at a post-training dinner about noble but fizzling protests that left their target decision-makers unscathed, Jane once remarked, “‘Speaking truth to power’ — how’s that working out for you?”

The way Jane obsessively tightened the focus of the conversation — what power is available, what power do we need, what are the means of closing that gap — made sure that even fiercely disagreeing with her made you more effective. You had to think hard about how to justify why your political project (organizing a union, electing a progressive councilmember, fundraising on social media, shouting down a shareholders meeting) was going to actually move the ball down the line. (Jane’s sports obsession was part fun and part practice: strategy, strategy, strategy.)

Many people in the labor movement and beyond disagreed with Jane’s approach and even felt steamrolled as they saw her ideas catch fire among readers and organizers the world over. But people who passionately opposed Jane’s conclusions nevertheless ended up clarifying what they themselves believed when wrestling with people set ablaze by her clarity and commitment. Her example raised the bar for all of us, even when she herself may have thought, understandably, that things are too urgently dire to be so ecumenical.

Organizers should be comfortable with debating and defending our strategic plans, but we so often aren’t. Jane believed getting disciplined about setting up conversations about strategy — especially by bringing large numbers of workers into the strategy room as full participants — would massively improve the power analysis (as the collective knowledge of hundreds of workers living full lives in community know more than the smartest PhD about relationships of power across a community). Just as importantly, as with big, transparent, and open bargaining, the process would intensify workers’ political commitment by serving as practical political education, clarifying the real people standing in the way of workers leading more dignified lives at work and in their communities.

In a structured organizing conversation, sharing the “plan to win” is a crucial step where the organizer works to turn a coworker’s frustration over issues they face into a resolve to commit, alongside other coworkers, to large-scale collective action. Clear thinking about why we’re doing what we’re doing helps us move each other, and that doesn’t just mean training people to repeat watchwords, but to actually understand what their own actions can mean given what they’re up against.

By getting thousands of ordinary people to start thinking strategically about the power structure they live in, and to take responsibility for their part in the collective project of changing it, this was an endlessly renewed question of democratizing organizing and democratizing strategy to do both better.

Jane systematized her strategic thinking under the mentorship of Anthony Thigpenn, a former Black Panther from Los Angeles who became a statewide community organizer in California. Thigpenn’s life’s work is about developing capacity and clarity in movement organizations, training people to systematically ask themselves how every step they take fits into a coherent long-term vision: How do discrete campaigns move us from A to B, and how do we always remember that the Bs we choose should bring C within striking distance?

Jane was relentless in developing this method, adding new techniques to assess individual actors’ power in the relevant power structure and tweaking old ones that seemed to no longer work. Just as organizers in tough campaigns end every day (and sometimes every conversation) with a deep debrief about how each conversation went and what that teaches us about how the next ones could go better, Jane reflected on and revised every aspect of the method as she developed it in fight after fight.

Jane’s decades of waging concrete campaigns prepared her to think about the full landscape of power. What are the possible splits in a local ruling bloc’s agenda, when, for example, hedge fund managers with few employees struggle to make common cause with hospital associations with many over taxes for public subsidies to affordable housing? Could organized workers elect members to the reserved Republican seats on the Environmental Review Commission, where they could threaten to block a development permit that was important to local power brokers who would otherwise be agnostic about a strike at a community health center? At the level of strategy and research, this meant being ready to understand everything — and always preparing to strike while the iron’s hot.

Jane understood that relationships between groups of people — say, nurses’ aides and a hospital system’s well-connected board of directors — are transformed by groups of people that are themselves constantly changing: coming together, breaking apart, connecting with others outside of work, recommitting themselves to new plans. That we had to understand all of these relationships, whether in workers’ lives or in local developers’ politician-supported gentrification plans, was, to her, obvious.

Jane was “everything-ist,” as her admirer Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes her own approach to organizing, insisting that strategic thinking must encompass an understanding of workers’ personal relationships and of the broader and shiftable social structure those lives are embedded within. Institutions exist the way they do because of struggles among all sorts of people. They enable certain things and prevent others, and they can be transformed, abolished, or repurposed by those same sorts of struggles.

Breathtakingly High Expectations

Jane’s vision for strategy meant picking the immediate fights we can win, fights that open the way to new organizing and meaningfully shift the balance of power, while likewise being serious about the work it will take to get there and focusing our energy where the payoff of our precious hard work will be the most significant. She’s not the only person to say any of this, and she always bent the stick to make sure we didn’t miss a key point she was trying to drive home.

Sometimes it was hard to imagine even beginning to design a scaled-up training program like Organizing for Power around Jane’s expanded power structure analysis and strategic planning method. She mostly taught this program by example, dragging young researchers along and dispensing bywords and principles in the white-hot heat of an organizing campaign. You’d usually at best be able to give her a far-too-quick briefing on the broad span of things she’d asked you to look at, often in the car between training sessions and cancer treatment or at her apartment with the legendary salads she’d enthusiastically cater to any dietary restriction.

Then, almost before you were done, Jane would give you marching orders in the form of a lightning-fast synthesis: “It is very weird for the governor to appoint so many people to the city’s sewage board.” “Pay attention to who’s underwriting those highway development bonds.” “Seems like the real power lies with the Local Agency Formation Commission.” “Who was that executive vice president’s mother-in-law again?”

She was an omnivore, and she was voracious, reading everything she could get her hands on when she wasn’t in meetings: raw research notes, dispatches from the business press, academic studies on rural hospital closures, news of debates in a local religious order. It was all potentially useful to Jane. When you asked her if she wanted you to go broader or deeper for the next round, the answer was always “yes” — she needed both.

Jane was driven by a tremendous impatience, with the vicious state of our world and with the sorry state of progressive organizations. Sometimes she simply could not imagine how organizers weren’t tuned in to the near infinite universe of dynamics she kept on her radar, or the clear possible paths through them. Those who have committed ourselves to this work had to give our all and then some.

Her expectations, as with those of herself, were breathtakingly high. It was never easy operating under an infinite tension between having to set priorities for what to look deep into and to stay responsible for understanding everything, to be thorough and to move ahead. But she didn’t invent this tension, or the imperative to act that comes out of it — she just pointed it out, and believed the organizers she mentored could bear it as well as she did.

The job isn’t to stand around waiting for the spark to light the prairie fire. We need to figure out how to arrange the kindling, and we should’ve started yesterday. There may be other ways to teach this, but the passion that drove her to teach it the way she did will guide every campaign so many of us work on and win.

The last time I saw Jane at her Upper West Side rent-controlled apartment, we butted heads for hours about whether the math behind a key assessment of powerful actors in a labor market brought us closer to objectively planning for a fight. As I put my shoes on at her door, she continued the monthslong argument in her irrepressible way, chewing a sturdy tea-tree toothpick and saying that she just had to figure out how to deal with my perfectionism. Smiling and worn out, I shot back that a lot of leading lights in the movement could stand to work on theirs, too.

We both had a point. We have to take responsibility for getting things right and for moving before it’s too late. In practice, the challenge feels unbearable, but there’s no alternative. We have to think clearly, we have to fight hard, and we have to win. We can’t wait. Jane demands we figure out how to do it all. We’d do well to listen.