We’re in a class war. Jane McAlevey actually acted like it. (2024)

We’re in a class war. Jane McAlevey actually acted like it. (1)

This story originally appeared in Jacobin on July 08, 2024. It is shared here with permission.

Before I ever met Jane McAlevey, I received a package from her in the mail. In addition to a copy ofRaising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, her first book (written with Bob Ostertag), it contained instant coffee and a few other items that one could imagine packing into a rucksack while on the move.

I’d justreviewedA Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, the Fight for Democracy, her then latest book. My piece opened with an anecdote about Hosea Hudson, a legendary labor organizer and black Alabama communist in the 1930s, a time when being either of those things put one’s life at risk. Of his rap to new recruits, Hudson said, “We had [to] tell people — when you join, it’s just like the army, but it’s not the army of the bosses, it’s the army of the working class.” I likened Jane to a drill instructor, the book an army manual. If there were any doubt as to whether the comparison was apt, Jane’s care package confirmed it.

We are always in a class war, but sometimes it felt like Jane was one of the few people who acted like it. Urgent, direct, no bullsh*t: that was Jane, the master organizer and negotiator and communicator and strategist. And she was like this with everyone in her orbit: once you were in, you were to be cared for, looked after, and, fundamentally,organizedby her— toward the end of keeping up your strength to not only wage class struggles, but to win (one of her favorite words). Her father was a World War II fighter pilot and progressive politician; the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Jane devoted her life to union organizing, and then to writing about it. But the writing was organizing too, a means of multiplying herself, allowing the lessons to reach into countless nooks and crannies across the economy and globe. Bay Area factory workers, striking teachers from West Virginia to Los Angeles, Starbucks baristas, and Amazon warehouse workers have all mentioned her work to me as an inspiration. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that many workers treat Jane’s writing like a kind of Bible, but that would imply a reverence that the substance itself refutes. As Jane argued again and again, workers already have the power to change the world, and the organizer’s role is to show them that: to listen, to identify what they cannot stand, and to teach them the skills to channel their power effectively in order to wrest control from the bosses — to fight and win.

Win, Win, Win, Win, Win

No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the Gilded Age, her 2016 book, has played a role in a dizzying number of organizing drives and strikes across the country. It began as her late-in-life sociology PhD dissertation at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center (advised by social movements scholar Frances Fox Piven, whose own career-long emphasis on the importance of “ordinary people” plays a major role in McAlevey’s book). Each chapter is a case study: “The Power to Win Is in the Community, Not the Boardroom,” “Nursing Home Unions: Class Snuggle vs. Class Struggle,” “Chicago Teachers: Building a Resilient Union,” “Smithfield Foods: A Huge Success You’ve Hardly Heard About,” and “Make the Road New York.” The conclusion’s title is classic Jane: “Pretend Power vs. Actual Power.”

Assessing the reasons for the wins and losses in each case, Jane hammers on the distinction between mobilizing (getting people out for a one-off rally or action) and advocacy (which dispenses with ordinary people entirely) versus the deep organizing that was her everything, the process by which power is transferred “from the elite to the majority.”

The writing was organizing too, a means of multiplying herself, allowing the lessons to reach into countless nooks and crannies across the economy and globe.

In her view, the Left and progressives’ decades-long decline is partially explained by a shift away from deep organizing in favor of shallow mobilizing and advocacy. The book also takes the reader through power-structure analysis, a tool Jane used time and again in building campaigns that homed in on the enemy’s weak points in order to win.

No Shortcutsalso lays out a clear emphasis on organic leaders rather than activists — a distinction of critical importance for budding organizers, many of whom fall into the latter category. In a workplace, you shouldn’t focus on the people who already agree with you, but rather those who are trusted and respected by their coworkers. It’s the organizer’s job to bring them (and their networks) into a campaign, to teach them the skills they need to win, then to test the strength of the majority being assembled again and again (what Jane termed “structure tests”). This is how one builds a supermajority at an employer, a battle-ready army that can withstand the boss’s inevitable attacks.

As she writes,

Which key individual worker can sway exactly whom else — by name — and why? How strong is the support he or she has among exactly how many coworkers, and how do the organizers know this to be true? The ability to correctly answer these and many other related questions — Who does each worker know outside work? Why? How? How well? How can the worker reach and influence them? — will be the lifeblood of successful strikes in the new millennium.

The same criterion applies beyond the workplace. It’s the leaders in your community, your neighborhood, your religious or social organization, the ones who have earned the respect of those around them, who are your target if you hope to build a mass base for your cause that has staying power.

McAlevey didn’t invent these principles, but she popularized them among broad swathes of the labor movement and the Left, in large part throughNo Shortcuts. Ever since its publication, characterizing a strategy as a “shortcut” is about as damning a condemnation within the labor movement as you can make.

Raising Expectations, Jane’s first book, is a memoir, but no less instructive for it. The title is Jane’s phrase for what she believed organizing is about at its core. To organize is to make a worker demand more

about what people should expect from their jobs; the quality of life they should aspire to; how they ought to be treated when they are old; and what they should be able to offer their children. About what they have a right to expect from their employer, their government, their community, and their unions. Expectations about what they themselves are capable of, about the power they could exercise if they worked together, and what they might use that collective power to accomplish. Ultimately, expectations about where they will find meaning in their lives, and the kinds of relationships they can build with those around them.

Jane called this expansive vision “whole-worker organizing,” an approach that draws on a worker’s entire self, rather than bracketing their lives outside and beyond the workplace. A worker’s relationships inside the workplace are the foundation for organizing: the means by which they can move others to action, the trust needed for workers to take on the risks that come with acting collectively, the faith and confidence such action requires.

But Jane saw their ties off the job as both another resource and a place they could organize in turn upon gaining workplace-organizing skills. Not only could a worker enlist their religious institution, their community organization, or their social clubs to strengthen a campaign, but a good organizer could expand the expectations a worker brings to the other areas of their lives. When unions failed to engage workers in their entirety, she wasunrelentingin her criticism.

She rejected the dichotomy of workplace and union versus community and community organization, arguing instead for “bringing community organizing techniques right into the shop floor while moving labor organizing out into the community.” Everything was a feedback loop with Jane: power begets power, wins beget wins, community begets community; multiplication not division, a sense of self-interest that continually broadens. You start with your on-the-job interest and, if the organizer does her job right, you end with the entire community.

Always War Footing

Raising Expectationsis about how workers can organize and win, but it’s also a record of the sexism that pervades the labor movement. (Jane: “If I discussed every instance when [sexism] had a negative impact on the work I was trying to do, there would be no room to talk about anything else.”) In this respect, too, Jane was a pioneer: there are lots of female union leaders today, but the culture remains hostile to women, and especially ones like Jane who don’t put up with such disrespect. As she told me when we first met, gin and tonic in hand: “Don’t worry about all the bullsh*t you’ll get from men in the movement. f*ck ’em.” It felt like I was being inducted into a secret sisterhood.

Indeed, the labor movement’s shortcomings almost led Jane to give up on it. A lifelong environmentalist (her later decades were split between a rent-controlled apartment in New York and a leafy, spartan outpost in the Bay Area, and she was prone to going off the grid to ride horses), college-aged Jane saw the labor movement opposing “every environmental principle I believed in.”

At SUNY-Buffalo, she joined the student association, becoming its president. It was there that she first gained organizing skills. After a foray around Central America, including work on a construction brigade in Nicaragua at the height of the Contra War, she devoted herself to environmental work — though her time in Central America added further marks against unions. It was the 1980s, and the AFL-CIO was implicated in backing death squads in Latin America via the American Institute for Free Labor Development, its international arm.

As she wrote of that period, “The unionists I was working with, who were already deeply engaged in a battle with a capitalist class of the most brutal and violent nature, now also had to deal with killer thugs funded by the unions of my country.” It made an impression on Jane, planting the seeds of a lifelong devotion to making the labor movement, that pain in the ass that is our only hope, better.

Jane’s time in the environmental justice movement connected her with the storied Highlander Research and Education Center, which played a central role in the civil rights movement, hosting and training everyone from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr to John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) throughout the 1950s. By the time Jane was in her twenties, she was working at the center to develop its globalization program, traveling the globe to fight toxins that don’t respect borders. She referred to Highlander as a “creative hothouse,” with her subsequent work in unions traceable to the hours she spent browsing the center’s archives of educational materials from its era as the training and education arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

As she told my colleague Micah Uetricht in along interviewlast year,

I was set up in the library [of Highlander], 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’salwaysbeen the labor movement in the civil rights movement. These have always been inseparable movements.

She was recruited into the AFL-CIO in the late ’90s, heading up the experimental Stamford Organizing Project, which focused on cab drivers, city clerks, janitors, and nursing home aides, exerting influence through Stamford’s churches — “Note to labor: workers relate more to their faith than to their job, and fear God more than they fear the boss,” Jane wrote of the campaign — and organizing workers around a range of issues beyond the workplace, including affordable housing.

After Stamford, Jane became the national deputy director for strategic campaigns in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) health care division. In 2004, she was appointed SEIU Nevada’s executive director and chief negotiator, where she began leading open-bargaining sessions in which hundreds of workers would attend negotiations, seeing the boss’s tactics for themselves and getting a hands-on training in negotiations in the process. Herunwillingnessto abide by what she characterized as undemocratic orders from higher up in the union hierarchy put her at odds with SEIU leadership, but it took a 2008 ovarian cancer diagnosis to put a pause on her organizing activities. She used the time off to writeRaising Expectations.

As the pandemic created one crisis after another for the working class, Jane designed an international organizing training program in conjunction with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, an almost industrial-scale workshop to train groups of workers around the globe. At the time of her death, she had trained some twenty-five thousand people through the program, a remarkable legacy.

No matter what her schedule, Jane somehow always found time for workers. When the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) sought help following their unlikely victory at JFK8 in Staten Island, Jane squeezed in intensive trainings with founding members. When theNew Yorker, a shop in my union local, was organizing toward a strike, I received an email informing me that Jane McAlevey would be leading a training.

Her PhD from CUNY led to a postdoc from Harvard Law School, then a position as a senior policy fellow in her beloved Bay Area, at the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. There she continued to teach unions and community organizations the fundamentals of organizing and winning (and seemed to never miss a Golden State Warriors game; if Jane had ever held a time-management training, I’d have been the first to register).

Jane devoted her life to collective action, but she never forgot that collectives are composed of people, and every person is a world unto themselves.

She kept writing through all of it, offering a real-time first draft of the history of working-class struggle in the United States. She had acolumn withJacobinand was theNation’s “strikes correspondent” (an enviable title).Rules to Win By:Power and Participation in Union Negotiations,a book ondemocratizingunion negotiations, written with Abby Lawlor, was published last year.

Her final piece before announcing that she would be pausing her work as she entered hospice care is titled “Enjoy Labor’s Tailwinds — but Don’t Forget to Keep Rowing!” It concludes: “Given the odds against workers, all victories are worth celebrating, but we can’t afford to rest until we’ve seen those wins codified in a union contract — enforced by an organization that keeps going toe-to-toe with the bosses, the union busters, and the political elites. Nothing else will do it.” War footing, always.

“They Thought I Would Be Dead a Few Weeks Ago”

I loved this about Jane, as did countless other people, as evidenced by the flood of testimonies on social media from workers around the world as to how her work changed their lives. To be committed, a soldier in struggle, is worth honoring, yet it was her singular personality — a loud, polarizing, unmistakable individuality and pride —that really set her apart. Jane devoted her life to collective action, but she never forgot that collectives are composed of people, and every person is a world unto themselves. She modeled that: living off the grid in the Bay Area, disappearing to ride horses in Mexico, taking pride in her accomplishments, extending herself beyond all conceivable measures to mentor so many of us. Leave the world better than it was when you arrived and leave many more organizers in your place when you go.

“They thought I would be dead a few weeks ago,” JanesaidonDemocracy Now!in late April, shortly after announcing that she had entered home hospice care, having exhausted treatment and clinical trial drugs for the multiple myeloma cancer she had been battling since 2021. Ever with her eye on the prize, she was on the show to talk about the United Auto Workers’earth-shatteringwin at Volkswagen’s auto plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “I’m out again. I’m riding my bike. I’m on your show. And I’m going to fight until the last dying minute, because that’s what American workers deserve.”

It’s an ethos in the labor movement to never say “thank you,” as it implies one did somethingforyou, rather than the truth, that we speak up and take risks and act for ourselves. So I won’t say that. Instead, I’ll leave it with what Jane herselfwrotein finally, reluctantly, announcing that she had found one fight that she could not win: “I have loved being in this world with you.” We loved it, too, Jane, and we’ll fight like hell to make it every bit as good as you knew it could be.


We’re in a class war. Jane McAlevey actually acted like it. (2)

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We’re in a class war. Jane McAlevey actually acted like it. (2024)
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