How Organizing for Change Is Very Different Than Winning Elections
“Raising Hell” is what the title of Jane McAlevey’s new book says she spent her time in the labor movement doing, and she isn’t joking.
In the book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement,, out now from Verso, McAlevey names names and shares secrets about organizing within the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. The book ranges from the mess that was the 2000 election in Florida, to winning battles for public housing with workers in Connecticut, to her years in Las Vegas fighting for healthcare workers, to battling her own higher-ups and union members in the power struggle that eventually drove her out of SEIU. But what she really wants to talk about is organizing: how to do it right, how the Democratic Party gets it wrong, and why there’s no substitute for face-to-face conversations with workers.
McAlevey sat down with AlterNet to talk about organizing in so-called “right-to-work” states, the too-close relationship between unions and Democrats who leave them high and dry, the brutality of fighting the boss, and why the worst thing to happen to labor in the U.S. might just have been purging the Communists from the movement.
Sarah Jaffe: You start the book out with the aftermath of the 2000 election in Florida, and of course we just finished a presidential election where organized labor went all-out to elect President Obama. Having come through the 2000 battle, I’d love to hear your thoughts on labor and elections.
Jane McAlevey: The point I’m really trying to raise is that the Democratic Party has way too much control over what the AFL-CIO and the other unions are doing. Instead of labor telling the Democratic Party what they’re going to do, the Democratic Party scripts out for labor what they’re going to do. Which isn’t really working for unions very much at all.
In Florida it was a slightly different situation, but it’s reflective of the same problem we have right now. Many of us could see that it was going completely wrong, that we needed to be in the street, doing street theater. We had a million ideas a day about what we needed to do to turn the heat up, that this was going to be a political fight, not a legal fight. But there was just no possibility. Just none. And I was just so naïve back then. Super naïve that we were actually going to break and have a different idea.
So the purpose of the opening of the book is to say that the relationship is way too close and if anything it needs to flip, who’s telling who what to do.
There’s a big debate about 2008, what role labor played in the victory. I think it’s actually more clear that they did play a big role this time. In ’08 half the planet was voting for Obama, he was still so exciting, but this year, in the cutthroat fights in the battleground states, yeah, he’s damn lucky that he had unions.
But there’s never been any evidence that that’s going to change the tenor of the relationship. Unions in this country have never had the chutzpah to say there’s a threat every year. If you look back over time, like late August heading into Labor Day the year before elections, Trumka in this case, Sweeney in the past, Lane Kirkland in the past, they’ll all start “We’re not going to get kicked around by the Democratic party this time because we didn’t get anything, we’re thinking of endorsing someone else.” It’s like this scripted joke, because everyone knows it’s a joke. It doesn’t ever happen.
I’m less interested in the election period than in the governing period as a general rule. And I think the problem is that the relationship doesn’t separate during the governing period. So from ’08 to 2012, people did essentially nothing except behind-the-scenes chit-chat at the White House. It didn’t get us anything. We barely got an appointment at the NLRB, you could debate healthcare, I don’t think you could call that a labor win. The immediate way it’s going to play out for a lot of healthcare workers I think is actually an undiscussed question.
One of the most important things that unions have to do is shift the relationship going forward — and completely be willing to be out the front door screaming and yelling and really building a protest movement. Not just a protest movement, that’s a little bit simplistic, but really doing serious education among the rank and file about how the system works. One of my complaints in a lot of the labor work that I was involved in was that people were taking the base for granted.
There’s this weird cultural thing that happens between the Democratic Party and the labor movement, which plays out in a number of ways. One is how pollsters have almost replaced organizers in the American labor movement. It’s like labor doesn’t talk to workers any more. They talk to pollsters who talk to the workers. I would argue that any good organizer any day of the week anywhere knows before any pollster whatever he needs to know about what the workers think. Period. That’s what good organizers do.
A point of influence that I’m getting rather obsessed with right now is this whole concept of microtargeting, and a lot of that’s coming from the Obama people and it’s really having an impact in the labor movement. I hear people in the last few years, in the labor movement, say “What do you think about buying databanks of information to see if we can assess whether a worker on a door is going to vote yes or not?” There’s this huge discussion going on in the labor movement among otherwise smart people, that we should just take another step past actually real organizing and just try to do the microtargeting that the Obama campaign is using to extract one vote every four years.
The mistake is that how you win an election and how you win change are fundamentally different. The election of the right people is a prerequisite to fundamental change, but all we do is help them get elected, and then we don’t do anything in the governing period except put everyone to sleep like a switch. If you think about the talent on the Obama team, what are they going to do for the next three and a half years? They basically go home. If you have the best campaign team during the election, those people actually need to stay and keep organizing the base every damn day, to actually create a left base to allow these people to run to the left when they’re governing.
Here’s another parallel. Unions do this thing, for an NLRB election we bring in the best and brightest. The whole labor movement, since 1995, when Sweeney won, we had this whole methodology, there’s the A team, and we got sent all over the country. Boom, blast in, run a huge election, win. Very much like the Democratic party machine in a swing state. The second we’re done we’re pulled out. Every great relationship built with every worker, just gone.
Organizing isn’t an election. But in the labor movement it became an election, a card check, then all the good people get moved. In most unions, if they wake the workers up ever, if they ask the workers to participate in their union, get active, get mad, it’s for Democratic party elections every four years, and maybe for a contract fight. So the concept that you can turn people on like a light switch and then turn them off and then three or four years later turn them back on, I don’t actually think is working for us.
SJ: In the book, you talk a few times about labor law being more harmful than it is good. I would love to hear your thoughts on the ways that current labor law is actually hurting rather than helping.
JM: I don’t mean to sound overly simplistic on any of these points because when you’re actually in the fight it’s pretty tough, which calls you’re making, which rules you’re breaking, what you’re not breaking, require a lot of thought. But I think the single biggest law that we have to break over and over, beat it ’til it’s dead, is the concept in Taft-Hartley that all unions can do is bargain over wages and working conditions. That’s the number-one problem.
SJ: We saw that in Chicago, with the teachers’ strike.
JM: A lot of labor people say to me, “That’s the law, that’s all we can do.” And I’m like, really?
There’s a million ways that you can take labor power and bargain. There’s a million ways that you can think of actually saying to the rank and file membership, what else is going on in your life? What else matters to you? It’s not that you have to go out on some weird issue, it’s like: what else is happening to the rank and file outside of the union that you’re working with? What’s happening to the workers around them, and what’s happening to the workers that you seek to organize, and what’s happening to all of their families? That’s a pretty good universe of people to have a big conversation with.
You start to figure out what else is bearing down on the lives of the workers. The point in Connecticut was OK, we’re going to win probably on average $2.50 to $3 an hour raise for janitors and nursing home workers, that’s a ton, right? But on the other hand they were all literally, systematically about to get thrown out of their housing. So if we win everyone a raise, and they lose their home, what’s the labor movement done for them?
I think that we can break that part of Taft-Hartley every day. Usually in fights against big corporations, the same CEOs we’re fighting are responsible for the shitty development plan going on in town, the shitty redevelopment plan going on in town, the gentrification going on in town. It doesn’t mean that you have to sit at the table of negotiations to break the core Taft-Hartley rule, you can break it outside the bargaining table. And there’s ways to break it inside the bargaining table. You can find a way to bring those issues in. Bargaining for a housing trust fund. If you’re a clever negotiator, there’s a lot of ways you can bring those issues in to the bargaining table, and even if there’s no legal way you can just go pick that fight anyway. As the union.
There is no law saying you can’t do that. You’ve just been told that your job is to stay in the workplace, in this narrow box, and fight over wages and working conditions. That’s not relevant anymore when you’re at 7 percent of the private sector. If you want to be relevant you have to go fight everywhere else.
SJ: You call it whole-worker organizing in the book. This is fundamentally a thing that a lot of community groups are doing every day, a lot of them being funded through labor. I think you refer to it as the work getting outsourced.
JM: Yes. Which I actually do think is a big problem. Starting at just sort of a pedagogical level, in the book and in real life for a long time, I reject the idea of “labor-community partnerships.” Which doesn’t mean that I’m against coalitions. There’s a huge role for coalitions.
But one of the reasons Marx talked a lot about how workers in a big industrial setting would learn about their own oppression, it is really handy to have people in any setting where they come back and back and back again, and they begin to see that there’s this person who’s oppressing them more and more. Where Marx is wrong is it’s not just the workplace. It could be a public housing complex, it could be your school.
I think that when you’ve got freshly organized or well-organized workers and you have them in relationship already and they begin to discuss problems that are taking place outside of work, the best way that we can help deepen people’s understanding of what’s wrong with the system that we’re living under is by extending the education cycle so that they understand it isn’t just their boss who is making them miserable at work, it’s how their boss is connected to the mayor in town, and how the mayor is also destroying their life in their neighborhood. The best way to do that is for the union itself to help carry the workers into both fights.
We’re always against subcontracting in the labor movement except when it comes to this thing called community work. Honestly, it’s because labor doesn’t take it seriously. If labor took it seriously they’d be doing it. If you actually think it matters, you do it yourself.
Also, I think some of the groups in the New York area who are dealing with workplace issues because they don’t have NLRB kind of workers, I think eventually they should be building unions. We have this endemic problem that I don’t even purport to solve in the book: when institutions get huge and bureaucratic and further from the base, problems begin to emerge with accountability to the base.
Until we solve the problem that we’ve had a bunch of big unions in America who won’t break with the Democratic party, who won’t break Taft-Hartley, who won’t do a bunch of things that they need to be doing right now, I think we ought to be encouraging a whole bunch of union formation. People would say to me when I say this, they go “We have to exercise national power,” and I say the role of the coalition is at that moment. There’s no reason why a thousand independent unions can’t come together for national political reasons, for national fights. But I think that we do better when we keep the nexus of control and participation and power at a more local level. I think a lot of these pre-labor formations should just start doing it. Just call yourself a union and start bargaining. With good organizing, which a few of the groups in New York have shown. The taxi drivers, they don’t have a union, they’re bargaining with the TLC.
There’s so much wrong with Taft-Hartley, it’s one of the reasons that it might be of interest to play outside of it for a while. If you build power, you can force the power you’re going up against to move. And that doesn’t mean that you have to have a thing called exclusive representation or a little signed card. You need that if the most important thing to you is to fill up your coffers with a bunch of dues money or a bunch of political contributions, but if that isn’t the most important thing you’re going to do, then there’s a whole lot of ways to start taking on local bosses in the power structure.
SJ: I was thinking about this split between doing community work, care work, as organizing and workplace organizing. It hit me that maybe the reason that it’s not respected within labor and politics is that it’s really gendered. Taking care of the community and the home and what happens when you go home from work is what women do, and what happens in the workplace is men’s sphere. And even though now that’s outdated, people still seem to think taking care of each other is somehow beneath us.
JM: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about gendering the whole concept of workplace vs. home and what matters to who. I have focused on it more as the broken tripartite compact between the Democratic party, meaning FDR, moderate business elites and Big Labor once they purged the Communist Party and all the Reds. Which is crucial. The agreement became, don’t worry, we’re not going to have those socialist or communist or Red tendencies.
In the ’30s and ’40s, it was often called the Women’s Auxiliary Brigades or whatever, but women were armed on the top of the factories in Flint. Is that another variable in the resistance the labor movement has to going outside? I think it’s quite a good concept, it’s entirely possible to me.
But I think it goes back more to the deal that labor could continue to grow inside the manufacturing sector, essentially the industrial sector, as long as it played by the rules that capitalists gave it. Those rules were prescribed in Taft-Hartley forever. Which was the way to break the idea that the labor movement would become a real movement on behalf of all laboring people–to say all you can do is bargain over workplace conditions and money.
I think it’s entirely logical that all those things that have to do with saving houses and public schools, that’s all women’s work, don’t worry about that, she’s not a worker — except, she is.
SJ: One quote from the book that I loved: “Note that ‘dissidents’ and ‘good organizing’ have gone hand-in-hand in the history of American labor.”
JM: There’s a really great book by Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin, it’s called Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions. They’re out to do nothing but prove that all good organizing that happened in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, all of it was done by dissidents, all of whom were either Red or pink. And it is still true.
Part of what terrifies me about the labor movement right now is that there are so few of us even being trained in the basic organizing methodologies that I was trained in. Because the people that believe in them are dying their way out of the labor movement. You can trace everyone who came from Leon Davis, and make a map of who trained who. It’s a very small tree. I was trained by the generation that came right after Leon Davis, the brilliant organizer who started 1199. I was trained by Jerry Brown, he was mentored by Leon, I was mentored by Jerry, so I mentored a ton of militant organizers who are scattered to the wind at the moment. Now it’s up to them. Basically it’s a dying pool.
When I look at the pattern, what I call the yo-yo in the end, I think there’s a whole lot of people who’ve been on that yo-yo. That really happened to me—it was three full rounds within SEIU, where I was basically for all intents and purposes fired, or asked to leave or put on administrative leave or put in a parking lot after some huge campaign victory. You go through this torture period where you’re just persona non grata for a while, and the next big thing they can’t figure out how to win comes along and then they call you up and put you in charge. Because they actually don’t know how to win without the left organizers.
Every radical organizer, if you look at who’s been winning serious fights, where participation became enormous on the part of the rank and file, and the workers themselves together with good organizing direction won big shit, wages, housing, conditions, school reform, Chicago, whatever, it’s all radicals. I know now that this craft of having the best of us get sent in to win big elections is a variation of not wanting to have the left radical organizers build permanent relationships with the workers.
SJ: The book is about, in part, you being dropped into places like Nevada and being expected to turn around contract fights in a matter of months.
JM: I wasn’t expected to, though. That’s the game. The people who asked me to go to Nevada, it was definitely their expectation that we would be making real radical change. But they weren’t in control at the national union. My main person Larry Fox was quickly axed, which became part of the problem later.
When I went to work at SEIU, I had been recruited to work at the national union several times. It’s a very nice compliment, and I said no. Because I didn’t think that the values of Andy Stern’s leadership team even way back were consistent with mine. I was trained at 1199 New England, I was there for three years, under the most renegade, rebellious local in the SEIU. I had seen plenty, as I talk about a little bit in the Connecticut chapter, when they cut the deal to end the strike in Connecticut without talking to the workers or the leadership of the local. But then Stern gives Larry Fox this huge powerful position, which shocked the progressives inside of SEIU because Larry is the real deal, he’s a brilliant organizer and he’s progressive! And I got phone calls from several of my mentors saying call him up right now and go to work for him because he’s brilliant.
And of course, you know, five years into that, I’d been doing a ton of work for him, I got sent into Nevada with big ideas, and he got axed. So there was immediate change in the expectations of the person who ran the healthcare division after Larry Fox, which was Mary Kay Henry. Some people think I was sent in to do a trusteeship but in fact I made a conscious decision not to do that because I thought it wasn’t consistent with my values.
When the national leadership would send people in to do that it was never “Go in and win a bunch of great contracts,” it was “Go in and build a political machine for elections and go grow the union.” Grow, mind you, not organize. Go be on the ground, facilitate a competent, efficient local union that we can convince a corporate boss that you’ll play game with us and we’ll get an agreement for an election and we’ll go add five, 10, 20, 30,000 workers to the union over several years and you just need to manage the place.
Getting another shitty contract was fine then. People were like what, you think you’re going to go win something? It was astounding. Larry was very different. And so was [Eliseo] Medina. I had Medina and Fox trying to hold a space for me because I think they had a more radical vision, that we should help workers fight and win, not thirty years from now but now.
That’s the whole debate inside of SEIU. [Tom] Woodruff’s philosophy, which dictated a lot of what Stern was doing, was we have to grow grow grow, get our density back up to like 15, 20 percent, and at 20 percent we can start to win again. Workers aren’t going to wait 20 years to win. But that was literally the debate inside the union.
So we’ve got a thousand workers here about to take a death march in this contract fight, the one I didn’t even know was expired when I landed. When we made a demand to have A-level organizing team people put on that fight with me, it was literally used against Larry by the people above him, as an example of why he wasn’t a good leader of the division, because he actually thought it mattered to have two hospitals’ worth of nurses win a contract. It’s a diversion of resources from the real goal of winning growth in the union.
That’s the pitched debate in SEIU that was still raging when I sat down to write the book. It was pretty lopsided because Stern had most of the union and there were a few of us who felt differently, who said no, we’re not going to wait until we get to a certain density metric before we start to teach people how to win things. We’re going to get to a higher density in the labor movement by winning things right now with workers and actually setting an example for nonunionized workers that this is actually what you can do when you form a union, change your life. And your whole life, your home life, your family life, and your work life, that’s what’s going to grow the labor movement.
Again, not trying to be simplistic—if Woodruff was sitting here, he’d say “That’s not what I really meant.” He would say, “I don’t want any less than you for these workers, it’s just that I don’t think we can win it until we get back to 20 percent.”
It isn’t that I think that a lot of those folks that I was often on the opposite side of had bad intentions. I think their strategy sucked and it isn’t working, because we’ve been losing the whole time. And that’s not just manufacturing sector. Go look at the service sector numbers from 1996 to now. The people who win are the radicals, the people who don’t, whatever.
SJ: So much of the book is in Nevada, which is a no-rights-at-work state. I think it’s an interesting lesson to look at the way you can still win in a no-rights-at-work state instead of just ceding the ground entirely.
JM: If you want to have a union of any kind in a “right-to-work” state, you have to be good.
I’m not fully saying this yet, but I have definitely been toying for several years with the idea–if we’re in a grand bargaining moment, which we are with the “fiscal cliff” — if you’re in big bargaining moments with capitalist bosses about what the tradeoffs would be, instead of EFCA [the Employee Free Choice Act], what reform could labor be asking for, it feels to me like one of the things we should offer up is essentially right-to-work-like membership. And trade that for real protections for union elections and for workers in union fights.
The point of EFCA was to say workers don’t need to vote in elections anymore. I gotta tell you, that’s a loser proposition in this country. Like, most people in this country fought bloody battles very recently, women, black people, now Latinos in all sorts of ways, to get the basic right to have franchise. So for labor to run a campaign for labor law reform, never mind that it was the big priority in the middle of a crisis, that the thing you would have to market in the bill is “Elections aren’t valid, we don’t want to do them anymore,” is a ridiculous message. We can’t carry it. You can’t win on it. So let’s think about other ways to think about grand bargains for labor law.
One of them could be, we’ll give up the right that every single worker is going to join the minute that they’re in the job. And what we get is seriously enforceable standards for when they break the law when you’re trying to form a union. People would get behind that, actually.
I’m not saying that should be the grand bargain. But being in Nevada, we knew every single day what the membership thought of the union, because they could decide to pay dues or not. You look at what happened in Wisconsin and Florida where there was enormous loss of membership, after the laws changed. No one’s discussing the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of members we’ve lost very quickly.
Whenever I’m doing trainings in a union security state, I’ll say “So here’s my first question for you. If the Supreme Court makes “right-to-work” the national law overnight, how many members do you have tomorrow?” People are always like, that’s silly, that’s stupid, it’s not going to happen in America, but one, that’s really dumb of you to say, but number two, if you think it’s silly, then just humor me for a minute. What are the systems in place, how many of you are there, who tomorrow would pay dues to the union? And then I get to hold up some of the numbers from Wisconsin and Florida and show huge losses.
That’s a reflection of the relationship between the rank and file and the leadership of the union. In a “right-to-work” state you know it every day. We were averaging in the high 70s [percentage of workers who were union members]–built up from the 20s. I had no idea that we were hitting all these records until I flew into this big training in Florida for SEIU to do a training on how we got our numbers so high and held them so high in between contract fights. The 25 top local leaders from “right-to-work” states from SEIU were going around the table saying their numbers and I was flabbergasted. They were all under 30 percent membership.
Obviously we proved that there’s no excuse for that. Go engage the rank-and-file. Make it a really high participation union, make it so they own their union. And then you’re going to have high membership and then you can actually sustain it, if the members think it’s their own union, and you can actually create the tools to help them own their union.
SJ: But that in a way seems to come back to the contract fight, and abandoning the contract fight versus making sure that the contract is good.
JM: They are all tied together. You can stitch together a pretty neat philosophy, that I think was absolutely being epitomized at SEIU more than anywhere else in the labor movement for a good solid decade. And it was a really bad narrative. That goes full circle, frankly, back to this contorted relationship with the Democratic Party and labor.
One of the fundamental things that separates good organizing from everything else that people pretend organizing is, people say to me “How’d you get workers to do all that shit?” And I’d say “We asked them.”
Seriously. Because a lot of people don’t want them participating. It’s easier to have five people who make all the decisions–technically easier in the short term but it’s killing our movement in the long term. Ask workers to step up and do the work, you want to have that contract, here’s what you have to do. But that’s what can get you to this unpredictable crazy base, which a lot of people are scared of. But we’re not going to make real change in America by flipping the switch every four years, that’s for sure.
Change isn’t coming through elections. Change comes through the fights in the governing period. And so labor puts the base to sleep for the governing period both in the shop after the contract is won and after the Democratic Party wins every four years, both the party and labor put everybody back to sleep and then who’s talking to the people who are really pissed off? The Tea Party.
SJ: Coming from that–do we not have organizers that come up from the rank-and-file anymore?
JM: I don’t think that we tell history honestly, which is why I actually wanted to write the book. I don’t think we actually tell how shit works. There’s a myth perpetuated about the rank-and-file in the ’30s, I mean it’s because the parties had to go into the factories.
SJ: So we went from the Communist Party organizers coming in from the outside, to…
JM: I love having this conversation with workers too. Several things were true about Nevada. Half our staff was rank-and-file workers. That happened little by little. You know what held us back the most? We were winning these incredible contracts! We couldn’t pay our organizers $100,000 with overtime!
One of the ways we did it was rotating. If you couldn’t say to someone, are you willing to lose that much money for the rest of your life, we’d say can we pull you out for a year to get some real skill going. There are tons of rank-and-file workers out there who are every bit as smart as anyone else and tons of workers who would love to be organizers. And then there’s a lot who wouldn’t, in the caring professions, frankly. A lot of them would do it for six months but then go back to the hospital because they actually like taking care of patients.
In Nevada we did not bifurcate in our training model between what we were teaching rank-and-file workers and the core we had for our junior staff or even rank and filers coming on staff. But even at the level of not full-time staff, we were running really high-level trainings with thousands of workers about what organizing is. What are the seven steps for a successful conversation, how do you do leader ID, stuff that in my experience in the labor movement is very rarely ever shared as sort of a cultural phenomenon with the workers.
I think anyone from the rank-and-file is capable of knowing as many things as anyone who went to college, but what is true is that organizing is a skill that improves with time. There is a lot to know. I don’t think organizing just happens in weird surges. We’ve seen that it can, but that is not the way that real change over time happens.
In Nevada, in certain fights, key moments–and this was just Jerry Brown training, watching him do it for years in Connecticut–I would never give an opinion in a contentious debate with lots of people in the room. I would withhold my opinion and withhold facial expressions, because it was like, of course people trusted me. There were certain moments where I would withhold for a really long time and then some really smart leader would turn to me and say, “OK, we know that you’re trying to make sure we get to debate this shit out, but the fact of the matter is we’re in this fight with a big boss and will you tell us with your experience what do you think we should do?”
If you’ve been organizing for 20 years and you’ve done 20 years of boss fights, you have a pretty good sense of what the boss is going to do and a brand-new rank-and-file worker in their first fight doesn’t pretend to know.
Organizing is about who moves everyone else, the point is that it can’t be all full-time staff. Our approach wasn’t just save the high-level training for the full-timers, whether they were rank and file or not rank and file. We have to actually train up thousands and thousands of people, we have to build an army. But we don’t do that, we don’t trust people enough to give really high-level skills to loads of people who don’t want to come out because they love their work but who could do their work beautifully inside the shop and then take it beautifully outside the shop and then take it into running for political office. We don’t create this bench that we should be creating, like the right wing creates.
SJ: Talking about boss fights, one of the things that you do really well in the book is show how godawful those really are. Most people really don’t know the intimidation that goes on.
JM: They’re brutal. They’re absolutely brutal. I think it is still sort of a secret from the average American. It was really almost my naivete, like “What do you mean workers have no rights?” I half signed up for the job initially because I was like “It can’t be true” but it’s SO true.
I hope the message of the book that gets through is the way we’re going to beat the bosses is when we break the concept of Taft-Hartley down and build really profound relationships inside of our communities. Because it’s when we actually divide and conquer the boss from the rest of the political elite that they need in every community that we actually can back them off in those really tough fights. And then sustain a fight into a terrific contract victory. Really trying to beat up those kinds of bosses just inside the narrow confines of the walls of the shop is just impossible.
SJ: You say somewhere in the book that this will cut your thread entirely for just being willing to tell this story. Do you think those things are connected, the fact that we don’t share the skills with the average worker, we don’t share the stories in general with the fact that you expect to be cut off for daring to write it?
JM: I don’t know. For me the book had several purposes. I should back up and say that there would be no book without Bob Ostertag. It’s Bob who said to me–who was a great journalist in his day and is a great musician–it was Bob listening to my stories over many years who said to me, “This is crazy, McAlevey, you have to write a book.” I was like “I have nothing to say,” and he was like “You HAVE to do this, you have all this shit to teach and you’re willing to teach it, so just teach.” A lot of the credit for it goes to him, and then cancer conveniently made me just sit still.
I was having fun talking to Verso about all the fun things we can do with the book Web site soon, because I’ve got a ton of training materials, stuff that I wanted to make appendices in the book. Now I’m trying to go back and build in how to share a lot of it via tools on the book Web site. Because I do fundamentally think that we don’t tell how change happens. I think 99% of Americans have no idea how change really happens historically.
We turn the civil rights movement into the Rosa Parks myth, this black woman got mad one day and sat down on a bus, instead of explaining that Rosa Parks had been at the Highlander Center four times for trainings, that she was carefully selected as a leader. That’s all part of why people don’t understand what it takes, and they think that all you have to do is show up and vote.
SJ: I’d like to end on a slightly more positive note, though I’m not sure what that should be.
JM: That workers are willing to fight, everywhere? That, to me, is the positive message of the book. It’s extraordinary.
I think we need to find other ways to get money from the base to organizations, because all the people who control all the big resources aren’t going to just have this epiphany overnight, that actually the way to really make change is to really empower people and let them make decisions shop by shop and community by community.
If we could get some people who control a lot of resources back to believing that our focus has to be governing, that if we put $6 billion into base-building right now for the governing period–that’s what we just spent on the election, or $2 billion, a third of what we spent on the election–and we put that into teaching Americans how to control the governing process? We’d have a much more equal society.
Everywhere I went to do organizing work, everywhere, people were willing to fight. Whether they were white workers, black workers, Filipina workers, higher end, lower end, in between. You hear all these different arguments. “The elite won’t, the super-poor won’t, the Latinos won’t.” If you listen to people, they have an argument every day about why we shouldn’t try organizing.
People need to be given the faith that they can do it, trained and then asked. Those are the three things. And people are so ready for a fight in this country. And that is what is so exciting to me. So we have to learn how to line up the resources with the people that are willing to fight. It could be a mini-revolution in this country. Seriously. People want to fight. That’s just the best news there is.