The Labor Movement Must Learn These Lessons From the Election

The Labor Movement Must Learn These Lessons From the Election

The Labor Movement Must Learn These Lessons From the Election

An interview with Jane McAlevey.


Although she’s long been one of the most outspoken—and controversial—critics of the American labor movement, Jane McAlevey doesn’t just talk the talk. A veteran of successful organizing campaigns in California, Connecticut, Kansas, New York, and Washington, McAlevey spent five years as executive director of the SEIU’s Local 1107 in Las Vegas, before conflicts with the health-care and public-employee union’s national office led to her resignation—a misadventure wryly chronicled in her first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement. Since then, McAlevey has divided her time between academia—she’s cur­rently a postdoctoral fellow in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School—and as a consultant for labor unions. We first spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where, amid the self-congratulation, she cautioned me that “Clinton hadn’t sealed the deal” with the white suburban women that McAlevey had met helping to organize Philadelphia-area hospitals. After her warning proved prophetic, we resumed our conversation—this time focusing on the question at the heart of her new book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age.

The Nation: This book came out just before the 2016 election. How early did you know that the Clinton campaign was headed for trouble?

McAlevey: I think the evidence about what was going to go wrong was in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. In some ways, it summarizes my whole critique of the Democratic Party and its key coalition ally, unions. The idea was that they had this Big Data machine that could target the exact voters and gin up turnout—despite all the evidence in 2010 and 2014 that we were actually losing the heartland…. They confused [Obama’s] charisma for a scientific GOTV [get out the vote] operation.

The Nation: What were the things that you saw in 2010 and 2014 that the rest of us missed?

McAlevey: That we were getting creamed in every statehouse midterm election. That we couldn’t get rid of [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker. We literally launched a recall; he won it. He ran again; he won it. [Illinois Governor Bruce] Rauner won. In Michigan, the unions put [a measure on the ballot] to enshrine collective bargaining in the Michigan Constitution. These were ballot initiatives—not surveys, not opinion polls. In the heartland of the United Auto Workers, we couldn’t win over most union households to vote for collective bargaining. Then, in Wisconsin, we couldn’t win over the union households we needed to get rid of the worst antiunion governor in modern times. Those are pretty big indicators we were losing the Rust Belt.

The Nation: Is the Walker campaign what you would call a “structure test”?

McAlevey: Absolutely. So was the collective-bargaining deal in Michigan.

The Nation: Explain what a structure test is, and why the politics we tend to see on the left—progressive politics—evades it.

McAlevey: I’m trying to differentiate between organizing and mobilizing, and [between] polling and survey data versus structure tests… and the difference is crucial.

Those of us who still win hard strikes, or hard union elections, or big contracts, win because we are running a nonstop series of structure tests. The structure test tells us two things. One is: Have we won over the super­majority of what I call the “organic leaders”—the most trusted workers in any workplace? They’re not easily identifiable, so a structure test is how we know if we have them.

Second, can they get a supermajority of their co-workers to sign a petition that they’re going to march on their CEO? You’re asking individual workers to show through a high-risk action that they’re really committed to the cause, because they’re putting their name out there publicly and saying, “I’m standing with my co-workers in this moment for the union.” This is the core idea of the structure test: They’re going to march on their CEO. Good organizers say, “Life is a structure test.” With each new structure test, you’re increasing their risk. Structure tests assess leadership and commitment in high-risk situations. That’s a radically different assessment than responding to a phone poll at your kitchen table.

The Nation: What’s the structure that you’re testing?

McAlevey: The agency of the workers to win. You’re testing whether or not you’ve got supermajorities with you inside a defined structure—which is why the Walker recall or the ballot initiative in Michigan was a structure test of the capacity of the ordinary working class in those two states to win. We failed them both—which urgently meant we shouldn’t assume we were going to win there in the 2016 cycle. It meant we have to do a massive ground operation that isn’t just for a onetime presidential campaign; starting in 2010, 2011, 2012, we should have been aggressively trying to rebuild both the union-household and popular base in those two states, which we didn’t do. We did the opposite: We took them for granted. Trump did not.

The Nation: What makes a supermajority?

McAlevey: In the workplace, [the bosses] use every tactic Trump and Breitbart just used turning the working class against itself: black against white, women against men, Jew against non-Jew. Hate and division and misogyny and racism are the choice weapons in every union-busting fight in this country.

We don’t think we can win a simple-majority unionization election (meaning 50 percent plus one) unless our initial numbers show us at about 75 or 80 percent. And for us to hold at the yes-or-no moment for a strike, meaning a real strike, we have to hold even higher percentages to win, like 90 percent or more. In order to know whether or not we’re going to get 90 percent of the workers to strike—which is how we [won] amazing contracts still in 2016 in America—we launch a series of endless structure tests, because a strike is the ultimate structure test.

We’ve been running a series of structure tests the entire campaign, because we’re building the confidence and the capacity of workers to build a structure that can withstand the bosses’ blows throughout the entire campaign.

The Nation: That’s very clear. It’s also interesting, because there’s a way in which what this book is about is organizing under conditions of extreme adversity.

McAlevey: That’s right.

The Nation: Your timing turned out to be perfect.

McAlevey: It’s really unfortunate, because it would have been better if the asshole didn’t win—but yes, that’s exactly what the book is about. The only other parallel movement that had to organize under such duress was the civil-rights movement in the South. They had the same kind of super-high risk as trade unionists in the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s.

The Nation: You talk about the shift from deep organizing toward shallow mobilizing. This is where it’s going wrong?

McAlevey: Yeah.

The Nation: Explain the difference between organizing and mobilizing.

McAlevey: I try to define “organizing” in really clear terms, because it’s a throwaway term right now—like “democracy.” Everyone talks about democracy without defining what they mean. Most unions and social-change groups will say they’re organizing. I’m arguing that most are not—which is part of why we’re losing.

The core difference to me is: What’s the role of the workers in the actual effort? Are the workers central to their own liberation? Are they central to the strategy to win a change in their workplace and in their communities? Or are they one teeny piece of a really complicated puzzle in which the workers’ voice and opinions are actually not decisive? We are actually running campaigns in this country where the workers’ voice has not been decisive for 15 to 20 years.

The Nation: You call the book No Shortcuts. What are the shortcuts?

McAlevey: Thinking that we can avoid engaging rank-and-file workers. There have been a series of shortcuts over the last 20 years. All of them come down to: How can we do without the messy, hard work of actually engaging ordinary workers, either inside or outside of the unions?

The Nation: Give us some examples.

McAlevey: Polling the members—union leadership went from using polls to think about messaging campaigns to realizing, “Shit! We can just poll the members when we want to find something out.” Polling has actually replaced organizers inside the union movement.

The second is the corporate campaign—the entire concept of the corporate campaign and creating tactical warfare, which said: “The way we’re going to win campaigns in a difficult era is by doing profound brand damage and by costing the employers lots of money if they won’t engage with the top union leadership.”

The dominant model shifted from having to win majorities in the workplace to the cause of labor to brand damage and costing the employer money to get what are called either EPAs—election-procedure agreements—or card-check and neutrality deals. The shift became: “We have to weaken the employer’s resistance to unions to win.” Not a bad idea, but along the way they also stopped talking to workers.

Saying that you’re engaging workers because you’ve tweeted them and you’ve Facebooked them and you threw up a MailChimp survey. Then you can say, “We polled the members, and 60 percent agree with us,” or 80 percent. They never tell you that five people filled in the survey.

Consulting the workers has nothing to do with engaging rank-and-file people inside the trade-union membership—let alone campaigning for the hearts and minds of the unorganized working class by actually engaging them, which is what some of us still do.

In organizing, workers have to be central. It relies on what we call a majority strategy, by which I mean a majority of workers have to be involved themselves. That’s what structure tests are testing.

In a corporate campaign or a top-down campaign, workers come in at the end. They’re used as symbolic actors. They’re the face of the campaign. They’re trotted out to make testimony at the legislature about their bad boss, but they’re not actually central to the strategy. That’s the fundamental difference. The agency for change in the organizing model rests with ordinary people.

The Nation: It’s about where agency is?

McAlevey: Yeah. That’s crucial. Does it lie with the professional staff and a bunch of clever tactics, or does it actually lie with the workers themselves? This is not to say that, in any campaign I’ve ever run, we’re not also bringing in politicians, the community, and other forms of leverage. We are.

In a model of organizing where the workers are central, we see the workers bringing along their own local communities—politicians, ministers, faith leaders, the whole community—as the secondary leverage we need to win the fight. We don’t see secondary leverage as crashing the stock of the firm for a day, which is what we’re doing in a lot of campaigns in this country.

The Nation: What about advocacy? How would you distinguish advocacy from [organizing or mobilizing]?

McAlevey: I’m obviously referring to the Nader groups that grew up in the 1970s. When I say advocacy might be good for [mandating] seat belts and banning dangerous items that kids can eat, that’s great—advocacy can do that. It’s legal advocacy, lawsuits; it doesn’t even pretend to engage ordinary people.

The Nation: What’s your critique of advocacy?

McAlevey: That it can’t win any serious fight. It can win a small gain. There’s a role for advocacy, there’s a role for mobilizing, and there’s a role for organizing. There’s even a role for charity. When immigrants come into this country, someone handing them a place to live for the first year and a bunch of clothing for kids who have just come from a war-torn region—that’s straight-up charity. But we’re not making change on that. Advocacy, there’s a role for it, sure… someone wants to build a dam or jam up something, and there’s no possible way to win [against it], so people launch a lawsuit. Great.

There’s even a role for mobilizing. It’s just that the key argument I’m making in the book [is that] to win the hardest fights—like to win a presidential race, to reclaim the United States of America at the statehouse level, to actually tame global capital—we cannot rely on advocacy and mobilizing to do it, because they surrender the most important and only weapon that ordinary people have ever had, which is large numbers.

People think when they go out to a protest, “Hey, that’s large numbers.” I went to Occupy—wasn’t that a lot of people? That’s what we all think.

Question one: What people were there? Question two: Did we do a power analysis that told us what it would take to actually occupy Wall Street in a significant way?

It isn’t just “Can we get some people to a rally?” It’s who are we getting to a rally, it’s who got them to the rally, and it’s how long can we sustain the rally? That’s a really, really fundamental difference. Are ordinary Americans in large numbers turning out to challenge Wall Street? Or are a handful of the most predictable, sane, wonderful, and lovely people that we see at every rally—the same ones—back on the steps of Wall Street? That’s not doing it.

Organizing is about base expansion. We have to significantly expand the base of people in this country who are standing with us, from which we then mobilize. That’s what we’ve stopped doing since about the early 1970s.

The Nation: You also talk about the difference between activists and leaders. I think that’s pertinent in the same way.

McAlevey: Yeah, it’s absolutely crucial. Mobilizing is an activist-driven approach. Activists are the already converted who are not full-time professionals, or it could be full-time professionals in the movement—either one—but it’s people who are already with us. They already agree that Wall Street’s a problem; they already think that climate [change] is a problem; they already think that racism is a problem. They’re already standing with Black Lives Matter.

The problem is, our numbers aren’t great enough anymore, because we’ve let our base wither for about 45 years. At the same time progressive movements were shifting from grassroots organizing to an activist-­centric and staff-centric mobilizing model, the right wing in the 1970s—starting with Phyllis Schlafly [defeating] the Equal Rights Amendment—began to build a huge grassroots base. They built the Christian Coalition, the Moral Majority, the Eagle Forum, STOP ERA…. This is the base that was Trump’s ground game—and people missed it because they weren’t on his campaign payroll.

The Nation: Let’s talk about power-structure analysis.

McAlevey: We have a systematic approach to analyzing the social-structural conditions in any given region, any city, state…. I mostly think of it in the context of doing social-structure analysis in labor markets. Part of why I think union organizing is so powerful and interesting is because we see the world the same way capital does: like a series of labor markets, not just a series of cities.

What’s different about the way I think about power-structure analysis is that it’s about how capitalists and the employer class relate within areas that we can control and contest for, which are regional labor markets. What the traditional union movement does is, when they’re doing a corporate-campaign analysis, they’re not looking at the social-structural conditions around the em­ployer. They’re just analyzing supply, root supplier, supply chain, pension funds, investor funds, hedge funds….

The Nation: Presumably you look at all that, too.

McAlevey: We do. But the point is, they’re not doing a social-structure analysis to figure out how you bring the community over. I’m arguing we can win by cracking the power of the employer in labor markets, by doing a social-structure analysis of who they’re connected to and how they sustain themselves in regional markets. Who are all the workers that we have, who in the community are they connected to, what churches do they attend—or synagogues, or whatever it is?

Using power-structure analysis the way I think of it, mapping the ordinary relationships of thousands of workers automatically begins to re-expand into the broader community a sort of renewed love for unions and the role they play in our communities. That will change the union-household vote in important elections.

The Nation: I have an intellectual sidebar I want to ask you about. How much of this analysis is a critique of, or a response to, the C. Wright Mills view of a “power elite”?

McAlevey: I think that what C. Wright Mills gave us was the idea that our democracy didn’t work exactly the way that we were taught in elementary school. Mills cracked that open and said, “Are you kidding me? There’s an interlocking power structure of the military, the political elite, and corporations, and that complicates our idea of a simple democracy: that ‘one person, one vote’ goes to the polls and it‘s all very easy.”

First of all, I applaud that—good job, C. Wright Mills. The problem with what C. Wright Mills did, really, was that he only ever gave us the tools to analyze the power of how the elites rule. What we do in deep power-structure analysis is, we can literally map, chart, and develop the power of ordinary people to go up against the power of the elites.

The Nation: That’s very clear, thank you. I want to shift a little bit and ask you about something you quote from Joseph Luders’s book [The Civil Rights Movement and the Logic of Social Change]. He talks about how economic actors differ in their exposure to the disruption costs that movements generate …

McAlevey: Yeah. Essentially, what Luders did was recast the entire history of how the civil-rights movement was won. He shows in a series of case studies that where the movement won, it was—in the language I was using with you earlier—because they could create a crisis for capital; they could create a crisis for employers in key markets in the South. They used the employer class as a lever to force political change because they could actually cause economic pain—[as they did with] the bus boycott in Montgomery.

The Nation: What do we learn from that in terms of now, and this distinction you draw between “concession cost” and “disruption cost”?

McAlevey: I think the key lesson is that when you’re organizing in the Gilded Age, if you can’t create a crisis for capital, you ain’t winning shit, because we are outnumbered and outspent in the political arena. Citizens United and McCutcheon just blew the doors on spending limits. It’s going to be impossible for the social-change movement, including unions, to compete in any significant way on dollar-for-dollar spending in future elections—which means, just like in the civil-rights movement, if we can’t create a crisis for the employers, workplace by workplace and [in whole] sectors of the economy, I don’t think we can win right now. The civil-rights movement couldn’t outvote the political establishment in the South because blacks couldn’t vote. That was the whole point. It was when they could create a crisis for corporations and businesses in the South and get the businesses to say, “Jesus, stop! We’ve got to stop this because it’s causing economic harm,” that’s when we won. It’s the only way that we’re going to win in the new Gilded Age.

The Nation: When you talk about Make the Road New York, you write: “There are many similar organizations in New York City…yet none can claim as strong a record of accomplishment as Make the Road New York, which has amassed a larger staff and budget than any comparable organization in the city.” My question to you is: Are those your metrics? In other words, why do you say they have such a strong record of accomplishment? Is a larger staff and a bigger budget your metric?

McAlevey: No, it’s that they got to having those two things because they have actually established a really significant grassroots base. I’m trying to say two things about Make the Road: one, that there is a strategy to organize a more transient workforce. Some people call that “the precariat.” I hate the word “precariat”—it’s as if we’ve just discovered some new layer of workers who have a transient employment relationship where they don’t have a good relationship with their employer. That is not new; it’s as old as fucking capitalism. I’m trying to hold up the idea that there’s a way to organize a more transient workplace where the workers have a less-direct relationship to their employer, which is the base that Make the Road is focused on. They’re doing it by building geographic power; that’s very, very smart. The key to what they’re doing is: They actually see their membership base, again, as central actors in all their campaigns. I raise the question, which is crucial: Can the Make the Roads of our country, of which there are too few, can they survive if the destruction of trade unions happens? I think not. They survive in New York because a lot of their biggest legislative wins [are] around wage theft and other crucial [issues] that have really mattered to immigrant workers in New York. And they’ve won because the unions have not just signed on—the unions come in and play central roles in the state legislative and the city legislative fights that Make the Road is winning. It’s because they’re smart about how you work with trade unions also.

The Nation: Let’s talk about the Fight for $15.

McAlevey: Look, the Fight for $15 is a totally worthwhile and noble effort. It is, however, a mobilizing and campaign model. It has not yet shown us—and I don’t believe it can—how to build an expanded, sustainable base of people, which is what we need to rebuild power to go up against capital in a vicious new Gilded Age under Trump.

The Fight for $15 makes workers symbolic actors in their own liberation. A strike means you’re causing and creating a significant crisis for your employer. It means 90 percent or more of the workers walk off the job. If you want to win, we say, you have to create a significant crisis for the employer. A strike where one worker at the fast-food company stands outside for the press conference, surrounded by every liberal clergy member in town and a bunch of great activists who you’ve Facebooked and tweeted, and they showed up because they think it’s morally the right thing to do—which it is—is not a strike. It’s what I call “pretend power.” Fooling ourselves with pretend-power gimmicks has resulted in 32 state legislatures flipping red, 34 Republican governors, and Trump in the White House.

The Nation: OK, this brings me to my last question: Going forward, what is your sense of (a) promising roads and (b) priorities for protection and resistance?

McAlevey: They’re a bit different. The priorities for protection suggest more of a mobilizing model: That’s what we have to do in the immediate. The problem is, that’s not going to be how we get out of this mess.

The Nation: No, but it’s necessary, isn’t it?

McAlevey: Absolutely. In the short term, we have to do a ton of protection around the Dreamers, around DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. We have to do immediate mobilization around immigrants in a serious way. We have to do immediate mobilization, frankly, around the existing unions that are out there in this country.

But the most exciting work taking place in the United States is at the local, regional, and state levels—it’s not nationally. At the local, regional, and state levels, we still have a set of trade unions who are winning against very stiff odds. What’s hopeful to me is that, where people are still doing deep organizing, we are still winning.

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