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.