Jane McAlevey: We Desperately Need a Mass Strike Against the Billionaire Class

An interview about politics and power.

Mindy Isser March 17, 2020

Jane McAlevey (Illustration by Lauren Crow)

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry is becom­ing a pitched bat­tle between the inter­ests of work­ers and bil­lion­aires — the type of fight that Jane McAlevey knows well. The author of A Col­lec­tive Bar­gain: Unions, Orga­niz­ing, and the Fight for Democ­ra­cy, McAlevey has focused her career as a labor orga­niz­er, writer and edu­ca­tor on how to build pow­er — and how to win. In light of the cur­rent class strug­gle shap­ing up inside (and out­side) the pri­ma­ry, her thoughts on how to make strate­gic inter­ven­tions are a breath of fresh air.

The return of the strike weapon is going to be the single most effective thing we can do, period.

McAlevey’s book argues that work­ers must once again wield their most pow­er­ful tool: the strike. She believes the strike can empow­er work­ers not just in the work­place, but could tip the bal­ance of polit­i­cal pow­er back into the hands of the work­ing class.

In These Times spoke with McAlevey in Feb­ru­ary (before the coro­n­avirus out­break became a glob­al pan­dem­ic) about how the union move­ment can ener­gize a fight around the 2020 elec­tion, pre­pare itself regard­less of the out­come, and seize new oppor­tu­ni­ties to build power.

Q: How do you think unions should inter­act with the next admin­is­tra­tion, in three pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios: Trump, Joe Biden and Bernie?

JM: If it’s Trump, it’s war. Any union left hav­ing a resid­ual con­cern about what it means to strike if Trump becomes the pres­i­dent again needs to be tak­en out to the wood­shed. He’s already tak­en us back to the 1960s in terms of the progress we’ve made. There’s going to be noth­ing left of the coun­try if unions don’t unleash the biggest fire­pow­er in the his­to­ry of the uni­verse against a sec­ond Trump administration. 

If it’s Biden, unions would have to fight like hell to get any­thing. Not that Biden is an ide­o­log­i­cal ene­my out to kill unions — that’s the good news — but from all the evi­dence we have from his years as VP, there’s no evi­dence he would cham­pi­on union caus­es. Labor unions under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion were sim­ply not a pri­or­i­ty — specif­i­cal­ly, there was no under­stand­ing of how impor­tant it was to orga­nize the work­ing class. We can assume Biden would make decent appoint­ments to the NLRB, and we can hope they wouldn’t hap­pen at the very end of his term, but that’s the most we would get with­out a fight. The mul­tira­cial work­ing class can­not afford a Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tion that doesn’t make it a cen­tral pri­or­i­ty to relieve the mis­ery among work­ers, and to expand the union base that can make that happen. 

If it’s Sanders, it’s actu­al­ly much more tricky for the pro­gres­sive move­ment. The error in judg­ment that we make his­tor­i­cal­ly, which is what we did with Oba­ma, is to be hands-off. There’s no room for hands-off. Franklin D. Roo­sevelt won, and more than a mil­lion work­ers went on strike. What I learned from 1199 New Eng­land, an SEIU health­care union, is that the minute the election’s over — if and when our can­di­date wins — the very first thing we have to do is pick an inten­tion­al fight, to teach them that they work for us. I have nev­er lost that lesson.

For exam­ple, Sanders just made a com­mit­ment to Unite Here that he would not pass a Medicare for All plan that went back­ward on any of their pre-exist­ing nego­ti­at­ed ben­e­fits. But let’s say he walks in and says, I’m just going to try to do every­thing all at once.” The truth is, deci­sions and pri­or­i­ties will need to be made because that’s the nature of pol­i­cy­mak­ing. So the ques­tion is, where do you draw the line? Even with a total­ly ter­rif­ic elect­ed offi­cial, I envi­sion strong dis­agree­ments about where com­pro­mis­es get made. I believe the move­ment should not back down and have the kid gloves or hands-off approach, just because they’re excit­ed about him.

Q: Dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, vot­er turnout was at a 20-year low — about 55%. A big rea­son is that work­ing peo­ple feel like vot­ing doesn’t mat­ter, that noth­ing in their lives will improve. How do you think we can best fight futil­i­ty and real­ly frame the choice for vot­ers around the 2020 election?

JM: What’s work­ing in Bernie Sanders’ favor right now is the same thing that worked, frankly, in Obama’s favor, which is that Sanders is real­ly dif­fer­ent, some­thing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty con­tin­ues to not under­stand. Peo­ple ask why Oba­ma vot­ers went to Trump, but it’s real­ly not that com­pli­cat­ed: Peo­ple are des­per­ate. And any­one who seems dif­fer­ent from the main­stream bull­shit served out by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee for the last 30 years in this coun­try is some­one who work­ers are going to take a shot at. 

If the par­ty doesn’t screw Sanders and screw the coun­try by lock­ing him out at a bro­kered con­ven­tion, we won’t be fac­ing the same futil­i­ty prob­lem. Sanders has cred­i­bil­i­ty. Trust makes peo­ple par­tic­i­pate and engage — that’s as true in a union elec­tion and a strike vote and a march on the boss as it is with the biggest march on the boss ever: get­ting Trump out of office. If it’s Sanders, which is who it should be if we stand a chance to win, then peo­ple will actu­al­ly par­tic­i­pate. The futil­i­ty chal­lenge is going to be extra­or­di­nary if we have a can­di­date who is not Bernie Sanders.

One major point I’m try­ing to get across in the new book is that, no mat­ter who wins the pres­i­den­cy, I don’t think there’s any way out of the mess we’re in with­out a return to mass strikes. What has real­ly sep­a­rat­ed Sanders from Eliz­a­beth War­ren is his con­sis­tent artic­u­la­tion that it’s going to take a giant move­ment in the streets to move any seri­ous agen­da. War­ren is obsessed with pol­i­cy; Bernie is obsessed with the move­ment he wants to build.

Whether or not it’s a Pres­i­dent Sanders in this coun­try, let alone a Pres­i­dent Trump, it’s going to require an enor­mous abil­i­ty for work­ers to stand up for them­selves and strike. The return of the strike weapon is going to be the sin­gle most effec­tive thing we can do, peri­od. It rebuilds social sol­i­dar­i­ty in real­ly rad­i­cal ways, and we need it to com­bat the attack on cul­ture and soci­ety launched by Sil­i­con Val­ley. Work­ing-class peo­ple are actu­al­ly chal­leng­ing the bil­lion­aire class by the lev­el and rate of their con­tri­bu­tions to the Sanders cam­paign. For a lot of peo­ple, they almost view vot­ing for Sanders as the first act of their mass strike against the bil­lion­aire class, but I think it’s going to have to be sig­nif­i­cant­ly increased no mat­ter what.

The most impor­tant chal­lenge of our work as orga­niz­ers in any field is recon­struct­ing the human sol­i­dar­i­ty that’s being dulled down by the elite. A good union cam­paign does it like noth­ing I’ve ever expe­ri­enced, and a good polit­i­cal cam­paign can do it, too. When work­ers come togeth­er col­lec­tive­ly to do some­thing and they win, it builds extra­or­di­nary sol­i­dar­i­ty, whether it’s to vote against a shit­ty pres­i­dent or take con­trol from their boss. Every per­son has to wake up in the morn­ing and write at the top of their dai­ly todo list, how am I build­ing human sol­i­dar­i­ty today, every day? That’s our work.

Q: Were unions smart to with­hold endorse­ments in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, or did they waste an oppor­tu­ni­ty? And how did their rank-and-file engage­ment in the deci­sion com­pare with 2016

JM: I would argue that the posi­tion hold­ers in the nation­al unions didn’t just wake up and think, Hey, let’s not be so stu­pid and endorse Hillary Clin­ton, or her equiv­a­lent, in 2020,” but it was because there was a very seri­ous rank-and-file push­back against the pol­i­tics of 2016. Many local lead­ers and work­ers expressed through their locals how frus­trat­ed they were by that top-down deci­sion-mak­ing process.

I want to give cred­it to rank-and-file work­ers for putting the heat on the posi­tion hold­ers in their unions to stave off ill-advised ear­ly endorse­ments. I think no endorse­ments at the nation­al lev­el is bet­ter than ear­ly endorse­ments for a bad can­di­date. On the oth­er hand, what would impress the hell out of me is if a bunch of unions had wok­en up today and decid­ed to sup­port Bernie Sanders, and to put the wind in his sails — to have the nation­al unions say, We’re going to go for it, and actu­al­ly ride a wave behind the most pro-union can­di­date in my life­time, and take a gam­ble. And the rea­son why we should take a gam­ble is because the plan­et is burn­ing the fuck down.” All orga­niz­ers know how to cre­ate a sense of urgency, but for posi­tion hold­ers in the labor move­ment to cur­rent­ly be stand­ing out­side of the polit­i­cal process is a mis­take. It’s a trav­es­ty, frankly, that most nation­al unions are miss­ing the boat in a pro­found way.

Inter­nal democ­ra­cy was mar­gin­al­ly bet­ter this time, and espe­cial­ly bet­ter in the edu­ca­tion unions. Thanks to the edu­ca­tion work­ers who have gone on strike and chal­lenged their nation­al posi­tion hold­ers, rank-and-file voic­es are not left out of the deci­sion. Since 2016, rank-and-file mem­bers of both the nation­al edu­ca­tion unions have pushed for motions at their nation­al con­ven­tions that demand­ed more rank-and-file par­tic­i­pa­tion in the polit­i­cal endorse­ment process. I wish that, in every sin­gle union in this coun­try, the rank-and-file were tak­ing con­trol of the endorse­ment process. 

Q: Besides engag­ing in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, are there any new avenues open­ing up for work­ers to seize pow­er in 2020 and 2021?

JM: If you look at the logis­tics sec­tor, we’ve got Wal­mart and Ama­zon, where just-in-time pro­duc­tion is supreme. Walk­ing off the job would dri­ve Jeff Bezos and the Wal­ton fam­i­ly into the ground. I believe good orga­niz­ing can help peo­ple learn how to do this work — there are so many choke points and all of them have basi­cal­ly been ignored by the trade union movement. 

Right now, the sort facil­i­ties can­not yet use robots for many of the fast deliv­ery ser­vices, because con­sumers are order­ing things that are dif­fer­ent sizes that aren’t yet con­tainer­ized — peo­ple order an iron and a pack of pens and a roll of toi­let paper. What real­ly did dam­age to the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union was con­tainer­iza­tion, because sud­den­ly a robot machine could lift a con­tain­er that was filled with lots of dif­fer­ent things. Right now, we’re in this sweet spot where the we deliv­er your shit the next day” is not con­tainer­ized. Peo­ple in the logis­tics sec­tor could just turn the engine off the Ama­zon Prime truck, or every dri­ver gets a flat tire on their first turn because Amer­i­cans learn to do what Latin Amer­i­cans did, which is take a board, put a bunch of nails in it and let some­one run over it. Dur­ing their strike in 2006, teach­ers and their sup­port­ers in Oax­a­ca did this. Low-tech tools can stop this shit.

Ware­hous­es, sort­ing facil­i­ties and dri­vers are the three choke points that — if all of those work­ers fig­ured out how to build sol­i­dar­i­ty in key mar­kets — could actu­al­ly stop Bezos in a real way. Work­ers in the sort­ing facil­i­ties and in the ware­hous­es in the logis­tics sec­tor need to become a very impor­tant part of the work we’re all doing, along with the edu­ca­tion and health­care sec­tors. We need the whole com­mu­ni­ty to under­stand the strate­gic front is the work­place, and that cap­i­tal­ists don’t care about you unless you stop them from mak­ing money.

It is a huge under­tak­ing, but this is where pri­or­i­ti­za­tion and strat­e­gy come in. I think our move­ment doesn’t do near­ly enough of that because it’s hard to make choic­es. The one thing I real­ly believe is that, no mat­ter who is in office, any­thing shy of a con­tin­ued and real­ly mas­sive increase in the num­ber of work­ers walk­ing off the job is not enough.

That’s why I keep harp­ing on the need for a seri­ous increase in the use of super-major­i­ty strikes in key strate­gic indus­tries in key strate­gic labor mar­kets, no mat­ter who walks into the White House, giv­en how pushed back on our heels the work­ing class is in this country.

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
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