Jane McAlevey: We Can Beat Trump, But We Need More Than Big Marches

Sarah Jaffe

Teachers and supporters gather in the West Virginia capitol building on March 5, one day before the end of the strike. (Photo courtesy of West Virginia Education Facebook page)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now into the second year of the Trump administration, and the last year has been filled with ups and downs, important victories, successful holding campaigns, and painful defeats. We’ve learned a lot, but there is always more to learn, more to be done. In this now-weekly series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.

Jane McAlevey: I am Jane McAlevey. I am an organizer and occasionally an author and sometimes a scholar.

Sarah Jaffe: I am very happy to have you here and everybody should read both of your books: Raising Expectations and tell us about the recent one.

Jane: No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age.

Sarah: We will get back to organizing versus mobilizing. First, what is the best thing you can say about the labor movement under Trump? What is giving you hope right now?

Jane: That there has actually been a series of strikes. There are actually even more than people know about because they have gotten close to zero coverage and they are actually happening. I am rather obsessed with the idea, and have been for most of my lifetime, that strikes are a very particular form of protest, that they matter much more than what we think of as casual or even the good militant kind of protest. I am excited to see them happening under Trump. I am disturbed at the lack of attention that they generally get.

Since Trump’s election, I have become increasingly less patient with the role that liberals play. If you are drawing a line in our movement, whenever we get to electoral politics, many of us do wind up in conversation with a lot of liberals in important elections. But I feel that my own patience is far less than it was before Trump. It is amazing to me that liberals largely still don’t understand why Trump won.

I am incredibly excited that there continue to be strikes. That was true even before the West Virginia education strike. Most people don’t know about the strikes that I have been writing a little bit about. They have been more in the healthcare sector, and people have been winning them yet they have gotten virtually no attention. That continues to reinforce a core argument that I tried to make in No Shortcuts, which is, again, that strikes are a very particular form of protest, and they are unique in their ability to generate the kind of power that the working class needs.

So, if you fast forward, I am on fire with excitement and joy at the moment because of what just happened in West Virginia, which is a strike that people can’t ignore. It was absolutely freaking incredible, to use my most doctoral dissertation thesis language. It was just an extraordinary strike at so many levels, so people paid attention to it. But I am hoping that everyone pays as much attention to other strikes that are happening and have recently happened under Trump. That is the form of resistance that I have been paying most attention to and that I still remain most hopeful about.

This morning I was writing a piece comparing the protests in Madison, Occupy Wall Street, Chicago Teachers Union and West Virginia. I am essentially looking at outcomes, and I am comparing and contrasting what supermajority strikes mean. In No Shortcuts, I talk a lot about supermajorities, arguing that structure-based organizing allows for supermajorities.

It has limits, too, by the way. I am not suggesting that all sorts of other interesting things, all sorts of interesting protests don’t matter. I do think they matter. It is just that I definitely think that a supermajority strike — which we have only seen evidence of ever happening inside of structure-based workplaces — holds a very specific kind of power that is essential to resistance that has more power than fun, feel-good marches or statements. I am interested in what is going to work, and I am terrified that we have entered serious authoritarianism already — and that it may be getting considerably worse.

West Virginia was so particularly important because they took on a trifecta of red — meaning the governor, the Senate and the House — which we have in a lot of states right now. They effectively mounted a super-victory against a trifecta red power structure at the state level and they did it in the public sector. Mind you, I don’t agree that there is a private or public sector, but most people think that there is and so, for the moment, I will talk about that, even though in my view there is just one big economy and the right wing has created this fiction called the public sector and the private sector. It is important in this discussion because I have been debating some men, I think, in the movement about the important differences between the public and private sector. That is a thing in the progressive movement, which I find frustrating.

What is important about West Virginia is it was done in the public sector.” It was done against a Republican governor, a Republican senate, and a Republican house. There were three decision-makers on the side of the employers that had to be defeated and they defeated all three. To essentially get to ratification, they had to get three Republican institutions controlled by pretty big majorities in the case of the senate and the house, and then the governor who was a Democrat when they endorsed him. We should all acknowledge that, though he Trumped.

Sarah: Let’s talk a little bit about mobilization versus organizing, because we have seen a lot of marches. Last weekend was March For Our Lives. Let’s talk about what organizing means in contrast to big periodic mobilizations.

Jane: I am super excited about everything that is coming out of Parkland. I think that young, very young people, the younger they are, have always played a really important and special and unique role in capturing the imagination of a larger swath of society than the rest of us do. I think that is part of why they are having so much success. Every time I listen to one of their leaders, I am like, Yeah!” They are smart.

I have been plenty of big marches since Trump won. I love big marches. Put on your marching clothes and go and scream and shout and make fun placards and climb up buildings. I am the first to sign up and go to every big march and small march. I love direct actions. But they are greatly limited compared to what I think of as deep organizing. To me, what organizing means is that you are expanding the universe of people from whom we can mobilize. You are actually expanding the base of people who we can then turn out for the Women’s March or for climate marches or for Let’s get rid of guns in our society” marches. That is the core difference.

Organizing to me, in general, means we are expanding the base of people from whom we then get to put in our Twitter feed, social media feeds, and get out to either the polls — one form of very important mobilization — or to huge marches or to huge direct actions.

Mobilizing is essentially talking to folks who are already with us. They are already converted. They are already somewhat with whatever us” loosely means. I think that is great. The problem is that the absolute number of people who self-identify as progressive and who we can tap to come out to mobilizations has been shrinking over the last 40 to 45 years. Organizing is what union organizing does not uniquely, but nearly uniquely. Faith-based organizing has always had a high capacity to do base expansion as well, because it is structure-based and because you start with a bunch of people who come in for one reason and they are in relationship to each other.

We saw that in the civil rights movement in this country. The framework of the black church was a particularly powerful mechanism for building the only other seriously powerful movement we have had in this country besides the labor movement, which is the civil rights movement. I still think both are possible. The slight difference is, one of them doesn’t involve having to debate questions of faith. It is the boss and you are trying to help people understand — that the root cause of the crisis in their lives is the boss. It is their employer. Whereas, we get into much more complicated debates about root causes and ultimate solutions when we get into faith-based organizing.

Progressive faith-based organizing to me matters a lot, but nothing is actually more important than organizing in the trade union sector and with a sub-emphasis on structure-based organizing.

Sarah: And Trump is a really big boss. Explain for people who are not familiar, what does structure-based organizing mean?

Jane: It means that there is a defined structure. That there are a set of people who come to work every day in the case of the workplace or church or synagogue or something. It means that there is a bounded structure of some kind around a defined number of people. So, in the West Virginia strike, for sake of argument, you had schools in 55 counties. And if you were going to take a strike vote or if you were doing something leading up to a strike vote, you could very quickly assess, because the number of teachers is defined. There are 100 teachers in a middle school somewhere in a county in West Virginia. If you are a mobilizer or an organizer and you are trying to understand whether you have a supermajority of people in the movement, in the mobilization you are attempting, you are going to do something called a structure test.

I use the word supermajorities because supermajorities are what it takes to win strikes, not simple majorities. So, a simple majority might win a union election. It is not going to win a strike. It is really different. To win something really significant like a contract after workers by simple majority maybe win an election or a card count, it is going to take an even bigger number of people, which is a supermajority, to actually win a successful contract to have a successful strike threat. In this country, it is 90 percent out or more to actually defeat a very powerful boss.

So, structure-based really means there is a defined number of people. There are 100 workers in a school, if I take a strike vote, there are two things I am measuring. One, did 100 percent of 100 people actually turn out for that vote? That is one measure of your strength. Because if only 40 people showed up out of 100 teachers and out of that 40, 35 vote to strike, that is a failed structure test for an organizer. There are two things that are important about structure tests and structure-based organizing. One is, you know how many are participating and how many agree with you. You actually have to measure both.

I certainly spend a lot of time analyzing them in No Shortcuts, particularly in the chapter on the Chicago Teachers Union and how many structure tests they were doing leading up to determine whether or not they had the numbers and the capacity to actually defeat the, at the time, super-powerful Rahm Emanuel. That was a good thing. That is what I mean by structure-based.

If I am organizing for a strike, the first threshold is, Can we get to a simple majority?” on the first petition that says, We think our boss is being unfair” or We deserve to keep our pension” or whatever the fight is. Then, we got to a 55 percent structure test. Then, we build to 65 percent, 70 percent, 75 percent, 80 percent, 85 percent, 90 percent. That is the level of detail. Participation rate and then approval rate — that’s what we are looking for before we know that we can win. The difference between people who win collective action these days and those folks who, unfortunately, call strikes and don’t win, usually is that they haven’t done that methodical work, which is my fear about some of the hyped-up discussion about what is happening under states right now in the education sector.

That is why I can sound more critical than I am, of things like the fast food worker … I am going to call them protests. A strike actually shutters production or causes a significant crisis. In the healthcare sector, we don’t shut down a hospital because people would die, but if the employer has to pay a double payroll and replace the entire workforce with another not-cheap workforce, like no less than $100 an hour for anyone who is a scab in a hospital strike. The janitor is going to get $100 an hour. Super big money goes into scabs. So, when an employer has to recreate an entire payroll, they actually can’t sustain it for very long. That is a serious crisis if you get 90 percent or more out. And 100 percent out with the community behind you, we win. I think that is the exciting thing that we all get to pick up on if we pay attention to it coming out of West Virginia, is 100 percent out or a super-majority out with community support, we can defeat forces as powerful as Trump. That is the message of West Virginia.

Sarah: Community support is a very important part of your first book. Talking about whole worker organizing, you write about the importance of organizing within the structure, but also of bringing in the community and the connections for the community to that structure. That seems like also when we are talking about strikes in a political context, that seems like a really important part of the conversation.

Jane: It is essential. I am obsessed about healthcare and education strikes in part because I think that healthcare workers and education workers have a particularly unique ability to bring their entire community into their struggle. In West Virginia, it was definitely not only 34,000 workers, which was the number who struck between the teachers and the service personnel. It was actually hundreds of thousands of people brought into the contestation for power against a very conservative power structure because the students went with them. So, you bring 277,000 students into the struggle with you — nearly every student supports the teachers in education strikes. Let alone, by the way, their bus drivers, their cooks, their janitors, those people who pick them up and drop them off. They love those people.

Sarah: And these women workers are the ones that are under attack right now.

Jane: Totally under attack and under attack from austerity. The reason they are important is for so many reasons. One is because they can actually just win against stiff odds. And, two, as I think we are going to see play out in West Virginia, because of the structure of the PEIA Taskforce, which is the health insurance taskforce, the ongoing piece of business that not just the teachers, that the education workers in West Virginia have to carry their struggle into.

Sarah: The entire public sector.

Jane: The entire public sector, which got a raise thanks to the education sector. The entire next phase of the struggle is going to be 34,000 workers who went on strike, teachers and non-teachers in the schools, with a whole bunch more people that they have brought into the struggle. Certainly the state employees, but I think a few hundred thousand, to put it mildly, parents who came with them are now going to be demanding a tax of some kind, essentially re-taxing corporations to have a long-term funding solution to the health insurance crisis in West Virginia.

What is interesting to me is that mostly men in our movement over the last 25 years have had a consistent line that the private sector matters more than the public sector and that the private sector is the most important place that we have to do our work. Like, if we are going to re-build the labor movement, it has to happen in the private sector and not until we get the private sector numbers back up to something close to the public-sector numbers can we win again. I have taken a decidedly fairly public different position, which is one sector does not matter more than the other and, in fact, where I have been evolving to lately is that if anything the public sector matters more.

But I also argue that it is the mission-driven, largely female, often people of color — certainly not in West Virginia, but elsewhere — who are the people suffering the consequences of austerity and who have the capacity to fight back because of those incredibly deep structural relationships they have with either their patients in the healthcare sector or their clients in the home care part of the healthcare sector. Austerity is going after them. The austerity front is around healthcare and education. That is where massive cutbacks are happening.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a writer and reporter living in New Orleans and on the road. She is the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion To Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone; Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, and the forthcoming From the Ashes: Grief and Revolution in a World on Fire, all from Bold Type Books. Her journalism covers the politics of power, from the workplace to the streets, and her writing has been published in The Nation, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and many other outlets. She is a columnist at The Progressive and a contributing writer at In These Times. She also co-hosts the Belabored podcast, with Michelle Chen, covering today’s labor movement, and Heart Reacts, with Craig Gent, an advice podcast for the collapse of late capitalism. Sarah has been a waitress, a bicycle mechanic, and a social media consultant, cleaned up trash and scooped ice cream and explained Soviet communism to middle schoolers. Journalism pays better than some of these. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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