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

Sarah Jaffe March 28, 2018

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 for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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