Meet Jane McAlevey, labor’s hell-raiser

(VersoBooks.com)

(VersoBooks.com)

In his “Progressive Honor Roll of 2012” for The Nation, John Nichols made what is sure to be a controversial choice for the title of Most Valuable Book: Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement by Jane McAlevey, along with co-author Bob Ostertag. McAlevey, who has worked previously in the environmental justice movement, presents a series of successful labor battles through the lens of her own experience as an organizer. She argues the importance of organization for a union, rather than simply growth, and that the heart of organizing lies in raising worker’s expectations for their own lives. The book is casual in tone; it feels like you’re sitting up late with McAlevey, maybe around a campfire, maybe drinking wine, as she regales you with stories, full of attitude and hard-won judgments. Ultimately, the effect of Raising Expectations is to raise the reader’s hopes for what a well-organized union can accomplish.

Tonight, McAlevey will appear at a special Waging Nonviolence salon in New York City. Whether you can make it in person or not, allow me to introduce you to her with the conversation that follows.

I know that some people will criticize Raising Expectations because it contains anecdotes that could reinforce anti-union stereotypes, or that are very revealing about the internal workings of the labor movement. Can you talk about your choice to include them?

Our goal was to tell real stories about work in the labor movement that are true to my personal narrative. For me, that goal was the right goal, but in the traditional U.S. union movement, people just don’t write stories about their experiences — just don’t. And so the book seems unusual because organizers don’t tell their stories about what’s really happening, and at some level I’m hoping to catalyze more of that. I think that the labor movement would benefit from more people who played at high levels in campaigns telling their own stories from their own view. And much of what I’m trying to get across in the book is how labor can do its work better. But they’re not used to having a public discussion about it.

So who did you write the book for? Who is your primary audience?

It has two primary audiences, and then some tertiary ones. It’s written for workers to better understand how to change their own union if they’re in one, and/or how they can build better unions from the beginning, if they’re starting to form a union. It’s also written for organizers, and people who aspire to be organizers — people who want to, whether they’re workers or not, devote their lives to the full-time effort of what I do think is a form of “waging nonviolence”: the practice of social change.

I got teased by Chris Hayes on his show a few weeks ago when I said that I don’t think most Americans understand how power works. And I kept thinking I wish I hadn’t said it that way — but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s really true. Most people don’t understand how power works in America, and therefore what it’s going to take to challenge it in a very serious away. In the unions where there’s still organizing happening (which is really only a handful of unions), that really is where the best experience of understanding how to fight power lies, in terms of taking on powerful corporate interests who are part-and-parcel with the government in many cases. We need to have theories of leadership, and theories of leadership development, and a very, very systematic approach if we stand any hope of changing the power structure in America.

What lessons in the labor movement do you think other movements should pick up on?

I don’t think there is any way out of the mess in America if we don’t reengage in a structured, strategic, smart discussion with millions of Americans. Because I think millions of Americans are with us on damn near every issue. Ten percent — forget it, we’re never going to get them. The next 10 percent, it’s going to be really hard and there’s going to be a “Is it worth it?” question. But 80 percent of America is a ton of people, and that is well within our reach. And that’s what you learn during union work, because a union is just like a vivisection — it’s a little cross-section of America. If you go to work at Walmart, there’s a cross-section of your neighborhood. If you go to work at a hospital, then it’s a cross-section of the neighborhood who works there. So what we showed over and over is that you can build consensus, a really militant consensus among 80 percent of people, whether they’re Republicans, whether they’re Democrats. Whatever they think they are, it doesn’t matter. It’s about the process of face-to-face engagement and helping people understand how the system that’s oppressing them works, which I believe leads to majority movements most the time.

Our movement is totally confused about what mobilizing is and what organizing is. Mobilizing is simply how we get the people who are already with us to take action. Organizing is the process of helping vast majorities of people understand that their self-interest is really different than how it’s packaged by Kraft Foods on TV every day in a commercial, or by Union Carbide, or by BP oil, who assure us every day that they’re doing the best they can to create natural new forms of energy as they’re drilling the shit out of the planet. We live in the country with the most sophisticated marketing skills on planet earth — we need to understand how the system plays on people’s emotions and manipulates them.

What I’m evangelical about in any movement is that there aren’t any shortcuts to the work. Union leaders, foundation executives, top leaders in the conservation movement, are all equally guilty of looking for shortcuts when the answer is pretty simple: Any time we go out and engage thousands and thousands of people, millions and millions of people, in face-to-face work, we win.

The characterizations of leaders in your book are frequent and rich, but few individual workers are introduced. This seems surprising in a book about labor. Why is this?

There’s so much debate about the role of individuals in collective action, and the role of organizers. It’s as if if you assert that the organizer plays an important role you’re somehow devaluing the workers. I think that the role of the organizer, first and foremost, is as a teacher. We help people understand their oppression, we help them see more clearly the forces that are oppressing them, and then we give them history lessons about how effective change works.

I am trying to lift up both organizing — the theory of organizing — and, sure, the role of the organizer. But I want to be really clear that the term “organizer” doesn’t mean “well-educated professional outside staff.” Organizer is a role, and anyone can play it. But it does require training and practice. The more you do it, the better you get. Mostly what the stories in the book show is that the sort-of paid organizer is the organizer of the next tier of organizers. We identify the organic leaders among the workers, in the union case, and our job is to skill-up and teach the worker-organizers what we know. Because they’ve actually got to go carry the fight inside their workplace.

It’s practically cliché to say that unions are what brought us the 40-hour workweek, and yet in your book you describe 20-hour workdays and how you don’t need a lot of sleep. In fighting for other people, you gave up some of the very things — like reasonable work hours — that you were advocating for on their behalf. I’d like to hear your perspective on this.

Whether it’s a military war or a nonviolent strategic conflict, there is no movement where people are winning by working 35 hours a week. Sorry! At the end of the day, the people who are leading in strategy are going to be working 20-hour days. When you’re taking on an opponent as serious as hyper-greedy U.S.-style ferocious capitalism, with a very un-democratic electoral system, it’s not happening on 35 hours a week. Of course, there are a lot of roles for people to play in the movement at 35 hours a week, or for people who volunteer every day. A movement depends on millions of people who don’t do this work 20 hours a day, and one job of the organizer is to help large numbers of people find a role.

We used to have all these jokes, at parties and stuff. “After the revolution, what’s your job? Once we win?” I would always say I was going to be a park ranger, because I like hanging out with trees and animals, being in the woods. But it wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I realized there is no “after the revolution.” There is no “after we win.” There are opposing forces who are greedy and evil, and if we let them take everything, they will. We’re always going to be in a space of struggle.

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