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In the Age of Trump and “Janus v. AFSCME,” Labor Must Rethink Its Organizing Strategies

We must create an economic crisis, says activist.

A union member holds a sign during a rally outside of San Francisco City Hall on February 26, 2018, in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now more than a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators not only about how to resist but also about how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 116th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey, author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell) and No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. McAlevey discusses effective strategies for labor organizing in the wake of the West Virginia teachers’ strike and how Janus v. AFSCME could end collective bargaining in the US.

Sarah Jaffe: First, what is the best thing you can say about the labor movement under Trump? What is giving you hope right now?

Jane McAlevey: That there has actually been a series of strikes. There are actually even more than people even know about because they have gotten close to zero coverage and they are actually happening….

Since Trump’s election, my own patience for things that come out of liberal elites’ mouths when they write or speak or say something in public — I am becoming increasingly less patient with the whole idea of 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 because I think 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 health care sector and people have been winning them and they have gotten virtually no attention. But to me, it continues to reinforce a core argument that I tried to effectively 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…. That is the form of resistance that I have been paying most attention to and that I still remain most hopeful about….

Part of why West Virginia was so particularly important is because they took on a trifecta of red — meaning the governor, the Senate, the House — which we have in a lot of states right now. They actually effectively mounted a super-victory against a trifecta red power structure at the state level and they did it in the public sector…. There were three decision-makers on the side of the employers that had to be defeated, and they defeated all three….

There are so many aspects of that that give us the kind of insight that I am hopeful about and campaigning for in general in the movement, which is that we need more strikes and we need what I call real strikes, which are supermajority strikes.

Let’s talk a little bit about … mobilization versus organizing, because we have seen a lot of marches…. Let’s talk about what organizing means in contrast to these big periodic mobilizations.

I have been to plenty of big marches since Trump won. I love big marches…. 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…. Mobilizing is essentially talking to folks who are already with us…. I think the problem is, as an absolute number, the percentage in our society has been shrinking over the last 40-45 years, of people who self-identify as progressive and who we can therefore tap to come out to big mobilizations….

Explain for people who are not familiar: What does structure-based organizing mean?

It means that there is a defined structure … 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, Do we have a supermajority of people with us in this movement, in this mobilization we are attempting? you are going to do something called a “structure test,” which means you are testing within a defined structure to see, Do you have a majority? — which means 51 percent in the lowest threshold for a majority.

I use the word supermajorities because supermajorities [are] what it takes to win strikes, not simple majorities … [a] simple majority might win a union election. It is not going to win a strike…. In this country, it is 90 percent out or more to actually defeat a very powerful boss.

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.

It is essential…. I think that health care 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 227,000 students into the struggle with you — nearly every student supports the teachers in education strikes. Let alone … their bus drivers, their cooks, their janitors, those people who pick them up and drop them off…. They can really bring the community into the struggle….

When we are looking at these particular sectors….

Mission-driven and women!

And they are the ones that are under attack right now.

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….

The entire public sector.

The entire public sector who 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 … 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 rebuild 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 … 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. Not only because it is where we still have — until [Janus v. AFSCME] — a majority of the membership of the labor movement.

But, it is actually … the mission-driven, largely female, often people of color … 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 health care sector or their clients in the home care part of the health care sector. People who they serve and take care of — or the students and the parents and the families in the case of education workers. Austerity is going after them. The austerity front is around health care and education. That is where massive cutbacks are happening.

It is not happening with the cops.

Damn right. Although, it was the education workers who went on strike that got the couch from a 3 percent to a 5 percent raise. They were first thrown in by the right-wing senate.

Yes, and they were carved out in Wisconsin.

This is true in other countries around the world, too…. There is a huge struggle going on in England right now around … saving the National Health Service (NHS), which is the socialized health care system that is absolutely an incredibly effective and efficient system…. They are trying to go after the NHS, to try and privatize it, and the fight back is going to come mostly from the nurses, mostly from the female side. There are 280,000 registered nurses working for a single boss in England right now, through the Royal College of Nurses. You saw strikes by junior doctors last year. Mostly men. It is a good example to me of militancy without doing a power analysis…. It is going to take the women in the NHS to actually defend and save the system. They have the capacity to do it because everywhere in the world, nurses are highly trusted people….

I want to talk about the Poor People’s Campaign … and trying to make something that started in North Carolina with Moral Mondays into a national movement that can tackle a bunch of different issues. Where do you think this is fitting into the landscape of “resistance” at this point?

Depending on how the Poor People’s Campaign plays out, I am excited about it because it is embedded in the faith-based world and that is structure-based by definition. What I am hopeful is that even though it may capture many people outside of the faith-based environment, I am hoping that inside of the Poor People’s movement, they keep the dogged focus on having more of an organizing approach and less of a mobilizing approach. Meaning, they are going to be counting how many congregations, how many synagogues, how many mosques, how many temples, how many churches, how many in which sector of faith we are talking about, how many members are involved, how many are taking action.

It takes its origins from the Moral Mondays movement, as you mentioned, and from Reverend Barber’s work in North Carolina…. One of his first, most significant campaigns that he was involved in … was the Smithfield’s Food campaign in North Carolina…. It was another deeply important structure-based fight….

He becomes, along with several other important faith-based leaders in that state, a crucial player in the endgame at Smithfield foods. When I talked to him, he had already started Moral Mondays and what made me so very pleased — this is back in probably 2013 when he starts Moral Mondays — I asked him did he feel like there was an ongoing relationship between the 5,000 workers at Smithfield and the work at Moral Mondays. He smiled and said, “They send at least one bus every single Monday from Tar Heel, North Carolina, to Moral Mondays.” He counts on the rank-and-file workers at Smithfield getting on buses to come.

I think he has … unassailably good politics. He has been advancing them for as long as I have known his name, which is 2006…. Again, I hope the sort of methodical organizing on the faith-based side is happening, as they are also creating an important mobilization vehicle for people. Also, I think part of the reason why the faith-based community is so important — in general, and in the context of … solidarity with [the] labor struggle — is not just because most workers also go to a house of faith, but it is because they bring the ability to bring a critical, moral critique of out-of-control capitalism. They have moral authority to criticize a political and economic system in this country that is, frankly, immoral, amoral, rotten to the core, and they can criticize it, in some ways, more effectively than union leaders can.

We have to get to Janus…. It is going to screw over the unions of many, many hundreds of thousands or millions of people, most of whom are women. Again, there are two parts to this question: What have people been doing that you have seen that has been good to prepare for this? What do you want to see more of?

Strikes! But I mean, they are most effective to take on the power structure, but they also can be the most effective way to continue having the rank-and-file membership engaged.

Yes. After West Virginia … hundreds of people are signing up as members of the unions.

I think it is thousands. We don’t have the numbers yet…. There have been several different responses to Janus. One is no change of behavior…. Then, there has been the attempt since the [Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association] before….

And Harris v. Quinn before it was Friedrichs.

Harris v. Quinn went through.

But they could have done the thing that they are going to do in Janus back then.

We could have learned our lesson then. Then, Friedrichs was coming. Several significant unions … have been out there … from Harris v. Quinn on, recommitting the idea that they have to really have an intentional plan. But this is the problem … that they have to have an intentional plan to actually sign up more members. The problem with that word is, that is not about engaging people in a serious and significant way in the life of the union. That is another reaction.

Then, I would say the very best reaction is where unions are coming to learn that it is actually by engaging members and workers — not members, because they are usually not members yet. It is by engaging the workforce in participating in the very life of the organization…. It is by actually … democratizing the union, focusing on increasing participation, that then the membership flows in and follows. The strike being the highest level of it, but I am going to argue there are two other ways that you can seriously involve the rank-and-file in the work, and that is through the endorsement process in most unions….

I am going to argue another immediate one is that by showing the rank-and-file members that their opinion deeply matters — by involving them and inviting them to participation in important decisions like endorsements and also in important decisions like collective bargaining agreements and contracts — that the unions that are actually opening up the floodgates … by opening up and inviting genuine participation in the union, they are learning that that is how they are actually going to sustain the union organization in a post-Janus world.

Strikes will be the third level of building what…. Rick Fantasia first labelled a “culture of solidarity,” what many of us talk about, the kind of solidarity that gets built in a strike…. The problem is, most aren’t moving to that right now. So, am I nervous? Absolutely. I think the most immediate effect is going to be on political donations to the parties…. [it’s] going to be a significant draining of the coffers in terms of how much money we have. As much as I disagree with most of how unions do most of their endorsements, the fact of the matter is, they still matter. The fact is, resources and money matters in our elections right now. I don’t think that they matter as much as we think they do, or as much as contemporary people often theorize they do, but they damn well do matter. When you have the capacity to hire folks, when you can put them out there, when you can have them convert from rank-and-file volunteerism to doing nothing all day long from morning until sleeping at night, but campaigning because you have capacity to pay them, to help drive other members out in campaigns — that actually matters a lot.

I will also say that even thinking about elections in a post-Janus world comes back to the need to seriously revive the strike. There are two important things to say about Janus. One of them is our political system. This is not a new idea; the political system is completely broken. We had three major Supreme Court rulings. There is no way that we are competing. Even if Janus didn’t happen. Even if trade union money stayed at the current level, the system is fully corrupted at this point, and completely broken between voter suppression, between the amount of money that the Mercers and the Kochs and company can dump into owning the airwaves — that only undergirds the reason why we [are] going to have to create a crisis in the economic arena. I don’t think we can take down not just Trump, but the forces behind Trump, which is more important to me than Trump, because he is going to take himself down at some point. He is going to do 20,000 illegal things.

Stormy Daniels is going to do it for him.

But the forces that put Trump in power and that will remain when his face gets out of all of ours — to take them down is going to require creating a crisis in the economic arena. The more economic concentration is in the hands of a handful of people, the more they control the political system and the more we are going to be forced in this new Gilded Age back to a kind of warfare in the economic arena to take on the capitalist class. I think that is real.

The last thing I want to say about Janus, specifically, is this…. If you actually go out and read the briefs in Janus … there were two people in the room who gave me very detailed notes about the actual oral arguments that happened. At some point, the transcript will come out and we can all eventually read it…. Where I believe they are really going with analogizing free speech, union dues and stuff as free speech — I think it is not even going to be about dues. If you read some of the briefs … where they are really going is to say that anything collective is a violation of free speech.

They are actually arguing that collective bargaining — that the idea of collective is an infringement on free speech rights. Which basically means we are heading towards saying unions are illegal and an infringement of individual free speech rights. I actually think it is really significant that essentially, the minute you get away from an individual worker sitting down to “negotiate” an individual worker’s contract with their employer, the minute it becomes collective … that the next case they are setting up is literally going to say, “Collective bargaining is an infringement on free speech rights,” and they are heading toward banning collective bargaining and unions in [the US].

But we can beat them!

That is probably the thing I quote you the most on: “People are ready to fight.”

They are!

How can people keep up with you and your work and find your books and all of those things?

Okay, I learned how to tweet … @RSGEXP, which is Raising Expectations. Then, I have a website and I have a couple of books.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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.

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