Over the past year, a wave of teacher strikes — from Los Angeles to West Virginia — have won major victories for public education, including salary increases and smaller class sizes. Inspired in part by the Chicago teachers strike in 2012, they drew on years of grassroots organizing and strategic planning to build stronger unions and establish clear demands to address the major problems affecting the public education sector today.
According to longtime environmental and labor organizer Jane McAlevey, this recent wave of teacher strikes is also the perfect example of how change happens. It begins by developing a deep understanding of power, which then evolves into building small campaigns within a larger struggle to achieve measurable goals — all the while engaging in deep listening across differences, instead of self-selecting into single-minded silos.
Throughout her prolific writing — including two books, Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell) and No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Guilded Age — McAlevey lays out the foundations for what she calls a “credible plan to win.” A vital part of that, she argues, is understanding the mechanics and strategic steps of winning a campaign — something that is best achieved through the training and mentoring of emerging organizers and activists.
After her own period of learning — while being a student activist and living with farm workers in Nicaragua during the Sandanista revolution — McAlevey has dedicated her adult life to building grassroots power for progressive change. And right now, she says that mass strikes are the key to winning progressive victories in the Trump era. Ultimately, as she explained to me in the following conversation, labor strikes carry invaluable lessons for fighting — and winning — strategic grassroots campaigns.
Sarah Freeman-Woolpert: What does this wave of teacher strikes tell us about effective organizing practices, and what are some of the wider implications of mass strikes at this political moment?
Jane McAlevey: There’s an important lesson to be learned in realizing that strikes do not just happen because people get pissed off. [In Los Angeles,] they had four years of really serious work leading up to the strike in January, with deadlines and backwards planning attached to it. There were eight serious structure tests conducted leading up to that strike — that’s what good planning and analysis looks like.
A crucial element in their understanding of power was knowing that they could not win that strike without the community on their side. They held huge meetings that were open to parents and students, not just teachers, to set the contract demands. Understanding that we can’t win traditional labor fights anymore without bringing the whole community with us is crucial.
So, I love the teacher strikes, because they are just putting it all out there. The Los Angeles teachers said, “That’s it. Every teacher is going to quit, or we’re going to have a life and death fight for whether education matters for democracy.” So, 34,000 teachers just led a fight that educated 30 million people in greater Los Angeles about what happens when you de-fund education, close down schools and begin to destroy democracy. It was a monumental master class in how to run a good strike, and it mattered for 600,000 kids in public school who will have a much better education because of the drastic drop in students per classroom that they won.
That’s part of why it’s such an exciting time. The teachers that have been out on strike are literally putting front and center the very question of “Can you have a functioning democracy if there’s no educational system?” And I think the answer is no.
How does the labor movement intersect with other progressive organizing taking place in the Trump era?
Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any way out of the crisis we’re in in this country right now unless we start having more strikes. I think Trump’s election clarified for a lot of people that we were in a do-or-die moment in this country. But, if you are involved in public schools in any way, you felt like Trump got elected somewhere around the year 2000, in terms of how severe the defunding of public education had become.
The origins of the strike explosion we’re seeing in the education sector right now really started in 2012 in Chicago, which was ground zero for the undoing of the U.S. public education system. Teachers went from having 20 students in their classroom to having 40, and [the Chicago teachers’ strike] basically created a roadmap for what’s happening now in a more visible way.
People need to stand up and start supporting workers in struggle, especially progressives. There was one case in which a group of electric workers in Boston were locked out for a year. This was right after the Women’s March and all this upsurge of progressive energy, and there are a thousand workers locked out of their jobs in Boston because the boss wanted to break the union. People should have been up in arms surrounding them. But the workers were from the same union that was supporting pipeline construction — so no one in the progressive movement could relate to these workers who were doing something progressives thought was bad. But blaming workers for wanting a good job is a big mistake.
You have written about the many risks workers undertake when they get involved in mass strikes. As an organizer, how do you get workers to participate in such a high-risk tactic, especially when people feel discouraged or cynical about the potential for change?
We as organizers have to raise people’s expectations that they can actually win, and that starts by making them believe that what is happening around them is not acceptable. What defines real organizing is that we start by helping people come to see that there are solutions for the problems in their lives, and that if they participate it’s going to actually matter.
When I go to work with workers in a campaign where they’ve never had a union, people start off saying, “We’ve tried everything for 20 years and nothing’s going to change.” So we start by describing a credible plan to win, because that’s what matters to people. Show people that if they come to this meeting and get others to come with you, their participation is [directly] contributing to [hitting the] percentage of workers we need to win. That’s going to change their perspective on what it means to stay home.
Part of what we do wrong in this country is that progressive forces slip into the same tactics as the right wing, which is the use of fear. We have to create a sense of urgency without using fear because fear is fundamentally demobilizing. Climate change is a terrific example of this. If you say, “Come to this meeting or the planet will blow up,” that’s not helping people understand how we’ll defeat fossil fuel players in today’s economy. There has to be something specific and local so that they can see and feel their participation is connected to a larger fight.
You have said that union campaigns involve a “cross-section” of America, in terms of the political opinions people hold in any workplace. How does this influence your approach as an organizer?
One reason I love union work is that I’m forced to deal with Trump voters every day. Unions put us into conversations with people who most of the progressive movement isn’t talking to, which is the problem. My starting point in the workplace campaign are Democrats, Republicans and a bunch of people who — like most everyone else — are independent or entirely checked out and not voting at all. The only thing that unites them is that they come to work, they have a boss, they haven’t had a raise in six years and their health care plan just got a lot more expensive — so they’re totally pissed off.
But the vast majority of people in this country who sit down face to face to have a conversation actually agree on the basic things, like whether rich people and corporations should pay higher taxes. Everyone in this country can tell you a story about someone they know dying or getting seriously ill because of a lack of health care. If we focus on finding issues that matter to all of us, that’s the thing that can change elections. But not talking to people is not an option.
The younger generation is taking a strong lead in emerging movements, from the recent climate strikes to last year’s March for Our Lives against gun violence. How does the core role of young people factor into strategic organizing?
Young people play a really important role in the movement, which is to be uncompromising. Compromises will need to be made, but the role of youth is to say, “There is no compromise,” and to hold the moral compass about what’s wrong and what’s at stake. Young people getting active is unbelievably important, and the way a lot of young people start engaging is by speaking truth to power. But it’s not enough.
For that reason, I always encourage young people to get involved in campaigns with a win-or-lose outcome. You can spend your whole life organizing rallies and protests, but that won’t ever really allow you to measure your effectiveness in real terms. That’s why I think unions are so unbelievably important — it’s a nonstop series of deadlines. Every contract has an expiration date. The clock is ticking. These constant deadlines allow us to be self-reflective in asking, “Is what we’re doing effective?” We know the answer because we’re either winning or losing.
What I hope for the new generation is that they can more quickly focus on central questions of power. I want young people to wake up in the morning and think, “What is my theory of power on whatever issue I care about? How can I break it into a series of campaigns that will test if what we’re doing is working or not working?”
The sooner we learn the right lessons about power and strategy, the more effective we can be our whole lives. Young people need to latch onto the right mentors and dig into them and learn as much as they can. There’s a certain amount we do just to feel strong. I go to marches to be reminded that there’s a bunch of people who agree with me. I don’t ever go to a march thinking I’m changing anything.
It’s not that we shouldn’t do all the things that make us feel good. But I always understood that marches and civil disobedience were ultimately small tactics in a much more sophisticated strategy based on a serious analysis of how we are going to build the power we need to win. So we need to know the difference between “feel good” actions and work that is effective. That’s what I want for the next generation to learn. And do it fast! No pressure.