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Help Workers Connect the Dots to This Larger System of Oppression

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You could choke on the irony in Charlotte this Labor Day. The United States’ faux labor holiday falls on day one of the Democratic National Convention. While the Democrats will no doubt tip their hat to working people and imbibe a beer or two on labor’s campaign tab, the ragged edge of organized labor’s relationship with the Democratic Party will be on painful display. After all, it’s supposed to be a holiday.

Will Barack Obama win this November? Probably. In 2008, the unions spent at least $300 million to elect him president. As will be obvious in Charlotte, they’re likely to spend even more this year. The Democrats are up against far bigger spenders – men like Sheldon Adelson and the brothers Koch – but it’s hard to believe the GOP bankrollers will ultimately hoodwink enough of the American electorate to win, while Republican extremism, on everything from women to wages, gives moderate voters every reason to be rattled by Romney and Ryan. What’s harder to see is how working Americans actually benefit from the situation that will likely squeak Obama back into the White House.

Which brings us back to Labor Day. President Grover Cleveland signed the legislation declaring the first Monday in September a national holiday just days before he sent 12,000 troops to brutally break the Pullman Strike of 1894. The concession wasn’t what international socialists (who observed May 1) wanted in the way of a labor holiday. In fact, it was the opposite, but Cleveland and his successors excelled at dusting repression with just enough reform to defuse industrial workers’ organizing.

Fast-forward to the most bitterly split era since those Robber Baron days of the industrial age and we find ourselves in a rerun. Having free traded our manufacturing jobs to other countries and deregulated our economy to labor death, more than half of all jobs in the US today pay less than $34,000/year, a quarter pay less than $22,000 (the poverty line for a family of four.) Six million people exist on food stamps as their only income – and American labor unions are the weakest they’ve ever been. Gloating from the stage of the RNC in Tampa, we saw Republican Govs. Chris Christie and Scott Walker from the formerly labor-dominated states of New Jersey and Wisconsin, trumpet their success in scapegoating public-sector unions.

As organizer/author Jane McAlevey points out, “We get a one-way view from the American capitalist media every day [that] drums into people … a total lack of understanding of what the real purpose of a union in this country really is and what it does.”

What will turn this around? Not another four years of an Obama in office with only the radical right on the offensive. Labor has failed to win any of the legislation it was promised by the Democrats four years ago, yet the rightward rush of the Republican Party has kept unions in quiescent lockstep behind the Democratic Party.

The great, loud, Labor Day party we need is not at the Democratic National Convention.

Jane McAlevey has a book coming out this fall from Verso called “Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement.” I started by asking her to introduce herself, and then to talk about hell-raising in Wisconsin and the lessons the labor movement might draw from that experience, with relevance to the elections that loom just ahead of us.

Jane McAlevey; I’m Jane McAlevey and I am an organizer. I worked in the non-union part of the social justice movement for many years and made a transition into the labor movement on the heels of [John] Sweeney’s election [to be president of the AFL-CIO.] At the AFL-CIO in 1995 – when we had the first contested election in the history of the merged institutions (the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations) – there was a lot of promise in the labor movement, and people like me signed up in droves.

Laura Flanders: You wrote a piece in the June 26 issue of The Nation magazine with Bill Fletcher about the lessons from Wisconsin. Talk about hopes and disappointments, the top lessons, in your view?

JM: I think the top lesson in our view is that there is not enough internal radical, political education taking place inside of America’s unions. If there was one thing we had to do differently, it’s actually trust that our rank and file can handle a lot of the information and that the rank and file will know what to do with real facts, real information, and what’s really happening.

I should back up and say in terms of the introduction, I worked at a place called the Highlander Center for three years when I was young, and I’m quite sure that my bias as an organizer towards intense levels of education with the rank and file comes from being in my mid-20s and working at the most prestigious adult education center in this country. It was the heart of the civil rights movement, and (most people don’t even know) Highlander was the CIO’s official labor education school in the 30s and 40s. With that background to my early years of work, by the time I hit the labor movement, I had a very strong philosophy that I trusted the workers. If you trust the workers, and you actually present a framework for education that helps workers begin to understand that this isn’t just about the boss on the third shift, by the way, it’s the corporation you’re working for, and then … you help workers connect the dots to this larger system of oppression that’s taking place in this country dressed up as free enterprise and freedom.

I was trained by someone named Jerry Brown who is now retired, formerly the head of 1199 [the New England Health Care Employees Union – SEIU] in New England which was a communist-based union by origin that continued (even though they broke with Stalin, etc.) the organizing tradition that came out of the Communist Party in the ’30s – which is deep organizing. It starts with trusting the workers. So when I became a union organizer and I had been organizing already, I thought, what do I need to know? Jerry Brown, who I credit enormously for a lot of brilliant labor work in his time, said to me “trust the workers McAlevey, treat them like grown-ups and teach the workers to run the unions.”

LF: But still, going back to the June election in Wisconsin, one-third of all union members voted for Scott Walker –

JM: That’s right.

LF: … The anti-union governor, to stay in office.

JM: Yes, but I think that’s symbolic of what happens when you don’t trust the workers to be able to make wise decisions once we’ve provided the educational settings that enable radical, participatory, education. I’ve seen some arguments in Wisconsin where people said, “Well, one-third of union members are Republican and always vote Republican,” and I think that’s a bad analysis. The question is what’s the relationship between the leadership of the union and the rank and file members? The 38% that voted for Scott Walker is reflective of a lack of real, consistent, ongoing relationship-building with the rank and file of the union.

When we don’t engage the workers and treat them like grown-ups and say we have to have some really hard conversations – things are looking really bad right now and here’s why – and then explain how Scott Walker connects to what’s happening to the second shift manager or whatever it is; if we don’t do that, we’re going to continue to have 38% of union members voting against their self interests even though – I think Bill Fletcher and I say in our piece – in our own experience, we’ve both done a ton of radical, political education with thousands and thousands of workers, when we do our work right as labor leaders – when we really share what’s happening to these workers around them, give them the space to learn it on their own – to explore the system called capitalism in a way that’s not coming “to” them in some doctrinaire one-way messaging – I think that you would find that they’re not going to vote against their self interests. We’re not helping people connect the dots anymore – and we desperately need to.

LF: The dots in Wisconsin … when I was out there covering the uprising a year ago, were pretty broadly laid out. We interviewed grassroots activists from the world of farming, education, teaching assistants, young people of color fighting against cuts in social services, and more. It wasn’t just about “workers.” What has happened since when it comes to capitalizing (for the lack of a better word) on all those dots that are not in the “work place”?

JM: There’s been a fifty-to-sixty year campaign in this country to destroy the reputation of unions. We don’t have a labor page, we have a business page in every newspaper. We get a one-way view from the American capitalist media every day, and it drums into people these horrible lessons. There is a total lack of understanding of what the real purpose of a union in this country really is and what it does. Unless and until labor leaders are willing to take some responsibility for rebuilding the relationship internally to the rank and file, we are in trouble because I think this is where the dot-connecting has to happen.

It’s through our rank and file in the labor movement that the relationship to the so-called external allies needs to be built. It should not be a professional staff operation. And by the way, it’s not just unions, it’s in all of our movements – whether it’s the feminist movement, the environmental movement, or the labor movement. (I don’t like to just blame labor here – I have organized in all these movements and the same tendency has been taking place.) From the time [Saul] Alinsky published “Rules for Radicals” in 1972, there has been a fairly fast transition away from the deep organizing that characterized American left movements in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. In the ’70s we take a turn from what we would call deep organizing and into what I call shallow mobilizing where you replace staff for leadership engagement and radical rank and file, participatory education (and I mean rank and file whether it’s environmental, conservation, women, etc. The rank and file meaning the grassroots, the people, ordinary Americans …)

We’ve replaced doing real leadership development and empowering people and trusting that they can figure out what’s going wrong in this country with communications, messaging, pollsters, lawyers, lawsuits and a bunch of staff and a bunch of advocacy organizations that sort of do the work for people. All staff do nowadays is “turn out,” turning out people for a rally. Our movement has become “go turn out bodies for a rally” and that’s why 38% of union household voted for Walker.

LF: You have a book soon coming out in the fall from Verso and we’ll go into this in more depth then, but to give us a taste right now, what happened in the 1970s to make the shift?

JM: So, we had tremendous success in the 30s, 40s, and 50s and that success came from brutally hard work. Brutally hard work: people were shot, killed, etc. I think we got to the height of power, the environmental movement passed all of its biggest legislation in ’71 and ’72 under Nixon. We had won Medicaid, we had won the Civil Rights Act, the National Labor Relations Act; we won a series of very structurally powerful changes that happened from the 30s, 40s and 50s culminating in the early 1970s. So people in the movement thought, HA! We’ve won. We now need to set up highly professionalized, very bureaucratized, nationalized organizations in Washington D.C. Let’s just hire a bunch of lawyers to implement our laws.

By the way, most of those laws have never even been fully implemented because there was a failure to understand that the reason that we passed the laws was because from the 1930s through the late 1950s, there was extraordinary movement in this country, grassroots everywhere. Every movement understood that the odds were against them, we had to build to majorities in the field to win. So they did incredible work, sacrificed so much, built huge majorities, built movements, and passed legislation not from professional staff and lawyers in Washington but from activism at the base, and then we made the fundamental mistake of thinking all we had to do was move to Washington and implement the agenda. We fail the minute we forget that the power is outside of the capitol, outside of every state capitol, certainly outside of the nation’s capitol. We have let our base whither and at the exact same time the right-wing in America begins to realize, ah, it’s the base, stupid, and [with Phyllis Schlafly, the Business Round Table et al] the right begins to build this hugely powerful base.

LF: What would you have done in the last 12 months of Wisconsin or in any other struggle you want to focus on? Concrete steps of how you do this differently.

JM: Step 1: Start having an extraordinary number of meetings. (I’m going to talk about this from a union perspective.) Have one-on-one conversations with every rank and file member there is. People say, well how do you do that? People think that would take a lot of staff. No, I’m not talking about staff, that’s the thing. I’m talking about trusting workers, bringing them in, going to trainings, talk to everyone. Then they begin to systematically map every single relationship they have. What church are they in? What farmers do they know? So that the strategy of the work is not professional staff to other constituencies, it’s rank and file members, doing inventory with them, really tapping what all the union members themselves have in their own community. And instead we sort of drop these layers of artificial coalition building on top as the best source we have.

LF: What about what their lives are like? How much does the workplace organizer know about what their member’s life is like outside?

JM: Exactly, very little. So one of the models of work that I have had the pleasure of using in the labor movement is – we start with these basic discussions. We get through the initial election victory in the union (a hard fought-fight) now we’re heading into our big first contract fight and we know it’s time to build serious allies. We’re looking effectively to build and win what labor folks call “neutrality.” What the labor movement wants is fair rules (which they can boil down to the Employee Free-Choice Act or EFCA, which sounded like some kind of social disease), but what we are trying to get to is, how do we blunt the instrument of the employer? That’s what all the tactical warfare of labor is engaged with.

The model that I worked on and worked with for the last fifteen years in the labor movement was that we said screw labor law, forget thinking we’re changing labor law, forget it, it’s not happening in our lifetime; the odds aren’t there. So instead, how do we create neutrality on the ground? We create neutrality on the ground by having the workers tap their own existing relationships to their own community. To go out themselves, not as I’m the union coming in to have a conversation about why we’re so good, but it’s Sally who goes to Reverend George’s church, and Sally, very nervously by the way (it takes about four rounds of work with Sally because workers aren’t just going to go talk with their religious leader, they are scared of them. Note to Labor movement – the workers are more scared of the house of faith and God than they are of the union or the boss). You have to do training work, you have to get the workers in role plays, they actually have to practice, but once they go and have that conversation you can see their shoulders relax, when they go in and get support from their religious leader it’s like, well, God’s on my side now.

LF: It’s kind of like the reverse of Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Take Your Worker Back Home.

JM: [Laughs] Yes, exactly.

LF: Where do you see it happening? Are there any models right now that are exciting to you?

JM: The places I see it happening most consistently are on what we would call the margins of the former labor movement. Which is in a lot of the immigrant organizing, whether it’s domestic workers … guest workers, the fight we are seeing now in Louisiana around the shrimp house, so there are places where it’s happening, but the big problem of it is – going back to the piece Bill Fletcher and I wrote on it is – these strategies (they’re not tactics, not games), these strategies are not being embraced by main line labor.

LF: What’s your advice to union organizers heading into the 2012 elections?

JM: I think we are in that customary, awful situation we normally are in this country, which is of course we’ve got to get Obama elected. It’s not funny. I find it actually not funny to think about what the alternative is. However, (pause,) if we do anything during the election period from now to November, it’s got to be that everything we are doing is additive, it’s building towards getting ready to launch serious fights the minute the election is over and I don’t care if it’s Obama, and with Romney it’s going to be a different kind of fight, but either way we have to be doing additive work. When we’re out building a base for an election too much of it is tactical, we want one vote out of them, we want to drive them out on Election Day. For organizers it [should be] how are we building for the long haul? How can we not make the same mistake in December of 2012 that we made in December of 2008, which was to be gloves off, access is cool, “We’re back in the White House!” That didn’t get us very much in four years. So, Democrat or Republican, we need to get Obama in, then we need to fight like hell to get an agenda through that’s not two-tiering any benefits that exist in this country, but fighting the next administration, whoever they are, that’s what we have to be building towards in this election period.

Jane McAlevey is, among other things, the author of the forthcoming “Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement” that we’ll talk to her about when it comes out from Verso.

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