“Unions Are a Pain in the Ass. Yet We Have No Choice but to Build Good Unions”

Jane McAlevey

Union organizer Jane McAlevey on labor’s loss at Amazon in Alabama, what the future of labor organizing success depends on, and how organizers can win.

Jane McAlevey speaks at the Royal College of Nursing. (Jane McAlevey/Twitter)

Interview by
Samuel Fleischman
Wen Zhuang

Of the many responses to the recent defeat of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) at the Bessemer Amazon warehouse, the “postmortem” delivered by longtime union organizer Jane McAlevey — which criticized much of the campaign’s organizing strategy — has drawn significant attention within the labor movement and the Left. McAlevey has always applied her “tough love” philosophy toward turning union losses into case studies for future organizing efforts. Last September, she did this with the international “Strike School” she helped organize. This May, coming on the heels of Bessemer, she’s hosting her fourth online training and networking program, Workers Rising Everywhere! focused on “how to win.”

The series, which began this week, will bring together 9,500 participants from 111 countries, with training happening in twelve languages. Sam Fleischman and Wen Zhuang, from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a distributed grassroots organizing program created to support workers organizing during the COVID-19 pandemic (and can be reached to discuss organizing possibilities at your workplace here), spoke with McAlevey ahead of her training series on the rationale behind her Bessemer rebuttal, how union popularity should be matched with the right tools, and how these old and new organizing strategies can work in harmony toward building worker power that can win.


WZ

You’ve spoken a lot about the difference between mobilizing and organizing. Could you elaborate on how to channel the raw mobilizing energy of a protest moment into real reform?

JM

Language about organizing drives like “things feel good,” or there’s a lot of people showing up to a rally, or the energy is exciting — which was all that was coming out of Alabama — doesn’t matter at all to an organizer who’s been in a hard campaign before. You have to ask: What are your numbers? What are you tracking? What proof do you have that workers are ready to stand up to the boss?

Metrics can tell us, “Are we actually organizing? Are we reaching supermajority support among a core constituency?” You’ve got to have a denominator against what you’re measuring.

SF

There’s this generational gap for a lot of Americans who have progressive ideas but aren’t involved in the labor movement. At the same time, there’s a lot of longtime union members who might not have participated in forming their union, who might be out of touch with current workers’ rights fights. Is there a way to bridge that gap?

JM

A new report I released recently looks at the mechanisms by which we can rebuild existing unions, which makes other workers think, “there’s a great union — I want one of those.” The report is a series of case studies on how you do collective bargaining right if you’re already in a union, with successor negotiations, as well as first contract negotiations and petitions. I do not mean an online petition or a petition that you get all your neighbors to sign; I mean a structured test petition circulated among affected workers which you use to gauge who’s with you and who’s not, and who is not yet clear on the idea that the collective bargaining process is something that workers should actually have a voice in.

The thing I love about collective bargaining structures is they’re not long unless you have corruption. I always advocate for contracts that have a short duration — two or three years. What’s most important is the contract lineup. If you have other employers in your industry, you want to line up the contract expiration dates, so that might mean we have to jostle getting a two-year or a three-year deal, to get everyone aligned so that they have ultimate strike power together. The architecture of a good contract is to build the rebar first, and then as you get more powerful, you start to pour money into it until all of the details become standard setting. That’s where I start if I’m in an existing union: getting involved in the collective bargaining process.

WZ

The title of your second book is No Shortcuts, which is also a kind of philosophy about organizing. How do you keep spirits up in a campaign, especially in a shop with those who might not understand why the effort and risk are worth it?

JM

One really important thing to have is intermediate victories, to build people’s confidence that they can actually win. In the Smithfield case I analyzed, at the world’s largest pork production facility in North Carolina, there were no shortcuts, but the workers who first organized got themselves into a super strategic department, had a lot of unity, and began to make demands, like for water fountains. To do that, they just stopped their department cold and halted the entire plant. With that power, they won water.

How to have a good organizing conversation is not intuitive. There may be people who are just charismatic and natural leaders, but everyone has to learn how to have an effective organizing conversation.

There are steps to it. I feel like I’m in this weird debate all the time with people where they think they do a lot of listening. But it’s not just listening, it’s what else you’re doing in the conversation that’s super important, like knowing how someone signing a petition in one department is going to tell you whether or not you’re strong enough to take a larger action. If you can’t connect the worker-specific issue to a greater plan to win, they’re not going to sign that petition, especially in a high-risk environment. They’re gonna walk away from you and have no confidence in you.

A lot of what I think EWOC and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has is similar to a book club. We know that the Chicago Teachers Union rebirth began as a book club, and the first book they read was Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. They created an excuse to begin outside of the classroom with conversations and community building among activists, before the activists decided to become organizers.

SF

Is there a way for the labor movement to interact with the media in a way that is beneficial and ethical, but doesn’t go as far as what happened with Bessemer, where many labor organizers, activists, and even these “book clubs” put all their eggs in one basket and lost sight of how unlikely a win was going to be?

JM

I wrote the article in February and then filled in the numbers. That’s how clear it was to me. Analyzing every single deficiency and discussing it with veteran organizers, every one of us was like, “Oh, people are gonna be so disappointed when this happens.” Some innocent youthful journalists had a part in that, with video clips coming out saying the campaign feels like a movement. But feeling like a movement has nothing to do with a 5,600-worker campaign and with knowing whether or not you’re on track to win. 

I was mostly trying to analyze for young people, for other workers in the next campaign at Amazon, what not to do and what to do. The difference affects not just how people are trying to win a campaign on the inside, it also affects how people cover a campaign. I think the reason why I felt so compelled to write about it was that the media narrative was becoming, “the whole future of the labor movement rides on this.” That was really not helpful to workers in the rest of the country. It was just flat wrong and needed to be checked. So I tried to, and a few people pummeled me.

Nurses on the picket line during a strike outside of Saint Vincent Hospital on March 8, 2021, in Worcester, Massachusetts. (Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
WZ

A big objective of organizing efforts at EWOC are nationwide single-employer campaigns (Whole Foods, Trader Joes). This is something you’ve specifically said unions have struggled with for years — with multiple failed attempts in the past (Walmart, Kmart, Target). What do you think is the best way to attack a nationwide single employer campaign?

JM

First of all, I definitely think it’s possible. The perch from which I sit is having gone up against a bunch of SOB employers in long-shot campaigns that were like, “Whatever, go have fun over there.” If we did look back at the Walmart attempts, they were just all wrong. I don’t like to spend my time reading about failure. It’s actually not what I do. But all of the attempts were with Walmart retail stores, which was never the strategy that was going to work. It had to be the warehouses. It had to be the transport system. On the retail side, they can replace those workers a dime a dozen — by tomorrow. 

The part of this rank-and-file strategy that is just “go get jobs” [in order to organize] is flawed — I could care less if twenty thousand people took jobs if they don’t know what they’re doing. That’s where projects like EWOC come in: among many other reasons, it’s to help people actually learn the skills, so they start thinking about strategic sectors and choose specific campaigns. People have to learn how to organize and stop romanticizing the idea that people just rise up. Because they don’t, and they haven’t historically. There are too few spaces for people to learn how to, which I’m trying to change.

With Whole Foods specifically, you have to look at where the choke points are in the supply chain. Bezos has destroyed Whole Foods enough that this sort of loyalty to the original owner, that sheen, is off. But the biggest question is about method and approach. Whatever receptor we’re going after, we need to know how to do it. There is discipline. But also there is understanding that there are plenty of workers inside every workplace who do not come out of a left tradition, who actually do want to win, and who are very capable and natural leaders. The organizer’s job is to identify them and help them succeed.

SF

Speaking on strategic organizing decisions made to gain leverage on the employer, let’s talk about your Stamford, Connecticut, organizing project twenty years ago, which was a really good example of a collaborative process between multiple unions that was community based and across multiple sectors. Do you feel like that collaborative process is missing in the movement right now? Could we be using that?

JM

I love when people bring up Stamford! It was incredible in so many ways, and also an anomaly. And it shouldn’t be. It relied on geographic leverage. Stamford was about doing strategic analysis: Where are the most important places that we should go? The questions of where and why were hugely important. And with whom? 

The reason we were almost shut down from day one by the national unions was because they didn’t see what the local leaders were so far ahead in understanding: the issue of a blue state with no union density in a quickly growing red region where the elected leaders in the state legislature were coming from — so blue state, but growing red region negatively impacting state policy.

The local union leaders on the state level all fought really hard. They were on to the idea that we need to do hard offense to hold defense, or else they were going to lose the state. So they came up with the idea of a collaborative campaign. As I say in my first book, it was not easy. Everyone was not in agreement every day. But then we began to turn a series of victories very quickly. If you can push through some of the early disagreements, you can begin to show a model and an approach working. It was low-wage workers in a nonunion region, in a multiunion collaboration with the idea that we were going to have to try something different than what we were used to — not different from all of history, especially in Stamford, where there was a general strike in 1946, when it was a major manufacturing sector. We were trying to draw on real-life history that was old but not dead.

Collaborative projects are happening — in LA for some time, in Oakland. There’s a bunch of places where we, the unions, are our own worst enemy, and I think it takes full-time organizers with experience helping rank-and-file workers understand how to connect all the issues in their lives through power analysis. In Stamford, we understood unions had no power, that big black churches had more power to scare bosses in the state, and there was this effort to flip the black churches in support of unions. 

In the last round of the teacher strike in Chicago, SEIU stood with the Chicago Teachers Union, and it was purely a function of the local unions. They built an unbreakable solidarity.

WZ

We read you were arrested more than fifteen times in the early 2000s. What is, if any, the overlap between civil disobedience and union organizing today? And do you think that the labor movement has become less militant in this regard?

JM

I think a lot about this question of militancy. And I worry that people confuse militancy and organizing. They’re not the same. The militant impulse is the activist impulse. But militancy for militancy’s sake is useless to me. Militancy as a reflection of calculated risk-taking, based on assessing your numbers and worker readiness, makes a lot of sense. There isn’t a reason to militancy unless it is in service of organizing and in service of winning. I have been arrested a lot, and I am very happy to engage in civil disobedience when it’s strategic and part of a comprehensive campaign. 

Half the time when people go off and do militant stuff, they turn off the rest of the workers, because they’re taking a shortcut. What the Left does but the Left has not understood is what I learned very young as a worker organizer: we’re speaking to the undecideds, every action, every day. That’s what separates organizing from activism. So if you don’t have an assessment system by which you’re calibrating what percent of the people that you’re engaged in a campaign with are sitting in the undecided camp, you’re going to lose.  

Militancy has to be timed correctly. At UNITE HERE, in the Yale University campaigns I was watching, they began to do a lot of direct-action work, but not until they had supermajorities of supporters in the structure tests. Not until the majority of ordinary people in the campaign — clerical workers, cooks, people who don’t wake up in the morning asking, like, “how do I have a revolution?” but “how do I feed the kids and have a decent life?” — it wasn’t until a supermajority of them understood “we have no choice but to take this next action” that militancy made sense. It’s something that needs to be in relation to waking up in the morning. This is a very important thing for EWOC and the next generation. When you’re organizing, your focus is the undecideds, not on who’s already coming to your meetings.

SF

Who would you say was your first mentor in the labor movement? What do you most remember about what they taught you? Do you hope workers will leave with something similar from your new series?

JM

I’d say Merrilee Milstein, who hired me to run the Stamford campaign. She died in her early fifties, as so many of my female mentors have. She schooled me in understanding all the really complicated stuff that I’m trying to explain — not about organizing, but about understanding power. She’s probably the reason why I opened my recent book with that quote about unions being a pain in the ass — that was one of the first things that Merrilee said to me. 

Mentorship is important to this training series. What’s different is I’ve worked on creating a whole team of trainers this time, so it’s less me and more of a whole training team, a bunch of great women organizers from all over the world, including organizers from the Global South. The supermajority of English speakers who had registered three weeks ago were from throughout Africa, which is a reflection of building a multinational training team. 

Okay, now I’ve got to go. I’m running a bunch of prep training before the series begins to help people feel more secure, since they’re going from organizers to organizer trainers. But that’s what organizers do. We help people feel confident.