Union Organizers Can Put The Fight Back In The Democrats
Union Organizer and Author Jane McAlevey joins us to bring three lessons the Dems have to learn. We talk about her New York Times op-ed
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us once again.
Some people think that the Democrats have forgotten how to fight; how to stand up for what they believe and to take the fight to the opposition to show Americans how they can fight back and build the kind of nation that serves all of us. Democratic leadership seems to care more about shaking hands across the aisle in some false show of unity than fighting so that everyone has healthcare, free education, shelter, fighting racism and building unity across racial lines, decent wages to support a family, and the class interests of the working class people who are the majority of people in our society.
My guest for this conversation is longtime union activist and organizer Jane McAlevey. She just wrote an op-ed in The New York Times entitled Three Lessons for Winning and Beyond: What Union Organizers can Teach the Democrats. Which inspired me to have this conversation with her to explore how we can organize to take power, while the Democratic leadership seems to have such a hard time fighting and building a good organization, and what we can learn from unions themselves. And Jane McAlevey, welcome back. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.
JANE MCALEVEY: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
MARC STEINER: So where do we begin? What inspired you, first, to write this op-ed? Something pushed you, watching this election cycle, that said something has to be said here.
JANE MCALEVEY: Yes. Several things were happening. One was I was receiving an endless litany of fundraising appeals from Democratic Party candidates across the country, as they like to do. I mean, all of them would say things like we’re within one point, were one point. We’ve exceeded a half a point in front of the opposition. And as an organizer I literally was sitting at my desk every time I get those emails, saying, it’s not enough. It’s actually not enough. It’s actually not enough.
So the thing that compelled me to sit down and write the opinion piece was, one, my experience as a union organizer in fights that are hard as hell. And, two, my realization that the rules have fundamentally changed in this country. The power structure has shifted in such a way in the last- really since 2010. I’m going to put it at 2010. In the midterm elections in 2010, when trifecta Republican control broke out in 37 states at once in this country. And then you add to that 2016; we lost the White House, the Senate, the House. We’ve now lost the judiciary, and we’ve lost most state Houses. And I mean trifecta meaning we’ve lost governorships, state Houses, and state Assemblies. We’re in a complete sea of red in this country; red meaning conservative power.
We’ve shifted. And the shift really happened in the 1990s under the Bill Clinton leadership, the creation of the Democratic Leadership Congress, the DLC, that begins the turn to the Democratic Party in the United States shifting from seeing the working class as most important to seeing corporate capital, Wall Street, and now sort of Silicon Valley as their most important constituency. And as the Democratic Party leadership shifted to a pro-corporate, giant megacorporation-controlled party, frankly, they left the working class of this country behind. And that’s painful. And it’s painful to watch right now.
There’s an important point about this, which is that in this country, the Republican Party, whenever they win control- whether it’s a state House or whether it’s the federal government level- the first thing they do is they begin to swiftly enact policies that help them sustain their victory, and then grow their potential for future victory. It’s the opposite of what the National Democratic Party has been doing since Bill Clinton. They’ve had opportunity after opportunity to pass labor law reform, to make it easier for the working class in this country to form unions, to rebuild a robust trade union movement, which is what propels the Democrats into office, generally speaking.
So you have this sort of misunderstanding or complete lack of understanding on the part of the National Democratic Party that the Democrats will not win, they will not regain any kind of power in the power structure, unless and until they begin to act in decisive, smart ways that promote base building. That means the minute they take office, they have to pass things that resurrect the Voting Rights Act and that resurrect robust trade unions. They’ve not forgotten it. They’ve actually just walked away from the working class and from black people.
MARC STEINER: So I’m going to pick up on this last theme and come right to your article here. What you just said kind of raised some issues for me that I’ve been dealing with and wrestling with and talking about for a while, and I just want to see your thoughts, given what you just said. As we said before we went on the air, I mean, you’ve been a longtime union organizer. And I was an organizer in my day as well, for unions and as a community organizer, in tenants’ groups. So I only raised that to say that one of the things that drives a wedge in any movements that have been built, and in the working class and more, is the issue of race and racism. You said- you talked about building unions and voting rights. Well, what we’ve seen here is the ability of Republicans and others to kind of put that racial wedge between us and separate us, when you can see sometimes in strikes and organizing in factories and organizing communities that you can cross these lines, and we build something powerful.
So we’re missing a key component here, I think, when we talk about what we can build and how we do it. Because often when you hear the pundits talk about working class. They talk about white folks, and that’s- and so and we’ve really got to do something to kind of bridge to this huge divide.
JANE MCALEVEY: Absolutely. So I couldn’t agree more. But I would say two things. One is we can’t let the media frame who the working class is. The fact of the matter is the working class has always been a sort of multinational, multi-ethnic rainbow of people; and it still is very much a multinational, multi-ethnic, diverse rainbow. So that’s one thing. I just think we have to say that over and over and over.
Second of all, part of what I love- I mean, I really love- about doing union organizing work, which I consider some of the hardest work there is in this country, part of what is so rewarding and deep and profound about doing union organizing work, and doing contract negotiations, and running strikes is that more than any other part of our progressive movement, racism can be overcome, and it can get overcome fairly quickly. I have watched white workers with limited to no experience dealing with race or the consequences of racism in this country come around to understanding the impact of racism in a way in a matter of months in a tough union campaign- sometimes in a matter of weeks, at the contract negotiations table- in a way that simply doesn’t happen in other parts of our progressive movement.
That’s why the entire progressive movement has to prioritize unions again. Because the question of race and racism and gender and sexism- and all sorts of isms- immigration issues. All the issues the right wing is using to divide the working class in this country are, in my experience, best attended to in class struggle. And I don’t mean to dismiss them. I feel as if I came of age in an era when there were still a lot- to be candid, sort of older straight white men around who would always say it’s all about class, it’s all about class, that stuff is divisive, forget about that stuff. And that was also just wrong. It was just wrong. I was sort of a bridge. My generation in the movement was like a bridge between two big energies in our progressive movement.
And I would say that I represent the sort of bridge in the sense that we have to pay attention to race and racism, fundamentally. We also have to pay attention to misogyny and sexism and gender issues and all sorts of stuff. But they’re best done when we’re actually putting people together in a room in what we call struggle, because it’s when people see a common objective; raises, the right to retire, childcare, the right to raise their kids the right to have a decent day, the right to control their schedule. Like, really basic, fundamental issues. In every union struggle I’ve been involved in, workers come together around a set of common issues that matter to them. And in those conversations, when the employer brings in the professional union buster and tries to put out the first attempt at using race, the first attempt at dividing people by gender, by language, by immigration status, it’s where we can actually overcome them, because people are fighting around a common set of issues, and there they’re less ideological.
And so when we say in a union struggle to either white workers who are not quite getting it on a race question, or maybe a bunch of male workers of any color who are not quite getting it around the gender issue, or why childcare matters so much at the table, or why maternity leave matters so much at the table, it’s frankly a lot easier to bridge those gaps and help people learn real solidarity, and who the common enemy is, when they’re struggling around a common set of issues.
And workers have a common set of issues. And part of what I was taught as a young organizer is our objective is to help people say there are only two sides. There are only two sides. There’s the working class, and there’s the ruling class. And that’s so obscured in this country. But when you’re in a tough union fight it’s not obscured, which is why we need a lot more tough union fights.
MARC STEINER: Amen. Let’s leap into your article for a minute, because that’s what kind of pushed me to have this conversation, was reading your piece in the New York Times, your op-ed. So outline for a moment for our viewers what it is that Democrats should be learning from union organizers. What it is that we have to learn in order to build something that’s different in this country that we’ve lost.
JANE MCALEVEY: Yeah. So the first thing, I wrote about three basic lessons.
MARC STEINER: Three basic things, right.
JANE MCALEVEY: So one of them was what I call building super majority participation, building really high participation. In any union election I’ve ever been involved in, which is many, we know that we can’t just get to like 51 percent or 52 percent or 53 percent, and think that that number is going to hold come Election Day. The employer has a long period of time to campaign against the workers, to drive the kind of division that you see Trump driving every day in this country. Racism, sexism, misogyny, all of it. Immigration, national status, all the weapons that we watch- what I call the national boss fight right now, that’s Trump in the White House.
So everything you see the national boss fight doing, Trump being the national employer in this case, is what they do in a union campaign. So what those of us who still win, and who can coach workers to win, do is we build to what we call supermajority participation, which means we’ll start out with 70 percent, 68 percent, no less than 70 percent. Really, 75 percent. When I’m running a campaign I want to get 75 percent of the workers to say I’m going to vote yes for the union at least a month before the election, because the boss is going to shave those numbers in the final weeks. In the final days, right, they’re going to fire someone. They’re going to write people up on charges. They’re going to take all their vacation away. They’re going to do things to actually terrify people. And we’re seeing terrifying actions in this country right now. So that’s one, is how do you build supermajority participation?
And I want to make a second point about that. Part of what matters so much to me about building supermajority participation going into a campaign is it gives you what we call governing power. So much of what we’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years in this country is all this fight like hell to elect some Democrat, who gets into office and who has no ability to actually implement the agenda that we put them there to do. That’s because we won on some 51 percent little teeny narrow margin. That’s not enough to actually exercise governing power.
MARC STEINER: That’s called organizing.
JANE MCALEVEY: Yeah. And exercising governing power means to have way more people involved. Not just until Election Day, but the day after the election, and the week after, and the month after, and a year after. Part of what you learn when you’re building a strong union is that the boss- the day after the union election, the boss is going to walk in and try and do something stupid, right? Meaning nasty. It’s called payback time, when the employer loses in a union election and the workers win. And so if you haven’t felt supermajority unity, high solidarity, and a really good structure, you can’t actually then implement what the workers want to win in the contract.
So that’s the first lesson, is like, how do we think about not just winning campaigns for the Democratic Party, but building governing power? That’s organizing.
The second part of it was a lesson about futility. That part of what I’m watching Trump, and the forces of Koch brothers, and the corporate class of hiding behind their populist puppet the president, is that what they’re doing is driving futility, which is trying to instill a sense in people that no matter what you do, even if you go to elections and vote, your vote’s not going to matter, nothing’s going to change. That’s actually called futility. It’s a strategy in union busting. And because Trump is like a national employer in the whitehouse, it’s like I’m watching the same strategy play out, right. That’s what they just did to us in the Kavanaugh hearings. It doesn’t matter if someone comes up with a credible accusation about now a sitting Supreme Court judge. Forget it. No matter what you do, we’re going to roll you anyway. That’s a strategy. And truthfully, when you build high participation and governing power, you can beat that. And that’s what we do in hard fights. So that’s the second thing.
And the third thing was just tactical- a sort of tactical set of issues around semantics, how we talk. What’s called inoculation. In a union campaign, as I mentioned earlier- you know, let’s say the election day in the union election is now set for 20 days from now. And the whole campaign period’s been months in the making, just like in the U.S. typical election system. Which most people don’t even realize, right, how parallel these things are. And the employer comes in and bombards you with money, and message, and what’s called captive audience meetings, and all this divide and conquer stuff. And they suddenly start to say, you know, if you form a union and you cross a picket line, you’re going to go to union jail. I mean, I can literally show you all the literature they put out in every campaign. It’s all a lie. I know that’s unfamiliar to most listeners, that people lie. Anyway.
You know what I mean? So it’s bold lies. And what we, what we do in a good union campaigns to outsmart the employer is we say all the lies before the employer does. We say to workers going into the final weeks, here’s what you’re going to hear in the final weeks of this campaign. Let’s talk about why the employer is saying it. Let’s actually ask workers the question. Let’s give workers agency, let’s let workers think- like, actually think about why the boss might be saying, you know, immigrants steal your jobs, right? Which I said in the New York Times. And instead when someone says that to me I say, really? That’s interesting. Do you think the CEOs made the decision to ship jobs from Detroit to China? Or do you think a bunch of immigrants made that decision?
Like, if you ask workers that question and give them the time to think, they actually figure out the correct answer. But when we bombard them with a bunch of crappy Vote Yes literature that has no connection to their issues, it doesn’t work very well.
MARC STEINER: Jane McAlevey, I really wish we had more time to talk today, and I look forward to having extended conversations and more conversations. We have a lot to talk about here, and it’is really important. I do appreciate your work and you taking the time at Real News today. I’m just touching the tip of the iceberg of things I wanted to raise. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell folks to to check out Jane McAlevey’s new book, because it’s a great book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the Gilded Age. Well worth a read, which we’ll one day come back and have her just to talk about the book. Jane, thanks so much for joining us.
JANE MCALEVEY: Thank you. Have a good day.
MARC STEINER: You too. Great having you with us. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Tank you so much for joining us. Take care.