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How Organizing for Change Is Very Different Than Winning Elections

Jane McAlevey talks about her new book "Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell)" about how to organize the right way and how big labor gets it wrong.

“Raising Hell” is what the title of Jane McAlevey's new book says she spent her time in the labor movement doing, and she isn't joking.

In the book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, out now from Verso, McAlevey names names and shares secrets about organizing within the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. The book ranges from the mess that was the 2000 election in Florida, to winning battles for public housing with workers in Connecticut, to her years in Las Vegas fighting for healthcare workers, to battling her own higher-ups and union members in the power struggle that eventually drove her out of SEIU. But what she really wants to talk about is organizing: how to do it right, how the Democratic Party gets it wrong, and why there's no substitute for face-to-face conversations with workers.

McAlevey sat down with AlterNet to talk about organizing in so-called “right-to-work” states, the too-close relationship between unions and Democrats who leave them high and dry, the brutality of fighting the boss, and why the worst thing to happen to labor in the U.S. might just have been purging the Communists from the movement.

Sarah Jaffe: You start the book out with the aftermath of the 2000 election in Florida, and of course we just finished a presidential election where organized labor went all-out to elect President Obama. Having come through the 2000 battle, I'd love to hear your thoughts on labor and elections.

Jane McAlevey: The point I'm really trying to raise is that the Democratic Party has way too much control over what the AFL-CIO and the other unions are doing. Instead of labor telling the Democratic Party what they're going to do, the Democratic Party scripts out for labor what they're going to do. Which isn't really working for unions very much at all.

In Florida it was a slightly different situation, but it's reflective of the same problem we have right now. Many of us could see that it was going completely wrong, that we needed to be in the street, doing street theater. We had a million ideas a day about what we needed to do to turn the heat up, that this was going to be a political fight, not a legal fight. But there was just no possibility. Just none. And I was just so naïve back then. Super naïve that we were actually going to break and have a different idea.

So the purpose of the opening of the book is to say that the relationship is way too close and if anything it needs to flip, who's telling who what to do.

There's a big debate about 2008, what role labor played in the victory. I think it's actually more clear that they did play a big role this time. In '08 half the planet was voting for Obama, he was still so exciting, but this year, in the cutthroat fights in the battleground states, yeah, he's damn lucky that he had unions.

But there's never been any evidence that that's going to change the tenor of the relationship. Unions in this country have never had the chutzpah to say there's a threat every year. If you look back over time, like late August heading into Labor Day the year before elections, Trumka in this case, Sweeney in the past, Lane Kirkland in the past, they'll all start “We're not going to get kicked around by the Democratic party this time because we didn't get anything, we're thinking of endorsing someone else.” It's like this scripted joke, because everyone knows it's a joke. It doesn't ever happen.

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