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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.

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Organizing isn't an election. But in the labor movement it became an election, a card check, then all the good people get moved. In most unions, if they wake the workers up ever, if they ask the workers to participate in their union, get active, get mad, it's for Democratic party elections every four years, and maybe for a contract fight.  So the concept that you can turn people on like a light switch and then turn them off and then three or four years later turn them back on, I don't actually think is working for us.

SJ: In the book, you talk a few times about labor law being more harmful than it is good. I would love to hear your thoughts on the ways that current labor law is actually hurting rather than helping.

JM: I don't mean to sound overly simplistic on any of these points because when you're actually in the fight it's pretty tough, which calls you're making, which rules you're breaking, what you're not breaking, require a lot of thought. But I think the single biggest law that we have to break over and over, beat it 'til it's dead, is the concept in Taft-Hartley that all unions can do is bargain over wages and working conditions. That's the number-one problem.

SJ: We saw that in Chicago, with the teachers' strike.

JM: A lot of labor people say to me, “That's the law, that's all we can do.” And I'm like, really?

There's a million ways that you can take labor power and bargain. There's a million ways that you can think of actually saying to the rank and file membership, what else is going on in your life? What else matters to you? It's not that you have to go out on some weird issue, it's like: what else is happening to the rank and file outside of the union that you're working with? What's happening to the workers around them, and what's happening to the workers that you seek to organize, and what's happening to all of their families? That's a pretty good universe of people to have a big conversation with.

You start to figure out what else is bearing down on the lives of the workers. The point in Connecticut was OK, we're going to win probably on average $2.50 to $3 an hour raise for janitors and nursing home workers, that's a ton, right? But on the other hand they were all literally, systematically about to get thrown out of their housing. So if we win everyone a raise, and they lose their home, what's the labor movement done for them?

I think that we can break that part of Taft-Hartley every day.  Usually in fights against big corporations, the same CEOs we're fighting are responsible for the shitty development plan going on in town, the shitty redevelopment plan going on in town, the gentrification going on in town. It doesn't mean that you have to sit at the table of negotiations to break the core Taft-Hartley rule, you can break it outside the bargaining table. And there's ways to break it inside the bargaining table. You can find a way to bring those issues in. Bargaining for a housing trust fund. If you're a clever negotiator, there's a lot of ways you can bring those issues in to the bargaining table, and even if there's no legal way you can just go pick that fight anyway. As the union.

There is no law saying you can't do that. You've just been told that your job is to stay in the workplace, in this narrow box, and fight over wages and working conditions. That's not relevant anymore when you're at 7 percent of the private sector. If you want to be relevant you have to go fight everywhere else.

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