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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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SJ: I was thinking about this split between doing community work, care work, as organizing and workplace organizing. It hit me that maybe the reason that it's not respected within labor and politics is that it's really gendered. Taking care of the community and the home and what happens when you go home from work is what women do, and what happens in the workplace is men's sphere. And even though now that's outdated, people still seem to think taking care of each other is somehow beneath us.

JM: That's really interesting. I hadn't thought about gendering the whole concept of workplace vs. home and what matters to who. I have focused on it more as the broken tripartite compact between the Democratic party, meaning FDR, moderate business elites and Big Labor once they purged the Communist Party and all the Reds. Which is crucial. The agreement became, don't worry, we're not going to have those socialist or communist or Red tendencies.

In the '30s and '40s, it was often called the Women's Auxiliary Brigades or whatever, but women were armed on the top of the factories in Flint. Is that another variable in the resistance the labor movement has to going outside? I think it's quite a good concept, it's entirely possible to me.

But I think it goes back more to the deal that labor could continue to grow inside the manufacturing sector, essentially the industrial sector, as long as it played by the rules that capitalists gave it. Those rules were prescribed in Taft-Hartley forever. Which was the way to break the idea that the labor movement would become a real movement on behalf of all laboring people--to say all you can do is bargain over workplace conditions and money.

I think it's entirely logical that all those things that have to do with saving houses and public schools, that's all women's work, don't worry about that, she's not a worker -- except, she is.

SJ: One quote from the book that I loved: “Note that 'dissidents' and 'good organizing' have gone hand-in-hand in the history of American labor.”

JM: There's a really great book by Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin, it's called Left Out: Reds and America's Industrial Unions. They're out to do nothing but prove that all good organizing that happened in the '20s, '30s and '40s, all of it was done by dissidents, all of whom were either Red or pink. And it is still true.

Part of what terrifies me about the labor movement right now is that there are so few of us even being trained in the basic organizing methodologies that I was trained in. Because the people that believe in them are dying their way out of the labor movement. You can trace everyone who came from Leon Davis, and make a map of who trained who. It's a very small tree. I was trained by the generation that came right after Leon Davis, the brilliant organizer who started 1199. I was trained by Jerry Brown, he was mentored by Leon, I was mentored by Jerry, so I mentored a ton of militant organizers who are scattered to the wind at the moment. Now it's up to them. Basically it's a dying pool.

When I look at the pattern, what I call the yo-yo in the end, I think there's a whole lot of people who've been on that yo-yo. That really happened to me—it was three full rounds within SEIU, where I was basically for all intents and purposes fired, or asked to leave or put on administrative leave or put in a parking lot after some huge campaign victory. You go through this torture period where you're just persona non grata for a while, and the next big thing they can't figure out how to win comes along and then they call you up and put you in charge. Because they actually don't know how to win without the left organizers.

 
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