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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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Change isn't coming through elections. Change comes through the fights in the governing period. And so labor puts the base to sleep for the governing period both in the shop after the contract is won and after the Democratic Party wins every four years, both the party and labor put everybody back to sleep and then who's talking to the people who are really pissed off? The Tea Party.

SJ: Coming from that--do we not have organizers that come up from the rank-and-file anymore?

JM: I don't think that we tell history honestly, which is why I actually wanted to write the book. I don't think we actually tell how shit works. There's a myth perpetuated about the rank-and-file in the '30s, I mean it's because the parties had to go into the factories.

SJ: So we went from the Communist Party organizers coming in from the outside, to...

JM: I love having this conversation with workers too. Several things were true about Nevada. Half our staff was rank-and-file workers. That happened little by little. You know what held us back the most? We were winning these incredible contracts! We couldn't pay our organizers $100,000 with overtime! 

One of the ways we did it was rotating. If you couldn't say to someone, are you willing to lose that much money for the rest of your life, we'd say can we pull you out for a year to get some real skill going. There are tons of rank-and-file workers out there who are every bit as smart as anyone else and tons of workers who would love to be organizers. And then there's a lot who wouldn't, in the caring professions, frankly. A lot of them would do it for six months but then go back to the hospital because they actually like taking care of patients.

In Nevada we did not bifurcate in our training model between what we were teaching rank-and-file workers and the core we had for our junior staff or even rank and filers coming on staff. But even at the level of not full-time staff, we were running really high-level trainings with thousands of workers about what organizing is. What are the seven steps for a successful conversation, how do you do leader ID, stuff that in my experience in the labor movement is very rarely ever shared as sort of a cultural phenomenon with the workers.

I think anyone from the rank-and-file is capable of knowing as many things as anyone who went to college, but what is true is that organizing is a skill that improves with time. There is a lot to know. I don't think organizing just happens in weird surges. We've seen that it can, but that is not the way that real change over time happens.

In Nevada, in certain fights, key moments--and this was just Jerry Brown training, watching him do it for years in Connecticut--I would never give an opinion in a contentious debate with lots of people in the room. I would withhold my opinion and withhold facial expressions, because it was like, of course people trusted me. There were certain moments where I would withhold for a really long time and then some really smart leader would turn to me and say, “OK, we know that you're trying to make sure we get to debate this shit out, but the fact of the matter is we're in this fight with a big boss and will you tell us with your experience what do you think we should do?”

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