Home Culture How Jane McAlevey Transformed the Labor Movement

How Jane McAlevey Transformed the Labor Movement

0 comment


This past January, Jane McAlevey spent a week in Connecticut leading an organizing blitz. In union parlance, a blitz is a quick, concentrated organizing effort, designed to engage as many workers as possible in a short period of time. The campaign’s goals were ambitious—to bring some twenty-five thousand home health-care workers into a fight not just against their bosses but against the broader social and economic problems weighing on them, including issues such as a lack of affordable housing, insufficient public transportation, and the need for debt relief. For seven days, McAlevey and about two hundred other organizers went door to door, talking to thousands of people—mostly Black and brown women employed by nursing homes, group homes, and home health-care companies. McAlevey and her team told them, “This is a new program to bring power all of you have, but often aren’t aware of, to the table.”

For McAlevey, one of the nation’s preëminent labor organizers and strategists, the project presented a chance to revisit a strategy that she had advanced twenty-some years ago in Stamford, Connecticut, known as the “whole worker” method. In the nineties, a lack of affordable housing in Stamford—located in one of the wealthiest counties in the country—overshadowed nearly every other issue on workers’ minds. This was not a problem that could be solved by unions alone, but unions, if strategically harnessed, had the horsepower to fight it. McAlevey began organizing workers in four different sectors—janitors, cabdrivers, city clerks, and nursing-home aides—and determined that they could exert influence through the city’s churches. (“Note to labor,” McAlevey wrote about this campaign, years later. “Workers relate more to their faith than to their job, and fear God more than they fear the boss.”) Soon the city’s most powerful preachers were hosting bargaining sessions in church basements. By the time the campaign finished, more than four thousand workers had their first union and new contracts to boot. Their efforts also saved multiple public-housing projects from demolition, won fifteen million dollars for the units’ improvements, and secured new ordinances that mandated affordable-housing levels going forward.

In the intervening decades, McAlevey has become not just an expert organizer but a social scientist of organizing’s methodology. She has written four books that have become touchstones for a new generation of labor leaders. Rather than instructing organizers to run as hard as they can in whatever direction they happen to be facing, McAlevey emphasizes strategy. She advises organizers to first conduct what she calls a power-structure analysis, which asks who has the power to change an issue (not always the most obvious targets) and what power workers have to influence those actors. She then leads workers through a series of escalating actions, from attending a meeting to wearing buttons to work to joining walkouts: she calls these “structure tests.” During the past decade, Amazon warehouse workers and Los Angeles teachers have drawn on McAlevey’s approach. (McAlevey informally advised the New Yorker Union during negotiations for its first contract, which was signed in 2021.) If at any point during this past hot labor summer, or the decade leading up to it, you encountered a group of workers strutting on a picket line or jubilantly making demands well beyond the scope of their own wages, chances are that many of them had been reading McAlevey.

When McAlevey went back to Connecticut this past winter, she hoped that the campaign would form the basis for a book about the whole-worker methodology. The project is significant for two reasons. First, it’s her most ambitious research effort to date, involving not only tens of thousands of health-care workers but also their churches, tenants’ unions, and neighborhood councils. Unions generally limit their organizing sphere to the workplace, leaving broader social issues to political campaigns. But this approach cedes what McAlevey calls the third front of power: workers’ relationships to their communities. Without this degree of coördination, workers were unlikely to achieve anything close to their goals, which include winning a twenty-five-dollar-an-hour minimum wage and affordable health insurance.

More fundamentally, the project is likely to be McAlevey’s last. In September, 2021, she was diagnosed with a high-risk variety of multiple myeloma. Since her diagnosis, each treatment option that her medical team has offered her has failed, faster than expected. Days prior to leading the blitz this January, McAlevey was hospitalized to receive an emergency treatment; she was thought to be living her last days. She persuaded doctors to release her—she had a blitz to lead, and the clock was running out.

For McAlevey, relentlessness is a way of life. She talks fast, swears often, is blunt to the point of brashness, laughs easily. She has little tolerance for mediocrity, particularly on the left. Trade-union leadership, she once remarked, “choose every day . . . to lose.” When I was preparing to visit her in New York, on a cloudy April weekend, McAlevey sent me an agenda for my stay: on Saturday, we had drinks with an organizer, dinner at seven, and then all serious conversation wrapped up by tipoff. It was the Warriors vs. the Kings, Game One of the playoffs. McAlevey, who has lived part time in the Bay Area for the past twenty years, is a diehard Golden State fan.

When I arrived at McAlevey’s place, a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan, she welcomed me warmly, in jeans, heeled sandals, and a Warriors jersey. For most of her recent public events, she had taken to wearing a wig, concealing the effects of chemotherapy, but at home she goes without. When I visited, a layer of fine, downy hair was just beginning to grow back.

I sat at the table while she bustled around, making salad and thawing a jar of homemade pesto for pasta. When I had first approached her about writing this piece, she’d told me that she didn’t want her cancer diagnosis to appear in the story. This was understandable but not possible: among other things, doing so would require me to strip a thread from McAlevey’s life. When Jane was about three years old, her mother, Hazel McAlevey, who was very ill with breast cancer, was taken to live elsewhere, in order to prevent Jane from witnessing her mother’s decline. At age forty-four, Hazel died. Jane was five.

The family lived in Sloatsburg, forty miles outside New York City. There, Jane’s father, John McAlevey, became a politician, winning office first as the mayor and then as a supervisor in the county. Jane spent most of her early years grubby and unsupervised, trailing her older siblings everywhere. She became dearly attached to her older sister Catherine, who became the family’s caretaker as a young adolescent. As her reward for doing all the cooking, cleaning, tending, minding of the house, and minding of the children, Catherine was granted the largest bedroom, replete with a stereo, a television, and a prime location next to the bathroom. “I would do anything to get into that room,” Jane recalled. Though the younger siblings envied Catherine’s belongings, she was the heart of the family. “We always said she was the most loved McAlevey,” Jane recalled, “because she was everyone’s sister, mother. She played every role.”

Raising seven kids on the wages of one public servant was difficult. When Jane was around ten, her father nearly went bankrupt, an experience that Jane only later understood as an embarrassment. Around this time, he remarried. At odds with her stepmother, Jane left home at age sixteen. As her stepbrother explained, “Jane was always at the bottom of something awful growing up. Her mother was taken off to die. Our father had no clue how to take care of family. And Jane was always at the bottom of the pile.”

For a time, McAlevey stayed with her older sister Bri, who was living in a radical co-op in Manhattan, before enrolling at SUNY Buffalo, where she waited tables to pay for her schooling. When Governor Mario Cuomo proposed tuition hikes, she got swept up in campus organizing. As she told me, “I literally could not afford more than two hundred dollars a semester.” In her first semester at SUNY, Jane and others packed bus after bus with enraged students to register their complaints in Albany. Cuomo dropped his proposed increase. SUNY students claimed the victory.

Shortly thereafter, McAlevey ran a successful campaign for president of the student body at SUNY Buffalo, as part of a slate whose platform was no tuition increases, no rent increases, no military-defense programs on campus, and no athletic fees. McAlevey effectively began working full time as the president of the Student Association of State University of New York. Divestment from apartheid South Africa had been a priority for SUNY student organizers for more than a decade, but Janice Fine, a former S.A.S.U. student organizer who is now a labor-studies professor at Rutgers, told me that their efforts had been poorly focussed. McAlevey changed that, shifting the target from the SUNY chancellor, Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., to Governor Cuomo. As Fine explained, “We went from targeting somebody who was an appointed official to someone who was elected, someone much more vulnerable to national perception.” In 1985, the board of trustees voted to divest $11.5 million in stock from companies who did business in apartheid South Africa.

McAlevey got her first job in the labor movement running the Stamford, Connecticut, campaign. Afterward, she was hired by the Service Employees International Union (S.E.I.U.) to organize hospital workers in Las Vegas. McAlevey wrote in a memoir, “The union had no discernible power in any field. The workers were weak as hell in terms of anything that had to do with organizing or mobilizing. And I’d been sent there to clean the place up in general, and specifically to organize new hospital workers into the union.”

Inspired by union tactics from the thirties, McAlevey began running open bargaining sessions, in which hundreds of workers sat head to head with the boss. “The idea is to demonstrate to the boss and to the workers themselves that the workers are standing together and the union is in charge,” McAlevey wrote, years later. Rather than having negotiators present demands, she identified workers who were passionate about each issue, and could speak directly to the employer about patient-nurse ratios, schedules, or wages. Fredo Serrano, a local nurse, told me, “Jane could figure out people. She knew what we needed. She knew where the influence had to be. She knew who the leaders were.”


Source link

You may also like

Copyright 2023 Digital Times. All Right Reserved.

Powered By