, , , ,

LUMPENPROLETARIAT—On today’s edition of free speech radio’s Against the Grain, veteran organiser Dr. Jane F. McAlevey discussed class politics, how to organise working class power, and other themes relevant to working class emancipation, which she wrote about in her recent book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (2016). Dr. McAlevey is also author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement (2012), which The Nation called “the most valuable book of the year [for 2012]”. In conversation with Sasha Lilley, Dr. McAlevey offered critical and empowering advice to left organisers (actual and potential) in the working class spheres of the workplace, the union, and the political party form, beyond the constraints of temporal mobilisations and defanged advocacy. Listen (and/or download) here. [1]



AGAINST THE GRAIN—[21 MAR 2017] “Today, on Against the Grain, for the last 40 years, unions, and the left more broadly, have been in decline. Clearly the business class went on the offensive during this time, but is that the whole story? Veteran organiser Jane McAlevey argues that the left abandoned deep organising just at the moment when the right was organising its grassroots; and the result has been devastating. I’ll speak with her about how to turn the tide after these [KPFA] News Headlines with Max Pringle.” (c. 2:08)
[KPFA News Headlines (read by Max Pringle) omitted by scribe] (c. 5:30)

SASHA LILLEY: “From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California, this is Against the Grain from Pacifica Radio. I’m Sasha Lilley.

“The last 40 years have not been good for radical politics, nor for unions, which became ever smaller. And, yet, despite the decline of the left there have been some spectacular moments, in which people have come together in the millions, such as in 2003 against the Iraq War or recently against the Trump administration. But the conundrum has been that these mass mobilisations have been just that, and have not been translated into sustained movements.

“My guest today, a veteran of the labour and environmental movements, has spent a lot of time thinking about why this might be. In her book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, Jane McAlevey argues that the left and labour abandoned deep organising in the 1970s in favour of a shallow mobilisation and even shallower advocacy. And the result has been defeat after defeat.

“Last year, McAlevey was involved in the largest successful union organising campaign in the country by the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (or PASNAP).

“Jane, it’s great to have you with us. Can you start by defining the difference as you see it between deep organising and shallow mobilising?” (c. 7:16)

DR. JANE F. MCALEVEY: “For me, organising implies several core things, several core concepts. And the first—I’d like to say is—when you’re organising, when you wake up in the morning, every morning, your goal is to figure out how to spend the day really productively engaging people, who basically don’t wanna talk to you, or who are not in your Twitter feed or your Facebook feed. Like, my goal every single day of my life, when I’m running campaigns, as in last year in Philadelphia, is:

Who are the key people, who are not really engaging with us?

‘Cos, if we’re gonna build super-majorities, what I call demonstratable super-majorities—that’s what we have to do to win a union campaign—in a structure, a hospital, in the case of most of my work for the last decade—we know that we can win, if we can build demonstratable super-majorities, that the employer can actually see, that the boss can see.

“So, what does that really mean? Why is that organising? What does that have to do with the original question?

“So, in order to build demonstratable super-majoritities, where you can see people acting collectively together, to do something high-risk—usually in the case of a union, or going up against Trump, frankly, will also be high risk; for lots of folks it already is—it means that there’s a certain bunch of activists. When you start, someone calls the office and says: We want to form a union. And there’s a certain bunch of worker activists. And they’re ready to go, like, they’re the ones, who called for the union. Meanwhile, they aren’t enough to actually win in a tough campaign. You actually have to have demonstratable super-majorities to win tough fights. And, so—”

SASHA LILLEY: “And that means the vast majority of the workers, who work in a place.”

DR. JANE F. MCALEVEY: “Exactly. And I’m gonna make a metaphor to the whole country, though. Right?

“So, um, in a work place, a given work place—let’s just say a thousand, a thousand workers—in order to win a union election, those of us who still win, which is not enough, start with the assumption that we have to get 85 percent of them affirmatively, positively committed to the campaign before even filing for a union election. And that’s a demonstratable super-majority.

“That means 85 percent or more have signed union membership cards. 85 percent or more have signed I’m-gonna-vote-yes-for-the-union. Because our assumption is the minute the campaign surfaces, we’re gonna get eroded. We’re gonna lose—about 25 percent is gonna get shaved by a right-wing, Breitbart-like attack, which happens at every union drive in this country. (c. 9:24)

“So, back to organising: We’ll have this core of people, who’ll wanna talk to us every day. That’s the activist inside the workplace. But they’ll be a small portion of the people at the beginning of the campaign. So, the question is: If you wanna actually win, you have to plot a strategy with careful intention to reach super-majorities. And that means finding and engaging strategically with the vast majority of people, who are not just coming to the meetings. They didn’t call the union office to form the union. But we have—they’re in our voter universe. So, we actually have to get up and find them.

“So, I can make a metaphor to the whole country about this. But, for me, that is the example. Like, the way I think about retaking [takes deep breath] the United States from the crisis level of evilness, that we’re facing right now, is that we have to get much more clear that, just like in a workplace, if we rely just on those activists, who are already predisposed to the union, and who are already coming to the union meetings from the first union meeting, we’re not winning that way. (c. 10:24)

“What we have to, actually, do is make a conscious plan to get up in the morning and reach out to most of the working class in this country, again, who are not sort of sitting in our Twitter feeds and they’re not, honestly, probably, not listening to KPFA. And they’re not listening to Pacifica. And they’re not with us already. So—and that’s okay because, from my view of 25 years in the field organising, it really is true that the vast majority of people I’ve met in the working class in my lifetime, with one decent conversation, uh, where you help them, themselves, connect the dots in the conversation about who the oppressor is and what’s wrong, pretty quickly come to understand that capitalism is a really big problem, maybe not using that word. But, like, they get that the boss is a problem and that their boss is connected to a bunch of bosses; and those bosses are connected, too.

“And, so, when we stopped doing that, we surrendered most of the country to the kind of crap, that we’re seeing right now, which is, uh, devastating. Right?

“So, organising is:

How do we engage the vast majority of people, who are not engaging us, and do it systematically, and do it smartly, and do it with a plan?

“And mobilising is, like—mobilising is great. I mean I’ve gone to many demos. I’ve been arrested many times. I’ve been on picket lines. Like, I love a good demonstration. But it’s not a measure for us, even if, like, to your point. Even if a demo is big, what I repeatedly say is: Who’s there? And how did they get there? And how long can we sustain it for? Which are, again, the same things, that I had to learn and re-learn all the time when I’m in the field doing work, and not writing about it, which is:

If we’re gonna get ready for a strike, which I call the highest sort of threshold of, like, super high-risk action in this country, we have to know we have demonstratable majorities; we have to hold them in high-risk moments. And we have to be able to sustain them.” (c. 12:10)


[additional notes pending]

[snip] (c. 59:59)

Learn more at AGAINST THE GRAIN.


[1] Terrestrial radio transmission, 94.1 FM (KPFA, Berkeley, CA) with online simulcast and digital archiving: Against the Grain – Organizing Class Power, Turning the Tide Against the Right, this one-hour broadcast hosted by co-host Sasha Lilley, Friday, 23 SEP 2016, 13:00 PDT.

Broadcast summary from the kpfa.org archive page:

Organizing Class Power, Turning the Tide Against the Right

For the last forty years, unions and the left more broadly have been in decline. Clearly the business class went on the offensive during this time, but is that the whole story? Veteran organizer Jane McAlevey argues that the left abandoned deep organizing just at the moment when the right was organizing its grassroots, and the result has been the devastating. She discusses, in concrete terms, how to turn the tide.


Jane F. McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age Oxford University Press, 2016

Who Rules America?

Also see other relevant Lumpenproletariat articles, such as:

  • Dr. George Lakoff On Why Liberals Lose and Conservatives Win; 19 FEB 2004.
  • The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Professor Steve Fraser; 26 OCT 2015.


[Image of Dr. Jane F. McAlevey by source, used via fair use (creative commons) licensure.]

[22 MAR 2017]

[Last modified at 22:19 PST on 23 MAR 2017]