Posted 6 months ago on Nov. 26, 2012, 10:22 a.m. EST by WSmith
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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.
November 26, 2012 |
“Raising Hell” is what the title of Jane McAlevey's new book says she spent her time in the labor movement doing, and she isn't joking.
In the book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, out now from Verso, McAlevey names names and shares secrets about organizing within the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. The book ranges from the mess that was the 2000 election in Florida, to winning battles for public housing with workers in Connecticut, to her years in Las Vegas fighting for healthcare workers, to battling her own higher-ups and union members in the power struggle that eventually drove her out of SEIU. But what she really wants to talk about is organizing: how to do it right, how the Democratic Party gets it wrong, and why there's no substitute for face-to-face conversations with workers.
McAlevey sat down with AlterNet to talk about organizing in so-called “right-to-work” states, the too-close relationship between unions and Democrats who leave them high and dry, the brutality of fighting the boss, and why the worst thing to happen to labor in the U.S. might just have been purging the Communists from the movement.
Sarah Jaffe: You start the book out with the aftermath of the 2000 election in Florida, and of course we just finished a presidential election where organized labor went all-out to elect President Obama. Having come through the 2000 battle, I'd love to hear your thoughts on labor and elections.
Jane McAlevey: The point I'm really trying to raise is that the Democratic Party has way too much control over what the AFL-CIO and the other unions are doing. Instead of labor telling the Democratic Party what they're going to do, the Democratic Party scripts out for labor what they're going to do. Which isn't really working for unions very much at all.
In Florida it was a slightly different situation, but it's reflective of the same problem we have right now. Many of us could see that it was going completely wrong, that we needed to be in the street, doing street theater. We had a million ideas a day about what we needed to do to turn the heat up, that this was going to be a political fight, not a legal fight. But there was just no possibility. Just none. And I was just so naïve back then. Super naïve that we were actually going to break and have a different idea.
So the purpose of the opening of the book is to say that the relationship is way too close and if anything it needs to flip, who's telling who what to do.
There's a big debate about 2008, what role labor played in the victory. I think it's actually more clear that they did play a big role this time. In '08 half the planet was voting for Obama, he was still so exciting, but this year, in the cutthroat fights in the battleground states, yeah, he's damn lucky that he had unions.
But there's never been any evidence that that's going to change the tenor of the relationship. Unions in this country have never had the chutzpah to say there's a threat every year. If you look back over time, like late August heading into Labor Day the year before elections, Trumka in this case, Sweeney in the past, Lane Kirkland in the past, they'll all start “We're not going to get kicked around by the Democratic party this time because we didn't get anything, we're thinking of endorsing someone else.” It's like this scripted joke, because everyone knows it's a joke. It doesn't ever happen.
I'm less interested in the election period than in the governing period as a general rule. And I think the problem is that the relationship doesn't separate during the governing period. So from '08 to 2012, people did essentially nothing except behind-the-scenes chit-chat at the White House. It didn't get us anything. We barely got an appointment at the NLRB, you could debate healthcare, I don't think you could call that a labor win. The immediate way it's going to play out for a lot of healthcare workers I think is actually an undiscussed question.
One of the most important things that unions have to do is shift the relationship going forward -- and completely be willing to be out the front door screaming and yelling and really building a protest movement. Not just a protest movement, that's a little bit simplistic, but really doing serious education among the rank and file about how the system works. One of my complaints in a lot of the labor work that I was involved in was that people were taking the base for granted.
There's this weird cultural thing that happens between the Democratic Party and the labor movement, which plays out in a number of ways. One is how pollsters have almost replaced organizers in the American labor movement. It's like labor doesn't talk to workers any more. They talk to pollsters who talk to the workers. I would argue that any good organizer any day of the week anywhere knows before any pollster whatever he needs to know about what the workers think. Period. That's what good organizers do.
A point of influence that I'm getting rather obsessed with right now is this whole concept of microtargeting, and a lot of that's coming from the Obama people and it's really having an impact in the labor movement. I hear people in the last few years, in the labor movement, say “What do you think about buying databanks of information to see if we can assess whether a worker on a door is going to vote yes or not?” There's this huge discussion going on in the labor movement among otherwise smart people, that we should just take another step past actually real organizing and just try to do the microtargeting that the Obama campaign is using to extract one vote every four years.
The mistake is that how you win an election and how you win change are fundamentally different. The election of the right people is a prerequisite to fundamental change, but all we do is help them get elected, and then we don't do anything in the governing period except put everyone to sleep like a switch. If you think about the talent on the Obama team, what are they going to do for the next three and a half years? They basically go home. If you have the best campaign team during the election, those people actually need to stay and keep organizing the base every damn day, to actually create a left base to allow these people to run to the left when they're governing.
People need to be given the faith that they can do it, trained and then asked. Those are the three things. And people are so ready for a fight in this country. And that is what is so exciting to me. So we have to learn how to line up the resources with the people that are willing to fight. It could be a mini-revolution in this country. Seriously. People want to fight. That's just the best news there is.
Sarah Jaffe is a writer, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @sarahljaffe.