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Raising Hell

Remembering Jane McAlevey, 1964–2024

It is not an exaggeration to say that Jane McAlevey did more to bring practical labor organizing strategy into the public conversation than anyone in my lifetime.

Most organizers labor in relative obscurity. They shun the spotlight as a matter of course. They work long and odd hours, put their personal lives on hold, and make a thousand other sacrifices that those less committed to the cause would find impossible. But Jane made a calculated gamble a decade and a half ago, believing that sharing her experience in the labor movement, her triumphs and mistakes, her fights and feuds, would be worth something to thousands of people who had no idea what the world of an organizer was like. She was right.

Jane, who died on Sunday at the age of fifty-nine, didn’t want to be that other thing, a “labor leader.” Being the public face of a union required too many compromises, and as Jane herself wrote, compromise was not one of her better sports. Rather, she followed the well-worn path of the radical organizer out of a full-time union job, into itinerant work helping unions get their shit together, into academia, and most importantly, into writing accessible books about labor and training thousands of people in basic organizing skills. In demystifying the ins and outs of strikes, collective bargaining, organizing, revitalizing a moribund union, and even by shining light on labor’s uglier sides, she inspired a generation of young people cut off from class politics to think about the still-central role of the workplace. She helped provide direction for those frustrated in equal measure by the crushing of the Occupy movement and the defeat of two Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns.

To Jane, the name of the game, and her first book, was: Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell). What she meant by this is a particular kind of optimism that must become contagious. It is not too different from the adage of that other organizer’s organizer, Mariame Kaba, that “hope is a discipline.” Organizing is about, as Jane wrote, giving people permission to want more, even demand more, “from their jobs; the quality of life they should aspire to; how they ought to be treated when they are old; and what they should be able to offer their children.”

Once expectations were raised—including her own—it was hard to back down.

Even catastrophe, personal or global, didn’t slow Jane down. It was her first bout with cancer that resulted in her first book; a decade later, the Covid-19 pandemic saw her ramp up her collaboration with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung to create an international virtual class series called “Organizing for Power,” accessible for free to anyone who wanted to sign up. That course was continuing as I wrote these words, having trained over 45,000 people from 150 or so countries, people who joined up in groups to learn the fundamentals of organizing together, the better to put their skills to work. As Jane explained in 2020, she went into “soldier mode” because the pandemic required different and more urgent forms of organizing, and so she told herself: “Yes, step up to the plate right this second and do everything you can.”

From the first time we met—in 2012, when I interviewed her about that first book—I was inspired by and mildly terrified of her, but Jane was hard to be terrified of for too long. She was the kind of friend who sent handwritten cards in the mail—when my father died, for my birthday—and the kind of friend who, if she was annoyed with you, would call you up to hash it out. Like another beloved American chronicler of class struggle, Barbara Ehrenreich, she did not suffer fools or pull punches. To feel that she liked me and respected me was a tremendous gift, and I mention riding horses with her on a California beach not to brag (OK, to brag a little) but also to remind the world that she had modes other than soldier, that she was committed to these kinds of regular, human pleasures as well as to the pleasures of winning battles in the class war.

She was human, and she cared about organizing because she cared about people and how miserable our lives have grown amid the decay of neoliberalism. She cared about making their—our—lives better in the here and now, not just in some far-off future.

There are biographical details aplenty in Raising Expectations, so I won’t spend too much time on them here. Jane’s mother died when she was young of the breast cancer that ran in her family; her father was a local politician in Ramapo, New York, who loved unions and fought for public housing and helped make Jane a lifelong horse girl by getting her a pony. She had family and family friends in the building trades and recalled her father joining the United Auto Workers on strike at Ford in New Jersey when she was five. She was a student radical at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-1980s, where she was active in student government, and then began her long training in organizing at the Midwest Academy. She traveled through Central America and then back to the United States to learn organic farming and become an environmental organizer. This was followed by a stint at the Highlander Center, learning and practicing political education, and burying herself in the archives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Already, you can see the patterns: constant movement; connecting dots between struggles; a voracious desire to learn more, see more, travel farther, to understand people and challenge power.

And then, the labor movement. The unions, anyway, some of which are more “movement” than others. This suited her interest in “playing offense,” in taking on challenges that many others thought couldn’t be done. It was the mid-1990s, and a new generation, led by John Sweeney and his New Voice slate, was in charge at the AFL-CIO. Organizing experiments were in flower, and Jane went off to Stamford, Connecticut, to take on a “Geographic Organizing Project,” or in other words, to try to unite a bunch of fractious unions with that nebulous thing, “the community.” It was there that she met the man she credits as her mentor, Jerry Brown of Service Employees International Union District 1199 New England, and hashed out strategies she would spend the rest of her career fine-tuning and then teaching to others.

Jane called it “whole-worker organizing.” Other people might use the term “social movement unionism,” or the newer phrase “bargaining for the common good,” but the theory is the same: the recognition that workers’ lives don’t stop when they are off the clock (an insight even more relevant in today’s gig economy); that acting in their self-interest “includes, from their immediate peers in their unit, to their shift, their workplace, their street, their kids’ school, their community, their watershed, their nation and their world.” There are, she wrote repeatedly, no shortcuts to this kind of work, but when it works, it is its own magic.

Jane’s experience doing that kind of organizing would be overshadowed, she wrote, by “the incessant turf wars in which labor leaders engage on the upper floors of the house of labor that consistently undermine the organizing done on the ground floor.” So she would turn away from first the AFL-CIO and then SEIU, where she spent the mid-2000s in Las Vegas revitalizing a complacent health care workers’ local. Her style clashed with various personalities inside and outside of her own union; her willingness to go soldier mode and take orders came up against her desire to build real union democracy. Once expectations were raised—including her own—it was hard to back down.

Her first book is an organizing memoir that reads at times like a political thriller; it is a story of her signature blending of strategies and take-no-prisoners style. When she left Stamford, she wrote, “I had learned more in those three years than I wanted to know. I had seen the ugly underbelly of the new labor movement as well as its outward promise. I had also had more fun, laughter, and passion and cried more of the good kind of tears than I had ever had in my life.” Leaving SEIU in 2008 brought “the most painful experience” of her life: “the undoing of the militant, creative union I had spent four years helping to build.”

Raising Expectations is as much tell-all as organizing manual, but it was Jane’s second book, published in 2016—by an academic press, no less—that turned her into as much of a household name as any labor organizer can be in what she called “the new Gilded Age.” No Shortcuts, based on her dissertation, is a distillation of her argument for organizing rather than what she called “shallow mobilizing”; for high-participation, democratic unions; for the value of training and sharing skills; and, though this is less often remarked upon, for the importance and power of care workers’ unions in a world that still too often thinks “real” workers are men in hard hats.

The decline of deep organizing, she argued, is the real cause of the decline of progressive, or left, power. By organizing, once again, she meant building “a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mess of people never previously involved, who don’t consider themselves activists at all.” Or, as she explained in 2016:

Do we wake up in the morning assuming that we actually have to try and figure out a strategy to talk to the people who don’t talk to us, who are in the majority in the country, who we are not in dialogue with, who are not on our Facebook pages, who may not be listening to this podcast, who aren’t listening to the regular vehicles that progressives or leftists are using when we talk at people?

This kind of organizing is messy. It changes the people who practice it as much as the people who are being organized; it is relational, which is a cliché, and it is emotional, which is seen as kind of embarrassing by most of the people who talk about power. It requires faith, a kind of faith that Jane noted unions are always trying to “borrow” from religious organizations but really ought to build on their own. Because a good, powerful labor organization—of the kind that used to exist in this country, and is maybe beginning to again—is like a church, in that it is the place you go to cry as well as to strategize, to mourn your dead as well as fight like hell for the living. It has space to hold people in all their complications. It values the individual while also recognizing that, on our own, we will be crushed by bosses and landlords and elected officials and climate catastrophe.

Instead, though, most unions either sit atop their little fiefdoms, doling out endorsements and negotiating versions of the same contract or, if they are focused on organizing at all, do it in bursts, sending in, as Jane explained, “the A team . . . all over the country. Boom, blast in, run a huge election, win. Very much like the Democratic Party machine in a swing state. The second we’re done we’re pulled out. Every great relationship built with every worker, just gone.” This is more than a political crisis, although it is also that; it is a reason why Donald Trump was able to get 43 percent of the union household vote in 2016 and is polling near 41 percent with them now. This strategy is a misunderstanding of what it requires not just to organize a union but to build a real democracy.

Power transcends the law and shapes it—another lesson from Jane.

Because good unions beget good unions. Look at the change in teachers’ unions in the years since the Chicago Teachers Union won its 2012 strike: a wave of strikes and near-strikes that rippled from liberal bastions like Chicago, St. Paul, Seattle, and Los Angeles across the reddest of red states in 2018. Many of these revolts took place despite labor law limiting or specifically proscribing such action. Power transcends the law and shapes it: another lesson from Jane.

An aspect of the organizers’ craft that Jane never missed an opportunity to drive home—including in her analysis of the UAW’s near-miss in organizing a Mercedes plant in Alabama this May—is the identification of worker leaders. Most people, she reiterated, think that the leader is the loudest person in the room or the most vocally pro-union, the one who talks back to the boss. But what she and a century’s worth of effective organizers before her mean is something different. Who’s the person that everyone goes to for advice? The teacher who is always there with an encouraging word after a rough week? In one hospital strike that I covered with C.M. Lewis—a story that Jane put me onto—this person was the nurse who everyone called “Mother” Marlena. Such leaders might not be the loudest union supporters; in fact, Jane noted, they might start out anti-union because they’ve been pretty good at navigating workplace crises for themselves. And for sure, an effective union buster is trying to identify them and give them what they want before the union can.

The question of leader identification is crucial for many reasons, but a central one is that it is a concrete demonstration of the organizer’s respect for the people she’s organizing. Too many people inside the labor movement, let alone outside of it, think of “the workers” as some group over there, different from themselves, who need to be led by the hand or provided for by a third party. But the workers are people, and people are the union, the movement, the community. It sounds simple when I put it that way, but so many people pay lip service to this idea and then do the opposite.

Because “the workers” are complicated, and the union has to be the kind of organization that can meet their different and sometimes contradictory needs at the places where they connect. You might have twenty—or more—different job descriptions in a workplace, but when those people unite around a common cause, it builds confidence, and confidence leads to action. Successful action, whether or not it’s a strike, has its own momentum.

Another part of the Gospel According to Jane is the power structure analysis: a study of causes and connections throughout not only the workplace but the community. An understanding of which workers belong to which church and are friendly with which pastor; whose husband is in a different union and whose wife is the leader in her PTA group; who shares a landlord with whom. Who owes favors where and how big those favors are; who might join the action, turn out for a rally, make a phone call, refuse to cross a picket line, organize their own workplace. From the analysis of these connections comes the structure test: the designing of actions with escalating stakes, to see how many people are willing not just to declare support but to take risks to show it. Jane described “sticker-ups” and majority petitions and the wearing of union swag to work, marching on the boss and marching on the state house.

Look at West Virginia in 2018: teacher organizing that won victories for the entire West Virginia public sector. Those teachers and health care workers, Jane told me in an interview that year, had a particular ability to bring their community with them and to, in turn, win for that community: “It was definitely not only thirty-four thousand workers, which was the number who struck, between the teachers and the service personnel, it was actually hundreds of thousands of people brought into the contestation for power against a very conservative power structure because the students went with them.” With the students came the parents, and the story changed entirely. 

Participation in all of this is transformative because it teaches people about their power. In a political system expressly designed to isolate and dominate, just the moment of coming together is electric, but a democratic union also gives people an experience of democracy that they have never had. An experience of their needs as well as their opinions mattering. Of creating material change. It is intoxicating. It is also hard to control, which is why, as Jane suggested, many labor leaders don’t like it. “It puts real power in the hands of workers,” she wrote in Raising Expectations. “And that is exactly why it gets shut down, because empowered workers cannot be ‘delivered’ by labor leaders seeking to use them as poker chips at the table of corporate power.” Expectations, once raised, are hard to lower.

It is more important than ever to learn these lessons, I think, because the deck has been stacked against working-class people for a long time, but the stakes have never been higher. The far right has been practicing its own form of organizing and is contesting for power on shop floors and city halls and schoolhouses around the country and the world. They know that unions are a threat.

There will be legal challenges and hard-fisted union-busting to come; there may well be a return of Trump and with him, a reactionary labor board that would undo all the progress of the past four years. There is the threat, as Jane noted, that an even more right-wing Supreme Court could rule unions themselves illegal, an infringement on the individual right of speech (the Court has already ruled to give bosses the right to trap you in an anti-union meeting for hours on end, exercising their freedom of speech to bully and threaten).

Class confidence is what it will take to beat back the fascists and the fossil capitalists and all the rest of the enemies arrayed against us.

Winning the union election is only the first step. The real struggle is getting to the contract and then improving on that contract over time, which is why bosses reserve their heavy hitters for the bargaining table, who stall and delay and bully. The law is mostly on their side, even with Joe Biden in the White House. Jane’s latest book, with Abby Lawlor, Rules to Win By, took on the challenge of bargaining in simple, no-bullshit language and, as usual, with real-world case studies.

“Good negotiations,” she explained in a 2023 interview, “are about how workers learn to collectivize their sharp understandings of how each piece of the workplace works and then come together to make it a more fair and better workplace.” And good negotiations, like every other part of the process of building a strong union, involve lots and lots of workers, who after all are the experts on the work process. (Have you figured out that this is the central point here, yet?) Negotiation is another organizing process, and it is won through power, not by having the sharpest lawyer on your side.

By having workers do the bargaining, Jane noted, “you can effectively strip away the aura that any of those managers that you regularly have to take orders from are any smarter than you at all, if not, frankly, a lot less smart, by the kind of questions that we’re driving them across the table. That builds more class confidence and class confidence is crucial to everything we have to do.”

Class confidence is what it will take to beat back the fascists and the fossil capitalists and all the rest of the enemies arrayed against us, as well as all the organizing skills we can muster. It will take power not just at the ballot box but in the streets and on shop floors and in school board meetings. The Covid-19 pandemic, Jane noted in 2020, reminded us afresh that the boss and most of the powerful people in this world simply see us as expendable: “Just look at them deciding farm workers, you can die, grocery store clerks who are feeding us, you can die, DoorDash, delivery people, y’all can die in service of our needs.”

The pandemic also seeded a bigger spirit of rebellion in working people, though the explosion will not happen evenly or all at once. “There’s a very interesting line we’re going to walk heading into the post pandemic moment. On the one hand, even more workers than normal are freaked out, pissed off, angry, want change, want it now. And that’s a little bit tempered by something as an organizer that I’m mindful of, which is they’re also exhausted, mentally spent, emotionally trashed,” she said. “People need a nap, they need to have funerals and weddings and cry, and it’s really intense out there. But I do feel hopeful that in the aftermath of people taking a bit of a break when they’re allowed to do so, I think there’s going to be a hell of a lot of retribution to pay.”

It was like Jane to note that working people need time to grieve before plunging back into the fight. After all, she wrote way back in Raising Expectations that “a core mission of any good organizer is to help humans feel deep and meaningful solidarity with one another, the kind that makes you willing to give up something of your own for the sake of the greater good.” That deep solidarity brings with it a deeper understanding of why we throw ourselves onto the rollercoaster of political struggle, of how we tolerate the losses when the wins seem so far away. Solidarity isn’t exactly love, and it’s not the same as friendship; it is an understanding that our lives are bound up together whether we like it or not. It is, at bottom, about recognizing the humanity in each other, and this once again is what brings us to the fight.

Jane ended our first conversation, and so many of our subsequent ones, saying, “People want to fight. That’s just the best news there is.” And so I, too, will end here with that thought: that as you read these words, workers are organizing, striking, standing up to the boss and the landlord and the political class who wishes they would just sit down and shut up. That with them, in spirit if no longer physically present, is Jane McAlevey.

I can hear her echoing the famous labor movement slogan “Don’t mourn, organize!” at me now. But I think she will forgive me for mourning her, too. For mourning a legendary organizer—and a friend.