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How Workers Win: Labor Organizer Jane McAlevey on Her Life & Strategies to Beat the Power Structure

Web ExclusiveApril 23, 2024
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Watch Part 2 of our interview with labor organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey about recent United Auto Workers union victories, organizing in the South, threats to unions from the U.S. Supreme Court and how she hopes they respond by taking more risks. She talks in detail about strategies she has used to help workers win across the United States and worldwide, her time as student organizer in the campaign to divest from apartheid South Africa, and her health as she faces terminal cancer.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We continue with Part 2 of our conversation with Jane McAlevey. She’s an organizer with the labor movement for more than 20 years, well known for her books on the labor movement. Jane McAlevey has written Rules to Win By: Power & Participation in Union Negotiations, written with Abby Lawlor, also author of A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age and the book Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement.

Jane is also fighting for her life. She has multiple myeloma. She was diagnosed a few years ago, has been pronounced dead something like three times. But she is sitting here in the studio. She most recently wrote a piece headlined, “I have stopped all work to turn to home-based hospice for the remainder of my time.”

Jane, there is so much to talk to you about. It is so remarkable to have you sitting here with your strong voice and your presence. It is hard to believe you’re facing the end of your life, with this kind of grace and brilliance. I was wondering if we can start with that. I mean, for 20 years you’ve been taking on the bosses all over this country. And talk about that struggle amidst going in and out of the hospital and what you’ve known for a long time, because of your family history, your mother dying of cancer and your sister dying of cancer.

JANE McALEVEY: Yeah. I mean, I — what was interesting for me is there was like the student organizing years, and then I did some environmental justice movement years, that are often just erased because people know me as this, you know, kind of hellacious, “go get ’em” trade union organizer, which I’m proud to be. But I was living in the Highlander Center. But then, as I hit the trade union movement, I was doing janitors, child care workers, municipal workers, you know, all sorts of workers, nursing home workers. I sort of cut my teeth on working with nursing home workers in New England, mostly Black and Brown women who are stronger than — talk about strong. Like, I can take my strength from the strength of people who I work with every day in union struggles. But I eventually became someone who did almost entirely hospital organizing, and registered nurse and whole hospital organizing. And so it was very interesting for me.

My first cancer was 2009. That one I was a bit quiet about, although I talk about it at the end of Raising Expectations. So, I have this gene, the BRCA1 gene. I was born with it. We know that it doesn’t just give you ovarian, which I had early-stage ovarian cancer in 2009. That’s what led to the first book. I was sitting around bored for a year. I had no idea what to do. And friends were like, “Write up all these victories. How did you do it? How” —

AMY GOODMAN: Because you had to be isolated?

JANE McALEVEY: I just had — I could do nothing. I had five rounds of surgeries. And it was a lot of surgeries to deal with, the ovarian and the breast cancer, early diagnosis in 2009. So that led to — I’m an accidental author. Like I always say, nothing could take me away from organizing workers, except a very bad cancer diagnosis, which has now happened twice. And fortunately, the first one was beatable, and I beat it. And I got four books out of that time period and a hell of a lot more incredible campaigns with workers and began to create these huge training programs to train rank-and-file workers, by the tens of thousands, how to actually do what the workers in Chattanooga just did.

But, meanwhile, the experience of that first round of cancer, where I was in the middle of a big campaign in Las Vegas, and I said to the nurses, “Oh my god, you guys, there’s a problem, apparently. I have this gene. They’re quite concerned about it. They want me at Sloan Kettering in New York. And that’s a nonunion hospital.” And the nurses said to me, “Get the hell out of here, and get to Sloan Kettering right now.” Like, the nurses are like, “Get on that plane. You need the best care.” So, it was really interesting. That fight was really like a year, year and a half, that personal sort of cancer fight, and much less intense than this.

This one, from day one, they said, “You’re going to die. The question is when. It’s incurable and terminal, and you have a bad form of it.” There’s a lot of different kinds of myeloma, and I have a very, very severe form of it.

AMY GOODMAN: This is cancer of the blood.

JANE McALEVEY: It’s cancer of the blood. And I got — there’s one, kind of one form above me that you would have — I would have been dead in about three months. And then below that is what’s called the 4;14, which is — I’ll just say it’s a little type of the cancer that mutates to every single thing they give me. So, every treatment they give me, it studies it. I joke and say it does a power structure analysis, like I do in every fight. Like, I start a fight by doing a power structure analysis. I have this image of these little, you know, evil bodies in there: “OK, well, this time they shoved in, you know, teclistamab. What do we know about this?” And, like, these little things go off and study it, and then they come out and attack, and they attack. Because it’s in the blood, they can attack the whole body at once.

And next thing I know, which happened a couple months ago, less than two months ago, I go in for what I think is a fairly routine procedure. I get put under. And I didn’t come up for about two-and-a-half weeks, and looked up and saw my sister and my brother and a bunch of friends and thought, “Where am I? What are you all doing here?” And this is a repeat experience. And they were like, “Oh, because you were dying, and we basically thought this was it.” So, that has happened several times. And that is a bizarre experience, just to get up and then think to myself, “What’s on the to-do list? What didn’t get done? What? It’s been two-and-a-half weeks? Holy crap! What are the staff doing? Like, what’s happened to Monday and Friday team meetings on the Connecticut project?” Like, because I’m in the middle of doing a — I’ve been working on a very big campaign that’s towards 2025, and coaching a bunch of teams, workers and staff.

So, what breaks my heart about having to announce hospice, even though I’m sitting here talking to you, and I will keep doing work — I’m going to try and write a little bit right now — but is, I can never really stop, you know, but what it’s giving me more time to do is prioritize friends and family. And I have to tell you that the life of a trade union organizer, who’s generally going up against what we call A-level boss fights, meaning the toughest there are, where they call in 18, 20, 25 of them, terrorize them, captive audiences, fire them, all of it. Like every fight I’ve had has been that level, what we call an A-level boss fight. There’s an A level, B level, C level in organizer kind of lingo. You know, so, for me, it’s the courage of all the workers that I’ve had the pleasure of being with in these struggles for 20 years, where they have to get up and take risk and do things that are extraordinary, just to form a union, that I think is where I take the strength I have from.

So, I’m definitely spending more time with family and friends. I haven’t gotten enough time with them maybe over the years, because the campaigns are so relentless. I think a 19-hour day was an average for most of the last 20 years. I don’t think the lack of sleep has hurt my ability to heal, because I keep kind of bouncing back. To me, the only worthwhile thing really to say, I think, still about the cancer is just that this time there’s nowhere to go. So, each time I collapsed and went down in the hospitals, they would have a strategy, right? We’re strategists. I’m a strategist. I’d wake up, and I’d be like, “What’s the next strategy?” And when I came up this time, they said, “The strategy is hospice, because there is nothing else to do.” So, I’m really enjoying time with my friends and family. I’ve probably seen 50 people already in just the last two weeks. I am so blessed by so many good friends. And it’s, I would say, my tribe, I’ve always called them. I know it’s a holiday.

But, you know, there’s a tribe of organizers, like 400 of us, who just kept winning, in all the years that the national leadership kept saying we couldn’t win, just like 400 of us who just kept winning, whether it was the Chicago Teachers Union folks, the United Teachers Los Angeles folks. Now we’ve got the victory under Shawn Fain. I feel like 2024 and Chattanooga is a little bit of kin. And, boy, if they hit Mercedes, it’s really going to be true, like 2012, when the brilliant Karen Lewis, who we lost to cancer, came on and came out and led that incredible strike at a time when —

AMY GOODMAN: Chicago teachers.

JANE McALEVEY: Yeah, when big strikes hadn’t been happening for a very long time. And they got ready, and they did their work, and they had the community behind them. They did incredible preparation work for two years to get ready for that strike. They did supermajority — the same word I was using about Chattanooga. They built supermajority committees in every single school in Chicago. And when they hit in 2012 and took the country by storm, certainly took organizers by storm — we were like, “What just — what is going on in Chicago?” And everyone was going to Chicago to see what the mighty Chicago Teachers Union did in 2012.

That moment began to rebuild the idea that we could run big strikes and win. We could run big strikes and win. And that is what began to happen across education land. And we’ve had a whole hell of lot more of them. So, we know that when we do the work right, we can win. And that tribe of 400, probably 25 of whom have come zooming in to say their last goodbyes, which I try and turn into like a last cocktail or something nice in the evening with them and really talk about the reflections and how we win. And I think — I think, for all of us, there’s been this deep love across this crew of 300 or 400 of us all across the country, some of whom, by the way, were leading the campaign in Chattanooga, so are helping teach the workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Against Volkswagen.

JANE McALEVEY: Yeah, against Volkswagen. Some of the tribe was in the Chattanooga fight, because there are methods. There’s a discipline and a set of methods that we know. And we know they don’t always work. Nothing is ubiquitous. But they work a lot. And so, you know, I’ve almost never lost a National Labor Relations Board election in 20 years, and there’s a reason for that.

And there’s a lot of organizers. And I really — this is a really important thing to say. There’s a lot of organizers whose names, unlike mine, no one is going to ever know. I could start naming them. They’re an incredible — my comrades, my 400 or so, what we call the tribe, you’re never going to know their names. And they just helped the workers, they just coached the workers into the victory against Volkswagen. They’re going to be helping coach those workers what it is the boss is going to do next in that fight. You’ve got to stay ahead of the boss in the fight under our methods. There’s a way to stay ahead of the boss, we call “stay ahead of the boss,” in the fight.

And it’s only because I had that first cancer — really, I’m an accidental writer, honestly. And then Frances Fox Piven read the first draft and dragged me into the Ph.D. to write No Shortcuts, which was also not a plan. I didn’t finish undergraduate, because I was arrested too many times doing student protests in my college years, I just dropped out.

But, you know, there’s a lot of organizers who are every bit as good as me. We’re good. There’s a lot of us. And we like to win. And we like to teach workers how to win. What are the methods? What is it we can do? And now we’ve taken that — you know, we’ve trained 40,000 rank-and-file workers in two-and-a-half years, since COVID started, in our global training program, Organizing for Power. There’s another one starting on May 7. They’re six-week organizing courses. They’re free. You have to come in teams.

But I want to — I want to basically acknowledge all the organizers who are out there winning and have just kept winning and kept winning and kept winning, again, in the face almost of a cynical, kind of do-nothing national trade union leadership that lost faith in workers and that didn’t put the kind of resources into organizing and started hiring lawyers and did brand damage and did shareholder campaigns and did everything but talk to American workers. And it turns out, when we invest our energy into actually engaging with American workers, they vote “yes” for unions. And so, that team of organizers, who just kept at it — and are going to keep at it long after I’m dead — I love them, and they have a lot more people to teach.

And we’re in a hell of a moment right now. And if Shawn Fain’s leadership can march into Mercedes and take that plant, we’re about to change the course of Southern history. And there’s also a lot of danger all around us, right? We’ve got Trump lurking. We’ve got polarization at really intense levels.

And one thing I want to say about a beautiful trade union campaign, the kind that we just saw where they won by 72%, you know, at Volkswagen, is that spreads. That kind of work actually spreads. And when you have a victory like that, other workers all around the country and the world, but especially the country, start to think to themselves, “Hey, we can probably do that. Like, how do we actually do that?”

So, we’ve had this position of 20 years of risk-averse national trade union leaders. Shawn Fain, breath of fresh air, just so different, so ready to go out there and be risk-taking and say, “I have faith that American workers are smart enough to know what’s right or wrong, as long as we can get into a one-on-one conversation with them.” You know, and they’re doing it. So, it’s pretty amazing. And I just want to acknowledge all those organizers who are not writing books.

I mean, I wrote the first book because I had cancer. And I wrote the fourth book on cancer. And to be honest, I had started my fifth book, and I’m sorry that I’m not going to get to finish it, called — I’ll just say it. It’s the theme of my life. But it was — to me, it was going to be my ultimate sort of final book on power, called Leave No Power on the Table. So, we leave a lot of power on the table in the trade union movement. And in my view, in every campaign, there isn’t room to leave an ounce of power on the table, if workers want to win and have life-changing contracts like they did in the UAW settlements.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jane, I wanted to ask you — you’ve alluded a couple of times to your start as a student organizer in the divest from apartheid in South Africa. Could you talk about that and how that shaped your activism?

JANE McALEVEY: Sure. Those images, Juan, were incredible also of you in ’68, by the way.

But, yeah, there were two rounds of it. I mean, to make a long story short, in the State University of New York, at 64 colleges, if you include the community colleges, 64 state colleges and community colleges, it’s the largest public university system in the country. And back in the day, when I was 18, 17, we had a very strong — we called it actually a statewide student union. We actually used the word “student union.” And people had to join. And we were going up against Young Americans for Freedom, who would run anti-dues campaigns, and we had to win the dues campaigns. I mean, it was a lot like running a union campaign, just a little bit less intense than I would find, you know, 20 years later.

But so, as student leader, I became the elected student body president at State University of New York at Buffalo, which is the largest of the campuses. And our grad students were in with undergrads in the student government. So I had a universe of 28,000 voters and was going up against actually a really hard campaign by the athletes and the sort of Greeks, who were like, “Who’s this left-winger who’s going to try and take student government?” We took every seat. We ran 28 people. We ran a slate. My father was a politician. He said, “You don’t just run alone. You want to govern. So you want to run a whole slate.” So, 28 of us ran for Student Senate, every single position. If there was dog catcher, we would have run someone for that. We took the entire student government, and then, basically, dove face first into the fight to divest the university from South Africa. And by a year later, I was elected head of the state student union, which made me the student trustee, like officially, legally the student trustee on the statewide board, which gave me access to documents, to all the financial records, to every single thing a board of trustee member gets. So, very unusual that you had a powerful-enough state student union that the president was actually a member of the board of trustees.

And to make too many long stories short, we had already introduced a divestment resolution several times before I became the president. And we made a few strategy changes. One was we began to focus much more on Mario Cuomo, Mario — smarter, I believe, than the son. But anyway, Cuomo wanted to run for president, too. And we decided we had to start shifting strategy and putting pressure on Mario Cuomo, this, like, lovely Democrat who was going to run for office. And we said, “Hey, you know, you’re the real governor of, in some ways, the State University of New York system, and we’re going to put this campaign on you, Mr. Liberal Democrat who wants to run for president. We’re going to put South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s arrest, the murder of people all over South Africa, and apartheid, directly onto your lap, if you don’t start getting involved in the campaign.”

The day of the fourth vote, which was my first vote as a trustee, we introduced the resolution. But I had access. I had the swipe pass to get into the back, because I was a trustee. So I wore a very large skirt that was covered with chains underneath it and padlocks. And step one for me was to get up, introduce the resolution. Predictably, they were going to vote it down. And then I was going to take a bathroom break, which I did and went downstairs. So, there were actually hundreds of workers secretly waiting. And we took the business office, because we wanted to stop the state business immediately, like so that the university couldn’t function. So, we had hundreds of students ready to take the finance office of the whole state university system, not just one campus. We shut it down. It was a pretty intense moment, actually. We had to ask all the nice secretaries, “We love you, but we recommend you leave now before we padlock the doors.”

And that campaign led to the biggest divestment in the history of the divestment movement at that time. We really drew it out. They overreached. They put me in jail, along with two other student leaders. I mean, imagine me at 19 like being sent off to jail. That wasn’t very smart of them. That’s when you learn a boss doing an overreach. We had the ANC testifying in our trial. We, like, made it into a trial. We’re like, “You’re going to put us — you’re going to actually charge us with real charges,” the three leaders, me and two others. And we said, “Strategy, strategy,” right? Like my father. Again, being the daughter of a politician was helpful, a left-wing politician, was helpful, because I went to strategy. So, they’re arresting us. No one else is getting arrested on charges that are going to put us in jail. We’re going to go to jail. Let’s take the trial. So, they tried to settle an agreement with us outside of court and say, “If you agree to never protest for your time as a student leader, we’ll drop the charges.” And I said, “Oh, hell no. You’re not going to stop me from protesting on college campuses. I’m like the state student leader.” And as soon as we said “no,” we had a trial.

Well, we got the ANC. We got — I mean, we had everybody coming up to testify in the trial, and eventually many more thousands of people protesting. They did put me in jail. There were at the time — you know, this is way pre-Google, but the pictures of me coming out of jail were all over the United States of America, because the AP was there, The New York Times was there. You know, student leader gets out of jail, which they had federally deputized, because there was a Hells Angel bust the night before, so we were like for 15 days in under federal lockup rules. And it was a huge mistake on their part. But the point is, we turned it into strategy. We said, “You’re going to overreach, we’re going to beat you on this.”

And then, when I returned, finally, after a year of doing the trial, dragging out the trial, doing tons of national media, working with the Columbia students, Tanaquil Jones, and a whole bunch about Columbia, when we went in, like I was pretty sure we had the vote at that point, but not 100% sure, actually. Judith Moyers, Bill Moyers’ wife, was on the board. There were a lot of liberals on the board. And it was just because of the overreach, the beating. They were pretty violent when they were taking us out of the finance office. And the idea of putting a bunch of students in jail, like actual jail time, for fighting for an end to apartheid, did it in.

And when we won that “yes” vote, it was the beginning of me knowing the joy of what a vote “yes” and winning looks like, which many an NLRB election later would continue in my life, because winning is the most important thing we have to do. It’s not just fight. We have to win, like we did in Chattanooga. We actually have to win. It’s not enough for us to speak truth to power. That’s a good thing. It’s not enough for us to just gather together friends that we know that support our cause already. You know, if there’s one life lesson — and I’ll stop here — but if there’s one that goes from the student organizing — by the way, it would go on to protesting the CIA’s presence on campus. I transferred to the University of Colorado, where I was suspended, and beaten almost to death by the Colorado state police with a — what do they call it? Nightstick chokehold, dragging, straight tear gas in the face. It was vicious in Colorado. And there, five of us were suspended and thrown out of the campus. So I really never did finish my undergraduate degree.

AMY GOODMAN: Makes me think of the Pinkertons.

JANE McALEVEY: Right! For real. I mean, honestly. So I already had this intense, what would be like picket line from the ’30s and ’40s experience just from being — having the crap beat out of me several times by very large police.

But, you know, the primary contribution, I feel like, if I’ve made any, is to keep the idea alive for the last 20, 25 years that mobilizing, which is a good thing, gets our friends off the couch, gets the people we agree with to a march, is very different than organizing, because organizing and organizers devote all of our time and all of our attention, whether it’s in a student college fight or whether it’s in a union drive. Our mission is to wake up every morning and focus on the people who are not talking to us, the people who are not with us, the people who think they’re going to vote “no” in the union election or vote “no” in the dues vote on a college campus for the student union when I was 18. Organizers believe our work is about connecting with and focusing on the people who the employer has already planted bad ideas in their head about what it means to have a union. And that’s our full-time job. Like, once we’ve got pro-union activists, we say to them, “Here’s some assignments for you. They’re really important — phone banks, flyers, texts, all sorts of things, intelligence gathering.” But we have to teach the workers if they can’t recruit the key leaders in their unit and in their shift — so, it’s worker-on-worker work. We teach the activists. They go out and learn what it means to recruit the real leader. And once we have the real leaders in a majority status in a union campaign, or in a college campus election or in a divestment fight, once we can get a supermajority of the real leaders, the people who aren’t talking to us and think they don’t agree with us, that’s — that’s the argument I’ve been having for the last 20, 25 years. And everyone who continued to do organizing has largely continued to win — again, not everything. We don’t win everything — no one does — but win a lot.

So, I think it started with the student anti-apartheid work and thinking about power and strategy in that fight, and shifting the focus onto Cuomo, the first one, using the legal strategy effectively and then having a lot of mass protests, until we got the “yes” vote and divested the entire State University of New York.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jane, I wanted to ask you in terms of the — how the changing nature of production and work in the United States has affected the ability of organizers to organize workers, because, clearly, more and more factory production is shipped overseas, and the employers go from big industrial operations to smaller ones. They try to contract out aspects of their work as much as possible to reduce class consciousness. How that has affected the ability of organizers in the United States to continue to build worker power?

JANE McALEVEY: That’s a great question. I think two things. One is, I mean, everyone who has continued to try to organize, and even the folks who are doing sort of mobilizing work, which, to me, again, is secondary in its effect, but everyone trying to win for the last — since, I’d say, 1995, when the change happened at the AFL-CIO, when John Sweeney took over back in 1995 — that’s sort of when I enter — everyone who’s been trying since then knew that two things were true, or they knew at least one thing was true. One is, we had to look for strategic targets who could not be forced out of the U.S., hence I become a hospital organizer, right? They still have yet to figure out how to have a registered nurse administer the kind of incredible care I’m getting, from Vietnam, China, fill in the blank, yet. When that’s going to happen, who knows? But so, we all spent the last 20, 25 years looking for “strategic” — keyword — targets, where they could not move the workers out of the U.S. And that’s part. So, that’s one.

Two, in order to win in those kind of campaigns where, Juan, the numbers became smaller, you know, a hospital — the larger hospitals that I’ve helped organize were 2,000 or 3,000 at a time, which is a nice number, 2,000 or 3,000 workers in one election, and going into negotiations. But a lot of them are smaller. A lot of it’s nursing homes. A lot of it’s, I mean, at the smallest, you can see a Starbucks, you know, 20 workers or so. But a lot of the targets, the strategic targets, became smaller. So I think we had to do a strategy adjustment, which was: How can we build deep community support around these workers? How can we, aggressively and strategically, quietly change the conditions that are going to make it so that healthcare workers, for sake of argument, or educators actually build really intense relationships, that are genuine, with the people who are going to be the first ones who might have turned their back on them when they walk out on strike demanding both better schools, better healthcare, better healthcare systems, better staffing ratios? All of those, I call that mission-driven workers. That’s a lot of my work, has been in what I call the mission-driven worker fields. And those workers have incredible capacity to recruit the whole community to their side.

Now, not enough unions do it, honestly. Like, not nearly enough trade unions make real connections between the workers in the campaign and the workers’ own community. I sort of probably became known for that, second to the debate about organizing versus mobilizing, for very deliberately in every campaign I’ve ever run. First we chart the workplace, what’s called charting the workplace. We make sure we have all the correct leaders identified. The leaders are leading all of their co-workers in the struggle. Because in the private sector — right? — no staff can go in. This is all about the workers. Like, the rank-and-file workers have to run these campaigns, because it’s the private sector, which is where I’ve spent my life fighting. You know, we get arrested if we put our toe on the sidewalk. So, the essence of a good trade union organizer in this era has been we’re teachers, we’re coaches. We have to teach the workers everything. They actually have to execute their own campaigns. And that’s been true in every fight that I’ve had the pleasure of leading.

So, once we have a majority built inside of a workplace — a nursing home, a hospital, fill in the blank — we then begin to chart very systematically. These are real words, “charting,” I’m using. We chart the workers’ connections to their faith leaders. Do they have a house of faith? Are they involved in the PTO? Are they involved in a local food bank? Do they volunteer to coach Little League or sports? Like, every worker has a ton of connections in their own community. And we systematically chart them. There’s probably five of us in the country who do this at the level I’m talking about — they’re in Chicago Teachers Union, too, by the way — like, who really dig in to show that the workers themselves can bring a whole new third front for power with them into the fight. And it’s been essential, frankly, to beat down the union busters in these kind of campaigns in the era when it’s easier to offshore jobs. It’s going to be true in Chattanooga, too. They’re going to have to have a hell of a community campaign around the workers, the 4,300 workers, who wish to keep celebrating as they go into their first contract negotiations, right?

Remember, in the U.S., round one is winning a hard-as-hell election, where people are being terrified and terrorized daily and fired and all sorts of things. And part two is winning the first collective agreement, which is why I wrote the fourth book. And again, sorry, I’m not going to get to Leave No Power on the Table, the fifth book. But the fourth book —

AMY GOODMAN: You might.

JANE McALEVEY: — I’m happy. Well, I’m happy, I’m really happy, to have gotten the fourth book out, on negotiations, because I think it’s the most radical change that a union can make overnight. I was taught to let all workers into the negotiations process. Most unions bring a lawyer, couple elected leaders. Maybe there’s five people in the room total. This is 95% of American labor, and I’m not kidding. That’s how negotiations happen. For those of us trained in a much more militant and democratic 1930s, '40s tradition, we bring all the workers. And I literally want all the workers. Like, anyone who's not on shift should be in negotiations on days that we negotiate. So, hundreds of workers are who the boss confronts when they walk into a room, if I have the pleasure of being the chief negotiator. Those are the stories I tell in the book, how to do it. I use some of my own examples. But I also finally wrote a roadmap, really. Abby was an incredible graduate student for me to get at Berkeley to do 48 interviews for that book, and so much more work.

AMY GOODMAN: Abby Lawlor?

JANE McALEVEY: But we got it out. Yeah. We got that book out in the nick of time, in some ways. I mean, I was doing all of the — you know, it’s — what’s the word, McAlevey? It’s peer-reviewed. It’s Oxford. And so, Abby was already graduating and leaving grad school, leaving law school, and getting ready to move on with her life, and I was with cancer, going through intense chemotherapy treatments, and responding, typing and responding to what were pages from the peer reviewers to meet the deadline to get the book out before I died, because they told me then I was already going to be dead. So I’m like racing the clock on the book to get the peer review responses, with an editor, by the way, James Cook — I’m just going to say the man’s name, because he’s been extraordinary to me at Oxford. I said, “James, I have cancer. We got to go fast — fast — on this book.” And we went fast.

And leaving that book to America’s workers, if you read nothing else, reading that book is a game changer, because when workers themselves see their employer across the table behaving like a total ass and trying to explain why what we heard on the Moody’s and Poor’s call about how many billions they’re about to make, and they’re telling us, “Oh, sorry, poor us, pockets are empty. We got no money,” it’s like my favorite negotiation session, is when we’ve shown the workers the real numbers that they’re telling their investors, you know, the corporations that we’re fighting — they’re all big private-sector hospitals now, too. They’re not little hospitals, mom-and-pops. These are huge corporations that own all these hospitals, mostly in the South, because they’re union busters. And then we bring in 300 workers for the day that we’re going to force the chief financial officer into negotiations, because you can do that when you have a union. You can actually say, “Someone has to come explain the financials you gave us.” Nonunion workers don’t have the right to the company’s financials. Unionized workers do. So, those are always some of my favorite sessions on capitalism. I don’t even have to say the word “capitalism.” This is today’s lesson in how capitalism works. They lie to you through their teeth, literally, about how much money there is, and then they get up and walk out of the room. And usually pretty much from that negotiation session on, it’s a game changer.

Now, why would you want to have five people, one of whom is a lawyer, two of whom are like the elected poobah one and poobah two of the union, instead of having 300 or 400 to 500 nurses watch the chief financial officer lying through his teeth? Like, that’s a gift. And bringing workers into negotiations is one of the most radical things you can do. It’s — they’ll never be the same. And that’s probably the later-in-life gift that I’m the happiest about, is getting that book out with Abby in time.

We have a few great examples that were not campaigns of my own. We have a great UNITE HERE campaign from the Boston 26, the strike in Boston several years ago where they merged the tables at 48 hotels and had, same thing, thousands of workers confronting management when management walked into negotiations. You know, and what’s a boss to do when they’re staring at thousands of workers, and they’re not just lying to a lawyer hired by the union? You know, it’s very different.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s your analysis of the Bessemer loss, the Amazon Bessemer loss — 


AMY GOODMAN: — the unionizing drive in Alabama? And we’re speaking on the day the Supreme Court is hearing the case around the Memphis Seven, also the case of Starbucks.


AMY GOODMAN: And there, if you can explain what that case is? But it’s hearing Starbucks’ case against the National Labor Relations Board.

JANE McALEVEY: Yeah, well, and we should talk about the courts just in general, because what’s going on at the Supreme Court, and in the cases that SpaceX, Amazon, Trader Joe’s has now signed on, and Starbucks — it’s four of them ganging up to call the entire National Labor Relations Board unconstitutional, by the way, right? It’s been constitutional since 1935. And suddenly, a couple of rich boys who want their money to build rockets have decided — and have 10 more yachts, have decided, “Oh, it’s unconstitutional.”

You know, in short, just because I feel like if people want to know, I think The Nation magazine story I wrote on it was really comprehensive. And you can really see the contrast. Again, I’m not — I’m not trying to — I don’t want to create tension, you know, between unions or union strategists. But you can really just look at Chattanooga versus Bessemer as a — or the Smithfield Foods campaign, I wrote about in No Shortcuts, where thousands of workers beat a Chinese foreign-owned plant and the largest pork production facility in the world by doing a lot of the same things that I’m about to talk about in Chattanooga.

So, essentially, Bessemer was not a worker-run campaign. It was an outsider campaign. They had some workers who had worked there and had worked at other facilities in Amazon, primarily standing in front, like outside — like, this is really kind of oldschool stuff — standing outside the plant, like holding up “vote 'yes'” signs. Couple of them were recognizable. Most were not. Most workers didn’t know who those workers were. It’d be a handful of folks. But they never did a few things that are crucial in a big election, which I already mentioned a few examples of the Volkswagen workers doing it when I mentioned the T-shirt parties, their red T-shirt parties, marching through the Volkswagen plant. So, Bessemer was just an outside campaign. It just — it didn’t have an inside committee, what we call the inside committee, which is crucial.

In the Volkswagen plant, you know, they didn’t declare that they were ready for election 'til they had 90%, 90% coverage of every single worker leader — leader, not just worker activist, but a leader of the workers. When they had 90% of worker leaders coverage in Volkswagen, that's when it was time for them to know that they were going to win. They had parties going on. We call it “taking the plant,” kind of in our lingo, like they were showing the employer, “We are not scared of you at all.” They were all like shift by shift and unit by unit. You knew you had a real organic leader, the kind of person who can get workers to take risk because they’re a really trusted worker leader. And they would say, “Tomorrow’s going to be our red T-shirt day, and we’re all going to wear them to work.” This is pre-union, right? This is in the middle of a drive. So, we call that “taking the plant.”

And it’s like a way that you are building up the workers’ sense of confidence. Crucial. If workers don’t have confidence going into a big fight, it’s all over. And by the way, the whole working class in this country needs a big dose of confidence that they deserve a hell of a lot more than they’re getting from the United States of America, right? So, you’re building the workers’ confidence in a good campaign. And just none of that was able to happen in Bessemer, because they didn’t have a worker-driven campaign on the inside of that plant. Though they had some workers, certainly, who were with them, they never had anything like a 90% coverage committee. They didn’t have parties where people were walking out to the parking lot and having giant T-shirt parties, and quite publicly, with the employer knowing what they were doing in the parking lot, scheduling what days they were showing up to vote of the three days for the upcoming vote. And I hope we’re going to see all of that leading up to May 17th at the Mercedes election plant in Alabama, where, again, it’s a tougher fight. It’s a tougher fight.

But there’s really a contrast, I mean, if you just took each of the things I analyzed in Bessemer, and then you look at not just Volkswagen, any of the campaigns that I’ve written about, that I’ve helped lead or any of the ones in the new book, like the great UNITE HERE strike in Boston, educators in New Jersey. We had nurses in rural Massachusetts. And in all of those fights, if you look at a successful campaign, the number one thing we’re trying to do is build — first identify the most trusted worker leader, and then start building the confidence of the workers that they deserve a good healthcare plan, they deserve better pay, they deserve a real vacation, not just paid time off, they deserve a quality of life, that’s allowing their CEOs to go live on yachts and play with rockets. So, that’s some of the difference. And there were a lot — you know, there were a lot of differences.

The court case — actually, the Memphis Seven, I just was — I couldn’t talk specifically, because I’m not up to day on the Memphis Seven. I can talk generally about that lawsuit and what they’re doing. This is the problem of being out of it for three weeks recently at Sloan Kettering.

But the reason why the supermajority organizing, the word I keep using, is going to be so important moving forward in this country, even in this political cycle, is because we’ve got five — we don’t know what Barrett is going to do, and it doesn’t matter what Amy Coney Barrett does, because there are five solid anti-union “yes” votes right now. They’ve got a couple of cases that are winding up. They’ve already done some brutal cases in the last few years. They’ve got a couple of cases coming up that aim to declare the National Labor Relations Board unconstitutional, for sake of argument. They’re going to attempt to make Janus the law of the land — this is Alito’s pet peeve — law of the land, private sector, public sector everywhere. They’ve got a case, Cemex, coming — not Cemex, a case coming off of Glacier Northwest last year that is now — has just now made it legal — and we’re not seeing the effects yet — but the Glacier Northwest case essentially said, when workers go on strike from here on out, the employer can do an accounting tab of how much money the strike cost the employer, and they can actually make the union — they can charge the union for the cost of the strike. OK, this is the definition of — it’s not even insanity. It’s so absurd. The entire point of a strike is to cost the employer money. The entire concept, from 1935 on, when the National Labor Relations Act passed, is that workers have one remedy, which is to walk off the job on a strike if they’re being treated unfairly. So, just last cycle, we had a case at the Supreme Court that, again, we’ve not seen. They’ve not test — they’re not starting to test it yet. But they’ve done it. So, we know there are five votes, even without Amy. And let’s just say that’s probably a sixth vote. We’ve got five solid votes for the most vicious, aggressive anti-trade union, anti-worker, anti-worker power, anti-working-class people possible on the Supreme Court.

So, the reason why Power & Participation, that book, and maybe No Shortcuts really matter is that we’re going to have to be running a lot of illegal strikes. They’re coming. So, if we’ve got risk-averse national union leaders who are scared to do strikes right now, I just want to say, “Time to get over it,” because we’re not going to have time for risk aversion. If we do our work right, if we get public petitions, what we call a public petition, where 70, 80, 90% of the workers say, “I’m ready,” whether that’s illegal or legal, we’re going to have to start walking, because in the near future strikes will be illegal, or they will charge so much money as to have the effect as to make them illegal. So, nothing shy of 100% and 95% walkout, united, strong and together, with their community with them, is going to be able to win. So, people need to start practicing that right now, building supermajorities, winning like they did in Volkswagen, and a lot of other places, where people are finding elections every day. So, we’ve got to get on it in terms of teaching people. You don’t — you don’t do — you don’t take risk lightly and stupidly. You take it based on a set of assessments and a set of tests you’ve done as organizers with the workers, that the workers know every single assessment they’re doing. And when they’ve got 95% of people T-shirting up in the same color and walking out and having a party in the parking lot, you’re pretty much going to win. We’re going to need a lot more of that heading into a future that I think, with the current Supreme Court, is going to very quickly have strikes made illegal.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet you maintain so much hope. I just want to finally ask: As you confront your own mortality, how do you have this level of optimism, of brilliance, of lucidity, and to also offer hope to people who perhaps are in the same situation as you are as you deal with cancer?

JANE McALEVEY: You know, I, Amy, feel like I’ve had a really great life. I have been paid for 40, because the environmental justice, the Highlander years, the student organizing, that started before the trade union, the dominance of the trade union work in my life, but, you know, for essentially 40 years, I have been paid to teach workers and ordinary people how to beat the power structure, and beat it hard and win a lot. And so, I feel like my life — I feel like I had an incredibly fortunate life, purposeful. Family and friends probably complain that they haven’t seen enough of me in that 40 years. That’s why I’m hanging out and spending a lot more time with people right now, and that’s really important to me. But I have seen so many tens of thousands of workers win against stiff odds, that I kind of have endless faith in the ability of workers to continue to win. Takes methods, takes discipline. But for me, I am going to just keep cheering on every single worker in every worker campaign until the day that I no longer am with us. But I am going to hopefully keep writing as fast as I can right now on a few subjects that relate to power.

And for anyone who’s in a cancer fight, you know it’s a god-awful thing. It’s confidence-stripping. It is soul-stripping a lot of days. And what’s been amazing for me is the team I work with, the team I’ve been working with, on a very big campaign, in particular in Connecticut, got a multiyear campaign, getting ready for it, with a terrific union. You know, I know the work is going to continue. So that’s what gives me peace of mind. The books are out. The global and the domestic training programs are solid. I’ve replaced myself with staff everywhere at this point. I spent all of last year doing what I called — 2023 was the year of succession planning, because it was January — I call it the other January 6 — January 6 of '23, when they really said, “You're going to be dead in two weeks. And family flew in from all over the world to say goodbye, and then I popped back up again. So, again, that’s different than now, because they had a clinical trial drug to put me right into, which just magically worked.

But, you know, the work is going to go on. And that’s what makes me happy, is that I did a lot of succession planning, the work is going to go, and if workers just keep winning — one person falls, one soldier goes down — I’ve always thought of myself as a soldier. You know, one soldier is going to go down in the fight, and there’s a ton more soldiers being produced every day, in all of these campaigns, in all of the training programs. And I do think that they’re going to win, ultimately, because people have had it with capitalism in 2024.

AMY GOODMAN: And your advice to people who are caring for people with cancer? What is most helpful to you?

JANE McALEVEY: You know, showing a lot of love, also giving space sometimes. I’m the kind of person who needs some time alone each day, which is a struggle with my incredible caretakers, though most of them really understand it. But, you know, delivering food, mostly sending messages. Like, when I wake up in the morning, God, especially since I have not even yet read all of the letters I’ve gotten since the news about hospice, and it is unbelievable. If I’m feeling bad for a minute, I just turn and go to the next letter. I just read one from like, I think, Alyssa [inaudible] that blew my mind. Like, so, just letting people know, you know, that their life has been worthwhile and that the struggle continues, I think that’s what people with cancer need, a lot of love, a lot of tenderness, a lot of healthy food, a lot of fun, if you can do it, you know? We’re trying to have a lot of fun. I did a book party called the Not Dead Yet Book Party, when Power & Participation came out, because I was supposed to be dead then, and had two comedians, Dominique Nisperos and Nato Green. I don’t know if you know them, but I had two comedians emcee the party where I was supposed to be dead. So, trying to keep it light. And then, for me, really doing the succession work.

But I think for a lot of people who are struggling with cancer, those who will survive, God bless, get on it. You know, do the work you need to do to recover. It’s hard work, and it’s exhausting. And for people facing, you know, a more terminal diagnosis like mine, I think we probably need all sorts of different things. But what we definitely need is a lot of love notes, a lot of text, a lot of emails, and just a lot of support through the fight.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane, you end with a quote of Audre Lorde — you end your hospice piece — “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.”

JANE McALEVEY: She’s amazing, isn’t she? What would we do without Audre Lorde? I read that to myself about 300 times a day. And every time the idea of fear, which I don’t own a lot of, and I think that’s helped through 25 years of union fights — my father was a World War II fighter pilot who did 28 missions in the German theater and made at home. Not many did. You know, so growing up the daughter of a fighter pilot, I think I just — I think fear was not something I grew up with. And when I saw that Audre Lorde quote, I thought, “I’ve got to read this to myself about 300 times a day, facing death.” And I’m gonna. And she really helps me, as do all of my comrades and friends.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jane, I know your sister is waiting out in the wings there. And I want to thank her and your family for sharing you with the world. You have contributed so much, and I look forward to much more.

JANE McALEVEY: Thank you, Amy, and also for Democracy Now! My entire lifetime, basically, my adult lifetime, has been, when I’m here, 8 a.m. WBAI, it’s on. It’s in my ear. It’s walking around with my phone in my pocket. I get the real news on Democracy Now! When I’m living in my California house, it’s on KPFA. And this show is a very important part of the movement. So, thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: And KPFA is celebrating 75 years this year.

JANE McALEVEY: Yeah, yeah, both those stations critical, but you having real news five days a week is a pretty amazing thing. So, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you, Jane. Jane McAlevey has been an organizer in the labor movement for more than 20 years. She recently wrote a piece titled “I have stopped all work to turn to home-based hospice for the remainder of my time.” She’s the author of four books, including Rules to Win By: Power & Participation in Union Negotiations, written with Abby Lawlor, also author of A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy, also No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age and Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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