ThroughÂout SepÂtemÂber and OctoÂber, thouÂsands of activists and unionÂists from sevÂenÂty counÂtries parÂticÂiÂpatÂed in the interÂnaÂtionÂal ?âStrike Schoolâ orgaÂnizÂing trainÂing led by Jane McAlevey and sponÂsored by the Rosa LuxÂemÂburg Stiftung.
Jacobin?âs Eric Blanc spoke with McAlevey about the key lessons of the course, the reaÂsons why this traÂdiÂtion has been marÂginÂalÂized withÂin orgaÂnized labor, and the ways smart orgaÂnizÂing methÂods can help rebuild workÂing-class polÂiÂtics and transÂform unions today.
Can you talk about Strike School, who parÂticÂiÂpatÂed, and what its main purÂpose was?
JM: To be honÂest, we orgaÂnized Strike School partÂly in response to the increase of talk about strikes and genÂerÂal strikes. A lot of peoÂple now are sayÂing we need a genÂerÂal strike, so it seemed like exactÂly the right time to dig into orgaÂnizÂing funÂdaÂmenÂtals and teach how to build to superÂmaÂjorÂiÂty strikes?â?the kind that we need to stop the Right and turn things around for the workÂing class.
Strike School has turned into an imporÂtant space for the past two months?â?itâs realÂly been someÂthing to see this blosÂsom. There were thouÂsands of parÂticÂiÂpants from sevÂenÂty counÂtries, and all the trainÂings and mateÂriÂals are transÂlatÂed into AraÂbic, SpanÂish, French, PorÂtuguese, Hebrew, and GerÂman. Itâs sponÂsored by the Rosa LuxÂemÂburg Stiftung, which is beauÂtiÂful?â?to be able to carÂry on Rosaâs name today and to keep the idea of strikes, big strikes, alive.
We designed the course to emphaÂsize the funÂdaÂmenÂtals of orgaÂnizÂing?â?and linked these specifÂiÂcalÂly to how we develÂop strike-ready unions. But there are also a whole bunch of fanÂtasÂtic tenÂantsâ rights and cliÂmate orgaÂniÂzaÂtions involved, who are applyÂing these lessons to their work.
I get so many emails that I canât keep up with, where peoÂple say, ?âI want to learn the stuff you write about.â I decidÂed one thing that I can do for those who canât read the books?â?which is many peoÂple?â?is to partÂner with the Rosa LuxÂemÂburg Stiftung to get out there a couÂple of times a year to teach like crazy. This time, for this Strike School, we required peoÂple to regÂisÂter as groups. GetÂting strike ready is not about indiÂvidÂuÂals?â?itâs about peoÂple who can form orgaÂniÂzaÂtions togethÂer, even if they start small.
And if thereâs one thing that unites Strike School, beyond its radÂiÂcal polÂiÂtics cenÂtered around botÂtom-up change, itâs a comÂmitÂment to buildÂing a speÂcifÂic method of orgaÂnizÂing: strucÂture-based orgaÂnizÂing. Because itâs not just enough to fight. What our side needs is to fight back and win. And to do that, we need to learn and relearn the funÂdaÂmenÂtals of organizing.
One of the big arguÂments that ties togethÂer the speÂcifÂic trainÂings taught in Strike School, and that youâve writÂten about in books like No ShortÂcuts, is the difÂferÂence between ?âorgaÂnizÂingâ and ?âmobiÂlizÂing.â Can you spell out that difÂferÂence and why you think itâs so important?
JM: Itâs realÂly urgent that we underÂstand this difÂferÂence, parÂticÂuÂlarÂly for leftÂists and proÂgresÂsives. ?âMobiÂlizÂingâ means weâre talkÂing to our already engaged base to take action. The act of mobiÂlizÂing anyÂone into an elecÂtion or into a strike or a protest by defÂiÂnÂiÂtion means youâre talkÂing with the peoÂple who already agree with you.
MobiÂlizÂing is not orgaÂnizÂing?â?itâs getÂting the folks who already agree with you to get off the couch and do someÂthing. The Left spends a lot of time mobilizing.
Donât get me wrong, we actuÂalÂly also have to get betÂter at mobiÂlizÂing, too, by learnÂing to be more sysÂtemÂatÂic. But before we can have a strike mobiÂlizaÂtion, the deepÂer part of Strike School is how to get to the 90 perÂcent of workÂers you need to be ready to be mobiÂlized for the strike. A strike vote is the ultiÂmate test of whether the necÂesÂsary orgaÂnizÂing has been done.
The orgaÂnizÂing work is much hardÂer, and itâs not very well underÂstood and not as sexy. In the UnitÂed States, for examÂple, to make a strike real and effecÂtive?â?and to have the powÂer to delivÂer the kinds of demands workÂers are makÂing?â?you need north of 90 perÂcent to walk out.
Thatâs why what was won by teachÂers in Los AngeÂles and ChicaÂgo was so subÂstanÂtial. To get to that point is realÂly hard work. And the broadÂer and more diverse the workÂforce, the more comÂplex the project of tryÂing to build uniÂty and solÂiÂdarÂiÂty across races, genÂder, immiÂgraÂtion staÂtus, across shifts, across difÂferÂent identities.
So the quesÂtion ?âHow do you move workÂers to a project that they believe they donât agree with?â is funÂdaÂmenÂtal to the quesÂtion of buildÂing powÂer and getÂting strike ready. Most peoÂple, includÂing most socialÂists, donât underÂstand that we donât just call for a strike. Itâs about buildÂing and expandÂing the uniÂverse of peoÂple who are with us in this strugÂgle for justice.
The cenÂtral conÂcept of the course is that, for orgaÂnizÂers, we wake up every mornÂing askÂing how to engage the peoÂple who donât agree with us?â?or who think they donât agree with us. These folks are defÂiÂniteÂly not part of our social media feeds, and theyâre not comÂing to our activist meetÂings, theyâre not there.
In Strike School, we do a powÂer analyÂsis of what it will take to get to someÂthing like a 100 perÂcent strike. This means you are takÂing a lot of time engagÂing with those who donât want to engage with us and for whom havÂing some skills in your conÂverÂsaÂtions is actuÂalÂly going to matter.
Thatâs why itâs so imporÂtant to teach the difÂferÂence between orgaÂnizÂing and mobiÂlizÂing, and to focus on teachÂing the skills required to move the hardÂest-to-move peoÂple in order to bring about the kind of solÂiÂdarÂiÂty and uniÂty required for a sucÂcessÂful strike.
If this method of orgaÂnizÂing is so powÂerÂful, why do you think this traÂdiÂtion has gotÂten lost not only in the UnitÂed States, but in so much of the world?
JM: Itâs a good quesÂtion, but Iâd like to reframe it: I think the traÂdiÂtion was not ?âlostâ?â?I think it was beatÂen, jailed, and (dependÂing on the counÂtry) murÂdered out of most of the movement.
In the UnitÂed States, you can realÂly look at [the 1947 anti-union legÂisÂlaÂtion] Taft-HartÂley and McCarthyÂism as a turnÂing point. This was a moment when capÂiÂtalÂists underÂstood the very real threat of workÂers buildÂing class solÂiÂdarÂiÂty across race and genÂder. It was a periÂod, with the comÂplicÂiÂty of some trade union leadÂers, where there was a real effort to destroy the traÂdiÂtions that built the powÂerÂful unions formed in the 1930s.
For those union leadÂers who were willÂfulÂly comÂplicÂit in going along with the purges of radÂiÂcals at the time, it showed a real naĂŻvetĂ© about the fact that, in the long term, their own unions and the lives of their memÂbers would evenÂtuÂalÂly be destroyed or hugeÂly underÂmined by these same capÂiÂtalÂist forces.
After, with the turn to busiÂness unionÂism, many of these labor leadÂers thought workÂers would just stay put, that unions would have instiÂtuÂtionÂal secuÂriÂty for life. That was a radÂiÂcal misÂunÂderÂstandÂing of how powÂer works and how peoÂple work.
The skills weâre passÂing on in Strike School are skills I learned from extraÂorÂdiÂnary menÂtors in the real traÂdiÂtion from the old 1199 [health care workÂersâ union]. Theyâre skills that were beatÂen out of the moveÂment and worse. You can see that lookÂing across the world: many of the same methÂods of deep orgaÂnizÂing cross interÂnaÂtionÂal borÂders, and thatâs why many politÂiÂcal leadÂers in all sorts of counÂtries jail and murÂder and do everyÂthing posÂsiÂble to beat the most effecÂtive leadÂers out of the moveÂment. So the more we can teach these skills today, the better.
What do you think the Left and socialÂists can learn from this method of orgaÂnizÂing for class polÂiÂtics more genÂerÂalÂly, not only for union organizing?
JM: The methÂods and the disÂciÂpline of strucÂture-based orgaÂnizÂing in the workÂplace apply genÂerÂalÂly to buildÂing a stronger Left. Thereâs a lot of those lessons.
The first is founÂdaÂtionÂal: Do you spend most of your day talkÂing to peoÂple who donât agree with you? If youâre seriÂous about buildÂing class polÂiÂtics, the answer is yes. Thatâs the first strateÂgic choice.
Are you spendÂing all your time in the units in the hosÂpiÂtal or the schools in a disÂtrict where peoÂple already agree with you and your numÂbers are pretÂty good? The answer, if youâre buildÂing a strike-ready union, is that youâre focused on the places where thereâs real oppoÂsiÂtion and where peoÂple think they donât agree with you. The same goes for how we build a strong Left.
The secÂond big lesÂson is that thereâs actuÂalÂly a method for how to do this. In the old days, the thing that realÂly turned me off from the orgaÂnized US left was that every time I would show up at a Left conÂferÂence, Iâd be immeÂdiÂateÂly swarmed by white guys hawkÂing papers in four-point font with their politÂiÂcal line. And thatâs not going to build a class-based, effecÂtive moveÂment thatâs tackÂling race and gender.
What you have to do is come to appreÂciÂate and underÂstand the perÂson youâre takÂing with, and realÂly respect that they may have come to conÂcluÂsions difÂferÂent from yours based on a set of social conÂdiÂtions in their life that might be radÂiÂcalÂly difÂferÂent from the organizerâs. Thatâs one of the things that sepÂaÂrates an orgaÂnizÂer from an activist: we underÂstand our job is to have patience and appreÂciÂate where the perÂson weâre engagÂing with is comÂing from, why they might be that way, and how we can actuÂalÂly work with that perÂson to help them come to the conÂcluÂsion that they want a difÂferÂent counÂtry, that they want a difÂferÂent politÂiÂcal-ecoÂnomÂic sysÂtem than the one we have.
That type of change does not come from lecÂturÂing peoÂple, from talkÂing at them, or from makÂing judgÂments about them.
Iâve seen some peoÂple claim?â?and I think itâs unfair?â?that the methÂods you teach are only relÂeÂvant for union leadÂers and staffers, not for transÂformÂing the labor moveÂment from the botÂtom up. How do you look at the relaÂtionÂship between the methÂods taught in Strike School and the quesÂtion of how socialÂists can most effecÂtiveÂly help build and transÂform the labor movement?
JM: First of all, whether youâre inside the rank and file strateÂgiÂcalÂly because you took a job there, or whether youâre outÂside the rank and file because you mapped the entire nationÂal health care indusÂtry and you underÂstand which eight cities can colÂlapse the sysÂtem?â?both are good ideas in our country.
For me, the quesÂtion is whether you underÂstand your role as an orgaÂnizÂer as funÂdaÂmenÂtalÂly doing radÂiÂcal politÂiÂcal eduÂcaÂtion. Are you skilling peoÂple up? And do you start by underÂstandÂing that you respect the social conÂdiÂtions that formed and framed difÂferÂent peoÂple? Thatâs a respect, and a valÂue, and a method of work that you can do effecÂtiveÂly posiÂtioned inside or outside.
I think itâs great, as you know, for peoÂple to take jobs in strateÂgic indusÂtries. But I think the over-romanÂtiÂcizaÂtion of that can be danÂgerÂous. Part of why weâre doing Strike School is that there is a skill set to doing the hardÂer work. It isnât rockÂet sciÂence, but it is a skill set, whether youâre going into the workÂplace or whether youâre approachÂing the workÂplace from the outÂside. WinÂning matÂters?â?and so havÂing some appreÂciÂaÂtion of the method and the skill realÂly matters.
Thatâs why weâre doing Strike School, because peoÂple need to be exposed to the best methÂods to move a realÂly hard conÂverÂsaÂtion and why you wake up focusÂing on the hardÂest-to-move unit and not on the unit where all the workÂers want to talk to you.
Weâre tryÂing to stitch togethÂer the talk about a genÂerÂal strike and the realÂiÂty about how we get there. The same is true for class polÂiÂtics more broadÂly. When peoÂple ask me, ?âWhy donât you teach a class on how to transÂform unions?â, my answer is that this is basiÂcalÂly the same skill. Because if you canât first build majorÂiÂty supÂport for changÂing your local union, you need to stop callÂing for a genÂerÂal strike.
How do you transÂform unions? Itâs the same skill. You need to learn how to build majorÂiÂty and superÂmaÂjorÂiÂty supÂport. Thatâs the real lesÂson from ChicaÂgo and Los AngeÂles. When you show you can win over a majorÂiÂty of your coworkÂers to a difÂferÂent verÂsion of their own trade union, thatâs step one.
EveryÂthing we disÂcussed in Strike School, startÂing with leader idenÂtiÂfiÂcaÂtion, how to have sucÂcessÂful hard conÂverÂsaÂtions, underÂstandÂing the issues that matÂter most to each workÂer you are engagÂing, to learnÂing how to make and move a majorÂiÂty petiÂtion?â?all that transÂlates into learnÂing how to win. RealÂly good orgaÂnizÂing is realÂly good organizing.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Eric Blanc is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachersâ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics.