On a recent episode of the Current Affairs podcast, Pete Davis spoke with labor organizer Jane McAlevey. A transcript follows. It has been lightly edited for grammar and readability.
PETE DAVIS: I am happy to be talking to one of my favorite people in the movement, Jane McAlevey. I like Jane because she’s very serious — not in the stern sense of the word, but in the sense that she actually wants to win. She is not satisfied with “being on the right side of history,” she actually wants to move history in the right direction, and most splendidly, she is not afraid to tell you when a strategy, or lack thereof, is not serious about winning. She knows that the new Gilded Age will not be overcome with gimmicks. No app, no targeted mail campaign, no super-lobbyists, no hashtag, no shallow mobilization strategy is going to save us, only the slow and steady work of smart organizing. Put another way, Jane McAlevey is very hardcore, and she is from one of the most hardcore branches of the left, which is the world of labor organizing. She’s a long-time organizer in the environmental and labor movements, she’s a contributing writer at the Nation magazine, and she is the author of Raising Expectations And Raising Hell, and No Shortcuts: Organizing For Power In The New Gilded Age.
So I’d like to get started with one of the big distinctions in your book, No Shortcuts, which is mobilizing versus organizing. You are critical of the mobilizers, and you are a sage of the organizers. What is the difference? Educate our listeners between mobilizing and organizing.
JANE MCALEVEY: I should say, I’m not critical of mobilization, I’m very clear that we need plenty of mobilization. It’s just, I’m critical when that’s all we do. That’s where my critique comes in. The difference between the two—and this is sort of the essential reason why we have to do both, not just one—mobilizing is essentially when we just spend all of our time talking to people who already agree with us. It’s getting more effective at the technology of turnout. It’s calling up a protest, and 300 people show up the first time, and you say “Wow, that wasn’t what we thought,” and you double down, and you do way better social media, and you use every single piece of technology you can, and you get 4,000 out the next time. And that’s a huge jump, and you feel great. The problem is that your organization is more like 100,000, and so you’re still only turning out a teeny fraction, and even worse, you’re not actually engaging anyone or expanding your base.
So, what organizing is, by contrast, if I just use that example: If your base is 100,000, organizing is an explicit strategy to go from 100,000 to 1,000,000 and to make it simple, realistic, with a plan. In organizing, we’re consciously, every single day, doing what we call “base expansion.” We’re expanding the universe of people from whom we can later come back to mobilize, whether it’s to go to the polls—I think most people on the left and in this country have learned that elections actually matter—or whether it’s getting people on a picket line and striking, or blocking a bridge, the truth is, there are way too few people, right now, who self-identify as “participating progressives.” We need way, way, way, way more to actually win. So that’s my obsession.
People get confused, they say, “Hey, we called a meeting. Hey, it’s an open meeting.” Like, it’s an open meeting, we called a meeting and we invited anyone to come, and people came, and we’re going to do an action. All of those things involve people. So because they involve people, people think they are organizing. And people go, “Hey, I’m actually organizing.” And I’ll be like, “Really?” And then we get into a deep discussion about it. Because unless you’re waking up in the morning with an explicit plan to build the universe of people who are not yet part of your organizing, who are not in your social media feed, who you don’t talk to, who might even think that they don’t like you, who might even think that they’re opposed to you— that’s the work of organizers and organizing, going out to build unity, and solidarity, and expand the universe of people in our movement.
PD: I’m so glad you brought up elections, because elections force you to do actual organizing, because there’s literally a grade at the end. You lose if you do not organize. And you can’t just keep going back to your donors and saying, “Oh, we had 100 people show up to the meeting.” They say, “Scoreboard: You lost the election.” And it really shows that you have to have a universe of people that you’re targeting and you’re actually trying to get more of those people that you’re targeting to be on your side. Is that a correct analogy?
JM: There’s a “yes” and “no” in there. Or, let’s just clarify it. I would actually say elections are a mobilizing function, not an organizing function, because you’re only turning out your “yes” votes. You already know that they’re a yes vote, and I should repeat this like 80 times: There are a lot of people in our country who don’t have a lot of experience, and they’re actually turning out a “no” vote, or an undecided, yet we just don’t do that if you want to win. So actually, elections themselves I would call very clearly a mobilizing function, because you are moving people who you know will be a yes, whatever the yes is. Organizing is what happens before and after election time. And one of the single biggest crises in the progressive movement, certainly, as we think of electoral politics—and let’s just say the Democratic party—is that they treat every election like a “Gosh darn, we’re going to start all over again” campaign mode.
And that is the problem. all they’re doing is mobilizing. They come out every four years. Basically in a presidential race, they do something called “activating” people. If I hear that word one more time, I’m going to put my head in the oven. There’s so much activating of people. Like, “let’s activate people.” What, are you putting a little bunny charger in them or something? What does that mean, that you’re going to activate people for the presidential race? And there’s a lot of lingo around it. And then we have the presidential election, and then all those million people from the Democratic Party, in particular, and a bunch of the groups that they fund, all just disappear, and no one talks to each other for the next three-and-a-half years, and then they come back.
So, what the organizers are doing is all the work in between. We’re actually trying to figure out: What is the universe of people in that precinct—for example, I went to Nevada a few years ago. It’s one of the few states that’s trending in all the good directions now, because we actually went there and did base-building work. We did the organizing work, and now the state is trending blue while everyone else is trending red. So, it’s a really good example. But when I landed in Nevada years ago and it was still a red state voting-wise and we were there in part to turn it blue, we had to analyze all the districts and figure out where the potential growth was, where the growing districts were. And we understood that to change Nevada from voting red in presidential races to voting blue in presidential races, (1) it would take us about four years, (2) we had to organize a ton more workers into unions in strategic industries and geographies, and (3) it was not going to be Las Vegas, which was already breaking Democratic. We were going to have to flip rural Nevada precincts, a couple of key ones, and then Reno, in northern Nevada. And unless you’re on the ground and being smart, you didn’t see that. Everyone just thought, “We have to turn more voters out in Vegas.” But that wasn’t actually true. We didn’t need to turn more voters out in Vegas. We actually had to win the north and rural areas. And that was harder. And so, to do that, we had to build a base. We organized many thousands of hospital workers in rural and northern Nevada, and now the state is blue.
PD: See, this is what I mean by serious! When you said the Democratic Party just shows up once every four years, one question that’s always fascinated me is: Why doesn’t the Democratic Party keep track of who are active members of the Democratic Party, and try to watch that number every day. Because I know some people might say, “Don’t organize within the party,” maybe we should do the unions, and civic life, and the Democratic Party is just a coalition of all of them. But what shocks me is that if you’re trying to change a state blue, you should say, “Okay, who are card-carrying members of the Democratic Party, how many of those are actually folks that really feel it, and do things, and always turn out, and the like?” We never seem to keep track. And there doesn’t seem to be any seriousness. At my local Democratic meeting, in my town, no one asks what percentage of our town is Democrats, and what our goal is in the coming year to have that percentage be higher.
JM: See, you are one of those incredible people who actually shows up at your local Democratic Party meetings. That’s amazing. I don’t have the patience. They’re not doing that. Of course they’re not doing that. It’s so painful. And I definitely personally kind of gave up on the party as an agent of change a long time ago, when I realized how maddeningly bad the whole operation was being run, or totally controlled by top-down neoliberals. But I do a lot of electoral work. Yes, they should be doing just what you said, Pete, absolutely, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath over that one. I’d be figuring out how we build the organizations that do deliver the turnout for good candidates at election time, which in my case has primarily been working with unions.
PD: One more bit of “McAlevey 101,” before I get into applying it to things in the news today. You have this phrase that has made me see the entire world of organizing differently. You call it “the structure test.” And then you have this phrase called “strikes as structure tests.” And I’ve been telling everyone about it. I don’t say it as eloquently as you, so they look at me like I’m crazy—what is this word “structure test?” Could you explain what a structure test is, and how a strike is a structure test, and, maybe as a final question, what a strike is in a context outside of unions, just so you can say “strike” as a concept? What is a structure test?
JM: You said so many good things at once there, and I just wrote them down so I don’t forget them. But I want to say one more thing, because it relates to something you said a minute ago, when we were back on the “mobilization versus organizing” and I was pointing out the campaign nature of elections. You talked about yes and no, and funders sort of knowing did you win or not? And one thing that relates, coming back to a structure test, is that I’m a real firm believer that one reason people should jump on board and get involved in local elections is because it is where the rubber hits the road. If someone wants to wax on, and on, and on, and on, and on, with a million opinions about this and that, and how things should be, I’m always like, “That’s cool, dude. You just go win a hard election and then come back, and let’s debrief.” Because unless you can put your theory into action, and show me that it works, and show me that you can win, I’m just not going to be that interested. So yes-and-no contestations are super, super important because they force clarity on “Is some shit you’re doing working or not?” We don’t have time for stuff that isn’t working, and a lot of the left is involved in stuff that isn’t working. So, I wanted to underscore that when you said “yes or no contestations,” I’m really all for that.
And then you get to whether you’re going to win in a win-or-lose contestation, which will answer the question, “Is what we’re doing working?” In order to know that you’re going to win, what we do, what I think organizers try to do, is we engage in a lot of what we call “structure tests” in the lead-up to any hard yes-or-no, win-or-lose contestation.
So, you’re in a yes-no win-lose contestation, a lot of them are set in the context of what I refer to in No Shortcuts as “structure-based organizing,” versus what I call, “self-selecting.” So, “structure-based” means, literally, there is a structure. And by structure, I mean “agency,” ironically, in the vernacular of the academy. I mean people, bodies. The structure that we’re testing is: “How strong is the people’s army?” And you can define what that means. If it’s a workplace, let’s say I got 1,000 workers in a hospital called Einstein, in Philadelphia—that’s a real number, and a real hospital, in a real city. And we want to know whether or not we’re going to win a strike vote. If we’re going to start building towards a strike vote, for us nothing is going to be satisfactory unless we have 90 percent turnout for the vote itself, and then upwards of 90 plus voting yes to strike. So that’s like a 90-90 rule. There has to be 90 percent of the actual people involved turning out, and then of the 90 percent turnout—of a universe of, in this case, 1000 nurses—you want to have upwards of 90 percent or greater approval rate.
But if someone tells me, “Hey, you’ve got 1000 nurses and they voted 98 percent, totally overwhelming, to vote yes.” Then I’m going to ask them what the percent turnout was, because if 35 percent of the people turned out to vote, then that’s not a 98 percent “yes” vote. (There’s a lot of math in good organizing. The smarter, the more left, the more numbers there are, to be honest.) So “structure-based” means I have a universe of workers, I know exactly how many there are, and we’re going to begin to do things like a majority petition, which is literally a hand-signed petition. But it’s not the kind most people think of as a petition, because it’s short, just a couple sentences, and it’s hand-signed, and it has to be moved by hand only—no computers, no social media, no nothing. And it’s because we’re testing whether or not we’ve correctly identified leaders, in each shift, on each floor, in each unit, and whether or not those leaders are correct in the sense that they actually lead their co-workers.
So if they get a petition, and they’re asked to sign it, then it’s a petition that their CEO is going to see, or their manager, or their boss, or their something. People will actually be scared to sign it. So we’re testing risk, and conditioning risk. Can you get 95 percent of all the workers—meaning 950 of them in the case of 1000 workers—to actually sign that petition? And in the beginning it will take forever. And then you’re trying to teach the workers, you’re trying to go from taking seven weeks to get 950 people to hand-sign, by unit, by shift, a petition that has to be able to be turned around in three days. So, you do them until you understand, until you’ve taught workers, because you’re teaching them to build a structure, in the case of the workplace. If it’s a precinct, then you’re building a precinct operation. If it’s a community-based campaign, it’s faith-based, you’re building a mosque, a synagogue, temple, whatever, campaign. But the core is: There has to be a set number of human beings that are involved, that’s the structure, then you’re starting to build it into a really tight, effective organization with a lot of solidarity. So there’s so much going on in just the words “structure test,” but it is the difference between winning, winning big, losing, and losing big, and I have no interest in losing anything.
PD: We can tell. We can tell, Jane. So, just to walk back through this so that we can fully understand: It starts with a universe that you have identified. So it is: “There is a hospital, and there are 1000 nurses in the hospital, and that is your universe.” If you don’t have a universe, you are already not serious, because you’re not saying “What is our denominator that is determining the percentage?”
JM: Yes, or, I don’t know about not serious, but you don’t know how to organize yet, which is more of the case, right? So I would say to people, “Look, you have to create the denominator.” And they say to me, “Oh, well you do nurses, Jane. That’s pretty easy because it’s a bunch of people in a hospital.” Okay, well first of all, they all drive from across the state for an hour, it’s a little complicated. But if somebody says, “Well, what do you do if you’re doing home care, or you’re doing unstructured workers?” I say, look, right, so the very first challenge is to create the structure. And that literally means you have to create the structure. So if I was going to do home care organizing, or childcare organizing, then I would start to figure out: Do I want to organize residentially-based childcare workers, who don’t come into a workplace, or don’t punch a clock, but they work out of their homes, and depending on the state, there can be one, or two, or three, or four a house? Define the structure. What is the structure that makes sense to the workers that you’re engaging? So, in this case, scattered site workers. Is it a county? Is there some structure that’s state-based, county? Are you going to make political precincts, because ultimately you’re going to need political operation to win the childcare campaigns? Funding, in addition to a yes vote, at some point? I say to people: It’s the first thing you have to imagine to do, if you’re an organizer, because you must be able to measure success and failure. If you can’t measure success and failure at every step of the operation, good luck. That’s all I’ve got to say. That’s the whole point of structure-based organizing. I want to know every day: Are the actions we’re taking winning over previously disconnected people, and don’t believe us people and aren’t part of “us” people? So yes, you have to create the denominator, that’s step one.
PD: So that’s the universe. And then step two: The structure is not the universe. The structure is the people that are on-board. Building the structure is building the numerator.
JM: The structure is everyone. The 1,000 nurses that I haven’t talked to yet. Structure is 1,000. So you’re starting to build a human-structure, based just on having conversations with people and trying to figure out who respects who, to then identify the right leader, who may be anti-union, in our case. But the right leader is going to be someone who people are going to follow, and our job is to win them over. That’s the fundamental difference between organizing versus mobilizing. I’m going to be going after people who think they’re either anti-union or they’re undecided, but we’ve identified that there’s a leader, because we’ve talked to a bunch of workers and all the workers say, “That’s who everyone turns to.”
PD: And the structure test is the method of seeing how well you’re doing before the big giant moment.
JM: Exactly, and we do a lot of them. The L.A. teachers before the L.A. teachers’ strike, they did eight of them. I’m documenting all of them now. And no one saw that, right? People, were just like, “Woo! Big strike in L.A.. How cool was that?” By the way—how cool was that?
PD: Amazing, yes.
JM: But what I’m writing about, the eight structure tests they did over three years to know that it was going to be as cool as it was, that’s not what people are paying attention to, and it’s what I’m obsessing about, right? That’s what good organizers do: We obsess about questions like “How did they know?” “What was the challenge?” “How did they build?” “How’d they tighten the structure?” “How did they understand where their weaknesses were?” “How did they improve on every structure test?” They were doing the exact thing I’m describing, because that’s what good organizing is, and that’s why they won.
PD: And you say that the foil of a structure is self-selection. So, what do you mean by “self-selection?”
JM: Self-selection is when you’re only talking to the people who are coming to your meetings. And that’s what most of the progressive movement does. And in our case, people come to a meeting and were like, “Wow, okay, this is a night-shift meeting, okay, it’s a 7:00 pm meeting” (typical meeting schedule at a hospital), the day shift is coming off. So the 7:00 pm meeting—and we’ve done the structure test—and we’re looking at what we call wall charts, on the wall, and all the workers are looking at who signed the petition, and who hasn’t. And the whole point of the meeting is to look at every single person who has yet to sign the petition and lead them in a plan to get every single person to sign it. You’re not looking at who signed. You’re looking at: Who do we have to get to the next meeting to get your unit first to a majority, then to a supermajority? That’s why we have a lot of them to do, because it doesn’t happen overnight that we go from minority activist model to majority model, to supermajority model, to super-supermajority. That’s the gradation that we’re punching up in, and we’re organizing in a serious way.
PD: I think the problem of why we don’t act in this way is because that’s so uncomfortable and hard.
JM: It’s so uncomfortable and hard. You’re so right.
PD: It’s so nice to go—if you have 1,000 people in a town, and you go, “I’m going to find the 50 usual suspects who are a lot like me, and they’re going to come to the meeting, and we’re going to have a fun meeting.” But knocking on the door of someone who isn’t that engaged, or is maybe even opposed to me, or not like me at all… I have to now talk with them, and argue to convince them, and try to find their friend that’s an “in,” and I have to then ask that friend to ask their friend to come to the meeting, and talk with them. Why would I want to bother them with that? It just seems like this all comes down the micro-phenomenon that one day is a lot more pleasant than the other day.
JM: And I’m so glad you say that, because when I’m doing trainings—I just came off of multiple weeks of doing a whole bunch of trainings in Germany, where are all the conditions are the same at this point, blah, blah, blah. Doesn’t matter where you go. At this point in the world, neoliberalism is everywhere, and workers are beat down. People forgot how to organize, and no one knows how to strike anymore, and blah, blah, blah—I always say to people in training, “Would you rather talk to a worker in a hard campaign—walk into the parking lot of a hospital, in my case—would you rather talk to the worker who comes running up, and says “Heeeey Pete, hey Jane, so great to see you! High five! Oh my god, you should see what the boss is saying. People are pissed there and blah, blah, blah, and boy am I glad the union showed up. And what do we need to do? And here’s what we’re going to do.” And you’ve just got this frenetic—and she’s wearing a button, and she’s super excited, and she loves you. And it’s just like, actually I don’t need to spend any time talking to her. I’m in parking lots to try to find the worker who tried to throw a piece of paper at us last week, and won’t talk to us. And it turns out, it’s the leader of the day shift, and her unit. And, yeah, let’s be honest, I spend my day talking to workers who throw pieces of paper at me and stick their middle finger up at me half the time, until they realize that we’re actually all on the same side. So it’s much more challenging, it’s much less pleasant, and ultimately, it’s so damn satisfying, because we win.
PD: Yeah, the end. Pain, pain, pain, victory, versus pleasant, pleasant, pleasant, oh, look, we lost again.
JM: Pleasant, Trump. Pleasant, pleasant, pleasant, Trump!
PD: Yes, that should be the official drumbeat of the party… Okay, I did the micro level, which is like: What is the feeling when you’re doing this? The macro level, it seems like organizing is something that involves people changing their minds, or maybe not changing their minds, but activating a dormant…
JM: No, no, no, no. It involves people changing their minds.
PD: Okay, so I’m allowed to say that. Okay, then: changing their minds. Political scientists today love talking about everyone as if they have static attributes, especially when talking about elections. Like, there are 17 percent of Americans that are white women who think this, and there are 28 percent of Americans who think that. And all politics is is finding candidates who check the boxes that activate the static attributes that everyone has, to add up to more than their opponent. That assumes that there’s never any organizing done, and no one ever changes their mind. But that seems to me to not be the human condition. That’s a false reading of a particularly cold time in the history of organizing. But if we heated up organizing again, it would be dumb to say that people have static attributes, we’d just say, “Oh, maybe we can change their mind, and then they’ll think something differently.” There’s not “gun voters,” or “union voters.” There are people waiting to be something different. What is your take on how this plays out in the macro?
JM: I think that’s exactly right, and it’s part of why the pollsters get so much wrong these days. It’s part of why I have such cynicism, maybe, even though I don’t linger on cynicism as a habit. But I can’t be bothered with pollsters. That’s just the most polite way I can say it. I literally just can’t be bothered. First of all, a structure test is so much better than a pollster. When you hear polling numbers, generally, even if it kills us on our side, you’ll hear, as with the nurses in Massachusetts a year ago: Oh, nurse-to-patient ratios are polling at 77 percent favorables, this is going to be an easy campaign. And that’s before the Massachusetts Hospital Association dropped 35 million dollars on an insane, evil, boss-like fight across the state to actually contest for the 77 percent, and change it, from a right-wing perspective, until the numbers completely flipped. Numbers are numbers.
And I love the way you frame that, Pete, because it’s such horseshit what pollsters and a lot of what political science is doing. If you’re an organizer, you have an objective. You have to win. So how many people do you have to go to? You have to actually figure out how to help them come to Jesus and see that they’re confused about the fact that Donald Trump is going to stop their GM plant from closing down, versus rebuilding a strong labor movement and having more of like, an F.D.R. kind of person who is actually going to stop their plant from closing down. These are serious conversations, they’re real.
I don’t mean to say that people are malleable. I think the point is that the right has always known better than the average political scientist and the vast majority of the progressive movement, that people generally break in a progressive direction. And we know that from decades of people actually wanting unions. If you asked them how much corporations should be taxed, they’re going to tell you, like, 50 times more than what they get taxed in this country. If you asked if healthcare should be free… most people want what’s good for most people. And that’s the truth. And then the right-wing solution is to go mess that all up. To confuse, use fear and division, and all that stuff. And on the progressive side, we’re not nearly as clear that most people do agree with a broad, progressive agenda, and our job is to help people themselves come to that understanding. And the difference between what the right does and what good organizers do, from a progressive perspective, is we’re not using feat. It’s the opposite: We’re raising people’s expectations that their life can be better.
And we’re engaging in the kinds of conversations and the kind of campaigns that literally help people themselves shift their own awareness, to come to their own conclusion about what’s right and wrong. Telling people, talking at people, shoving bad left-wing newspapers in their face in small font, with no good graphics—none of that has ever worked, nor will it ever work. People learn through doing, through conversations, through self-discovery, which is why organizers are constantly running campaigns. Because it’s in campaigns, it’s in struggle that people begin to learn to pull away the onion layers of bullshit put in their head by the media and society, and come to think for themselves. A fundamental quality of successful organizers is that we actually have a lot of faith in people, and we believe that our job is to play the role of teacher, and coach. If we can teach and coach effectively, so that people then have to do the work themselves, and they succeed little by little, they begin to build confidence.
One thing that ordinary people in the United States don’t have—and probably globally, I could say, too—is a lot of confidence. Because the media, the CEOs, your school, your minister, whoever it is in your life… a lot of people spend a lot of time either overtly or indirectly making it clear that only a handful of people are really smart enough to run the company or to run the country. And that’s a bummer of a message for people to grow up on. So, I believe that most people are actually smart, but no one in this country actually teaches you how power works. You don’t learn that lesson, really, anywhere, unless you meet good organizers. They’re the people who are teaching people how power works, and it’s not just self-evident. When people say, “Oh yeah, I’m going to do something about this. Call a meeting, and whoever comes, comes. Let’s start going.” Good impulse, but not enough. Not enough of the hard fight, right? Just to call together those that agree with you? That’s the whole point.
PD: I love what you just said, because it speaks to something we talk about a lot at Current Affairs which is, we call it “the democratic faith.” Faith in the genius of ordinary people. It’s something that’s been lost in our moment, and it seems like good labor organizers, or organizers anywhere, are on the frontlines of this.
Your work reminds me of this quote I read from Jonathan Smucker, who does wonderful organizing in Lancaster, PA, and has the door-knocking faith of turning red counties blue by meeting people, having real conversations that actually try to change minds—he says that one of the biggest problems that progressives had was that we created a subculture called “activists,” and all the activists disembedded from the systems in society. You’re not teachers anymore, you’re not reverends, you’re not at a factory, you’re not in the professions, you’re not in business. Whereas, in the past, all the reformers would be embedded in the systems, and organizers would turn on and organize people who were already within the system. Now, activists disentangle themselves from the system, become their own subculture, then they’re the ones who show up to the marches. And I’d be interested in what your relationship to the word “activist” is, and that idea of kind of embedded-within-structure work, versus becoming a national subculture of people who show up to marches.
JM: Of course. Labor organizers have been using the word “activist” versus “leader” for our whole lives. For at least 100 years, that I can pinpoint. An activist-driven approach is the mobilizing approach. The two of them go together. You’re self-selecting, you’re relying on your activists. That’s an activist-driven approach that leads you to the mobilization model, because it’s all within the universe of the people that agree with you. If you’re doing structure-based organizing, that’s what we call small-l—very important, I call it the “organic leader” in No Shortcuts. It’s the small-l leader. It’s the informal leader, inside a structure, who we can test and assess to be sure it actually is the right person, meaning the informal leader.
So in an organizing approach, we call organizing in a structure-based environment a leader-focused approach. Mobilizing is an activist-focused approach. There are two long, clear distinctions in the history of what works versus what looks good, or feels good, in this country.
PD: It’s interesting, how these different words that we hear kind of fall into different networks of strategy. I’d like to finish with a “lightning round” where I can just ask you about some of the movements of today, and get your judgement on each of them, based on this model you have of analyzing things. So, I will give you them all at once, and you can talk about them in whichever way you want.
JM: Does lightning round mean like at the end of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me? Like, we’re supposed to go really fast?
PD: Maybe just a few sentences on each. Let’s start with Occupy. How did that work out, and why did it have the success or failure that it did?
JM: I don’t necessarily want to pass the house of judgement here… but I will just say, it’s less judgement, it’s more just a straight up assessment. Because I don’t want to judge people. My assessment is Occupy is absolutely an activist-driven mobilization, period. I think it’s debatable how much narrative change it led to. I don’t think it led to a lot. Some people argue it did. We could have that argument for a long time. I don’t think it’s a useful argument. It had to be dismantled with the help of some significant players who let it ease out after the Brooklyn Bridge march without getting destroyed by the police. That’s the real story of the end of Occupy. It couldn’t even come to a graceful end. It didn’t have enough power in how the occupation ended. I think people need to be real and honest about our history.
So, whatever. “A” for effort. I was down there a lot. I was in grad school, so I would meander down to the park at night, and high-five people, and watch the food be prepared, and listen to a little yell-through-the-park system. We’re surrounded by a million cops. Cops on horses and whatever. I participated in all of the big Occupy marches, for the record. I was at the two giant ones, both of them in New York. I love a good protest. But right, lightning round. Yeah. I don’t think it was very successful.
PD: Okay, the most recent teacher strikes.
JM: The complete opposite. Devastatingly brilliant at every level. And I can’t say as much about Oakland, because I literally was out of the country, and it just killed me. I’m trying to catch up to Oakland though. I would say that given how much time they had, and when they started, that that was a serious success. But in the same way, Los Angeles was because the rank-and-file leadership had way more time to prepare. I described to you earlier on that there were eight structure tests done over three years. They were very hard structure tests. They really built an extraordinary organization, and they defied even the most optimistic odds in the set of victories they won in Los Angeles. Structural change, permanent condition change—we could literally point to 60-some specific victories of actual material, and sort of pedagogical, character. The whole city of L.A. thinks differently of struggle. Just shockingly good.
PD: It’s been amazing seeing the effects 10 years of billionaire-paid-for, anti-public teacher propaganda. To the point that young people were starting to say negative things about teachers. I’m like, “What are y’all talking about?” It’s just what they’ve heard everywhere, and now it’s almost totally turned the corner. In the union movement, the Fight For 15 is an interesting one, because many say that it’s a very hard to organize industry.
JM: I think it is a success, period. Like, end of discussion. It is a success if your measure is: “Have we lifted the base pay?” By the way, it’s up to a lot of people at this point. I forget the current number, because some other three states just kicked in on January 1st or whatever. It is a success. It’s not one that I’m particularly enthusiastic about, because it’s essentially the advocacy model, which is one less even than the mobilization model. The advocacy model is more like Greenpeace, or the AARP, or something, which is what SEIU’s national campaign for the Fight For 15 has been. It’s largely top-down. It’s largely staff-driven. There’s very little agency or real decision-making that the actual workers themselves have in those campaigns. And from an organizer’s view, that’s part of the problem. And there are little pockets where there’s more rank-and-file activity. Chicago keeps saying, “We know ours is more real.” I’m not there, but I believe them. There’s no reason not to. But by-and-large this is a staff-driven, top-down campaign, with a giant media budget, and Berlin-Rosen, the consulting firm. And that ain’t organizing in my view. I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just not organizing. And people waking up and winning a wage that they had nothing to do with fighting for doesn’t help particularly to bring in or change the minds of the many people who are getting affected by those raises. So, I think that people have to be engaged in real struggle to learn these kind of lessons, and build the kind of solidarity that changes society, versus just getting a raise. And the last quick thing I’ll say is: 15 ain’t enough, it never was, and I object. That’s all I’m saying. Enough.
PD: That’s a great heterodox view on this.
JM: Poverty. Less poverty.
PD: Two more that are future-looking. So one is the Bernie campaign, and not only your assessment of 2016, but your advice for 2020. And then others who are like him, who want to run an organizing-driven electoral politics.
JM: Well, one is that they can’t just rely on social media. They actually have to figure out how to do what we were talking about earlier, which is create the denominator, which in the case of electoral work is a state, and then it’s some precincts, then it’s whatever else it is. Could be labor markets, but that’s more typical of the union. So there’s got to be all the different things that we just said. It’s got to create a universe, they’ve got to begin to do structure tests on it, so that they know what their real numbers are. If they hire their pollsters, and they rely on the pollsters, they’re fools, and they need to instead structure test people. They need to structure test precincts.
So I believe that in some of the best of the Bernie work, this was actually happening. Some parts of the Bernie operation last time were in fact being run in a way where they were measuring, okay, we have a rally of 25,000 in Iowa, but which 25,000 came, who got them there, how’d they get there, and at the next rally did the same 25,000 come, did a different 25,000 come? Ideally, did we go from 25,000 to 40,000? And then, who got the gap between 25,000 and 40,000 to actually show up? That’s what organizers are doing, and I think a lot of that was involved.
And then they have to do a lot of inoculation. The basic principles of everything we do in a hard union fight are in fact now how hard presidential races will be, and not just presidential. Any race is becoming as nasty, dirty, and offensive as what union busters do in a union campaign. So a lot of inoculation, a lot of structure tests. And by inoculation, I mean putting out the poison they’re going to say about your candidate before the opposition does, whatever “it” is. So inoculation is a key mechanism that good organizers use, along with leader-identification versus activism, along with structure tests. They’re the foundational work of good organizing.
All of it has to be used if you’re running in an election, because that’s what good organizers do. We’re winning really hard elections. Almost all of the key steps that I outline, in both of my books, need to be applied to win hard elections. Because they become unfair, cheating, lying, gerrymandering, bullshit, narrative-control… look at Kemp, in Georgia, versus Stacey Abrams. I literally make an analogy with the Stacey Abrams race and say: That’s what every union election is. Kemp is actually running. Brian Kemp is essentially running every union election in America, his equivalent.
PD: Final one is I know you’ve had some past in the environmental movement, and probably one of the most important organizing we need to do is around the Sunrise Movement, which seems to be in the advocacy/mobilizing and kind of “media blast” world now. But how could it transition, how can we do some organizing against climate change? What’s your advice there?
JM: One thing is that purity, and joy, and excitement, and the moral high road that comes from a lot of young and youth activism has a particular value in our society, and probably any society on its own. I would say to them: Keep going. Don’t stop, even if it is sort of advocacy and social media narrative stuff right now, for the most part. It has a particular value, because the role of young people has always been particularly meaningful. It raises morality questions in a way that, frankly, old people can’t really do in general.
So, the Sunrise stuff—we should all just be supporting them, and helping them, and offering them sage advice once in a while, and done nicely. But I think on the climate change front, in general, the whole kind of climate change world needs to do all the things we’ve been talking about: structure tests, leader ID, figure out who moves who in this community, and go recruit them as opposed to seeing them as a problem, because it turns out they aren’t on board with the idea. Organizing and not mobilizing. This is what we need to win the Green New Deal, and the vast majority of the environmental movement, which is why I left it as my full time occupation—but not in my heart. Because it’s not what the environmental movement has been doing for pretty much my whole lifetime. They’re doing mobilizing and advocacy, and with the stakes as high as they are, I’m sorry, there’s just no time for bullshit politics anymore. Like, we actually have to win. And that’s why I think the environmental movement in general needs to create the denominators, have the hard conversations, go into difficult terrain every day, and get off social media.
PD: What a great message to end on.
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