Opinion: The McAlevey Method to Activism

by: Tanya D’Anger, Steward, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Innovative Learning

February 12, 2020


Jane McAlevey: my first introduction to her was through the Feet On The Ground training program run by 15 & Fairness. They showed us an inspiring (and for me, eye-opening) video clip in which McAlevey explained her pragmatic methodology. Her ideas seemed to me ground-breaking—and they work. Ask the Chicago teachers. In McAlevey’s view, their successful activism is spreading across the United States because it is united and organized: “energetic, smart rank-and-file workers are finally taking back their own organizations—their unions—after too many years of risk-averse leaders whose unwillingness to use the strike weapon contributed to the downfall of the working class.” In a global environment increasingly hostile to the rights and safety of workers, we need to listen to her pragmatic, strategic advice. Because it works. And because the alternative is not acceptable.

McAlevey’s method is built on a step-by-step activism that demands commitment from workers, while ensuring their safety. Isn’t this the primary concern that stops many of us for standing up to the unfair employer when we really want to? She shows us how to identify the potential game-changers, the people who have the connections and organizational skills to effectively spread the word: “The working class builds cells for its own defense: identify them, and recruit their leaders.” If we organize first and only act when the majority of workers are prepared to stand together, the employer is more likely to back down. McAlevey points to the inherent empowerment of the workers: “Workers united CAN beat the boss. You have to believe this, and so do [the bosses].” She emphasizes that the union is there to serve the workers as the collective experience of their struggle. Its purpose is to help them change their lives. Isn’t this what should differentiate us from the corporate mindset of our employers? But McAlevey also emphasizes that if people want positive change, they have to own it and not rely on the union to fight their battles. This is why she focuses on our resilience: “Workers are made of clay, not glass.” She argues the potential of each of us as an exponential force: “Every worker is ‘showtime’: communicate energy, excitement, urgency, and confidence.”

This was my take-away when I attended the first session of her free No Short Cuts teleconference workshop, and saw the projected global map light up with real-time contact with dozens of countries. These were real people sharing their anger and frustration with an unfair and inevitably doomed system of exploitation. If we understand that we aren’t fighting alone, we can draw on the concerted energy and systematic organization of the broader community: locally and beyond. All we need to do is channel the anger productively. As McAlevey argues, “anything is possible. Just believe.”


[quotes taken from Jane McAlevey’ Union 1199’s brainstorming re. organizing directors and lead organizers’ annual meeting in 1985]