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Interview with Jane McAlevey

The longtime American labour organizer talks about the role of faith in building successful social movements

By Katie Toth

Q In your recent book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, you write that “if faith matters to workers, . . . it has to matter to unions.”A lot of union organizers don’t necessarily see faith as very important. Is it a personal issue for you?

A It’s not, really. I was raised in the most bizarre way. I was baptized Catholic, and then I was raised by a Jew for the next significant portion of my life, because my mother died and my father married someone who was a serious activist in the progressive Jewish community. So we went 180 degrees. I went from Jesus to “What? No Jesus? Okay, whatever,” as a young girl.

I don’t come from a particularly religious standpoint personally, but I have enormous respect for the role of faith in this country and in this world. As an organizer, I believe that whatever matters to the person I’m talking to has to matter to me, if I am trying to engage them and help them do something significant. And I’ll tell you, the most powerful thing in most workers’ lives in the United States of America is their faith. So I have spent a great deal of time with a lot of religious leaders.

Q And what do you make of them?

A I think they’re incredible — smart, fun, funny. They understand power. People in the labour movement don’t quite get how much power faith leaders can have . . . and how important that relationship is to the worker. I have been in a lot of scenarios where the campaign is starting to escalate, and the employers are starting to do the vicious things that employers do [in the United States]. I am watching workers terrified about what’s going to happen. And if I know that a whole bunch of these workers belong to a house of faith, it’s so incredibly important at that point in the campaign that they know they’ve got their faith with them. That their minister is with them. That when the boss is saying, “I’m going to fire you if you walk out on that picket line,” their faith is saying, “Someone bigger has your back.” For deeply faith-oriented people, there is nothing more powerful than having their faith leaders support them and cheer them on.

It’s not particularly personal for me. What is personal for me is winning. Winning matters, because people are getting it in the neck. Workers are getting pushed back. They work harder, and longer hours, for less money and less dignity, less everything.

Q You’ve written that progressive Christians often want to join the fight, but they aren’t necessarily that helpful. What can they do to be more effective?

A My goodness, any number of things. They should still offer to be there. But we have to understand that the one or two or three progressive faith leaders that people routinely call on may not be sufficient power to get the job done.

Everyone wants to take shortcuts and ring up the most prominent progressive faith leader in the region, and they will take anyone’s call because they’re lovely people. But getting them out to a rally is not going to mean the same thing as if you were to start organically from a bottom-up approach. [You need to] actually have some sense of who is moving power in a given region in a campaign, and then begin to connect the dots between your own rank and file and the profoundly deep connections we have between the workers who are forming unions and the workers who already have a house of faith.

Q A lot of people, especially young people, look at movements like Black Lives Matter and at the growing anti-Trump protests and say we’ve reached this new moment of activism. But your book, which I should acknowledge came out before the U.S. election, takes the stance that “No, this is inadequate. We are not doing everything we say we’re doing.” Why do you think current social movements are coming up short?

A There’s just not enough people involved. All that protest stuff is good for activists, but if we are trying to expand the universe of people who identify with making progressive change, we ain’t close to the numbers we need. Activists talk too much and never listen enough. That’s ground rule number one: organizers listen and talk far less. Ten people banging pots on the highway is not power. We’re just confused about this stuff. A real blockade that really blockades something, that could have power.

In any of the given campaigns that we are upset about, is a protest in the street going to be as effective as unelecting an entire city council? Same thing with union organizing. Even within one firm, we have to do a serious analysis: Where does the decision for whether or not this unionization is going to happen really lie? Does it lie with the CEO who’s being an idiot? Or is it five layers up embedded in some hedge fund who, it turns out, owns the hospitals?

Seriously understanding where the decision-making power lies doesn’t happen enough in our movement. And then there’s the corollary of how much power it will take to achieve our demands.

It’s urgent that we go back to remembering that nothing can replace organizing in our country. We’ve spent the better part of 40 or 45 years metaphorically tweeting. Who cares? I don’t. It’s not moving people.

The presidency of Donald Trump seems to be sparking a resurgence of popular protest in America. How do you build a successful resistance to a government that dismisses facts and stokes divisions?

A If people read No Shortcuts, they will gain many insights into what we have to do to defeat Trump and Trumpism. It’s fundamentally a book about how to win under very difficult circumstances. All serious union campaigns feel a lot like the campaign that Trump, with strong help from Steve Bannon and Breitbart, just ran to seize control of the United States. To understand how to defeat a campaign predicated on fear and division, it will be incredibly useful for people to understand how those of us still winning tough union fights actually win. There are methods, and we need to deploy them and fast.

Q Why do many organizers not seem to consider religious life as significant to their efforts?

A I don’t know. It’s a question I ask all the time. Many of the best organizers in the trade-union sector are willing to work 18- or 19-hour days. It’s like a calling to do the work. Yet maybe they’re not religious themselves, maybe they’ve rejected a faith tradition and don’t draw on it as meaningful. I’m speaking about organizers who believe that what they were put on the planet to do is engage in class struggle. And so something about class struggle means they see religion as a distraction as opposed to a fundamental component to that struggle. I look at them and say, “How can you be so smart and miss this?”

What I believe, deeply, is that we need to devote way more effort to pushing on the moral foundation of our economic system. The faith community does this best. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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