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Jane McAlevey, union firebrand and organising visionary, dies at 59

Through her writing and teaching, her relentless focus on workers' power and high participation strategies transformed labour movements worldwide, write JON HEGERTY, JANE HOLGATE and JOHN PAGE

JANE McALEVEY— senior policy fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, union organiser and educator, died on July 7 2024 at the age of 59 following a long battle with multiple myeloma.

Writing an obituary would normally focus on the person themselves, but we are under strict instructions from Jane to “keep it focused on the work, not me.”

Jane finally died last weekend when, coincidentally, 250 organisers from many different labour and social justice campaigns were gathering in Nottingham for the second New Organising Conference, determined to build power in and beyond the workplace.

It is almost impossible to overstate the influence that Jane’s work has had on every aspect of organising theory and practice here in Britain and around the world.

Jane’s leadership skills were developed as a student activist, a community organiser in revolutionary Nicaragua, and as an environmental campaigner, but it was as a workplace organiser that she became a global phenomenon.

A key feature of Jane’s life and work was a combination of passionate determination, strategic choice, and a commitment to actually doing, rather than talking about, the work necessary to build power. In organising terminology this was the necessary synthesis of “the heart, the head and the hands.”
 
Jane was not just a practitioner of organising; she was also a diligent student of it. She accepted a leadership role at the Highlander Centre that had, in the 1950s, trained a generation of civil rights activists (including Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks), but which less famously had a generation earlier trained those who led the organising drive of the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO), the US union federation.

Jane told us that she took the job so she could research their archives and find the training materials they had used. She discovered that during the Jim Crow era, not only did the centre house participants in unsegregated dorms, but they also used an ice-breaker where black and white trade unionists, who ordinarily were not allowed to wash their hands at the same taps, were expected to pass a toothpick to each other using only their teeth to hold it. Jane was impressed.
 
But “the work” is what mattered to Jane. The work was organising workers to win and win big, writing about how workers could win, and training workers to win. She spent 10 years as a union organiser for the AFL-CIO (the major US trade union federation formed by the CIO’s merger with the American Federation of Labour), and then the Service Employees International Union, before she wrote her first book, Raising Expectations and Raising Hell, My Decade Fighting for the Labour Movement, published in 2012.

Three more were to follow, as well as many articles, and a series of training programmes delivered around the world and online. It was the training which made her (and she would hate this description) almost a rock star in the union movement. Despite this status, Jane insisted that there was no “McAlevey model” just an “organising model” based, she insisted, on her studies of the traditional organising techniques of the CIO of the 1930s.
 
Despite this assertion that she was merely an archivist of others’ ideas, she was a constant innovator. Organising involves the application of strategy in the light of the specific circumstances of a particular battle, and it was here that Jane excelled. Jane believed that organising practice was like playing great jazz, it involves constant improvisation, but you cannot improvise effectively until you have learned the basic rules.
 
Many thousands of activists will have come across Jane’s work through the Organising for Power programme supported by the Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung. This online programme delivered by Jane and a group of experienced organisers and activists equipped tens of thousands with the skills to organise at work.
 
Jane was most interested in building workers’ power, and that, she believed, requires high levels of participation. She railed against what she defined as “self-selecting activists” who would happily occupy, often uncontested, positions in their unions, reassure each other how progressive they all were, and complain that their fellow workers were not interested in the union.

The suggestion that low participation in unions was somehow a fault of the workers was anathema to Jane. In contrast, she argued for something she defined as “structure-based organising.”
 
She wasn’t impressed by how many “progressive motions” you could pass in a committee meeting, she was interested in building a super-majority (over 70 per cent) of a workforce, within a defined structure, for example in a particular worksite, or within a particular company, committed to taking action to win. She demonstrated time and again in her organising campaigns that such super-majorities could be built by diligent work, and that such super-majorities could win big.
 
Unfortunately, the self-selecting activists, many part of a range of “revolutionary” sects, fought back, misrepresenting Jane as being hostile to rank-and-file organising, and of setting “impossible” targets for participation.

Instead, they argued that a small group of revolutionary workers, a “militant minority” could win struggles on behalf of and without the participation of the wider workforce and that this was a better alternative to Jane’s high participation model which they asserted was merely a convenient cover for “bureaucrats” to do nothing.

In effect, they argued for a vanguardist form of trade unionism — not only would Lenin have turned in his grave at this substitutionism, but it patently does not work. Although she despaired at the sectarianism and ineffectiveness of much of the left, Jane was in her words, a “small c communist.”
 
Jane was great company, and those of us who knew her personally are grieving hard. She gathered co-thinkers around her, but say it quietly, she was “not the messiah” and her writings are not “tablets of stone”: she was one in a long line of great organisers who have tried to share their knowledge in the hope that it will inspire others.
 
Terry Pratchett when facing death said: “No-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away,” Jane’s last message to us said, “Just because one soldier goes down, the class war continues.” Let us all resolve to ensure the ripples from Jane’s work continue to spread, and that our own contributions to the class struggle are enriched by her example.
 
Jon Hegerty, Jane Holgate and John Page are all members of the Ella Baker School of Organising’s committee.

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