Newsletter #67: Worker Organizing Beyond the Bargaining Table, w/ Jane McAlevey

By Maia Silber

In John Sayles’s classic labor film Matewan, the first thing that union organizer Joe Kenehan does upon arriving in town is ask where he can find the widow Elma Radnor’s boarding house. He needs a place to stay, of course. But it soon becomes clear that Joe also believes that Radnor and her fifteen-year-old son, Danny, who works in the mine and preaches at the town’s church, will play a role in his organizing campaign. He’s right: much of the important action in the film takes place not in the mines, but in Elma’s dining room and Danny’s pews.

Veteran union organizer and author Jane McAlevey calls Kenehan’s strategy — situating the workplace within its larger community context, then identifying the individuals, relationships, and institutions that already hold sway in workers’ lives — power structure analysis. Contract negotiations don’t succeed, McAlevey argues on this week’s episode of The Dig, guest hosted by Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht at a live event at the People’s Forum in New York City, that unless organizers come to them with an understanding of the larger forces that shape the motivations of both employers and employees at the bargaining table.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

The preparatory work that Kenehan undertakes to understand the town of Matewan is key to reaching the level of worker participation that McAlevey believes unions must secure to deliver a credible strike threat: 90 percent. If that threshold seems impossible to reach, it’s because much of the organizing to which we’ve become accustomed focuses on the narrow margin. Especially in electoral politics, we celebrate bare-majority wins, eked out by mobilizing existing supporters rather than fundamentally changing minds and transforming constituencies. But campaigns with only narrow margins of support simply cannot survive the prolonged opposition campaigns designed by employers to chip away at unions’ power worker by worker.

Though she doesn’t explicitly describe it this way, I interpret McAlevey’s framework for organizing as a fundamentally feminist one. Feminist socialists have long urged us to shift our attention beyond the shop floor to the households and communities that shape its conditions and possibilities. McAlevey makes clear that such a shift isn’t only a matter of deepening our theoretical understanding: it’s the pragmatic starting point of organizing that leads to concrete gains. In Matewan, Elma’s labor sustains the striking miners when they are evicted from their homes; Danny’s preaching dissuades the miners from turning on Kelehan when the company plants a lie about him.

It’s easy to dismiss the deep community engagement that McAlevey calls for as simply incompatible with the conditions of contemporary working life. Matewan, after all, is a company town, in which every family lives in a company-owned home and shops in the company-owned store. In contrast, workers today are often geographically and occupationally mobile: compelled to take on multiple jobs to earn a consistent income and forced by rising housing prices to live great distances from their places of work. But that doesn’t mean that their communities are any less real or material, or their relationships any less sustaining. It’s even more important for organizers to understand the workplace in its larger context when that context is less easily discernible and cognizable than a single company town. Our Kenehans will still need to begin by looking for some kind of boarding house, whatever form it may take.

Recommended Reading, Listening, and Watching Jane McAlevey’s new book is Rules to Win By: Power & Participation in Union Organizing. The Dig interviewed her in 2019 on what makes strikes effective and powerful. The film Matewan is freely available on