Labor Movement Commemorates the Life of Union Organizer Jane McAlevey

Members of the global labor movement expressed an outpouring of love, sadness, and gratitude for the life and work of Jane F. McAlevey after news of the union organizer’s death on Sunday at the age of 59.

Born on Oct. 12, 1964, McAlevey was the author of numerous books on worker organizing, including No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age and A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy. Despite a series of battles with cancer since 2008, she continued to organize, teach, and write nearly to the end.

In early April, McAlevey announced she would stop working to enter in-home hospice care for the remainder of her days. “No matter how much I love the challenge of a good fight, this was never one I could win,” she wrote at the time. On Sunday, a message posted to her website said she died “surrounded by family and her dedicated care team” and her stepbrother Mitchell Rotbert subsequently confirmed her passing to the New York Times, citing the cause as multiple myeloma.

“No individual did more in the 21st century to spread the ideas and practice of a fighting, community-rooted, member-driven labor movement than Jane McAlevey,” wrote Jacobin’s editor Micah Uetricht. “The United States and the world need her more than ever at this exact moment. It’s incredibly cruel that she’s gone.”

According to the Times:

Ms. McAlevey (pronounced MACK-a-leevee) dedicated her life to increasing working class power. She believed that worker-driven unions — led from the bottom up rather from the top down — were the most effective engines to combat economic inequality.

In her writings, including for The Nation, as what the magazine described as its “strikes correspondent,” and in frequent media interviews and podcasts, Ms. McAlevey became a vocal critic of what she saw as the complacency, ineptitude and corporate collusion of many U.S. labor leaders.

“What almost no union does is actually organize their members as members in their own communities to build community power,” she said in an interview for this obituary last November. “I teach workers to take over their unions and change them.”

Upon word of her death, longtime colleagues and friends expressed their sorrow as they championed McAlevey’s approach to working-class politics and union organizing.

“Incredibly sad to learn that my friend, and one woman powerhouse, Jane McAlevey has passed away,” said Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union. “Literally everything she did — from organising workers, fighting right wingers, to hustling touts for tickets to sold out football matches — she did with effervescence and joy.”

“Tonight,” said Ethan Earle, a colleague of McAlevey’s at Organizing for Power, on Sunday evening, “my heart is at once broken and full with the challenge she has left to us: to both mourn for our dead and fight like hell for our living.”

In a heartfelt tribute to his colleague and friend posted on the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation website, Earle writes:

She knew she was going to die, had known it for months, and raced against the clock to complete as much work as she could towards the organizing future that she knew she would not see. That, ultimately, is Jane’s legacy — a gift to all of us. The work output itself, but also her commitment to that work, and the belief that we can in fact win, but only through real discipline and real struggle.

Her track record was formidable — to her opponents but also perhaps to young organizers seeking to follow in her footsteps. For foes and friends alike, Jane had something of a magical aura about her. That said, she always sought to shed that perception. Everything she did was the result of hard work and practice — and all of it can be reproduced by those willing to put in the time that she did.

So, read her books and take her trainings, but not to deify her — nothing could be further from her mission. Take them so that you can put into practice the same methods that Jane McAlevey spent a lifetime practicing, modelling, and instilling in others. And then, as she would so often say at the end of a session: Go forth and win!

The Nation’s John Nichols said “union activists worldwide will mark” the passing of McAlevey, who he described as “a brilliant labor organizer and an even more brilliant human being.”

Writing of the far-reaching nature of her career, Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan Robinson wrote in April how her “work should be carefully studied, because she has done as much as anyone else to clearly explain the problem with the distribution of power in this country, and show practically how that distribution can be changed.”

With a clear-eyed view of how the world works and no-nonsense style of communicating, McAlevey was a sharp critic of capital but also self-reflective about the weaknesses of the left and shortcomings of labor, especially leadership failures within union structures.

In Uetricht’s mind, there are two big ideas central to McAlevey’s lifetime of work that people who want to understand her thinking and appreciate her legacy should understand. The first is “a seriousness with which she approached questions of strategy and tactics for organizers, rooted in her obsession with actually winning.” And the second was her “unwavering belief that you can’t change the world without the labor movement.”

Asked last year in an interview with Jacobin why she decided to focus on the labor movement as opposed to some other vehicle for achieving a better world, McAlevey answered: “Oh my god, because there is no other way.”

“All of the work we do matters in the progressive movement, but we live in something called capitalism,” she said. “It took me ten years of being in the environmental justice movement, the student movement, the peace movement, to realize that in a country without real democracy, the one thing that the employer class will respond to is when all the workers walk off the job and create a crisis. That, at the end of the day, is the most effective way to challenge unfettered corporate power.”

With Sunday’s news of McAlevey’s passing dovetailing with a historic win by the left coalition in snap elections in France which organized to prevent further gains by the nation’s far-right, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union Sara Nelson, a longtime friend and ally, posted this message:

Borrowing from the famous labor song, Joe Hill, labor activist and organizer Mark Cunningham offered this tribute to McAlevey on social media:

I dreamed I saw Jane McAlevey last night,
alive as you and me.
Says I “but Jane, you passed away”.
“I never died” says she

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with her eyes
Says Jane, “What cancer cannot kill”
“Went on to organize”
“Went on to organize”

And as Grady put it, “Her passing is a huge loss for the labour movement, but the legacy she leaves is a blessing. She will be so deeply missed.”

As she was famous for saying, there are “no shortcuts” toward progressive victories, but by commitment, intelligence, and harnessing the intrinsic power of workers, there is a way.

In her 2020 book, A Collective Bargain, McAlevey argues that “power for ordinary people can be built only by ordinary people standing up for themselves, with their own resources, in campaigns where they turn the prevailing dogma of individualism on its head.”

She concludes the book by writing, “Good unions points us in the direction we need to go and produce the solidarity and unity desperately needed to win.” In her career as an organizer and labor educator and training, winning for the working class was always at the center for Jane McAlevey.

“We can fight,” she declared, “and we can win.”