The Jacobin Show: Organizing the Working Class Under a Biden Presidency
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
The sixth episode of The Jacobin Show is an excellent one, especially as the new Biden Presidential Administration takes the reigns in 2021. Though many on the Left have been deeply critical of President Biden, he has made a couple bold moves in taking office that the guest, Jane F. McAlevey, praises.
The first is that Biden has reportedly fired Peter Robb, as McAlevey called for in her article, Why Unions Must Recommit to Expanding Their Base in The Nation. The second is that Biden appointed Marty Walsh as labor secretary.
Joe Biden has constantly referred to his upbringing in a working-class family in Pennsylvania as a testament to how he will fight for working-class Americans. The policies of the Obama Administration seem to indicate otherwise, though there were steps in the right direction. Maybe given last four years of disaster, a deadly pandemic, and Democrat majorities in the House and the Senate, there is hope at the end of the tunnel.
But enacting real change will take organization to build local politics, push through legislation, and drive the executive branch and federal agencies in the right direction. With this in mind, Jacobin invited Jane F. McAlevey – a labor organizer that Prescod dubs “a five star general” if the Left had generals – to teach us the fundamentals of labor organizing and where we can go from here.
Personally, as a southerner from a small town and a working-class family, this episode was an eye-opener. I had never come face-to-face with labor organization until I traveled to Southern Spain where PSOE has nearly unwavering support (at least in Andalusia).
Listening to McAlevey will make you want to get out of your armchair and get to work. I have no experience in organizing. I am an avid reader, and tend to learn most things that way, but as McAlevey says, there is nothing like action for true, political education.
Pan and Prescod
Jen Pan and Paul Prescod open the episode by saying we no longer have to follow the horse race of electoral politics. In the past year, we have been so focused on elections that we have come to think too deeply about parliamentary politics and the procedures that it demands.
But real change will come through organization and mobilization of a large base. Talk of unity may only go so far as to replace the consensus of elite bipartisanship in “Washington.”
Jen Pan then goes into a topic that I though was excellent: political power versus vigilante violence. In recent years, there has been a growing fear of white supremacist violence, stoked by the media. Pan acknowledges that there are very real events that caused this: Charlottesville or the storming of the capitol with confederate flags and Nazi imagery to name a couple.
In reality, white supremacy is on the decline. We imagine them as a dangerous, unified force, but the far-Right is just as prone to sectarianism as the Left. More importantly, they simply don’t wield the political power necessary to make change.
This doesn’t mean they should be ignored, of course, but when comparing them to the Fascists during WWII or the reaction towards Reconstruction after the Civil War, they simply do not have a grip on political power. Then again, neither does the Left arguably, but we do have the possibility to make real change now.
Jane F. McAlevey
Prescod takes the headline, “Fight the Right,” and begins the interview asking McAlevey what would be a better form of opposition. McAlevey cites Arizona’s Proposition 208 as a good example of successfully raising taxes on the ultra wealthy to pay for teachers and schools (Prescod had initially brought this up).
McAlevey says the Left needs to get out of the rut of constant complaining and “learn how to win.” The deck is so stacked against us, from corporations throwing huge money at campaigns or even tech companies using their consumer and employee information as voter-targeting lists (in the case of California’s Proposition 22).
In the non-labor Left, McAlevey believes that the vast majority of Leftists simply have no idea how to organize to win. Ballot initiatives, although risky as ultimatums that can set dangerous precedents, give voters a simple yes or no on issues that matter to them and could be a strong way to make real change. Political parties and candidates can be put into the background when there is a single issue at hand that doesn’t fit into the mold of a dual-party system.
Given this, Pan and Prescod ask what an “ambitious but realistic” labor agenda would be under a Biden Administration. McAlevey says that there are a lot of things that can be done without Congress, simply using the National Relations Board and the Department of Labor under the leadership of Marty Walsch.
Specifically, these would be reducing limitations around creating unions, making it much easier for working-class Americans to organize effectively. The Green New Deal could be framed as moving forward a jobs agenda under strong leadership instead of simply an environmental agenda that doesn’t always sit well with working-class voters.
They then transition to the topic of political education and organizing. Prescod says that since Occupy Wall Street the Left has been calling for general strikes far too often. McAlevey agrees and says that America really hasn’t ever had a general strike before, so we can’t change things with wishful thinking.
To truly move forward a working-class agenda, we need political education and organization. We don’t need symbolic strikes. We need super majorities that can cause a crisis for capital.
McAlevey argues that the vast majority of people won’t learn how to do this through reading books or magazines. They learn through campaigns that force people to engage and learn in action. These campaigns then build a base that can be mobilized at crucial moments.
Pan then asks what the difference is between mobilization and organization. McAlevey responds that mobilization is getting out onto the street, but organizing is about constructing and building solidarity. Mobilization will do no good unless we have systematic organization. We must understand the power structures of our local societies and build networks that can lead to real change.
Pan and Prescod close the interview by asking the following: now that there is an emphasis on “essential workers,” how can we use that momentum to make change? McAlevey says that we need to get together in our local groups and design a set of priorities of what we need to do this year. These groups could be DSA, Jacobin reading groups, or any other form of social gathering.
At the top of the priority list should be going to your essential labor council in the area and finding out what union contracts are expiring soon. Reach out and try to understand where you can give your support.
If you have any questions about unions, you can go to McAlevey’s website, Organizing for Power. Pan and Prescod also mention to contact them through the video’s comments or on Twitter.
This was an excellent episode of The Jacobin Show. I had no idea about strategies about labor organizing, but this was a wonderful primer.
I also appreciated the familiarity of this episode over some of the prior ones. I come to Jacobin for straightforward discussions. I don’t want it to become sterile like many forms of media. Pan and Prescod, with McAlevey’s great interview, made this episode feel like a discussion right at home.