Meeting the Standard: An Interview with Jane McAlevey

On the strained relation between unions and environmentalists, the limits of narrative change, and a winning strategy for a Green New Deal.

Jane McAlevey is a union organizer, scholar, and author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. You can learn more about her background and organizing strategy on her website at We would especially recommend this inspiring video, and also this shorter video.

Here, Jane speaks with Socialist Forum about her history in the environmental movement, the strained relation between unions and environmentalists, and a strategy for winning a Green New Deal (GND).

Socialist Forum: Most people know you primarily as a union organizer, but you have worked on environmental campaigns in the past. Could you talk a little bit about these campaigns, and how they’ve informed your broader work as an organizer?

Jane McAlevey: Thanks for asking that question, because most people don’t know about this work. When I was young, I was a student organizer, and elected head of the state student union in New York, which no longer exists, sadly. We had a real union, statewide among the State University of New York (SUNY) campuses. At this time, I think I already understood the distinction between organizing, mobilizing, and advocacy, thanks to great mentors. Even as a student organizer, I was doing structure-based organizing, which is different than a lot of student activism.

I went to college a couple years early, so by 18 I was near the end of undergrad. I got recruited to go to a Midwest Academy of Organizing five-day training and went, with someone named Thomas Swan, who’s at the Connecticut Citizen Action Group now. When I finally left undergrad – left, not graduated from… that’s the key word – I went to Latin America because I wanted to both learn Spanish fluently, and I wanted to understand what was happening in Central America. This was the raging ’80s, Ronald Reagan was in power, though it was near the end of this time, thank goodness. Unfortunately, it also meant it was near the end of the Nicaraguan revolution.

Anyway, I went to Latin America, and when I returned from Latin America a year and a half later, when I was about 21, I wanted to go back but with a real skill. And I thought the skill that would be useful was organic farming. There were the beginnings then of a lot of integrated pest management happening in the region, which makes sense if you’re a poor campesino in Central America. So I did a full apprenticeship on the oldest organic farm in Vermont, long before this was popular. And I was pretty good at it. People got laid off as the season went on, and I was one of five who made it to the end. It was a bit like Survivor on the organic farm.

So finally I went back down to Latin America, and I remember a bunch of people saying to me, “Gringa, it’s very nice that you learned how to be an organic farmer. You actually have a skill that we need, but we don’t need you here. We need you in the United States. You organize, we’ll farm. Go home and figure out how to change your own country.”

So I went back home. At this point I’m totally passionate about peace, about ending Reagan’s wars, about the planet. And this, by the way, is how I was raised. My mother died when I was very little, and I was raised by my father. My father, who was a trade unionist-turned-politician, was an active participant in the first Earth Day when I was knee high to a frog. In 1970 on our union-made car, we flew the original Earth Day flag. I don’t really remember this, I just saw pictures of it. I was too little.

The idea that you could fight racism, have an ecologically-cleaner planet, smart growth, and good union jobs – what we call the GND now – is what my father was fighting for in 1970. When he was in politics [John McAlevey was town supervisor of Ramapo, NY], he instituted a zoning ordinance that made developers pay to develop land, made corporations pay for the town’s water, gave a lot of power to the city to control the growth of the town. And the developers sued him, and the case – Golden v. Planning Board of Town of Ramapo (1972) – was very important. When I was about 30 years old, there was an anniversary of the decision held at Fordham Law School. I really didn’t understand the significance of this case until I was a guest at this conference where there were probably 500 lawyers, and my father, who was already quite old, sitting with his old lawyer who litigated the case. I didn’t get it until I was in the room and people were saying, “Oh yeah, this is a pivotal case when it comes to preserving open space.” Under his plan, farmers paid less taxes, we valued green space and open land, and at the same time, we built the first ever public housing outside of New York City. We had crosses burnt on our lawn by racists for it.

My father provided me with an amazing foundation. Ecological issues, trade unionism, and politics were all linked in my house.

OK, fast forward: I’m back from Latin America for the second time in 1988, and I moved to San Francisco to work for David Brower at the Earth Island Institute, which at the time was an incubator for what became the Rainforest Action Network, International Rivers Network, and many other significant environmental groups. I was hired to be the co-director of the environmental project on Central America. Our project was to help the U.S. environmental movement understand the connection between U.S. foreign economic and military aid and the total destruction of the rainforest and the planet in Latin America, essentially using the rainforest as a hook into what was wrong with U.S. military and economic policy all through Latin America.

Then I got lent to the Third World Network in Malaysia to be a staff organizer of the first ever convening of international activists on global trade and toxic waste. It was cosponsored by Earth Island, Green Peace, fill in the blank. Every decent progressive environmental organization in the world was involved. That got me involved in the anti-toxics movement.

When I came home, the environmental project on Central America had basically been deemed a success. The project was adopted by Friends of the Earth U.S.A., and they took up the task of linking a critique of U.S. foreign military aid to the environmental movement. With that box checked, we started to think more about the roots of toxic waste. While the environmental movement had been good at shutting down toxic and hazardous waste dumps, we weren’t stopping the production of bad things. We were simply shifting it to the third world. Toxic waste was being put on barges, and we were succeeding at getting it out of our communities, but the whole point was we needed to stop the production altogether. We were exporting our bad behavior to other parts of the world, mostly black and brown communities somewhere else.

We realized we needed the power to shut down production of what we know now as climate crisis producing gases. Back then, we didn’t have the climate language. It was toxic, it was hazardous. It was definitely contributing to destruction of the ozone layer. But we didn’t have the same language we have today.\

Anyhow, we morphed into what became a joint program of the Highlander Center in Tennessee and the National Toxics Campaign. So I moved from San Francisco to the south, and in the deep south and Appalachia, there were huge toxic contamination issues. And I did that for another couple years.

From there I went to work for the Southwest Network for Economic and Environmental Justice for a little while on a project about contamination in the maquiladoras on the U.S. Mexico border, which really politicized my understanding of so-called free trade. While there I got a phone call from the Veatch Program, which is the largest of the Unitarian Universalist giving programs—the funds come from one congregation, Manhasset, N.Y. They called asking me to become the head of environmental grants with control of $4 million. I said, “No, I have no interest in being a foundation person.” I was 27 or 28 then.

And I was really resistant at first, but friends in the environmental justice movement convinced me it was a good idea. So I became a major national environmental funder. I was moving not just $4 million, more like $12 million. Because I’m an organizer. So I went to the foundation world, and by the next year, I was the co-chair of the National Environmental Grantmakers Association Annual Conference, at age 28 or 29. The whole focus changed, and we began to bring in people of color and grassroots organizations, and we moved a lot money into the grassroots environmental movement.

If you count all these years, the first ten full years of my work was in the environmental movement, in a pretty serious way. And when I was at the foundation, the change in the labor movement began to happen, and we began to fund things like the Association for Union Democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the immigrant worker centers which were emerging back then.

So this is 1994, 1995, and the change happens, and I was in a meeting with people with the AFL-CIO, talking about how we were moving money to the support groups around them, basically, and then a handful of people said, “What are you doing at that foundation? Get to work over here.” And I went to work at the national AFL-CIO as a senior organizer. And then it was super clear to me that I was never going to leave the trade union movement.

SF: Your father’s politics are really representative of a particular high-water moment for unions and environmentalists. There was the Shell strike by the OCAW in 1973, and just a more general understanding shared by workers, progressive union leaders, and environmentalists at that time that the spread of hazardous substances in the workplace was very much linked to the spread of pollution in the environment more largely. There was a solid understanding that these two problems were connected, and thus that the concerns of unions and environmentalists were really the same. So what do you think led to the divide? Why did the relationship fall apart over the years?

JM: The late 1960s/early 1970s is really the moment when the radical right decides it needs to take down all the successes that had just been achieved. Capital essentially says, what is this women’s movement, what is this civil rights movement, what is this new environmental movement that just won the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and by the way, can we just end it already for these unions?

But at the time you still had this visionary, brilliant leadership at the OCAW. Today we have nurses and service workers mobilizing on climate, which is great: environmentally-friendly, health and service work, growing sectors, all good. But to think that the most radical union on the question of the environment, through the genius leadership of Tony Mazzocchi, was leading workers who were at the heart of the most colluding, destructive industries, and he’s totally radical on the question of the environment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, really a fruit of Mazzocchi’s work among other things, was maybe the high point of collaboration between environmental groups and trade unions. It’s all evidence that we had a lot more power than we do now: the environmental movement had more power, the trade union movement had more power, women’s movement, civil rights movement, all the core institutions had more power.

And that’s the moment when the corporate right says, we’re done. All these new laws, all these new regulations, all these things are choking our ability to become fat cat billionaires. And so they begin to do what they’re still doing today, which is divide and conquer. And they’re really good at it.

They create and begin to drive the jobs vs. the environment message in a serious way at about that time. They say, look, you can either have a clean planet or good jobs, take your pick. And when we still had someone like a Tony Mazzocchi, and we still had the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union in the old days, we had a really important strategic force that would stand up and say, “It’s not either/or, we’re going to have both.”

We’ve lost that. We don’t have the leadership in those industries that we had under Tony Mazzocchi, and we’re sorry for it right now. What the corporations do very well, and the right wing does very well, is they create wedge issues. There were two successful wedges launched in the 1970s: one is jobs vs. the environment, and the other is Phyllis Schlafly’s homemakers against the ERA, positioning women’s rights as against motherhood. That was a brilliant wedge issue that we’re still suffering for. And so was jobs vs. the environment.

Sadly all of this came at a time when the beginning of the really vicious attack on the unions in general was coming, and it made it even more difficult for people who wanted to continue to focus on environmental issues. Unions came under more and more pressure and began focusing on just saving themselves. And then you hit the Reagan period and PATCO, and people are just flailing to hang on to the most basic contracts. You know, there’s an all-out war going on. And quite frankly, there was no environmental movement coming out in defense of the trade union movement in a full throated way in the 1980s. It just wasn’t there.

So American workers are getting smacked in the head by a vicious federal administration, and the conservation groups are over in La La Land, trying to figure out 10 years later why they can’t implement the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Neither of those laws have ever been fully implemented, ever.

SF: What about from the union side? You talk in your 2012 piece from The Nation about a lapsed solidarity on both sides, unions not showing up for environmentalists, and vice versa. The environmentalists, without an understanding of structures of power, were totally caught flat-footed. The neoliberal revolution hits, and they’re baffled: “Why isn’t the state listening anymore?” And I think this has to do with a blinkered perspective. But from the other side, there are pretty powerful and real material interests pitting unions against environmentalists, like when the promise of union jobs is made in exchange for the support of a pipeline, those kinds of situations. Is it really the unions’ fault that they haven’t displayed the requisite solidarity, or is it just that they’ve been fighting to stay alive?

JM: The only reason that a set of unions wind up aligned with their employers in some very unfortunate moments against indigenous people and local communities, certainly around pipelines, is because the environmental movement has yet to be able to demonstrate – not say, not spout off about, but demonstrate – that they can match the wages and working conditions, pensions and retirement plans, that the workers in the, let’s say, climate crisis contributing industries, are getting. The environmental movement has yet to prove, I think ever, that they can match the wages and benefits in a clean economy. That’s the problem. And none of them seem to get it.

I repeat this a lot, and I hear in response, from progressives who seem to have bought into neoliberal logic, “Oh, but we can’t afford to pay those wages any more. We actually can’t afford to meet those standards any more.” People say that, looking me right in the face. “We actually can’t afford to have a $45/hour wage, with fully employer-paid benefits and a good pension. That’s what we did for white men between 1946 and 1975. We can’t possibly do the same for women and people of color in 2019.”

And my answer to that is, it’s neoliberal bullshit. That’s how deep it’s sunk into our movement, that you have people in pretty large numbers, at policy think tanks, at grassroots organizations, at major magazines, in the pundit class, when this issue comes up, saying, “Well, it’s not possible to make the wages and benefits that we paid to that generation of men.”

Asking a union that has won a very decent living standard for its rank-and-file members to surrender that living standard and drop down to $15 and no benefits and no retirement plan isn’t a strategy. It isn’t a viable strategy. And it’s also cheating the new workforce of what they deserve, and what they should and can have.

So until the environmental movement puts its power and its money where its mouth and vision are, we are stuck in this fight. And I think it’s unacceptable. The minute we can tell a worker, “You’re not going to get a job on the pipeline. Instead, we’re going to get you a job on a wind farm, and the wind farm employer is going to match your salary and your benefits,” this fight’s going to end.

And guess what that requires? A fuck load more power than the environmental movement has. And now we’re down to my favorite question. How do we build the power to make that happen? It’s great that Ocasio-Cortez and others have changed the dialogue around taxing the super rich, because obviously taxing the super rich is going to make it so we can have a real just transition, and so that we can begin to subsidize clean energy jobs the way we subsidize the fossil fuel jobs. But it’s not happening yet. And there’s no example of it happening.

So we have to do three things. The rich have to pay more taxes like they used to, and corporations have to pay more taxes like they used to. That creates a pool of money. Then there has to be a shift of subsidies from polluting industries to clean industries. And then the environmental community has to work with the trade union community and the progressive movement to essentially overturn Taft-Hartley, more or less. At least the right to strike and to solidarity strikes.

That combination would make it very attractive to the rank-and-file members of the handful of unions that are accused of being bad actors by the environmental movement. And unless and until we do that, it’s just nice platitudes, “standing with the trade unions,” “good jobs,” etc. What’s a good job? If they say, there’ll be union jobs, that’s also an empty promise. You can be in a union job and make bad wages. So a good union job needs to be defined, and for me the key thing is – and back in the old days, Tony Mazzocchi, rest in peace, understood this – that we literally had to match the wages, benefits, working conditions, etc. If we could do that, we might actually get to a GND.

SF: Environmentalists have traditionally been tone-deaf to class issues, but do you think they’re getting better? It sounds like not.

JM: There’s a bunch of empty verbiage about good jobs or union jobs and no one defines them. And I have a definition. The definition is: you meet the standard. Anything less than that, and we’re going to continue to be divided. And I have yet to hear anyone in the environmental community say we can meet the standard.

This message that we can’t afford to pay those wages and benefits any more, it’s really deep. And that’s the logic of neoliberalism in the brain of so-called progressive environmentalists. Because the mainstream environmentalists don’t care at all. They’re going to go to save the birds or something. The progressive environmentalists are at least trying to do the right thing, but they just don’t understand that unless and until the power is there to transfer the standard into the clean economy, we will have a handful of trade union leaders that we will be battling, and we can’t overcome that until we actually can meet the standard. It is why I’m encouraged by some of the discussion now about taxes because that’s going to give us the money in the federal subsidies pot to shift to clean energy. Subsidized industries can pay higher wages and higher benefits.

SF: What do you think of groups like the Labor Network for Sustainability, or Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. Have they been making that case?

JM: I haven’t looked that closely lately. I think they get it, and that’s really good. They’re just grossly under resourced. If they had the money for an organizer in every state, and they were actually able to go out and do real organizing work with the rank-and-file based in a bunch of unions, building bottom up support.

If I were involved in a campaign like this, I would be strategically mapping every nurse, every healthcare worker, every education worker, I’d be mapping all of them out. This is not a value judgment about people’s gender identity, but just strategically, there are so many millions of educators and healthcare workers who are women and who are married to men who work in polluting industries, for lack of a better term. So I’d reverse map and organize people through their wives and through their daughters and through their sisters. But they can’t do it because they don’t have any resources.

The Labor Network for Sustainability vs. the Koch brothers. That’s quite a mismatch, right? It’s not impossible though. That’s why groups like DSA and other new formations matter. We need to be able to skill up many thousands more people throughout the country who see themselves as progressive warriors, who can do some of the work that needs to be done.

SF: In the past couple years, the environmental reports have just grown more and more terrifying, and the latest IPCC report has everyone in this kind of emergency mode. There’s a great amount of fear and urgency around climate politics. You write so much about the importance of face-to-face, deep organizing conversations, and I’m wondering if you think this fear and urgency are useful in everyday organizing conversations.

JM: The use of fear is totally destructive. It’s totally destructive. Urgency has to be created without fear because fear is numbing. Fear is paralyzing, and it’s a turn off. Raising people’s expectations that the planet can be much better, that they can turn on the tap and have beautiful great water, that their food can be better and healthy. There’s a whole set of ways that you can create urgency without fear.

And believe me, I read every one of those reports. My environmental side has never left my body. Every one of these reports is terrifying. But as an organizer, I’m not going to live in the terrifying moment, because it’s going to make me think, “I’m going to go home and play with my kids and hope someone figures this out because it’s way too big for me.” That’s what fear does to people. It pushes them away from thinking that there’s a solution.

Someone said to me recently, “Face-to-face organizing, it doesn’t seem like it’s a big strategy. It seems like it’s a small neighborhood strategy.” And I replied, there is no bigger strategy. It’s what built the trade union movement that led to monumental change. And it happened fast: in the ’30s, and in the ’50s, ’60s, that change happened really fast.

If DSA, for the sake of argument, had it together enough to be moving these kinds of conversations in every community DSA is in, tens of thousands of conversations, hundreds of thousands of conversations, in key communities, it could make a huge difference. You need power structure analysis of course: it’s these 17 states, it’s these 45 committee seats, it’s these 25 labor markets that we need to go after to quickly shift the power and the decision making in D.C. And then have these thousands of conversations on the doors and in the workplaces, in the churches, mosques, synagogues and community centers. That’s not a small strategy to me. That’s an effective strategy.

Some people focus all their energy on narrative change, which is built on social media strategies. We just need to be very, very clear what it is. It’s a mobilizing tactic, and we need that. The problem is, we’re pouring the narrative change over too small a base, a base that’s not strategically located.

We need really good storytelling and narrative. We need a really good vision. But mostly we need a much larger base. We need it quickly and in strategic locations, and there is no evidence ever that anything but face-to-face organizing can build the kind of power required to win a GND. What people aren’t doing is building a strategic war room that understands where we need to focus the thousands of conversations we need to have.

The thing about good organizing is, it actually works fast. That is something that I keep trying to say, and I feel like it doesn’t get heard or understood, because most people who are in the narrative change world, which is the media world, have never engaged it. They’ve never done it. So they don’t realize that good face-to-face work can scale up, can scale up quickly, and can lead to radical shifts in consciousness and action. We don’t just need a shift in consciousness, we need a shift in action.

Action isn’t the same thing as polling results, and narrative change and social media may lead to a change in the polls. But that’s not a reflection of active participation. Winning a GND is going to take active participation by many, many people. It’s going to take a lot of things that involve people being engaged, and that’s really different than fluttering around on your Facebook late at night.

SF: Is the GND the right vehicle to finally overcome the jobs vs. the environment narrative and get people engaged in environmental justice?

JM: I think very quickly, the people behind the GND need to wrap their head around the question of job quality. And that’s where you’ll hear people say, “Oh but workers in clean industries can’t possibly get the wages and benefits that the polluting industry men have gotten. There’s not enough money.” That’s a problem, and that needs to change. Right now. Because there is enough money if corporations and the wealthy pay their taxes, and we need to make it so. There’s no reason that we can’t have millions of people in this country with the same great job quality standards that millions of people have already had that were more male and of a different generation. It’s inexcusable, and it’s deeply penetrating the progressive movement, the idea that we can’t do it. If we keep being doggy downers about people having to lower their standard of living just because the rich have to keep their money, that’s just not a winning strategy.

We need to say: people deserve to have a really good quality of life, and they absolutely can if the super rich and the corporations pay their taxes. That’s before we get to socialism, by the way, but you know, on the way to it. If they just did that, if we did that and transferred the subsidies, people can have those wages and those benefits tomorrow, if we have the power to do it.