Jane McAlevey: a life dedicated to workers’ emancipation comes to an end at age 59

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Jane McAlevey, an influential labor organizer and scholar, passed away on Sunday at her cabin in Muir Beach, California, at the age of 59. Her half-brother, Mitchell Rotbert, confirmed that multiple myeloma was the cause of death. McAlevey had previously undergone surgery for breast cancer.

Throughout her career, McAlevey was a staunch advocate for the working class, emphasizing the importance of worker-led unions. She believed that unions driven by their members were the most powerful tools to fight economic inequality. In her numerous writings and media appearances, she criticized many U.S. labor leaders for what she saw as their complacency and collusion with corporate interests.

McAlevey’s journey as an organizer began with successful campaigns for the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) between 1997 and 2008. She later moved into consulting, where she continued to inspire grassroots movements and train labor groups across the country.

Her influence extended beyond the United States. McAlevey worked with various international labor groups and organizations, including those in Germany, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. She also taught an intensive online course, “Organizing for Power,” through the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which reached thousands of participants worldwide.

McAlevey’s charisma and unique teaching methods inspired many, especially young people, to harness their grassroots power. Her workshops at the UC Berkeley Labor Center attracted thousands of participants, and her tactics have been adopted by numerous unions, leading to successful negotiations and campaigns.

Born in New York City on October 12, 1964, Jane Frances McAlevey was the youngest of seven siblings. She grew up in Sloatsburg, New York, where her father was the mayor. McAlevey’s early involvement in civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests shaped her lifelong commitment to activism.

Her activism continued throughout her college years at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she led protests and was elected student body president. She later played a significant role in a divestment campaign against companies operating in South Africa, which resulted in a brief jail stint.

After college, McAlevey spent time in Central America, teaching and rebuilding homes in war-torn Nicaragua. Back in the U.S., she worked with various nonprofit organizations, focusing on environmental justice and combating pollution.

McAlevey’s work with the AFL-CIO in Stamford, Connecticut, marked a significant milestone in her career. She led a multi-union campaign that not only unionized thousands of workers but also addressed broader community issues like affordable housing. Her approach, known as “whole-worker organizing,” aimed to improve overall living conditions for workers.

Her tenure with the SEIU in Nevada was marked by both successes and challenges. Despite internal conflicts and resistance, she revitalized a struggling local chapter and led strikes that resulted in better contracts for hospital workers.

After leaving the SEIU, McAlevey faced personal health battles but continued her advocacy. She authored several books, including a memoir, and completed a Ph.D. at the City University of New York. Her works provided practical guidance for organizers and emphasized the importance of deep, one-on-one organizing.

Even as she battled multiple myeloma, McAlevey remained dedicated to her cause. She celebrated the publication of her fourth book and continued teaching online classes to workers worldwide. In her final months, she published an open letter expressing her gratitude and unwavering commitment to the labor movement.

Jane McAlevey is survived by her four brothers, Benedict, John, Thomas, and Birgitta McAlevey, and two half-brothers, Mitchell and Clifford Rotbert. Her sister Catherine and brother Peter predeceased her.

In her final days, McAlevey continued to champion the rights of workers, urging them to stand against the growing economic inequalities of the modern era. Her legacy as a tireless advocate for labor rights will continue to inspire future generations.

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