Thank you, Jane McAlevey!
The great labor organizer (accidentally) taught me how to talk to voters
Last month, The New Yorker ran a piece called "How Jane McAlevey Transformed the Labor Movement." She also transformed how I make phone calls to voters. Here's the unlikely story of how that happened.
I am a phone banker.
I call voters and try to get them to vote for Democrats.
I do not like doing this.
I do it because our democracy is in trouble.
I used to hate phone banking even more than I do now.
That I can tell you in two words. Jane McAlevey.
It’s April 2020.
I’m calling voters in Arizona on behalf of two Democratic candidates for the state legislature.
I’ve hit a long string of no-answers, half an hour of nothing. I go out to the garden for a break.
Then I hear my phone ringing, inside the house. I run in, pick up, and hear a voice. "You called me?"
A voter I hadn't reached is calling me back.
I’m a bit flustered, look at my laptop screen to remember the names of the candidates, launch into my spiel. I say the candidates want to know what issues were important to voters.
"How do you mean?" he said.
I hear myself say, "Like – If you were in charge, what are the first three things you would change?"
Immediately he says: "We have to enforce speed limits." He talks, energetically, about that, for a few minutes.
"What else?" I say.
"Education.” He talks, I listen. What he says gives me the opening I need. I tell him funding education is a top issue for the candidates I’m calling for. I give him a bit more detail, then say: "I think these candidates would be a good match for you."
The conversation stays alive and energized to the end, I of course repeat the candidates' names multiple times.
I think I got his vote.
That magic question — "If you were in charge…" — yielded such different results from the generic "What issues are of most concern to you?" !
Only afterward did I realize where I’d gotten that question.
A couple weeks earlier I was listening to Ezra Klein’s podcast. He had Jane McAlevey on – the legendary labor organizer.
Walk me through a typical interaction with a worker, specifically one who may disagree with you.
When I start a conversation with a worker, I’m going to start by telling them exactly why I’m there. There’s no bullshitting: I’m here because coworkers of yours called up and they’re in and figuring out how you can make things better in the workplace. That’s it. I’m being very honest about why I’m on your door. The very next thing I’m going to do is ask them a question: If you could change three things at work tomorrow, what would they be?
That question had apparently lodged in my brain and, when that voter called me back, it flew out of my mouth!
I continued using that question, with good results. I told the phone bank captain, who passed it on to the campaign, which incorporated it into their phone bank script. A couple other campaigns have also incorporated that question or some version of it.
I sent Jane a message telling her all this, and she replied:
What a GLORIOUS email!
Go, fight, and keep on winning! We have so much work to do.
Be healthy, safe and strong
It's July 2022.
I'm once again calling Arizona. I reach a woman I'll call Kara who, according to the information on my screen, is 21 and lives in Scottsdale. I ask her what she would do if she were in charge. "Protect reproductive freedom." No pause, no hesitation. She is angry about Dobbs, and what it's going to do to abortion access in Arizona. She loves her 3-year-old son more than anything in the world, but if she were to get pregnant now, she wouldn't want to have another child.
From her voice, her manner, her self-confidence, I picture a young white woman, broad-shouldered, blond, with a ponytail.
Kara has a friend who's studying to be a Catholic priest. She tells me about her conversations with him, challenging him. Now he's come around to accepting that a woman's choice shouldn't be up to him, or the Church.
Okay, abortion rights, I say. What else would you change? Education. Arizona's schools aren't good enough. Kara didn't a get a great education, she tells me, but it was decent. But she has friends who got a lousy education, and some of them have become Trump supporters. She still talks to them, but it's hard. Mainly she wants a good education for her 3-year-old son, and for all the kids of his generation.
What else? Voting rights. She's been circulating petitions to protect voting rights in Arizona.
I realize I'm talking to a born organizer. She's passionate, direct, a great speaker, a natural storyteller. I tell Kara she needs to run for something. "That's the best compliment I've ever gotten," she says.
We agree that now is probably not the time for her to run for office -- she's a single parent, working, going to school -- but I insist that she consider it in the future.
I ask about her friends, the ones she's getting to sign the voting rights petition. Are they all registered to vote? We work out a plan - she's going to post on Facebook, and offer every friend a dollar if they register. Facebook's not enough, I say, and insist she follow up with phone calls.
Kara and I talked for nearly half an hour.
That conversation was, in one sense, waiting to happen. But without that opening question, it wouldn't have.
It's October 2023.
I'm calling voters in Virginia on behalf of Phil Hernandez, a Democratic candidate for state legislature. I reach a voter I’ll call Jennifer. The information on the screen told me she’s 66 years old. From her voice, I was pretty sure she was Black.
“If you could change one or two things...”
“Inflation. The cost of food, gas, rent.” There was anger in her voice. Fifteen dollars is not a high enough minimum wage. Yes, women should have control of their bodies, but what good is that if you don’t have enough to eat? The woman in the house next door is in her eighties and doesn’t have enough money for food.
Jennifer kept going.
And it’s terrible what’s happening to people in these wars, but why are we sending them money when our people at home can’t make ends meet?
I listened, reflected back what I was hearing, asked her if it would be okay if I shared what she was saying with Phil Hernandez. “It’s important to Phil to know what people in the district are thinking.”
Yes, that would be okay, Jennifer said.
I’ve found that some people, once they feel heard, are open to hearing from me. I gently tried to steer the conversation to Phil Hernandez. Jennifer told me she’d voted for Democrats in the past, but now she’s planning not to vote. “They promise a lot, but nothing changes.”
I asked her to tell me more about that, and she hung up.
So what happened in that call? Was it a failure?
A confession about that call: I didn’t use the phone bank script I’d been given. Here’s how that script started:
Hi! This is _________ with Phil Hernandez's campaign. Can I speak with __________?
Great! I'm a volunteer with Phil's campaign. He is running for the Virginia House so he can go to Richmond to represent you, your family and this community.
Can Phil count on your vote in the November election?
If I’d gone with that opening, Jennifer would have hung up on me right away.
Over the last couple years, my own, loose, improvisational phone banking “script” has evolved. No matter what issue someone is talking about, no matter what side of the issue they’re on, I take notes. I tell the person I'm taking notes. I ask them if it would be okay to pass them on to the candidate.
They always say yes.
And I always pass them on. Sometimes I type them up and put them in the “Notes” field on the screen in front of me. Sometimes I put them in an email to the candidate. Sometimes, as was the case with Jennifer, I suggest the candidate follow up with a phone call:
She voted for Dems in the past, now is so frustrated she's planning not to vote. If you call, she might get the sense that Democrats do care. That might earn her vote.
Think of it this way: Every time you call a voter, you are setting in motion a little play.
There are two actors.
Most phone bank scripts cast you, the caller, as a Salesperson. And the person who picks up the phone: they’re the person you’re trying to sell.
What Jane McAlevey taught me is that we can change the play.
The person picking up the phone is not a customer. Not the means to our end. They are a Member of Society. They have information we need. That makes them the expert, the protagonist. Which is how it should be in a democracy.
Thank you, Jane.
November 12, 2023
Find out about: