Labor organizer McAlevey argues that unions are essential to American democracy in A Collective Bargain (Ecco, Jan.).

What motivated you to become a labor scholar as well as an activist?

I love working with workers, but I got a pretty profound cancer diagnosis and was forced to just stop, almost against my will. After being miserable about the idea of having to stop, I began to do what I could, which was essentially lay around and read about the history of labor unions. I wanted to figure out how I could maybe be even more effective when I reentered the world. I wrote my first book [Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell)], and sent the draft to the only academic I knew, Frances Fox Piven. She called me up three days after she read the manuscript and said, “You will enter a PhD program.”

What keeps activists like Irma Perez, whose efforts to organize a hotel employee strike are featured in the book, fighting?

It’s a real passion and zeal for justice. There are people who when they see injustice are just going to make the decision to do something about it. Irma Perez is a beautiful example of that. She’s been working in a Marriott hotel in Oakland, Calif., for 17 years, and Marriott wants to take her health-care plan away or make her pay a lot more money for it. Meanwhile, she’s lost her house to the scam of the 2008 mortgage crisis. At some point, people decide enough already. I mean, the deck is so stacked against them, why not try to fight back? That’s the point I think people are at in this country.

The book is a hybrid of history, organizational tactics, and inspirational stories. What was the goal of bringing these varied styles together?

I always have an image of a basket on my back, like Robin Hood. When a worker is skeptical about making the hard decisions to try and form a union or win a great contract, you’ve got to have an arsenal of real stories to help that worker understand what you’re trying to say to them. I tried to write the book like an organizing conversation I’d have with a worker I don’t know.

What lessons do you hope readers take from the book?

That we can win. We can actually do this. And that, for as challenging as unions can be, they’re essential. In any system where people go off to work for someone else, there has to be a robust right for those people to come together and strategize about what they need, and then be enabled by society to have the power to walk out when things aren’t fair, and make them fair again. Workplace democracy is central to the overall democracy we have in this country.