Raising labor’s expectations

March 27, 2013

Lucy Herschel, a member of 1199SEIU in New York City, reviews a new book by former Service Employees International Union local leader Jane McAlevey.

IT'S THE summer of 2006. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Nevada, under the leadership of its new executive director, "Hurricane Jane" McAlevey, is taking the state by storm.

Having just settled an industry-standard setting contract at Catholic Healthcare West (CHW) hospitals, the local has embarked on a fierce contract campaign at for-profit Sunrise Hospital in Los Vegas.

Nevada is a right-to-work state where every union card has to be fought for, but the shop-floor organizing is going strong, union membership rates are at their highest point ever, and union is preparing to escalate their tactics.

Then, McAlevey receives the call.

It's from SEIU International's head legal counsel, informing her that the "Patients Before Profits" sticker that union members are wearing as part of their contract campaign is in violation of the International's labor peace accord with Sunrise's parent company, the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). In no uncertain terms, McAlevey is informed that they must cease and desist.

Jane McAlevey
Jane McAlevey

McAlevey is incredulous. She's well aware of SEIU's peace agreement in with HCA, in which the company has agreed not to interfere with new organizing drives in Florida in exchange for certain peace terms in SEIU strongholds like Nevada and California.

In McAlevey opinion, this peace deal has little to do with building workplace power in new places and everything to do with SEIU's focus on electoral politics and getting an operational toehold in the crucial swing state of Florida before the next presidential election. However, McAlevey claims she was told this deal would not interfere with her local's right to fight for a good contract and even strike in their existing shops.

McAlevey pulls together 16 of her rank-and-file Sunrise leaders to discuss what to do. Collectively, they get on speakerphone with the International's lawyers to inform them that the local has no intention of backing down from this fight. Instead, the local calls for informational picketing at Sunrise.

The International is furious and threatens to trustee that local if they go through with the picketing. Barred from picketing, the local calls for a strike vote instead, winning a 99.4 percent authorization vote. The International is "spitting knives" but thinks better of carrying through with their threat of trusteeship. Instead, they convince the local to bring in the head honchos from both sides for mediation.

Eventually the strike is averted, but not without the workers at Sunrise winning most of what had been won at CHW, including a pay scale that would mean immediate average immediate pay raise of 17.2 percent, according to McAlevey.

IN MANY ways, this episode at Sunrise is the central turning point in Jane McAlevey's book Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement--the no-holds-barred memoir of her decade of work with and for my union, the Service Employees International Union.

"If there's one thing I hope to convey," McAlevey states in the introduction, "it is that present-day American service workers can militantly confront corporations and government and win."

But there's a problem. Much of the leadership of labor movement today has given up on shop-floor organizing and strikes as relics of the past, favoring instead labor management partnership deals and other bureaucratic maneuvers. As the Sunrise example shows, the union leadership's top-down strategy inevitably comes into conflict with the kind of from-below organizing needed win good contracts.

"Past a certain point," McAlevey comes to realize, "good organizing will not be tolerated because it cannot be controlled."

McAlevey herself is a controversial character, having been installed by then-SEIU International President Andy Stern to run the struggling Nevada local, despite her total lack of experience running a union or even negotiating a contract. McAlevey was later forced to resign from that position after just four years amid an internal crisis involving accusations that she improperly interfered in an internal union election.

However, whatever one thinks of McAlevey individually or her record as a union leader, the stories she tells are both inspiring and infuriating about the state of the labor movement today.

While much of the labor movement has battened down the hatches and lowered its sights regarding what is possible, as the book's title indicates, McAlevey calls for raising expectations of what's possible and what working people are capable of.

From the moment McAlevey steps foot in Vegas, she describes a virtual whirlwind of intensely focused and successful organizing and contract campaigns in a series of workplaces.

Many of the tactics McAlevey employs are the ABCs of good organizing--intensive charting of every worker in a particular shop, careful identification of worker leaders, escalating job actions to test your organization, serious strike preparation. However, these are the very tactics that many of us rank-and-file members have never seen our unions really implement.

In particular, McAlevey emphasizes on what she calls "deep organizing," as opposed to the shallow, top-down approach practiced by so much of the labor movement today. Good organizing, she states,

is always a face-to-face endeavor with no intermediary short cuts: no e-mail, no social networking, no tweeting. It's not negotiated deals between national unions and giant corporations and it is certainly not workers waking up one day to find themselves dealt into a thing called a union that sends them glossy mailers telling them how to vote.

While it's hard to assess all of McAlevey's claims of organizing success, the stories are a breath of fresh air for anyone who's longed to get a glimpse of what a labor movement with a pulse looks like.

Particularly thrilling are her descriptions of mass bargaining sessions where dozens upon dozens of members not only watch but participate in bargaining sessions, schooling their bosses with presentations on workplace issues and the daily conditions on the hospital floor.

McAlevey makes a number of other useful critiques and observations about of the labor movement, including its slavish devotion to the Democratic Party, its focus on new organizing to the neglect of organizing existing members, its timidity in challenging the law and its tendency to burn bridges with community allies.

RAISING EXPECTATIONS and the experience in Nevada also throws some interesting light on some of the later more infamous conflicts that broke out in SEIU. In many ways, the battles between the Nevada local and the International were forerunners of the all-out war that broke out in 2008 when Sal Rosselli, then-head of SEIU's large California local, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), began challenging the International over some of these same behind-the-scenes labor management deals.

The International subsequently threw UHW into trusteeship, in a move "so heavy-handed," McAlevey writes, "it took even the most cynical observers breath away." Rosselli and much of the staff and activists of UHW were able to reconstitute as the breakaway National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which is still battling SEIU for representation of many of its former members.

Unfortunately, the similarities between Nevada and California don't seem to have created common cause between McAlevey and Rosselli. In her book, McAlevey takes some jabs at Rosselli, who she accuses of actively undermining the Nevada local in their struggles with the International in 2006.

Assuming her claims bear some truth, it's still unclear why this champion of bottom-up, worker-driven organizing failed to take a clear stand with those in California who were openly challenging the backroom deals and heavy hand of SEIU in 2008, at a time when McAlevey still sat on the International Executive Board.

Instead, she criticizes Rosselli for his "loud" and "bombastic" approach, which she says pre-empted some of the quiet conversations she claims were happening at the time within the upper-echelons of SEIU about the course Stern was taking. Unfortunately, those quiet conversations appear to have remained just that, while NUHW continues to fairly successfully battle on with more democratic and worker based model.

Raising Expectations, despite its contradictions, is a fascinating and thrilling read for anyone concerned about the state of the labor movement and the ability of working people to fight back for the respect and standard of living they deserve.

Of course the book has its limitations. McAlevey's larger-than-life, rock-star personality can be a little off-putting at times. Her strange and strong disdain for the grievance procedure betrays a certain elitism. Above all, her general perspective relies on the existence of well-intentioned, super-organizers with lots of resources coming in from the outside and organizing workers, rather than grappling with how working people begin to organize and take power for themselves from below.

For a thorough exposé of the self-destructive turf battles and top-down, anti-democratic tendencies stifling the labor movement, readers might want to first check out Steve Early's excellent Civil Wars in Labor: Birth of a New Workers' Movement or Death Throes of the Old?

However, McAlevey's book is well worth checking out in addition. McAlevey tell-all style gives a rare glimpse into some of the shadowy inner working of the SEIU bureaucracy. Even more so, she brings to life the excitement of harrowing shop-floor campaigns and humanizes the struggles of workers fighting to defend their jobs and their livelihoods, despite being undermined by their own union.

"One thing that struck me over and over," writes McAlevey, "in Vegas and almost everywhere else I worked for unions: workers want to make things better so badly that they are willing again and again to set aside frustration and anger stemming from past bad experiences with unions if you offer them a plan to win that makes them the central participant."

For those of us trying to trying to come up with that plan ourselves in our workplaces, McAlevey's book provides some useful insights and much needed inspiration about how to stand up and win.

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