Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell)
By Jane McAlevey
Verso Books, 2012
The uphill climb for American organized labor to regain its economic clout and political power is akin to scaling Mount Kilimanjaro during a blizzard. Major countervailing winds — epitomized by the legal system that makes it easy for corporations to fire employees interested in forming unions and turn to multi-million dollar law firms to crush worker militancy — make the survival of labor unions seem near impossible. However, as former labor organizer Jane McAlevey writes in Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), some of organized labors’ struggles spring from the labor movement itself, namely in the form of internecine union wars and poor strategic vision.
Raising Expectations is both uplifting and depressing — a great encapsulation of the labor movement — told through the lens of McAlevey’s experience as a labor organizer with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). McAlevey’s personal story is indicative of the experience of many activists who become labor organizers. She got her start as an environmental activist with the Earth Island Institute, and made her first foray into labor organizing in 1998 when she was recruited to join the AFL-CIO’s Stamford Organizing Project. Though short-lived, the project made inroads in establishing the “whole worker organizing approach,” which viewed employees’ relationships outside of the workplace as the linchpin that determined the success of unionizing campaigns.
Through her work in Stamford, Conn., McAlevey used community organizing tactics straight from Saul Alinksy’s playbook, like reaching out to churches and local leaders and pressuring politicians to yield to workers’ demands. These techniques paved the way for union victories, and through these efforts McAlevey caught the attention of SEIU’s top brass. As an energetic, idealistic organizer at the beginning of her career, she was a perfect fit for SEIU’s intensive organizing drives. McAlevey’s brief but fiery seven-year tenure at SEIU dovetailed with one of rockiest periods in President Andy Stern’s leadership. This period was marked by SEIU brokering neutrality agreements with large healthcare corporations, local union takeovers and jurisdictional disputes with the California Nurses Association (CNA), an industry rival.
FIGHTS IN THE VEGAS LIGHTS
In the midst of all of this dysfunction, Stern eyed SEIU Vegas Local 1107 as an under-performing and disorganized entity and handpicked McAlevey (who earned the nickname “Hurricane Jane”) to get the public sector local’s house in order. While she described Vegas as a “phony city built on gambling and prostitution” and she disliked the local’s leadership (who she described as a “rat’s nest”) McAlevey quickly harnessed local labor to take on the leadership of the Universal Health Services (UHS) organizing campaign to make inroads in the fight for hospital workers’ rights.
Throughout the book, McAlevey uses a keen rhetorical device by periodically “phoning” her mentor, long-time SEIU 1199 leader Jerry Brown, for advice, which keeps the book moving and also allows for transitions. Reading McAlevey’s hospital organizing tales and getting a first-hand look at the success of these campaigns makes you wish you were fighting alongside her. By 2004, Local 1107’s threat of strikes became big news in Las Vegas and UHS buckled to good contracts and better patient care.
In general, companies like UHS fight unionization campaigns tooth and nail. In a bruising hospital contract drive at Desert Springs Hospital (a subsidiary of UHS) the reader gets an insider’s look at how anti-union campaigns evolve. During the union drive, company higher-ups called in union avoidance firms that held mandatory “captive audience meetings” to warn workers against unionization and directed frontline managers to conduct one-on-one meetings with employees to drive the message home. One of those consultants was Jose Salgado, who routinely menaced pro-union employees. But Salgado’s reign of intimidation came to a halt when McAlevey caught wind that he had previously worked as a gunrunner and she launched a “No Way Jose” sticker action. As McAlevey writes, “In a matter of hours Jose’s power over them was in the hospital’s toxic refuse bins.”
However, McAlevey’s string of successes runs aground when she tries to defeat entrenched Local 1107 leadership through elections. McAlevey’s bid to replace incumbent union board members received Stern’s backing, but his use of union funds to support her slate of candidates (and McAlevey’s naiveté or culpability), was a blatant violation of labor law that cost her dearly. In the end, both McAlevey and her rivals were forced out of SEIU, and Local 1107 was ill-equipped to cope with the one-two punch of the CNA recruiting formerly SEIU nurses and SEIU’s inability to expand the facilities in which they organized, due to SEIU’s neutrality agreements.
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS STAYS IN VEGAS
While McAlevey has taken a break from organizing and is now a Ph.D. candidate in the sociology program at the CUNY Graduate Center, she’s still a lightning rod in the labor movement. Labor writer Steve Early dubbed McAlevey “less the ‘left-wing troublemaker,’ she claims to be, and more of a progressive prima donna.” Last spring, Early penned a searing critique of SEIU and other labor unions, Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old?, which singles out McAlevey’s time with SEIU Local 1107 as an example of how unions should not be run.
McAlevey’s detractors should still laud her obvious talents as an innovative organizer who was adept at strategic campaigning, even if SEIU was simultaneously capable of directing its considerable resources to fighting the good fight against corporations while also lapsing into debilitating dysfunction.
Bennett Baumer is a former SEIU organizer.