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July 10, 2014

The New Union Organizing

Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement by Jane McAlevey

by Jason Kunin

Raising Expectations

It’s been a grim three decades for the labour movement. Unions continue to lose many of the gains made during in the post-war years and face escalating attacks, while labour leaders, aware that there is a crisis, seem helpless to stop it.

As Jane McAlevey argues in her excellent book Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, recently released in paperback by Verso, the current weakness of labour lies not so much in the rise of anti-labour legislation and the spread of right-to-work laws, but in the labour movement itself, with its out-of-touch leadership, turf wars, and bureaucratic inertia.

More than just an analysis of what is wrong, however, McAlevey’s book, more valuably, provides a model of how unions can once again be effective both in terms of making gains for workers and transforming their communities.

McAlevey’s memoir, which reads like a potboiler with its colourful characters and villains and cliff-hanger chapter endings, recounts her years as a union organizer starting in the mid-90s, after a reformist shakedown in the AFL-CIO created a short-lived push for different ways of doing things. As head of the Stamford Organizing Project, McAlevey and her team developed strategies that would become key to organizing workers in several New England counties. She would later bring those strategies to right-to-work Nevada, where she successfully organized health care workers in several anti-union for-profit hospitals until union turf wars and internal power struggles blew the whole thing up.

Whole Worker organizing

While most union organizing focuses exclusively on workers in their workplaces, McAlevey argues for what she calls “whole worker organizing,” which as she puts it, “begins with the recognition that real people do not live two separate lives, one beginning when they arrive at work and punch the clock and another when they punch out at the end of their shift” (14).

To be relevant, unions must work to transform all aspects of workers’ lives, both at work and in their communities. This approach differs from common labour-community alliance organizing because its purpose “is not to build an alliance between ‘labor’ and ‘community’ but to bring community organizing techniques into the shop floor while moving labor organizing techniques into the community” (15).

Power Structure Analysis

Whole worker organizing requires doing what most labour leaders do not do, which is getting to know both the workers and their concerns outside the workplace. To do this, McAlevey insists on beginning with what she calls a “geographic power structure analysis,” or PSA. Doing this, unfortunately, requires a lot of buy-in from union leadership because it is time-consuming, resource intensive, and does not yield immediate results. Yet if done properly, a PSA will chart workplaces to help identify who the shop floor leaders actually are – and they are usually not the elected leaders or the “loudmouths” who dominate meetings – as well as what the workers’ concerns are, who their allies are, who their opponents are, and who the power brokers in their communities are.

The Stamford project spent months of its early mandate focusing not on unionizing workers but on fighting for decent local housing because the project’s PSA revealed housing as the number one issue for workers. The leadership at the AFL-CIO grew impatient and skeptical over this focus on community issues, but eventually it paid off. The success of the Stamford Project in preventing the demolition of low-rent housing where many workers lived – a struggle that made key allies with church leaders and politicians – left workers with powerful alliances that facilitated the winning of unionized workplaces and collective agreements for 4,500 workers.

Open bargaining

Whole-worker organizing and power structure analysis were also key in McAlevey’s successes in organizing hospital workers for SEIU in Nevada, a right-to-work state with a discouraging litany of anti-union laws, a transient population (in Las Vegas), and a corrupt political establishment.

While negotiating first contracts, McAlevey experimented with a form of open bargaining that represented a radical departure from the norm, in which contracts are negotiated behind closed doors by a small group of managers and elected union negotiators.

Instead, McAlevey would invite up to a hundred workers to sit across the bargaining table with her, with a proviso that any worker could sit in. This display of worker power produced its intended psychological effect of intimidating management and displaying worker power.

Direct Action

Through the fight to unionize the hospital workers in Nevada, McAlevey emphasized the importance of giving workers something to do that is “meaningful, social, and fun” (134). This may seem like a banal observation but it’s actually contrary to the way most unions function, where workers are regarded as a sort of standing army to be mobilized at the leadership’s command.

And so when hospital workers were forced by management to endure two-hour long indoctrination meetings, which included being forced to watch a scary anti-union video, the workers got into the “horror movie” spirit and distributed hundreds of packets of microwave popcorn. When union organizers were (illegally) barred from entering a hospital to meet with workers, McAlevey had SEIU send them a purple recreational vehicle, which they parked outside the hospital and which became a hangout, game room, and headquarters.

Grievance Mills vs. Direct Action

It’s not just in contract disputes or union drives, however, that McAlevey advocates direct action. Rather, she advocates a model of direct action for all routine workplace disputes.

Most unions function as what McAlevey calls “grievance mills,” where filing and managing grievances is one of the only things they do for members. A focus on grievances leads to the bulk of a union’s budget going to lawyer’s fees. They also rarely lead to a satisfying remedy, as a grievance that goes on to arbitration may take years to resolve. (I once had a grievance that took five and a half years to go to arbitration, by which time all of the parties involved had retired.) In grievance mill unions, according to McAlevey, “The only ones who benefit are a cottage industry of lawyers and arbitrators, and the sort of union leaders for whom these cases are bread and butter” (212).

Direct worker action, by contrast, deals with disputes on the spot and empowers workers – and resolutions don’t take years. Ironically, one of the accusations against McAlevey that contributed to her undoing – made by members of the ineffective old guard leadership seeking to retain their power – was that she was soft on management because she didn’t file grievances.

Divide and conquer

As McAlevey points out, management long ago mastered the art of divide and conquer by hiving off one group of workers and offering them more. In hospitals, nurses are the elite workers. In education, my sector, it’s teachers. McAlevey, however, argues that craft unionism – having, say, a specific union just for nurses or for teachers – plays into this politics of divide and conquer, and often reinforces racial divides that may exist among the different positions (e.g. teachers versus caretaking staff, nurses versus hospital janitors).

McAlevey argues for all members of a workplace to be in the same union, enjoy the same benefits, and be under the same contract, with only varying salaries that take skill level and training into account. That way one person’s fight is everyone’s fight.

Consolidating power

McAlevey is not lacking for confidence and is not afraid to toot her own horn. She may come across boastful, even catty, nor does she does shy away from naming names and offering unflattering portraits of important labour leaders, such as Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association (CNA), or SEIU local 250 president Sal Rosselli, among others.

Yet McAlevey is also generous in acknowledging her mentors and honest in assessing her mistakes, the most serious of which was neglecting to consolidate the power she had built for her union in Nevada, thereby opening it up to a rearguard takeover by the ineffective former leadership, which made common cause with the CAN in its effort to raid the SEIU Nevada nurses.

A fine balance between hope and despair

The work that McAlevey did in New England and Nevada offers a template for rebuilding the power of labour. The question, however, is whether it’s replicable.

The kind of resources required to do the sort of “deep organizing” that McAlevey argues is necessary means that reviving the labour movement demands working within the existing labour structures and transforming them from within. Few unions are as well equipped as SEIU to do this sort of work, as she herself notes. and for a few years the constellations aligned to enable McAlevey to do some groundbreaking organizing within it.

The unraveling of her work may serve as a reminder of how difficult it is to revolutionize institutional structures once they’re entrenched. By the end of this book, I wasn’t sure if I had been convinced of the potential for working within existing institutional structures or shown the futility of even trying. (McAlevey herself has since left union organizing and is now working on her PhD at the SUNY Graduate Center.) I still can’t tell.

Nevertheless, to quote Rohinton Mistry, it’s a fine balance between hope and despair, and despair, at any rate, is a luxury that the most precarious workers cannot afford. McAlevey has written a manual for reversing the downward trajectory of worker power, if only enough people in the labour movement would listen. This book should be required reading for every union leader, organizer, and activist.

Jason Kunin is a Toronto teacher, writing, and union activist.