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Raising Expectations (and raising hell) … by Jane McAlevey

“Raising Expectations (and raising hell): My decade fighting for the labor movement” by Jane McAlevey. 325 pp. Verso. 2012. $25.95.

As a student radical, Jane McAlevey honed her talents in the main social causes of the times and was then drawn to the “new labor movement” led by John Sweeney. She went to work for the AFL-CIO in 1998 and did such an outstanding job in mobilizing wide public support among public leaders for union causes in Stamford, Connecticut, that she attracted the attention of Jerry Brown, then leader of SEIU 1199 in New England and Larry Fox, then head of the SEIU Health Care Division.

They convinced her to join the SEIU national organizing staff. In 2004, after being shunted to hot spots around the country as a shock-troop organizer, she was convinced to take the job of executive director of SEIU Local 1107 in Las Vegas, NV, hired by the local executive board at the suggestion of SEIU national.

In Las Vegas, apart from her standard duties as local CEO, she undertook, as her main objective, the organization of big hospitals owned by stubbornly anti-union national conglomerates and to negotiate improved contracts in hospitals already union. (During one campaign, she writes, she was physically pushed around by bullies from a union-busting firm hired to represent one hospital chain.)

She expected that her assignment as local head was essentially to recruit new members, but she was quickly disabused. Contracts at two major hospitals were expiring in four to six weeks. One at Desert Springs and one at Valley were both owned by United Health Services, one of the world’s largest chains of for-profit hospitals and viciously anti-union. SEIU was there only because both hospitals had been union when UHS bought them. She asked Jerry Brown to study the existing contracts; she says he found them the worst he had ever seen. In this right-to-work state, where workers need not pay the equivalent of dues, union membership had fallen to dangerous levels. The union wasn’t sure who still were members. At the first call for hospital membership meetings, seven showed up at one; fewer at the other.

The campaign at these two UHS hospitals was only one of the many battles she fought out over the next years in Nevada; but by itself, it illustrates so well what McAlevey characterizes as her guiding union building philosophy: “mass mobilization direct action strategy.”

To direct its negotiations at Desert Springs hospital, UHS selected an attorney from a union-busting law firm it had retained for the fray. To gird the union side, McAlevey notes, nurses had to be alerted and mobilized. Among that tiny band of seven who attended the first meeting, were two energetic diehard union loyalists. With their help, in a series of shift meetings and personal visits, union membership was increased from 40% to 80% of the employees. At these meetings, nurses compiled a list of their chief concerns. A big negotiating committee of working nurses was selected; each member was assigned to present the union’s position on one selected subject, and, at practice sessions, they gained the confidence they needed to speak out at formal sessions. Nurses were encouraged to visit the negotiations and see their union in action. Eighty nurses dropped in for a while. In short, the preliminary period was utilized not only to prepare for an effective presentation of the union position, but to mobilize the members for what was coming. It was a great success.

To make it clear to nurses that the adversary was not this or that hospital but the massive UHS, the union asked that negotiations for Desert Spring and Valley be combined. When, as expected, management refused, the union showed its strength. Within five days, it submitted a petition signed by a majority at both hospitals demanding combined negotiations. Meanwhile, both contracts expired. The company asked for an extension, but the union rejected the proposal and, to raise the pressure, it initiated a sticker campaign. Nurses posted stickers on their clothing to show the growing strength of the union among the employees. First day, 75%. Next day, new stickers read 80%. Then, 85%. Turning the pressure dial a notch higher, 300 nurses joined an informational picket line outside the next bargaining session. They were joined by casino workers and carpenters. These events, unprecedented for nurses, created a media and TV sensation. (McAlevey reminds her readers that the union was simultaneously battling off a decert drive among ambulance drivers and was campaigning in the primary for its candidate to the county commission.)

After the union’s refusal to extend the contract, its sticker campaign, and the picket line failed to move the stubbornly anti-union management, what next? A strike vote! In a referendum, 98% of the voting nurses voted to authorize a strike. The next day, stickers read 98%. (Actually, McAlevey and the bargaining committee were secretly worried. The 98% strike vote concealed a low voters turnout. A toast-scorching Las Vegas mid-summer was no time for extended picket lines.)

Still, the union flaunted busy public preparations for strike. Each day new stickers recorded the countdown: 10, 9, 8. 7, 6 …. It is not clear whether the union felt strong enough to follow through with a strike; but, if it was a bluff, it paid off. At the critical moment, an urgent phone call came from management: They were ready to reach a settlement at a conference the next day; they had changed course and agreed to joint talks for both hospitals. The final hours were tense, the financial details complex, but in the end, McAlevey reports, it was a total union victory. A new contract with all-around improvements. (A few weeks later, the union-backed candidate for county commission won the Democratic primary.)

The battle at UHS was one of many. As McAlevey tallies up what was accomplished in her first year in Nevada, the result seems astounding. Success at Desert Springs and at Valley; good new contracts at two Catholic Healthcare West hospitals; three new hospitals go union; issues resolved favorably for county workers; two political successes in the country, It might seem like an imaginative hope chest or fanciful wish fulfillment, except that Jerry Brown, who advised McAlevey, followed events as they broke, and whose judgment is sound, testifies to the reality of her account.

The story, as she tells it, is inspiring. She wants us to know that, even in tough times, the union battle can be won if only the power of the rank and file is democratically mobilized. It can be done, she tells us, here is how we did it. Such is the main thrust of her book, and it occupies most of its 315 pages.

But there is another side to her story.

After her early first three years, she was already learning that there was more to union life than inspiration. She writes, “I had seen the ugly underbelly of the new labor movement as well as its outward promise.” After that 2004 strike vote threat at Universal Health Services, Larry Fox — still SEIU national health care director — “reminded me,” she writes, “that almost no one in the national headquarters, except him, really believed in strikes anymore, and certainly not in hospital strikes. Andy Stern was taking the SEIU in the opposite direction.” Not long after, Stern unceremoniously edged Fox out as national hospital director — one, two, three, good bye, no explanation. Fox’s militant spirit was alien to Stern’s hope to solve union problems by cooperation with management.

In 2006, a sudden jolt from SEIU headquarters. Nurses had been responding with enthusiasm to the Nevada local’s organizing campaign at Mountain View, a non-union hospital owned by the hostile Hospital Corporation of America national chain. Success seemed at hand. But a curt phone call from the SEIU national office brought new peremptory marching orders. McAlevey was abruptly informed that the international and HCA had already negotiated a separate national deal. In return for HCA’s promise not to oppose the SEIU in Florida, the SEIU had agreed not to organize Mountain View in Las Vegas. McAlevey was ordered to back off and call off the drive. “The national SEIU had officially prohibited the workers at the Mountain View hospital from organizing a union […] I was done with the SEIU right there, ” she writes.

But she stayed on. Meanwhile, the union’s contract at the Sunrise hospital was about to expire. Sunrise was a big hospital also owned by HCA. Unlike Mountain View, Its 2,400 employees had been organized into Nevada Local 1107. But in negotiations, management was now playing tough and mean. To soften up the adamant company and to prepare to resist a possible decertification drive, the union mobilized: mass petitions and demonstrations; nurses adorned their uniforms with stickers, “Patients before Profits.” Management started to buckle. The union agreed to a one-month contract extension only after the company agreed to an immediate 5% salary increase.

Then came the real shocker. Another unexpected emergency call from the SEIU general counsel. McAlevey got the bad news.. The local’s militant campaign, she was informed — in blunt language — violated a peace agreement between SEIU and HCA that required them to be nice to one another. Cut it out! Came the order.

At each stage of what became the local’s dual confrontation with their international and with their employers, nurses were kept informed and endorsed each move. Instead of toning down, the local raised the pressure by setting a date for mass informational picketing outside the hospital. This time, repeated calls from SEIU were direct and threatening: Unless you call off the picket line, we will trustee the local and take over.

The nurses’ committee cancelled the picketing, but they did not capitulate; they escalated. They submitted a referendum to the nurses, who voted 99.4% to authorize a strike. Another call came quickly from the lawyer for the SEIU hospital division: Stop talking strike or we will immediately trustee the local! The strike threat was not withdrawn, but the trusteeship was never imposed. Instead, top brass from HCA and from the SEIU national, now nervous and under pressure and eager to settle, hastened to Nevada. By their militant campaign and their strike threat, the nurses won what they were demanding in the new contract.

By this time, McAlevey writes, she was fed up with the SEIU national, but decided to stay on to finish up other pending negotiations in Nevada. Who knows how long she may have remained? In a short chapter entitled “Things Fall Apart,” however, she explains what prompted an earlier final exit.

To understand what follows, one must understand Jane McAlevey, the crusader. She never conceived of herself as a big union labor leader, creating a mass base for her own union empire. Rather, she was a special organizing shock trooper, ready to confront anti-union employers on one front and then move on to the next. “Challenging power structures is what fascinates me, ” she writes, “not administering a power structure of my own.”

She considers herself an ardent champion of union democracy, a union democracy linked to collective bargaining. It means depending upon union members to induce others to join the union; to formulate demands; vote on contracts; decide whether to strike or settle. In sum, it means democracy in all the aspects of worker-employer confrontation, union democracy in the relations between employer and employee.

But there is another aspect of union democracy. Democracy in the daily, nitty-gritty tasks of administering the affairs of the union, and that involves the relations between union members and their own elected officers. McAlevey never thought much about this aspect of union democracy.

(In law, by the way, these two aspects of workers’ democracy are kept distinct. The NLRA governs relations between workers and employers; the LMRDA, relations between union members and union leaders.)

When McAlevey first came to Nevada, she had little respect for the old local leadership. As she describes it, we think of Local 1107 as a sleepy, small-townish local, mired in routine, not concerned with organizing. (Although she characterizes it more harshly.) The leadership’s base among its 9,000 members was in its public employees. The local president, Vicky Hedderman, who had held the position for almost ten years, retained her paid job as a public employee but was on leave for full time union work. She remained preoccupied, according to McAlevey, with processing individual complaints through a tedious grievance procedure, often ending in arbitration.

As long as what she calls “the old guard” permitted McAlevey to do her organizing job, it was live and let live. “I had taken this job,” she writes, “because I wanted to organize workers.” And so, she was not prepared in 2007, when the local president, Vicky Hedderman, organized a political slate for the coming local union elections whose main plank was getting rid of Jane McAlevey, the executive director. Later labeling their slate Members for Union Democracy, they charged that McAlevey ran a top-down union and stifled dissent; they criticized how she spent local money. Taken by surprise, McAlevey did little more than encourage two or three members she trusted to run for office as individuals. But her critics, ready with a slate and organized, collected enough money to campaign and, in the June 2007 election, they carried most positions. Hedderman, McAlevey’s chief critic, was reelected president.

But the election was botched, apparently nothing new in the local’s history. It seems half the membership got incorrect information about the where, when, and how of the election. After one losing candidate protested to the union and Labor Department, the local itself scheduled a new election for September, just two months away, and this time McAlevey was ready to campaign, but not prepared for the election aftermath. She explains: “For the first time in nine years in the labor movement I was now being counseled in what was legal and illegal in internal union elections.” (How accurately “counseled,’ we will never know.)

For an effective campaign, McAlevey needed money — and fast — which she didn’t have. To her surprise, Andy Stern offered help. Apparently he didn’t want to lose this organizing dynamo, even though she could be uncontrollable. He told her to forge ahead with mass membership mailings and promised to raise between $20,000 and $30,000 to foot the bill. As hired staff, her most trusted organizers would have been forbidden to campaign. Stern easily shrugged off that annoyance by arranging to have them provided with official union membership. All this she writes, “might seem bizarre — indeed, it is bizarre — but in the union world, it’s not unusual.” This one passing comment reveals her essential vulnerability. Sophisticated in the power of democracy in confronting employers. she was ingenuous in the basics of internal union democracy. What Stern was offering her was not merely “usual”; it was typical of the means devised by like-minded union official to bypass the law’s defenses of union democracy.

This time, in the election rerun, the tide turned. Although Hedderman, her nemesis, was reelected president unopposed, McAlevey’s slate swept the election, with only one exception. But when the Labor Department challenged the election rerun, that challenge triggered an unexpected chain of events that led to McAlevey’s final curtain call as an SEIU organizer.

Stern’s help, which seemed so welcome, actually did her in. Of the promised $20,000-$30,000, only $10,000 ever arrived, leaving her with enormous unpaid bills at the printer. In contesting the election, among other charges the Labor Department cited those unpaid printer bills as an illegal “employer” contribution to the winning slate.

In the election aftermath, the local became unmanageable when it was plunged into a running series of disruptive demonstrations as the two sides battled it out. The international sent in Larry Fox, who negotiated a peace treaty: Hedderman resigned as president and retired; McAlevey resigned as executive director and soon left the SEIU.

For McAlevey, the author and high-power organizer, the election demise, is an accidental incident in a far more important story. Her resignation from the SEIU had been presaged repeatedly months before. Intending her book to inspire others, she repeats: even in this time of labor’s troubles, it is possible to win the battle of unionism against hostile employers by counting on the power of a mobilized membership. In this, she succeeds, it is indeed an inspiring story.

But another line of thought runs through her account and explains how Andy Stern and the SEIU, whose star once shined so brightly, lost their glamour.

When Andy Stern led his union out of the AFL-CIO to create a new union federation, he was acclaimed as America’s great new labor leader, the founder of a reincarnated CIO, the prophet who would replace the pale, male old union guard with a fresh leadership of young, diverse, more representative leadership. In the heyday of his celebrity, the SEIU attracted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of labor activists, civil rights campaigners, community organizers, idealistic social cause activists, workers’ rights attorneys.

Within a few years, sobering reality. Many of those social idealists found a place in the SEIU administrative apparatus. But others left, disappointed and disenchanted when they concluded that Stern hoped to create a labor empire by deals with corporate management. McAlevey was the prototype of the student radical, attracted to unionism as a force for social justice. Her experience, as she tells it here, explains why so many left Stern’s SEIU.

Stern, himself, didn’t last too long. At the 2008 SEIU international convention, he offered a grandiose plan to reorganize the SEIU, to change the labor movement, to change the nation, to change the world. But he didn’t hang around long enough to see how it would work out. Two years later he retired, ostensibly leaving the awesome task to a younger generation, although he himself was still uncommonly young for a retiring top labor leader. Perhaps he sensed a change in climate. Perhaps he had become bored with it all.

In any event, by that time his grand design was in shambles; his infant new federation had collapsed; his allies had deserted him; he was roundly repudiated by major labor leaders. His last major effort as SEIU president revealed him at war, not against big capital, but against his critic, Sal Rosselli, the leader of one of SEIU’s own largest locals.

McAlevey left disenchanted with the SEIU but not with labor unionism. “The most important lesson I came away with was that workers in this country are always ready to engage in militant struggle if given half a chance, ” she concludes, “and with good leadership and sufficient resources they can win.”

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