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 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 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.
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.
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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,.
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.
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But in negotiations, management was now playing tough and mean. Then came the real shocker. Another unexpected emergency call from the SEIU general counsel. McAlevey got the bad news.. Cut it out! Came the order.
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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. They submitted a referendum to the nurses, who voted 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. 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? 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. 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. When McAlevey first came to Nevada, she had little respect for the old local leadership. As she describes it, we think of Local as a sleepy, small-townish local, mired in routine, not concerned with organizing. Although she characterizes it more harshly.
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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.
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 election, they carried most positions. 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. To her surprise, Andy Stern offered help.
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. Sophisticated in the power of democracy in confronting employers.
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This time, in the election rerun, the tide turned. 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.
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. What happened? Then she was bounced from the movement, a victim of the high-level internecine warfare that has torn apart organized labor. In this engrossing and funny narrative—that reflects the personality of its charismatic, wisecracking author—McAlevey tells the story of a number of dramatic organizing and contract victories, and the unconventional strategies that helped achieve them.
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Raising Expectations (and raising hell) … by Jane McAlevey
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