November 27, 2012

Book Review by Steve Early, and Response by Author Jane McAlevey

Response to Steve Early's Review of Raising Expectations
By Jane McAlevey

The editors have graciously offered me the opportunity
to respond to Steve Early's review of Raising
Expectations (and Raising Hell). I want to respond to
Early's review, which focuses primarily on about ten
percent of the book, but also to give people some idea
of what the other ninety percent is about.

It will be no surprise to knowledgeable readers that
Steve Early's review is heavily focused on the National
Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).  In Early's The
Civil Wars in US Labor, he declares himself as not only
a partisan, but as among the biggest cheerleaders of
the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).
However, in his review of my book, Early keeps his
sympathies under the table. This does a disservice to
readers who try to make sense of all this. Readers of
his review of Raising Expectations might get the
impression that my book is all about his interest,
NUHW. Not at all. My book is about organizing, and how
to rebuild the US labor movement in a time of
tremendous difficulty and multiple setbacks.

In my book, I clearly identified myself as someone who
tried to steer an independent course amidst complicated
turf wars--the issues that matter most to Early.
That's apparently enough for Early to direct a lot of
criticism at me, some of it directly on NUHW matters,
some of it spillover about somewhat related points.  (I
am not, it might be noted, alone as an object of
Early's criticisms.)

Some of what's at stake has to do with political
interpretations and loyalties, some of it is simple
matters of fact.  A factual question that might matter
on these issues is that Early gives the impression that
my tenure on the International Executive Board or IEB
was several weeks long. Early states that I was elected
to the board in June of 2008 and that I left a few
weeks later. In fact, I was elected to the IEB for the
first time in early 2007 to fill a vacancy, and later
re-elected. Of interest to Early, during this period on
the IEB, I declined to sign an infamous letter IEB
board members wrote to academics, scolding them for
what they considered to be interference in the pending
trusteeship of California's big healthcare local,
United Healthcare Workers West (UHW).

Similarly, Early reports that "...her illustrious SEIU
career...[was] a mere 4 years," an assertion he makes
seemingly to undermine my credibility. In fact, I
worked for SEIU for 7 years, and worked so closely with
an SEIU local, District 1199 New England, for an
additional 3 years, that my total SEIU experience is a
full decade (as the title of the book suggests).

Since I am not 100% aligned with Early's views, Early
apparently sees me as the enemy and is looking to
discredit everything I do and say. Turf wars have the
potential to lead to that approach, and I gather that
Early is known for it; readers need to judge for
themselves if that's the most useful way to advance the
labor movement and help workers improve their
conditions. For example, although I condemn the raid
against Sal Rosselli, head of what is now NUHW, Early
says, "Raising Expectations displays minimal sympathy
for the dedicated organizers and workplace leaders who
created NUHW...." I praise the work of several of UHW's
staff organizers by name including Glen Goldstien, Dana
Simon and Brian McNamara, in addition to acknowledging
Rosselli's local sending us their purple RV (an
important resource our local was far too small to own),
and offer other instances where Roselli's local
supported the Nevada workers. But Early can't tolerate
that I also expose some painful experiences where
Rosselli acted in less than stellar ways--as when
Rosselli sided with Stern against the Nevada workers
when we were disputing whether or not our rank-and-file
had the right to strike. The world isn't as pure or as
binary as partisans might see it.

The review is drenched with sexism, best--though not
only--reflected by this line, "McAlevey is a woman
organizer scorned...." My, my, my, the "woman" there
certainly is needed. You'd think Early could see
reasons why people might be upset with SEIU. And that,
"a woman scorned" wouldn't be at the top of the list.
This is not exactly his proudest political moment,
though perhaps his most revealing.

The civil wars in labor may be at the top of Early's
agenda, and they matter to my story, but they are a
side issue in a book focused on organizing.  Quoting
from the third paragraph of the "Introduction:"

"So first and foremost, this book is about organizing.
Why? Because if there is any one message I hope to
convey, it is that present-day American service workers
can militantly confront corporations and government and
win. .... The organizing I have been involved in for
the last ten years has won. As a result, there are
thousands of workers who now expect to have a greater
say in what goes on at their workplace, expect their
jobs to be more productive and effective, and
anticipate a better quality of life when they are old
and that they will have more money for their children's
education. Their relationship with their coworkers has
become richer, they feel less intimidated by their
superiors, and when they face a collective problem they
have a realistic chance of finding a collective
solution."

I very much appreciate Steve Early's assessment that
"Several of the best chapters in Raising Expectations
describe her jousting with management and provide
detailed examples of how open negotiations (what the
author calls, "big, representative, bargaining") can
increase rank-and-file participation and restore
members confidence in the union as their workplace
voice." There are sixteen (16) chapters in the book,
and by my count fourteen (14) of them are dedicated to
the nuts and bolts of what constitutes good organizing.
Additionally, a top goal of the book is to reach a
broad audience so that the central issue of the
importance of unions, and of why we still believe
American workers can win, reaches beyond the already
converted. The personal approach the book takes was
done intentionally (and because, as I discuss in the
epilogue, I wrote the book while I was grounded for
several months fighting cancer; most people familiar
with organizers know it would literally take tying us
down to get us to focus on writing for months on end;
cancer replaced the ropes for me). Remarkably, this
becomes an example of how I am just an uppity,
self-centered woman, "a progressive prima donna." Go
figure.

The book begins with my reflections on being in the
trenches in the 2000 Florida Recount. I use the
experience of being a senior organizer for the AFL-CIO
assigned to the Gore campaign to create a metaphor for
the deeply problematic relationship between the
Democratic Party and organized labor--a theme that I
raise throughout the book. The Democrats were unwilling
or unable to mobilize a movement in support of Gore;
unfortunately, labor went along with (or possibly even
agreed with?) that mistaken call by the Democrats. I
describe in detail several efforts we led to buck the
mainstream Democratic Party from within the primary
system and run opposition candidates against what we
call bad Democrats--a category of politicians I refer
to in the book as a "target-rich environment." We were
successful every time and the approach constituted a
sort of left wing precursor to the Tea Party--an effort
to seize the party from within, with the hopes that we
can one day build our own.

But the vast majority of the book deals with a
blow-by-blow account of what it takes to win at a time
when labor is losing, and to rebuild moribund union
locals. This segment comes from the end of a chapter
called, "Laying the Foundation"--and reflects how much
we had accomplished in just one year in Las Vegas:

"By late spring of 2005 we had set new standards for
Las Vegas hospital workers in the contracts we'd won at
Desert Springs and Valley hospitals, and then topped
those standards with the even better contracts at the
two CHW hospitals. We had organized workers at three
more hospitals into the union, and had forced the
county manager to resolve the outstanding issue in the
civil service contract in the workers' favor. We had
played a key role in a successful county commission
race, and in defeating a right-wing effort to gut
property taxes in the state. Internally, our local had
tripled the size of its staff, built an organizing
department, and fundamentally changed the way the union
was run. It had been a busy twelve months."

There are many workers in this country who desperately
need a year like that.

As Early mentions in his review, we discuss what I call
"whole worker organizing." This approach goes beyond
solidarity building between unions and "the community,"
and suggests a better approach is for unions to
understand their members are the community. This
critique is at the heart of the book. In the
Introduction, I describe what I mean by this,

"Whole-worker organizing 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. The pressing concerns that bear down on them
every day are not divided into two neat piles, only one
of which is of concern to unions. At the end of each
shift workers go home, through streets that are
sometimes violent, past their kids' crumbling schools,
to their often substandard housing, where the tap water
is likely unsafe."

In my experience, this approach is not a distraction
that hurts the "real" focus on workplace organizing;
this approach is a key to winning.

At a time when less than 7% of the private sector
workforce--and less than 12% of the total workforce is
in a union--a whole worker organizing approach is
urgent. We have to use the base of the labor movement
we still have to quickly persuade millions of Americans
in neighborhoods nationwide that unions remain the best
hope for improving their lives. The book describes an
approach that worked with different kinds of workers
and in different states, in the private and public
sector, at the higher and lower ends of the pay scale,
workers considered hard-to-replace and those regarded
as easy to replace--and argues that there are no
shortcuts to face-to-face organizing to win back the
confidence of the members or their communities to the
purpose and promise of a good union. In Las Vegas we
set new standards, and then topped those standards with
even better contracts, and this did not come at the
cost of new organizing.

Early's review is pretty much what I expected when I
wrote the book, and I decided I would live with it
because I had a story I thought was important to tell.
I do hope, however, that the entirely predictable
criticisms that will come my way (and Early's is
certainly only the first of many) will not totally
obscure the story I tried to tell, a story I hope can
contribute to revitalizing the labor movement and
improving workers' lives.

#

Jane McAlevey has served as Executive Director and
Chief Negotiator for a union local, as National Deputy
Director for Strategic Campaigns of the Healthcare
Division for SEIU, and she was the Campaign Director of
the one of the only successful multi-union, multi-year,
geographic organizing campaigns for the national
AFL-CIO. She has led power structure analyses and
trainings for a wide range of union and community
organizations and has had extensive involvement in
globalization and global environmental issues. She
worked at the Highlander Research and Education Center
in her early 20's. McAlevey is currently a PhD
candidate at the City University of New York's Graduate
Center and is a contributing writer at The Nation
magazine.

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