by Joe Burns
Raising Expectations, by Jane McAlevey is a memoir of a progressive activist and non-profit foundation official who gets recruited into the labor movement and thrust very quickly into leadership positions. The book relates McAlevey battles with employers, other labor officials, and ultimately with her own membership.
Raising Expectations purports to tell the tale of how McAlevey was “bounced from the movement, a victim of the high-level internecine warfare that has torn apart organized labor.” The reality, however, is far more complex. For Raising Expectations raises interesting questions about the relationship between middle class labor leaders and the workers they seek to lead.
McAlevey’s journey through the labor movement begins when she is recruited while working at a progressive non-profit foundation by former AFL-CIO organizing director Richard Bensinger to work on an innovative community-labor organizing project, the Stamford organizing project. Some of the stronger parts of McAlevey’s book involve discussing labor/community organizing.
After a stint as an international health care official at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), McAlevey is installed by the SEIU international leadership as executive director of a Nevada SEIU health care and public employee local. She is given instructions to not hesitate to request the local be put into trusteeship. While doing some solid organizing at the local level, McAlevey eventually comes into conflict with the members of her adopted local.
In many ways, Raising Expectations is a throwback to the mid-1990s, when we were told that savvy staff organizers, corporate campaign strategists, and a new breed of progressively-credentialed labor leaders were going to save the labor movement. Indeed, Raising Expectations offers an unapologetic defense of the idea that middle class progessives should be running the labor movement, arguing “it takes a professionally trained staff to run a union.” For obvious reasons, this conception of unionism proved widely popular with college-educated staffers and labor academics.
For previous generations of labor leftists, however, the rank and file was seen as the true source of union power. Jerry Tucker, the great labor strategist and union reformer said it best in his taped speech to the Labor Notes convention last year shortly before he passed away: “An informed and well-organized rank and file is at the center of every victorious struggle.”
In the old days, for a middle class labor leftist to rise within a union often meant years of patient effort working at building a base and learning from workers about class struggle. It meant learning to deal with the contradictions within a workplace, and often unlearning some preconceptions along the way. None of this is to say that toiling away forever in the rank and file forever without influence is necessarily more effective or noble than working as a staff member. It is to say, however, that middle class progressives need to promote democratic structures and worker control over decision-making.
In contrast, the route to the top within SEIU could be meteoric. That was certainly the case with McAlevey, who was installed by Andy Stern’s international as the leader of the Nevada local without having negotiated or “hardly even read” a union contract. Indeed, the author bristles at the democratic local structures which she sees as obstacles, such as a rank and file executive board. Whereas many left wing unionists talk about union democracy, McAlevey offers repeated advice on how staff organizers should properly select workplace leaders.
But what happens when your vision of unionism collides with the vision of the workers you purport to represent? By McAlevey’s own account, this conflict with her own membership, rather than battles with top SEIU officials, best explains her untimely departure from the labor movement. Her membership apparently held a different view of the importance of workplace struggle.
At the core of the dispute, appears to be McAlevey’s disdain of the grievance procedure, a common position among SEIU international officials at the time. McAlevey complains that “sometimes union officers file grievances on behalf of real slackers who actually are screwing up on the job, and then the union has to waste precious resources defending them.” Although the author presents no evidence of first-hand experience fighting shop floor issues prior to being installed as executive director, McAlevey repeatedly states that the only reason local officials file grievances is to build a base in the union. For the thousands of shop stewards who selflessly volunteer their time defending their co-workers, McElvey’s perspective may come as a surprise.
McAlevey replaces the grievance procedure at one hospital with a new process “designed to give the workers an actual say not only in the resolution of on-the-job conflict but also in weeding out workers who were performing poorly or were simply lazy from those that had legitimate complaints against management.” The problem McAlevey eventually faces is most rank and file union activists do not share her viewpoint that the union’s role is to weed out their ‘lazy’ or ‘poorly performing’ co-workers.
To her credit, the author promotes direct action by workers as an alternative to the grievance procedure. However, not every individual dispute in even the most activist local is going to be dealt with as a march on the boss in this period. For that reason, most workplace activists understand the necessity of also aggressively fighting the boss through the grievance procedure, despite its flaws. McAlevey, in contrast, sets up a process to collaboratively work with management to solve problems and “weed out” those she considers to be bad workers.
McAlevey’s story, in fact, should be a cautionary tale for aspiring progressive staffers. The longer we have been out of the workplace, the more we must remember that there is an intensity to workplace struggle that comes from being forced to report to work in a hierarchal setting much of your waking hours. This hand to hand combat on the shop floor prompts workplace conflicts that those in staff positions don’t always comprehend. Yet McAlevey seems surprised and outraged that the California Nurses Association “launched their decert blitzkrieg, arguing we were ‘in bed with the boss’ because we weren’t filing grievances.”
Apparently McAlevey’s members did not share her view of workplace struggle. Her success story quickly unravels as she faces not only raids by the CNA but a series of elections in her local. To make a long story short, McAlevey becomes embroiled in a series of elections, and reruns, attempting to replace the rank and file executive board with members more compliant with her vision of how the local should be run.
Contrary to her assertions that she was rebelling against the international union, McAlevey is very much Andy Stern’s candidate throughout these elections. Stern approaches SEIU leaders around the country to funnel thousands of dollars to her campaign. Real reformers from other unions will recognize this as one of the advantages of incumbency rank and file movements must compete against.
The Department of Labor eventually steps in when it turns out some of the funneled money came from local union funds, among other alleged violations. Despite the advantages of incumbency and the backing of the SEIU officialdom, McAlevey loses the re-run to the rank and file slate, ending her relatively brief journey through the labor movement.
Simply put, the facts don’t support McAlevey’s assertion that she was driven from the labor movement because of disagreement with top officials of the international union. Now apparently the rules on writing a memoir are you get to tell your own story as you see fit. Fair enough. But surely your story must remain true to itself. Despite being written in an engaging manner and offering some good advice on organizing, ultimately Raising Expectations falls short on this measure.
Now some may protest that focusing on the negative parts of Raising Expectations is harmful or unnecessary. McAlevey, however, pulls no punches in taking passing swipes at activists such as Sal Rosselli, the president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, who have a far greater claim to have been “bounced” from SEIU for opposing Andy Stern’s policy of collaboration. McAlevey even chides Rosselli for being too “bombastic” and aggressive in combating Andy Stern.
On a deeper level, Raising Expectations promotes a staff-driven model of unionism which should be soundly rejected. With the split of the AFL-CIO, the civil war in SEIU, and the overall failure of staff-driven organizing to revive the labor movement, the steam appeared to be thankfully running out of this top-down vision of unionism. In its stead, we had the grass roots rebellion of Wisconsin, the reform-minded Chicago Teachers Union, and the return of the strike represented by the Walmart workers. Simply put, staff-driven unionism, no matter how progressive the leaders, has not and will not revive the labor movement.
Talking Union recently featured Sarah Jaffe’s interview with Jane McAlevey. Steve Early’s review of McAlevey’s book can be found here. McAlevey’s response to Early can be found here. We encourage further discussion.–TU
Joe Burns, a former local union president active in strike solidarity, is a labor negotiator and attorney. He is the author of Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Publishing, 2011), which was reviewed on Talking Union by Carl Finamore. Burn’s website is here. For other articles by Joe Burns on Talking Union, click here.