Response to Steve Early’s Review of Raising Expectations

Talking Union recently featured Sarah Jaffe’s interview with Jane McAlevey. We followed with Steve Early’s review of McAlevey’s book.  Here is McAlevey’s response to Early. We encourage further discussion.–TU


 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. This post originally appeared in Working USA.

4 Responses

  1. […] Early’s review of McAlevey’s book. McAlevey’s response to Early can be found here. We encourage further […]

  2. […] review of McAlevey’s book can be found here. McAlevey’s response to Early can be found here. We encourage further […]

  3. […] review of McAlevey’s book can be found here. McAlevey’s response to Early can be found here. We encourage further […]

  4. […] review of McAlevey’s book can be found here. McAlevey’s response to Early can be found here. And Jerome Burns  reviewed the […]

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