Joe Burns Reviews Rising Expectations

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.

15 Responses

  1. As Joe Burns quotes Jerry Tucker saying here: “An informed and well-organized rank and file is at the center of every victorious struggle.” Words to live and fight by.

  2. Unions should be proactive in weeding out unproductive workers. Protecting slackers weakens the union by undermining the credibility of all Union Labor. I’m not referring to workers who might be a little slower due to age or disability, I’m talking about the workers who deliberately under-perform. Every workplace has those individuals, we all know who they are. Burns even admits that most union members don’t see slackers as being a problem. This is misguided solidarity; by accepting full compensation and benefits for sub-standard production, a slacker is basically stealing from his employer, and he is exploiting his fellow workers. Being part of a trade union should be an honor and a privilege. “Union Made” should mean “Best Made”, by proud workers who maintain high standards of quality and proficiency. Allowing slackers to free-load is an insult to honest workers, and is in fact a cancer within the labor movement and organized labor.

  3. This is a terrible review. I honestly can’t believe Talking Union let this run without demanding any real sense of McAlevy’s contributions.

    No question — there are contradictions in McAlevy’s approach. It has a strong role for staff, and relies on support from progressive union leaders. But you simply can’t argue it’s not member-driven.

    McAlevy’s “big bargaining” approach (which resembles what the Chicago teachers did in their last round) demonstrates innovative, Wobbly-like thinking. Ditto for her pre-campaign Power Structure Analysis, research methodology based on the experience and skills of union members.

    Her notion of “whole worker organizing” has the potential to revitalize unions, and build authentic, serious community relationships that can mount good fightback campaigns.

    McAlevy’s commitment to “deep organizing” isn’t even mentioned, nor any sense of the successful methods used to notch win after win, even in right-to-work states. “An informed and organized membership” is at the goal of this process. You don’t get 90% sign-up in a right-to-work state without that.

    McAlevy’s description of the racism, sexism, and pettiness rampant at all levels of the labour movement rings true to me. Her seriousness in taking these things on deserves praise, not scorn.

    C’mon Joe, engage with these ideas, and show us you at least read the book. You wouldn’t appreciate a hack-job of your writing, let’s hope.

    Joel Harden, (former union staffer, and proud member of the Jane McAlevy fan club).

  4. As a former rank and file member, steward, officer and eventually after staff member of SEIU Local 1107, I have read Jane’s book and have personal experience with her style of top down, staff driven leadership while she was in Nevada. I watched her evade responsibility for her actions, blame others for her mistakes, and refusal to accept responsibility for almost totally destroying this 9,000 member local union in her short tenure here. While Jane states she believes in member driven unions, her actions are the exact opposite. She talks a good game, but her actions reveal the truth that she was a self promoting ego driven leader who thought she was smarter and better than rank and file workers and that only through her vision could the union thrive. She corrupted a local union election with the help of the international and believes she did no wrong, the Dept of Labor saw otherwise with four felony level violations of the Landrum-Griffin Act findings in the conduct the election Jane masterminded.
    As to the comments that a union’s job is to weed out unproductive workers, when did unions have the legal authority to take on management’s job. Our job as a union is to protect the collective bargaining agreement and not to do management’s job. If management does not violate the collective bargaining agreements in the process, they can weed out unproductive workers on their own. The union insures that management does not take shortcuts and has just cause when they are taking discipline. These are the rights that all Americans expect with our legal system and the same rights apply under union contracts in employer disciplinary actions against workers.
    I find it very easy to say Jane does not believe in rank and file power, as she used her position and the position of staff members to pit member against member in our local. Her staff members were usually in their early 20s, never had worked in a union shop, and were molded into strong yes people, just as most the members that Jane considered worthy of office, were strong supporters of her view of the workplace, which was the view of an outsider since Jane never worked in a union or non union hospital, or for local government and had never been a rank and file worker, but she knows in her opinion what is best for working people. She had many of the same elitist attitudes that I saw in many of the worst bosses in our bargaining units that workers were just pawns to be used for her own ends.

    • It’s pretty easy to hide from responsibility by arguing that Unions don’t have the legal authority to hold their membership accountable to workmanship standards. So what we have then is organizations whose only requirement for membership is paying dues? Anyone can be a member, and you let the employers decide who should not be there? The results of such organizational weakness speak for themselves.

  5. I appreciate Burns’ review and found it insightful. I am the elected president of a public sector union local and on the elected executive board of a state-wide council with an appointed executive director. I find it appalling that anybody would think it acceptable for an appointed staff to interfere in the elections of the executive board. If this were to happen in our council, there would be absolute hell to pay. If somebody is interested in elected leadership of a local or council, go get a job in the workplace and run for elected leadership on your own merits.

    I also must say that I find McElvey’s take on the grievance process to be offensive. I was the Chief Steward for our union for five years, and I have plenty of criticisms of the grievance process. My biggest problem with it is that it can pacify workplace struggles and many workers just want “the union” to fix their beef with their boss. At the same time, many of the activists in our local first get involved as the result of a grievance. And it is through the grievance process that many rank and filers come to understand that it is us versus them. By that, I don’t mean “good” workers versus “bad” workers. I mean workers versus management. As we continually discussed in steward meetings, every day is a battle for control in the workplace. Either the workers are in charge, or the boss is. Most grievances really boiled down to that. Who gets to control our daily existence – those of us actually doing the work, or those telling us to do it. Yes, a number of our members do not like the folks they see as “slackers”, but quite honestly, the vast majority have a far bigger problem with those that they identify to be suck-ups – overachiever who are driving the pace of work to ever higher levels in the hopes of getting kudos or a promotion from the boss. I find it appalling that any labor activist would think that it is our job to collaborate with the boss to weed out workers. That perspective will destroy any sense of solidarity and commitment to a union that workers could have. Management has enough tools to “weed out” or discipline “underperforming” or “lazy” workers. The union should NEVER be one of those tools. In my opinion, that view comes from somebody who hasn’t actually worked for a living (outside of movement jobs- including union staff positions) or has forgotten what it’s like to hold a rank and file position.

    Quite honestly, I’m sick and tired of the elitist views of so-called progressive union staffers who seem to think that rank and file workers can’t actually lead and/or transform our unions. We are doing so – all while also working our day jobs.

    Cherrene Horazuk, clerical worker and president of a public sector union local.

    • Cherrene-

      The “control” you seek to possess is an illusion. Ultimately, it is the marketplace which is in control. Organized labor is failing because it refuses to address the primary issue of class struggle: Ownership of the means of production. Labor fights with management over money and benefits, yet no matter how lucrative a contract may be, it moves the working class not a single millimeter closer to ownership. This is the fatal flaw in Union Labor Theory; we settle for a never-ending war over crumbs, which is exactly what the Capitalists want; it distracts us from seeing the cake.

      • First you say unions should extract maximum work out of people and then you say we should just own everything. I wouldn’t say you are a cancer but got a kind of diarrhea?
        Probably just a management/entrepreneur type. Aren’t there blogs for you?

  6. […] interview with Jane McAlevey. Joe Burns’ review of McAlevey’s book can be found here. Steve Early’s review of McAlevey’s book can be found here. McAlevey’s response to […]

  7. Marianne-

    I did not say that unions should “extract maximum work” out of people. What I am advocating is that unions should set some standards and expectations. Being a union member should mean something; it should mean a worker possesses a certain level of skill and professionalism. If a worker needs coaching or training to reach that level, unions should be actively involved in helping them progress. If a worker consistently under-performs, or is not willing to learn, then that worker should find a different line of work; protecting them and keeping them around for the sake of “Solidarity” isn’t really doing the worker any good, and it undermines the credibility of the union as a whole. It’s not fair to honest workers to protect and coddle slackers.

    I did not say “we should just own everything”. However, unionists, like Cherrene, who hold the belief that “it is us versus them” don’t appear to recognize the whole truth of class struggle; they only go halfway. They identify their “enemies”, but fail to engage in any kind of meaningful struggle that will affect the root of the problem, which is ownership of the means of production. They want “control”, but the type of control they seek is only possible through ownership. What we have then is an organization that year after year, decade after decade expends all of their energy on battles which never get us any closer to ownership. It is a perpetual war, which can never be won, because we are not fighting for any meaningful objectives.

    We spend millions and millions of dollars each year on political campaigns and advertising, in the vain hope of advancing the labor movement, and year after year, all we see is further declines. Why not take that money and do something that might actually start to make a shift in ownership? Let’s start buying the companies we work for. Fighting for increased wages and benefits is short sighted. Increased wages simply get spent. Benefits are finite. Neither accomplish anything towards winning the class war; all they can do is make us more comfortable while we endure the status quo.

    It all comes down to “Raising Expectations”. Do you want to be part of a perpetual, un-winnable war, or do you want to fight for something that will make the future more hopeful; not just for us, but for the generations to follow? It’s your call.

    • Hey you got it all figured out. Go do it. But I guess that you would mean you would have to get up,out of your chair.

      • I would never claim to have “it all figured out”, but I do have some ideas that I think are worth talking about, and so I have indeed “gotten up, out of my chair” and submitted my views and observations respectfully for consideration and discussion. Thanks for your support.

  8. […] Sarah Jaffe’s interview with Jane McAlevey. Joe Burns’ review of McAlevey’s book can be found here. Steve Early’s review of McAlevey’s book can be found here. McAlevey’s response to Early can […]

  9. It’s very misleading of McAlevey to wear the badge of the badass organizer claiming to have revivied a public sector union in a right to work state, let alone claiming she brought the union from 20% to 80%. This is simply false, unless she is talking about certain small units, and if she is, she should be specific.If she is touting some amazing organizing model that works, scale matters. The growth in 1107 happened because of private hospital organizing, not reviving moribund public sector units– something that badly should be done across the country. Hospital growth was spurred by pattern bargaining campaigns led by UHW (before SEIU destroyed it) which was able to put massive pressure on companies like CHW in CA. Meanwhile the public sector side was not engaged, hence their taking over the local after a few years of her being there. Total workers in the bargaining unit in 2008 was 17,500 according the local news that sites 1107 staff.
    7/1/2003-6/30/2004: 8,142 dues paying members
    7/1/2004-6/30/2005: 8,242
    1/1/2008-12/31/2008: 10,155
    She says: “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…”
    So, were the new standards were not set through increased membership? since total 1107 membership in spring of 2005 was only up by 100 workers? Clearly the new organizing she mentions here was after recognition not first contracts, or they would show in the membership totals.
    First rule of organizing: don’t lie to members, 2nd rule: know how to count. If she wants to take credit for the organizing that did happen, that is nothing to sneeze at, she should not lie about it, and she should write about the importance of industrial power, bargaining to organize, but if she did, she would not be at the center, as the mastermind. Do we need a book that just renames stuff like big table bargaining that has been the tradition in the largest union in Nevada (not SEIU) for decades?

  10. […] Burns has similar problems with McAlevey’s book. In a review published by the blog of the Democratic Socialists of America, he writes that “Raising […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: