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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 970
April 20, 2014

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Raising Our Expectations

Sam Gindin

Looking back to the defeat of the labour movement since the early 1980s, three lessons seem especially important. First, any gains made under capitalism are temporary; they can be reversed. Second, the kind of unionism we developed in that earlier period of gains was inherently limited; it left us in a poor position to respond to the subsequent attacks. Third, absent new forms of working-class organization and practices, fatalism takes over and worker expectations fall.

Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), newly out in paperback from Verso, is part memoir, part organizing manual, and part rejoinder to that fatalism. Jane McAlevey is a long-time organizer in the student, environmental and, over the past two decades, labour movements. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at City University of New York, which she has integrated into her continuing life as a labour organizer. Her message, based on her experiences and achievements, is that as much as capitalism has diminished workers and undermined their confidence in affecting their lives, workers can overcome – but only if they themselves become organizers inside both the workplace and community.

While any such organizing begins with workers’ needs, it is workers’ expectations of their own ability to intervene – and of the support from their unions in doing so – that must especially be raised. McAlevey refuses to romanticize workers or glorify spontaneity. But she deeply respects working people and genuinely appreciates their creative potential, a respect reflected in her refusal to be shy about challenging workers to reach their potential.

Organizing Strategy

Organizing strategy is McAlevey's forte, and two examples highlight her approach. In 1998, following the moment in the mid-nineties when the AFL-CIO had become desperate enough to allow some real experimentation to take place, McAlevey was sent to Stamford, Conn., to direct an organizing drive, the Stamford Organizing Project. Stamford had one of the lowest union densities in all of New England.

A number of aspects of that drive stand out. First, as obvious as it might seem to cooperate across unions, it is in fact extremely rare to see unions getting together to “pool resources, share lists, and adhere to collectively made decisions.” To the credit of the four locals involved (most of whose leadership came from an oppositional and left tradition), they saw beyond a parochial concern to gain new dues-paying members and grasped the need to build the class across sectors and across racial and gendered divisions.

Second, when a main concern of the workers turned out to revolve around access to housing, McAlevey shifted the unionization drive to make housing a primary focus – class was not just a workplace relationship. The confidence, skills, and alliances developed in that campaign, and the corresponding credibility gained for the labour movement, were key to organizing unions and winning strong contracts.

Breaking down the distinction between the workplace and the community and putting an emphasis on community allies is itself not unusual in such struggles; what was distinct was that rather than seeing the community as an ‘other,’ McAlevey emphasized the extent to which workers were themselves part of the community; success depended on workers becoming the key organizers in bringing the community around. “When union staff try to do it in place of workers,” McAlevey writes, “they blow it.”

Some six years later, just before the split in the AFL-CIO in 2005, McAlevey was sent by SEIU to organize public and private hospitals in Nevada. Because Nevada became a right-to-work state, with workers having the right to opt out of paying dues, the thin organizing that unions commonly practice couldn't work. McAlevey's team identified and supported organic worker-leaders. The intensive, face-face organizing that followed, with increasingly confident workers now “in constant conversation with one another about everything going on” raised the share of dues-paying union members from 25 per cent to 80 per cent and higher – enough of a difference to distinguish between collective begging and collective bargaining.

This was accomplished by honing a rigorous system of mapping the workplace thoroughly and continuously, and then building and deliberately testing the workers’ capacities throughout the campaign. Alongside this, McAlevey insisted that to build the kind of power necessary to win in the particularly hostile context of Nevada demanded an inclusive bargaining unit – one that brought nurses and lab technicians together with janitors, laundry workers, and food preparation staff.

To a degree virtually unheard of in labour negotiations, McAlevey pressed to open up the bargaining sessions to the members. The bargaining team included “one worker to the team for every twenty-five workers in the larger units and for every fifteen workers in the smaller units,” and this was done “by unit and shift so that we had every kind of worker input.” All members were welcome and “encouraged to attend negotiations, whether for a day, an hour, or a coffee break.”

This had, as McAlevey acknowledges, its risks and demanded a great deal of preparation and internal discipline if it wasn't to become a free for all. But in the end, such “big bargaining” greatly contributed to winning over members disillusioned about the union and their role within it.

In both examples, and central to all of McAlevey's organizing, is the priority given to carrying out the most in-depth power analysis of what workers are up against and where they can exercise leverage in their struggle. This involves mapping and charting the power not only of the companies being unionized or bargained with, but in the communities in which the struggle is taking place.

And it includes both the conventional metrics of identifying power brokers, community leaders, state-corporate links, and others, and qualitative assessments by the workers themselves of both the power arrayed against them and the power they can bring to bear. The information gathered and the process of gathering it then become integral to developing workers’ strategic understandings and capacities.

Unfair Criticism

Some critics of the book have accused McAlevey of self-promotion for the book's emphasis on her own role in these events. This seems rather churlish. Both the device of making her points through a memoir based on her personal experience and the informal style were clearly intended to make it more accessible to lay readers and rank-and-file unionists. (The publishers apparently asked for the personalized subtitle of “My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement.”) Moreover, McAlevey is very generous in pointing to her mentors and giving them and earlier organizers credit for the model she applies.

Judgments of McAlevey's personality are beside the point. The real question is whether she has written a book that contributes to addressing labour's current impasse. And on this score, it is difficult to imagine even such critics denying that she has something important to say.

McAlevey has also been attacked – most notably by respected labour journalist Steve Early – for her criticism of Sal Rosselli, the SEIU leader of a key local in California who broke away, after the SEIU's imposition of a trusteeship, to form the National Union of Healthcare Workers. [Ed.: see Jane's response.]

Early's attack is doubly unfortunate. First, McAlevey's book only mentions Rosselli in passing. Challenging her brief comments is one thing; focusing on those few passages to essentially dismiss the book is another. Second, whatever disagreements there may be between Early and McAlevey on this specific issue, they are on the same side in their antipathy to the role of the SEIU leadership. As McAlevey says in her new afterward, “While the Birthers and Tea Party were effectively mobilizing town halls all across the nation to destroy health-care reforms, SEIU's health-care organizers were busy blowing up one of their best local unions.”

Most important, however, in terms of discussions of organizing models, have been suggestions that as a staff representative herself, McAlevey presents a model that is staff-driven. We should, of course, be wary of organizing models that substitute staff for the participation of workers. But the very point of McAlevey's work is to combat that kind of relationship between staff and rank-and-file and replace it with an orientation to remaking the working-class into a social force with the capacity to make its own decisions.

As she said of the Stamford process, “I was proposing that the bulk of this work not be done directly by union organizers but by the workers themselves.” It was, in fact, McAlevey's refusal to toe SEIU's deal-making model, which she has referred to elsewhere as “organizing the company,” and to repeatedly insist on organizing the workers, that got her in trouble with the SEIU top leadership.

Yet the issue here isn't just to reject the role of staff. In the building of militant, democratic, community-centered unions, full-time staff have an essential role to play as catalysts and support systems for bringing in and bringing out the best in the members. To ignore this is to obscure all the difficult but necessary issues of how to establish the proper context for staffers to play this kind of role.

The Nature of Organizing and the Left

The larger issue here revolves around the nature of organizing. An essentialist view of workers as being inherently militant, solidaristic and strategy-wise doesn't grasp the actual state of the working-class. If workers already had the needed capacities fully formed, they would have organized themselves long ago.

Organizing is about moving people from where they currently are to someplace that brings out their potential as social agents. It involves developing the individual and collective capacities – alongside the structures, tactics and strategies – that can match what workers are up against. Most labour leaders today, McAlevey asserts, think that in the “self-centered, plugged-in, globalized country this nation has become,” deep workplace and community organizing is impossible. Her experiences prove otherwise.

The organizing model McAlevey proposes, based on her experience and with roots in early CIO practices, demands a heavy commitment of union resources (McAlevey hasn't shied away from supporting large dues increases) and depends on experienced organizers (who may or may not be staff) playing a catalyst role. The identification of informal leaders is given much greater attention than most unions’ traditional organizing models since the de facto leaders, as McAlevey repeatedly emphasizes, are not generally the formal, elected leaders.

Organizing is a continuous process, beginning with power mapping, testing to hone mobilization capacities, then acting. It connects individual and collective action and passes on analytical and strategic skills to workers. It develops workers’ self-confidence through demonstrating that employers and politicians can be taken on and demands won. It is suspicious of the legalisms of grievance handling, instead focusing on workers addressing grievances through direct action. It keeps the union members fully informed, opens the bargaining process to much broader direct participation, doesn't shy away from strikes, and it looks to the workers themselves to organize their communities.

And yet for all the concrete demonstrations that this model of organizing works, it did not spread across the labour movement. The exciting example in Connecticut of unions cooperating with each other and moving into the community – and subsequently gaining members and first contracts, successfully intervening to save and improve public housing projects and gaining representation in local politics – did not spread. In Nevada, an impressive number of workers overcame the state's anti-labour legislation and joined the SEIU, and the contracts won were quite remarkable, including the breakthrough in Nevada's health-care sector for fully employer-paid family health-care. Yet this too faded, undone by both legitimate disagreements and petty turf wars. What are we to make of this?

The dilemma is that this organizing model rests on unions being open to real organizing, committing the resources, standing ready to accept some turmoil within their organizations, and trusting the members rather than looking to broker deals with corporations. But unions that would agree to such a program are distressingly rare. Creating them essentially requires revolutions inside unions – something that is unlikely to happen through any spontaneous dynamic strictly internal to unions.

Without the existence of a left committed to class struggle and with its feet inside and outside workplaces, unions that have transformed into the kinds of organizing machines McAlevey helped create will remain the exception.

Without the existence of a left committed to class struggle and with its feet inside and outside workplaces, unions that have transformed into the kinds of organizing machines McAlevey helped create will remain the exception. But such a left, with links to workers and a capacity to develop organizers where workers are looking for help and workers that might transform their unions, is itself at an impasse. Much as many of us might think of the Left as the most self-conscious part of the class struggle, their impasse is as difficult to overcome as unions’.

In this context, McAlevey's book is timely and desperately needed because it convincingly demonstrates that the problem is not in the stars, but in ourselves. If we as the Left can get our shit together, it is possible to build groups of workers into a social force in spite of the times.

Where unions are ready to try, McAlevey presents a method for how to do this. And where unions are not yet prepared to take this on, it lays out a range of specific demands we should be fighting for within our unions. (The book is full of concrete examples of tools, tactics, and strategies that can win; it is practically begging for a follow-up detailed manual).

Every serious labour activist needs to engage this book, drawing out what is useful and experimenting with variations as appropriate. But we also need to go further. Indirectly, McAlevey's book challenges the Left to stop lamenting its disappointments in the working-class and address, with humility, its own failures. The Left must raise its expectations of itself. •

Sam Gindin was Research Director of the Canadian Auto Workers from 1974-2000 and is now an adjunct professor at York University in Toronto. This article was first published on the Jacobin website.

Other reviews and excerpts from the book can be found on For more on this issue, also check out Sam's interview of Jane in this LeftStreamed video.


#3 marysue 2014-04-23 19:53 EST
Union Brass knuckleheads
Another problem with unions since the middle to latter 1980s was the entrenchment of the union brass knuckleheads. They were fine and fiesty in the '80s, but they became like little CEOs. Many studied Economics at college and thus were brainwashed by Friedman's nonsense wherein Profit and Growth Forever are deemed possible on a finite planet with a burgeoning human populace and shrinking resources, not to mention the dire consequences of global warming.

Alas, our illustrious union leaders in the 1980s and '90s spent a lot of time plotting with corporate butt orifices to invest union members' retirement money into horrid companies like Barrick Gold, Monsanto, Big Oil, etc., etc. So, in essence, our pensions are now based on the profits of the worst capitalists' companies with THE worst labour practices! Instead of backing the Left (we, in Canada, at least have a few tiny Leftwing parties, and one mushy middle of the road party -- New Democrats; one slightly rightwing (Liberal Party); and one rightwingnut party, the Conselfservatives with Harper as our Prime Miminister yech. Today's entrenched labour leaders have betrayed us all and turned back human rights to where they were in the dirty '30s. They should have retired back when I did and given younger, fiestier folk a chance to make things right--I mean---Left again:)

#2 michael yates 2014-04-22 14:37 EST
much is missing here
Sam Gindin makes some good points in this review. McAlevey has interesting and useful things to say about bargaining and involving the rank and file. However, the book is shot full of exaggerations, extreme self-regard, and a number of misrepresentations. Had Sam done his due diligence, he would have discovered, as did Steve Early (who comes in for some pretty uncomradely criticism here but who knows more about the SEIU and McAlevey's tenure in it than just about anyone, certainly more than Sam) that the Las Vegas membership, SEIU staff in CA, and others, have a very mixed view of McAlevey.

She exaggerated the increases in membership in the local while she was executive director; she fails to mention the strong support her CA comrades in SEIU (Sal Roselli and company) gave her throughout her stay in Las Vegas; she pretty much ignores the really good HERE local in Las Vegas; she downplays the reason why she was forced to leave, namely that she violated the Landrum Griffin Act by illegally taking money from other SEIU locals to help get the slate of officers she preferred elected to the local board; she rightfully attacks Stern but fails to mention that she was appointed to the SEIU board by Stern and then ran for the slot on Stern's ticket, while he was himself getting rid of Roselli's strong CA local; she writes as if she invented the techniques she uses, whereas the truth is that everyone was used long before she was on the labor scene; she has a pathetic grasp of US labor history. I could go on.

I urge readers to see Steve Early's new review of McAlevey's book in his new book, Save Our Unions. Also, the article, Who Will Lead the US Working Class, in the May 2013 issue of Monthly Review. Steve Early and the author of the MR essay did do their due diligence. It is fine to write a positive review of McAlevey's book, but it is quite another to suggest that those who have criticized the book are engaging in attacks. I have great respect for Sam Gindin and I would not have made these remarks at all had he not mentioned Steve Early's name. McAlevey is perfectly capable of defending herself. After all, she lobbied the editor and got the right to rebut Steve's original review in the same issue of WorkingUSA, something pretty unusual. She enjoys playing the victim, besieged by nearly everyone, but she seems a pretty tough and savvy infighter to me.

#1 Ben Lefebvre 2014-04-20 11:40 EST
Raising Our Expectations
As usual, Sam Gindin hits the nail on the head with his candid review of Jane McAlevey's new book. Given the ongoing attacks the left has endured, not to mention Capital's ongoing war against the very concept of social justice and equality the labour movement is supposed to promote and represent, Gindin speaks directly to those of us who still believe that "a better world is possible".

His words should be an inspiration to those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get the work done to make it happen instead of sitting around waiting for others to show us the way.

One can only hope the current union leadership is listening and is ready to change.

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