Trouble in the House of Labor

The Labor Movement has been weakened by a non-stop Union-busting campaign funded by the Billionaire Right as well as abandonment by so-called “friends” in the Democratic Party and White House. As a consequence, one of the potentially strongest opponents to Wall Street’s dominance of the nation has been sidelined. However, the greatest blows against Labor have been from within Labor’s own camp. When Labor needed most to be united, Andy Stern withdrew his Service Employees Union (SEIU) from the AFL-CIO along with others to start a rival labor federation. It may have been a clash of egos, it may have been an ideological conflict or whatever, but it certainly injured the strategic stance of organized labor and set the stage for a succession of labor defeats. We don’t know what motivated Stern then or what runs the SEIU now but we do know that until Labor puts its house in order there will be no prospect for progressive victory. The following review discusses problems within SEIU and union organizing. It was distributed by PORTSIDE, a news distribution service (see links) and was originally published by “Working USA”.
STEVE EARLY

A review of Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell): My
Decade Fighting For the Labor Movement, by Jane
McAlevey with Bob Ostertag. New York/London: Verso
Books, 2012. 318 pp. $25.95 (hardcover)

Few modern unions have done more outside hiring than
the Service Employees International Union (SEIU),
America’s second largest labor organization. Beginning
in the mid-1970s and continuing unabated today, SEIU
and its local affiliates have employed tens of
thousands of non-members as organizers, servicing reps,
researchers, education specialists, PR people, and
staffers of other kinds. While most unions hire and
promote largely from within (i.e. from the ranks of
their working members), SEIU has always cast its net
wider.

It has welcomed energetic refugees from other unions,
promising young student activists, former community
organizers, ex-environmentalists, Democratic Party
campaign operatives, and political exiles from abroad.
(One prototypical campus recruit was my older daughter,
Alex, a Latin-American studies major who became a local
union staffer for SEIU after supporting the janitors
employed at her Connecticut college.)

Many, if not most, of SEIU’s outside hires no longer
work for the union, in part because of its penchant for
“management by churn.” This means that its network of
distinguished alumni today is far larger than its
current national and local workforce, which is not
small. And not all of these SEIU alums have fond
memories of their tour of duty in purple, the union’s
signature color. For an institution that demands great
loyalty from its staff, SEIU is not known for its
reciprocal attachment to those who do its bidding.
Ex-SEIUers include many dedicated, hard-working
organizers who were useful for a while, until they were
not.

In several recent purges, SEIU even managed to forget
about the past services rendered by organizers
sometimes described as “legendary.” I refer here to
Bruce Raynor, former head of Workers United/SEIU, and
Stephen Lerner, a fellow SEIU executive board member
who directed the union’s Private Equity Project and
devised its much-applauded “Justice for Janitors”
campaigns two decades ago.

Cut From The Purple Team

Raynor began his labor career as a southern textile
worker organizer in the 1970s, helping workers like the
one portrayed by Sally Fields in Norma Rae. While still
serving as national president of UNITE HERE in 2009,
Raynor rather messily defected to SEIU, a fellow Change
To Win affiliate. In the face of stiff rank-and-file
opposition, he steered about a quarter of UNITE Here’s
membership into the far larger union run by his friend,
Andy Stern.

Raynor was given a new title– Executive Vice-President
of SEIU. Yet, just two years later, he was drummed out
of Workers United/SEIU on disputed charges of expense
account fiddling (Why someone earning more than a
quarter of a million dollars a year needed to bill SEIU
for $2,300 worth of “non-business” lunches remains an
unsolved mystery of American labor, right up there with
the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa).

Stephen Lerner’s fall from grace (and loss of his
$156,000 annual salary) began, more incrementally, in
the fall of 2010. Lerner had just unveiled what was
supposed to be a global, multi-union SEIU-coordinated
bank workers organizing campaign, only to find himself
put out on paid administrative leave for three months,
after a noisy beef with his new SEIU headquarters boss.
Lerner had been an influential publicist for many
SEIU causes, including the New Unity Partnership (a
predecessor to Change To Win), when his longtime
patron, Andy Stern, was still Service Employees
president. Under Stern’s successor (and protégé), Mary
Kay Henry, Lerner’s contributions were far less
appreciated and, soon, no longer wanted at all.

Under President Henry, Lerner’s bank worker organizing
was shut down. But, when his SEIU staff pension and job
severance issues were eventually sorted out, he became
free to rail, to his heart’s content, about Wall Street
and “the banksters” bereft of any meaningful union
base. Henry then ran, un-opposed, for re-election in
May, 2012, with an “administration slate” cleansed of
both Lerner and Raynor.

A “Deep Organizer” Scorned

Jane McAlevey, author of Raising Expectations (And
Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting For the Labor
Movement, was very briefly, in 2008, a member of the
same national union executive board graced, in happier
days, by both men. While the normally quite vocal
Lerner and Raynor have been very reticent about their
involuntary departure from SEIU, McAlevey is a woman
organizer scorned (or unburdened by any non-disclosure
agreement?). Her resulting fury, or political
frustration, is reflected in many parts of her memoir
about being undermined and driven out of a 9,000-member
SEIU affiliate in Nevada that she labels “one of the
most successful in the nation.” Written with the
assistance of Bob Ostertag, Raising Expectations
settles old scores with numerous members of what
McAlevey calls “the Stern gang in D.C.,” who helped
shorten her illustrious SEIU career to a mere 4
years. The book should, therefore, be required reading
for anyone hoping to last longer at SEIU—“before the
rug is pulled out from under them” by the same “people
at the top” who so disdained McAlevey because she
wouldn’t cop to their “paranoid institutional culture.”

Lest anyone think that the author’s own employment was
a little short-term for such a blistering critique of
SEIU and other unions, I should note (as the book’s
subtitle does) that McAlevey actually spent an entire
decade trying to straighten out organized labor before
concluding it was pretty hopeless. As she writes in the
book’s final chapter:

I operated on the assumption that, if you just kept
winning in a principled way, the work you were doing
would create the conditions for its own continued
existence. The people at the top might not like you,
they might not understand what you were trying to do,
they might consider you a big pain in the ass, but if
you consistently succeeded at the assignments they gave
you, ultimately they would give you more assignments
and the work would go forward.

I was wrong….Past a certain point, winning actually
becomes a liability, because the people at the top will
feel threatened by the power you’re accumulating unless
they can control it; they cannot imagine that your
ambition would not be to use that power in the same way
they use theirs. It took ten years of banging my head
on a wall to finally knock that into it.

Power Structure Analyst?

Forty-eight year old McAlevey had a varied non-labor
career before she started “winning in a principled way”
and power-accumulating (without personal ambition) in
“the house of labor.” She was a student government
leader at the State University of New York at Buffalo,
an activist in the environmental justice movement at
home and abroad, associate director of the Highlander
Center in Tennessee, and a program officer for Veatch,
a progressive foundation backed by the Unitarian
Church.

In 1998, McAlevey was recruited by then-AFL-CIO
Organizing Director Richard Bensinger to head up the
Stamford Organizing Project. SOP was a collaborative
effort by local affiliates of SEIU, the Auto Workers,
Hotel Employees, and Food and Commercial Workers.
Raising Expectations reports that it “helped 5,000
workers successfully form unions and win first
contracts that set new standards in their industries
and [local] market.” This multi-racial, cross-union
model wasn’t replicated elsewhere, the author suggests,
becausepost-1995 efforts “to reform the national
AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. were shipwrecking.”  One
casualty was the federation’s short-lived experiment
with Stamford-style “geographical organizing.”

Even after she moved on, McAlevey’s methods earned high
marks from campus fans like Dan Clawson, author of The
Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements, who
lauded the Stamford project as an expression of new
“social movement unionism.”  McAlevey prefers to call
her work “deep organizing” or, in other parts of the
book, “whole worker organizing.” This approach involves
“bring[ing] community organizing techniques right into
the shop floor while moving labor organizing techniques
out into the community” after conducting “power
structure analysis that enables workers to
systematically pool their knowledge of their
communities and integrate this knowledge with
conventional research done by union professionals.”
Workers themselves, not union staffers or some “union
front group,” are empowered to decide “when and where
to take on ‘non-workplace issues,’” like affordable
housing, that too many unions fail to address.

A Mission in Las Vegas

After Stamford, McAlevey worked for SEIU in New York,
Washington, D.C., Kansas, and California as the union’s
Deputy Director for Strategic Campaigns at Tenet
Healthcare and other companies. Her longest and last
stand was in Las Vegas, working as the Andy
Stern-installed executive director of 9,000-member
Local 1107, a public sector and health care affiliate
of SEIU that also represented thousands of non-dues
payers.

McAlevey variously describes the local she took over in
2004 as “a rat’s nest,” a “joke,” and a dysfunctional
“grievance mill.” Her opinion of her new home wasn’t
much higher. It’s “a myth” that Las Vegas is a model
“union town,” she contends. UNITE-HERE Local 226 may
have done “a stellar job of winning good contracts”—but
that only means the city has “a union
street…universally known as the Strip.” As for the rest
of the place, according to the author, it’s “a phony
city built on gambling and prostitution” located “in a
corrupt right-to-work state” where “the temperature
climbs above 110 for days on end.” Sin City’s one
redeeming feature, for McAlevey, was “land so cheap
that I could get a little place where my horse could
live with me.” (According to the author, her equine
companion, a Tennessean named Jalapeno, later came in
handy when she tried to bond with local politicos, who
also spent off-duty time in the saddle.)

Prior to arriving in this desert, McAlevey’s
headquarters handlers all agreed that she “should
present herself as a seasoned hand at negotiating
contracts,” a major responsibility of her new appointed
position. Her actual bargaining experience was
shockingly thin, for someone who was now representing
thousands of workers at Hospital Corporation of
America, United Health Services, Catholic Healthcare
West, and other large employers. “I had hardly even
read a union contract,” the author admits. “I had never
negotiated and there all sorts of technicalities of the
collective bargaining process I had no clue about.”
(One SEIU headquarters helper reassured her that
workers would soon discover how “really talented and
terrific” she was anyway.) Fortunately, with much
long-distance telephone call coaching from New England
1199/SEIU leader Jerry Brown, McAlevey proved to be a
fast learner.

Derailing “the little juggernaut”

During her first several years as its staff director,
McAlevey helped strengthen Local 1107 by overhauling
the local’s financial and administrative practices,
hiring younger staffers, encouraging member involvement
in bargaining, better integrating internal and external
organizing, and reviving SEIU as a political force in
Nevada. 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 representation bargaining”)
can increase rank-and-file participation and restore
members ‘confidence in the union as their workplace
voice.

McAlevey now believes that, despite this promising
beginning and favorable contract results, her
commitment to “building real worker power”—though
“activism on the shopfloor”—conflicted too much with
the “vested interests” of those “higher up” in SEIU.
Her headquarters critics favored labor-management
partnering and no longer wanted to deal with members’
day-to-day job problems.  Her personal string of
“who-would-have-believed-it” victories, in a “maverick
local,” was just too much of an affront to top
officials, who frowned on strikes and other forms of
worker militancy. Her adversaries in the SEIU
bureaucracy made sure she remained politically
“vulnerable” and, if necessary, easily discarded.
According to McAlevey, “the national SEIU sucked” and
was just itching “to derail the little juggernaut we
had put together in Vegas.”

In reality, the author’s political demise was hastened
by her role in a failed attempt to remove Local 1107
President Vicki Hedderman and her allies from their
elected positions, a campaign assisted by President
Stern. A former unit clerk at Clark County Hospital,
Hedderman was, in McAlevey’s view, too focused on
filing grievances and not sufficiently supportive of
new organizing. McAlevey depicts her nominal boss as
“tenaciously” clinging to the perks of office, while
keeping 1107’s public sector and healthcare members at
odds, and thwarting the author’s ambitious plans for
unifying and transforming the local. According to
McAlevey, Hedderman and other incumbents “had
maintained control of the local by trading their
attentiveness to individual grievances for the votes of
the workers who filed them.”

It was not part of McAlevey’s formal job description to
meddle in the local’s internal politics or round up
votes a different way. But that’s what she did, rather
in-expertly and disastrously. She  recruited opposition
candidates who ended up being covertly financed by
out-of-state SEIU donations solicited by Stern. One of
these $5,000 gifts—from Ohio SEIU leader Dave
Regan—“turned out to be money that technically could
not be used for [union] elections.” The U.S. Department
of Labor intervened—and found other misconduct as well.
A membership uproar ensued and much bad publicity was
generated. Hedderman survived both McAlevey’s original
electoral challenge and a hasty re-run ordered by SEIU.
To restore peace to 1107, an emissary from SEIU
headquarters negotiated the joint resignations of both
women—an exit strategy for McAlevey that she now
describes as “taking the fall for Andy Stern.”

There’s a saying, popular among judges: “Ignorance of
the law is no excuse.” In this most murky section of
her book, McAlevey pleads ignorance nevertheless. She
claims that her extensive knowledge of “real world
election laws” (i.e. those applying to “county
commission races” in Nevada) and the federal “labor
laws that relate to beating multi-national
corporations” just didn’t extend to the
Landrum-Grifffin Act, which protects workers’ rights as
union members. “Internal union election law was all
news to me,” she confesses.

Disliked By “The Queen of Petty”

Equally disingenuous is McAlevey’s claim to have been
victimized by “the pervasive sexism among the men who
are most in control of the resources in unions
today.”Lack of women in the leadership and insufficient
nurturing of female rank-and-file activists is, indeed
a continuing labor problem, notwithstanding the valiant
efforts of various women’s caucuses. Yet Raising
Expectations is full of praise for McAlevey’s “beloved
and invaluable mentors”—almost all of them high-ranking
men (like Brown and Bensinger; Bensinger’s successor at
the AFL-CIO, Kirk Adams, who is now a top SEIU official
again; and ex-SEIU healthcare division head Larry Fox,
who along with current SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo
Medina, was responsible for “shoehorning” the author
into Las Vegas).

In contrast, almost every personal nemesis we meet is
female (with the exception of McAlevey’s two
problematic allies, Andy Stern and Dave Regan). First,
we encounter Mary Kay Henry, who “was clearly not
comfortable with me” and failed to return the author’s
phone calls; next, “The Queen of Petty,” longtime SEIU
Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, makes an appearance,
blocking McAlevey from speaking to the SEIU executive
board (because Jane was “someone she doesn’t like to
have around);” and then there is Judy Scott, SEIU
General Counsel, who calls to “browbeat” Jane “into
“capitulating to Hospital Corporation of America” so
“labor peace” in Las Vegas could be traded for
“organizing rights” elsewhere.

Meanwhile, throughout much of her narrative, the author
is continually harried by Hedderman, and her “old
guard” allies (many of them female) who resist internal
change. Circling outside Local 1107 is the predatory
California Nurses Association (CNA), headed by the
always Machiavellian RoseAnn DeMoro, who descends on
strife-torn Nevada SEIU to recruit hundreds of Reno
nurses who’ve become disenchanted with SEIU and Jane.

A “Retrogressive” DeMoro

In McAlevey’s view, the CNA’s high-profile Executive
Director is badly miscast as the progressive heroine
“of academic Marxists, student radicals, and others on
the margins of unions.” According to the author,
DeMoro’s craft-union “approach….is completely
retrogressive” and “encourages an attitude of elitism
rather than solidarity” among nurses in relation to
other lower-paid, less skilled hospital workers. But
Raising Expectations debunks the CNA as labor’s
“self-styled left-wing” only in passing. McAlevey
mainly frames her book as “Exhibit A in the case
against Stern, SEIU, and the ‘shallow organizing’
vision for American labor that they have come to
personify.” According to the author, this “shallow
mobilizing approach” leaves members with “only the most
tenuous relationship with their union.” As a result,
“the political endorsements their unions give to
candidates or ballot initiatives mean little more to
workers than the endorsements of their bosses or Fox
News.”

[T]he union becomes nothing more than the contract and
the contract is only engaged when a worker files a
grievance. The union becomes an insurance plan, like
car insurance, to which workers pay dues “in case you
need it.” Staff talk to workers like Geico claims
adjustors after an accident.

Given Mary Kay Henry’s “many years as Stern’s loyal
protégé, and her role in the events described in this
book” McAlevey finds it “hard to imagine she will alter
SEIU’s course in any significant way.” The author takes
direct aim at Henry’s “Fight for a Fair Economy,” a
current SEIU campaign much ballyhooed in the
blogosphere and publications like The Nation. According
to the McAlevey, FFE is just another form of “tactical
and transactional engagement” with the community that
involves union staff   renting or buying community
groups, or simply setting up their own fully
controllable” ones.” As she accurately observes:

SEIU is spending tens of millions of dollars
‘mobilizing underpaid, underemployed, and unemployed
workers’ and ‘channeling anger about jobs into action
for positive change.” What’s beyond bizarre is that the
program is aimed a mobilizing poor people rather than
SEIU’s own base. SEIU looks everywhere except to their
own membership to gin up popular revolts.

A “Popular Revolt” Within SEIU

The author’s overall report card on SEIU echoes the
better-articulated critique developed by its California
rival, the new National Union of Healthcare Workers
(NUHW). NUHW was born out of a popular revolt that
didn’t have to be ginned up. In January,2009, Stern put
members of SEIU’s third largest affiliate, United
Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) under trusteeship for
challenging him at the union’s 2008 convention in
Puerto Rico, resisting his attempted dismantling of
their local afterwards, and publicly questioning the
same kind of heath care industry “growth deals” that
McAlevey also found troubling.

However, in 2008, when soon-to-be-ousted UHW President
Sal Rosselli and other would-be reformers opposed
Stern’s further consolidation of personal power at the
SEIU convention, McAlevey was no ally of theirs.
Instead, without ever having served as an elected local
officer of SEIU, she accepted Stern’s invitation to run
on his slate for the SEIU executive board, a body that
Rosselli was purged from. Getting this promotion, of
course, required that she distance herself from the
vocal minority of delegates critical of the union’s
increasingly undemocratic practices and lax contract
enforcement. (She describes their brave efforts as just
“fizzling” out.) Her own IEB tenure proved to be
short-lived, due to her SEIU-brokered resignation from
Local 1107 in late June, 2008, and subsequent year-long
struggle with cancer.

In Raising Expectations, McAlevey’s brief elevation to
the SEIU board goes unmentioned, since that episode
might undercut her claim now that she was among those
more “moderate” SEIU progressives who were quietly
“working to build opposition to [Stern’s] policies,”
while avoiding “a frontal assault on Stern’s
leadership” of the sort launched by the “loud” and
“bombastic” Rosselli. Among McAlevey’s convention
running-mates was Dave Regan, the same “Stern loyalist”
and “stooge” whose Ohio “political fund Stern tapped
for the money he had promised for our union election in
Nevada—the down payment that turned out to be
technically illegal.” The truly bombastic Regan later
became Stern’s trustee over UHW, a role he has
transformed into a lucrative $300,000 a year local
union presidency.

Now representing more than 10,000 workers, NUHW
continues to challenge SEIU in California healthcare
units because of the top-down, management-friendly
deal-making (by Regan and others) that McAlevey decries
in her book. Nevertheless, Raising Expectations
displays minimal sympathy for the dedicated organizers
and workplace leaders who created NUHW, after Stern
slammed the door on their internal SEIU reform efforts.
Unlike McAlevey’s smaller-scale Nevada tiffs with SEIU
headquarters, the California health care workers’
rebellion represented a real threat to national union
control. That’s why SEIU sued 28 NUHW founders for $25
million dollars and won a very unjust $1.5 million
federal court judgment against 16 of them (that is
still under appeal).

Captive Members?

All we learn about “the resulting war” is that McAlevey
opposes “raids” because they’re “one of the sleaziest
things one union can do to another.” In her view, union
leaders, not workers, end up “decid[ing] whether an
existing union is bad enough to warrant being raided by
another union.” Left unexplained by the author is why
“workers with bad unions” should be denied “the chance
to jump to more effective ones”—particularly, where the
alternative choice, NUHW, is a more militant,
democratic, and member-driven union (plus, one that’s
backed by respected SEIU veterans like Jerry Brown, the
now-retired Connecticut leader who was McAlevey’s most
trusted advisor in Las Vegas).

In Raising Expectations, McAlevey expounds instead on
her own preferred community and labor organizing
models. She provides little or no practical guidance
for members still trapped in her old union (other then
maybe learning from her mistake of breaking federal law
to influence local union election results?). McAlevey’s
book is neither well-documented labor reporting nor an
academic study of U.S. union dysfunction (although,
post-SEIU, the author enrolled in a City University of
New York graduate program).  Instead, it’s a memoir
more self-absorbed than self-aware, whose main strength
lies in its several very detailed and useful case
studies of contract campaigns worthy of emulation in
other open shop states. Too often, however, Raising
Expectations is so narcissistic that the book’s factual
narrative (and overall information value) suffers as
result.

Most rank-and-file oriented organizers—as opposed to
the egocentric top officials criticized by the
author—try to make union-building a collective effort,
not a one-person show. In  Raising Expectations,
McAlevey seems to be less the “left-wing troublemaker,”
she claims to be, and more of a progressive prima
donna, operating in episodic “Lone Ranger” fashion
(albeit always with a coterie of admiring young
staffers).  In contrast, labor’s more effective
grassroots organizers tend to be long distance runners,
not sprinters or relay team members who have trouble
cooperating with others on the squad and maintaining
enduring relationships with workers. They also don’t
make the project of union renewal so much about
themselves or their own heroic endeavors. In the case
of those activists still challenging SEIU in
California, many have paid a far higher personal price
than McAlevey ever did, because their labor reform
efforts involved real risk-taking, not just
self-promotion (and literary-reinvention) as a martyr
to the cause.

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