Raising Hell for Labor

Against the Current, No. 181, March/April 2016

Steve Downs

Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell):
My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement
By Jane McAlevey
Verso Books, 2012 and 2014, 332 pages, $19.95 paperback.

IN 1995 JOHN Sweeney, the head of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), was elected president of the AFL-CIO in the first contested election (voting was limited to delegates to the AFL-CIO’s convention) in the federation’s history.

The New Voices slate, which Sweeney headed, was drawn from the leadership of unions who had concluded something new had to be done to reverse the decline of U.S. labor unions. They seemed to be serious about organizing large numbers of workers into unions and in building up labor’s capacity to wage political fights at the grassroots level.

They put out a call to activists in other social justice movements, as well as college students, to come and be a part of the new labor movement they were going to build. Jane McAlevey was one of the activists who responded to that call. Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell) is her account (written with Bob Ostertag) of the 10 years she spent as an organizer trying to carry out New Voice’s vision.(1)

As McAlevey states, this is a book about organizing — more precisely, the kind of organizing that is necessary when unions represent a small percentage of the workforce, especially in the service sector. She calls this “whole-worker organizing:”

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.

This is different from building a “labor-community alliance,” which typically involves unions as institutions looking for institutional allies in the community. Instead, unions must recognize that their members, or the people they seek as members, are part of the community; they do not draw a hard line between their existence as workers and their existence as parents, spouses, tenants, etc.

To win, McAlevey argues, unions have to work to organize the whole worker, not just the part that shows up at work. She spends the bulk of the book showing how that was done in Stamford, Connecticut and Las Vegas, Nevada.

Reviving the SEIU Las Vegas Local

McAlevey was assigned to the SEIU’s Las Vegas Local 1107, by the national leadership. The message to the Local leadership was that they either hire McAlevey or be trusteed. They hired McAlevey. What followed was the unionization of thousands of healthcare workers, the revitalization of the local, the winning of contracts that set new (high) standards, and the growing political influence of SEIU 1107.

These are the high points told in Raising Expectations. But the book also presents the low points of McAlevey’s time in Nevada. She describes fending off attacks from the officials at the national SEIU and raids from other unions.

She is willing to name names of those she holds responsible for those attacks. Indeed, her criticisms of Roseanne DeMoro of the California Nurses Association (CNA) and Sal Rosselli (who was president of the big SEIU healthcare workers local in California at the time McAlevey was in Las Vegas, and now heads the National Union of Healthcare Workers) have brought attacks on McAlevey from some on the left who defend DeMoro and Rosselli as standard-bearers of the progressive wing of the labor movement.

While sharply critical of them, McAlevey draws distinctions among the labor leaders she criticizes. SEIU’s then-president Andy Stern probably deserves every negative thing McAlevey writes about him, and then some.

She has an important strategic disagreement, a disagreement of principle, with DeMoro — craft unionism vs. wall-to-wall “industrial” unionism. Overlaying that is a tactical difference. Even if DeMoro is committed to a craft union model, why not apply it by organizing nurses where no union exists, rather than by raiding the nurses in Nevada that the SEIU had organized?

McAlevey believes DeMoro used the move into Las Vegas as part of a cynical effort to gain leverage in broader fights with the SEIU.

McAlevey’s criticisms of Sal Rosselli are more tactical and more nuanced. They stem from Rosselli’s efforts to absorb the Nevada local into the much larger healthcare local in California. She believed this was not in the interests of healthcare workers in a right-to-work state and resisted it.

She nevertheless gives Rosselli due credit for the support his local gave hers at critical moments. Then, in the Afterword when discussing the National Union of Healthcare Workers, although she disagrees with Rosselli’s tactics leading up to the break with Stern, and questions the relationship his union has since had with the CNA, she describes the local he led while in the SEIU as “militant (and) hyper-democratic.”

McAlevey also laments the destruction by Stern of “two progressive unions doing radical work,” hers in Nevada and Rosselli’s in California.

A Staff-driven Reform Model

Raising Expectations presents a model of unions that is different from the one I know.(2) No, not the “whole-worker organizing” model, the staff-driven model.(3)

In my union, Transport Workers Union Local 100, staff are overwhelmingly drawn from among the elected officers. There are a few who are hired from outside the Local (in Communications, Research and Education, in particular), but the work of representing and organizing our members is done by the people those same members have elected.

I’ve never really understood the model where an elected board hires an Executive Director, who then hires staff to run the local. I understand it a little better now.

McAlevey’s unquestioning acceptance of this model points to a contradiction at the core of her account. She is committed to building power for workers through militant and democratic local unions. Yet, to accomplish that she worked within, and depended upon, an undemocratic national union that was moving away from militancy by an engaged membership.

When McAlevey arrived in Las Vegas she counted on the backing of the national SEIU against the elected local leadership. She needed the resources of the national union to hire much of the staff that did the organizing to wage the fights she led against the big hospital corporations.

McAlevey recognizes that her approach was increasingly at odds with that of Stern and the people around him, but says she figured that as long as she did a good job and kept winning, the national leadership would leave her alone.

Here she acknowledges that she was naïve. But what about the other ways in which she accommodated to Stern and compromised her commitment to democracy in order to keep building the LV local?

Leaving Las Vegas

The weakest part of the book is the author’s account of the local election that ultimately led to her departure. According to McAlevey, she learned too late that she had been expected to organize a slate to challenge the local’s incumbent president and her supporters.

When the local re-ran the election because contradictory information had been posted about voting locations and hours, she improvised a slate out of her supporters among the existing candidates (nominations were not reopened for the rerun). Andy Stern promised to help finance her slate’s campaign (!?). Based on that promise, McAlevey ran up a large debt at a printer and accepted a $5000 contribution from another SEIU local.

It turns out that this money “technically” should not have been used for a union election. McAlevey found herself in violation of federal laws governing union elections. When the dust settled, both McAlevey and the president of the Las Vegas local agreed to resign.

Maybe I’ve been in too many union elections, but this account begged way too many questions for me. When organizing members, preparing to strike, and running primary campaigns, McAlevey was very detail-oriented and made sure nothing was overlooked. How likely is it that she would have entered into a union election campaign without consulting the union leaders in the SEIU and elsewhere whom she regularly consulted on other matters?

Would she not have done her homework about union election financing? And, the biggest question of all, after all she’d already been through, how does she take Andy Stern’s word for anything?

Beyond those immediate questions, I find it hard to believe that no one among the new stewards and activists brought up that it would be a good idea to run against the president and her holdover supporters on the Executive Board. After all, this was a transformed SEIU 1107. No one wanted to extend that transformation to the elected leadership of the union?

“Bizarre — but…”

And then there’s the question of the staff’s participation in the election.

There are good reasons to question any Executive Director’s involvement in a campaign against a Local president. And in this case, it was a campaign McAlevey didn’t think was necessary. The leadership of the SEIU did, though, so she waged the campaign.

There was one big obstacle that had to be addressed — non-members of the SEIU were prohibited from participating in the campaign. But as McAlevey informs us, she comes from a tradition in unions where staff are members of the union. She contacts her old local in New England to make sure her dues are current.

But that’s not enough. She made arrangements for staff members who had never been members of the SEIU to start paying dues to a local in Arizona. She shrugs this off as, “…bizarre – but, in the union world, it’s not unusual.” It might not be unusual in her union world, but it is in mine.

Even if not unusual, there is definitely something wrong with it. It represents a compromise of her commitment to democracy and is a stark example of the staff-driven model of reform.(4)

With or Against Stern?

The biggest example of the contradiction between McAlevey’s commitment to democracy at the local level and her reliance on the lack of democracy at the national level is missing from her book — which, in itself, says a lot.

In Raising Expectations, McAlevey makes clear that by 2007 she had had enough. She tells us several times that she told her mentors she was done and was just waiting for the right time to leave. She doesn’t tell us that, in 2007, she was appointed to fill a vacancy on the SEIU’s national Executive Board and then elected to a full-term at the union’s 2008 convention!

Again this raises many questions, starting with, how did you leave this out?

At the June 2008 convention, Rosselli and the reformers in SMART (SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today) challenged Stern and the direction in which he and his supporters were taking the SEIU. (Rosselli’s local was trusteed six months later. The leadership and activists of that local then founded the National Union of Healthcare Workers and have been working since to build a militant alternative to the SEIU in the healthcare industry.)

I can understand why Stern would want a militant leader like McAlevey on his slate, as it bolstered his credentials against the challengers. What were McAlevey’s reasons, given both her disagreements with Stern and her decision to leave the SEIU, for participating?

It says a lot about the staff-driven approach of the SEIU that McAlevey, who had never held elected office in a local, let alone been a rank and file member, would be elected to the International Executive Board. Or is this just another example of something that looks “…bizarre — but, in the union world, it’s not unusual”?

With or Against Grievances?

At several points, McAlevey criticizes locals she calls “grievance mills.” She argues that too many union officers rely on filing grievances, rather than organizing, to justify their role in the union. She is stating a fact that almost any union officer knows — filing grievances and representing members at hearings consume an enormous amount of a union’s resources.

She emphasizes that grievances, because they take so long and take matters out of the members’ hands, demoralize and demobilize members. To her, filing grievances is not about enforcing the contract. It is just a way for officers to build support for their re-election.

At Catholic Healthcare West, McAlevey and the bargaining committee negotiated an alternative method for resolving disputes. She says this method, “Fast and Fair,” was among the most radical things her local did while she was in Las Vegas, as they “were seriously attempting to develop a new model of unionism.” Unfortunately, she provides no details about “Fast and Fair” or how it worked in practice.

There is a lot of truth in McAlevey’s criticism of filing grievances to resolve disputes with management. I’m sure a lot of union officers would like to find a better way to enforce the contract. As it turned out, though, the “Fast and Fair” experiment didn’t last long. The CNA, in their “raid” on the nurses at CHW, used the failure to file grievances as a central piece of their case against the SEIU.

As much as I want to agree with McAlevey in her criticism of “grievance mills,” there’s an element of it that gives me pause. In leveling her criticism, she suggests that unions should not defend the “workers who were performing poorly or were simply lazy.”

I’m all for finding ways to shift resources toward organizing, as opposed to grievance processing, but I can’t agree that we shouldn’t defend every single member the boss writes up. I can’t go there — and I wonder how anyone interested in building militant, democratic unions could.

Peeling back another layer, McAlevey describes herself as someone who needs less rest or time off than most people. She says her tendency is to go all out for months, or even years, and then take months off. That seems to work for her, but I don’t see that we could, or should want to, build organizations that rely on that standard.

This approach reinforces the staff-driven model, where staff are somehow different,  more able to give of their time than the members themselves. While we certainly want to keep a place open for driven, non-sleeping activists like McAlevey, we need to build organizations that can be sustained and led by members who work long hours, go to school, take care of family members — and take time off.

McAlevey was different from the members of her local. Not only could she put in long hours for months on end, but she always had the option to leave. She exercised that option after she’d been at the Las Vegas local for four years.

When she left, she “did my best to negotiate my departure from Las Vegas so as to leave the local in the hands of the best of the new leaders.” Was it really hers to leave to anyone?

Building Working-Class Power?

I enjoyed reading Raising Expectations. Parts of it read like a political manifesto, other parts like a thriller.

Throughout, from her comments on the 2000 election when the Democrats and unions failed to mobilize to protect Gore’s “win” in Florida, to descriptions of the campaigns she led in Stamford, Kansas City and Las Vegas (including political campaigns where they challenged local Democrats in primaries) to her dismissal of the Fast Food Forward campaign, McAlevey asks, “does it build working-class power?” That’s the standard she uses to evaluate whether the campaign or action is one she wants to engage in.

In addition to the inspiration and caution she provides, McAlevey helps us understand why promises made by New Voices more than 20 years ago yielded so little. She doesn’t pretend to provide all of the answers to that failure, but she does provide an important part of the explanation. This book should be part of every labor activist’s, indeed, every organizer’s library.

Raising Expectations shows the potential that exists to bring thousands and thousands of workers into unions, not just as passive dues-payers, but as active participants and leaders. It also shows how quickly that can all be lost.

This illustrates the core problem for the staff-driven model. McAlevey shows that it can be an effective way to run campaigns, but does it build strong, member-run unions?

How can a model premised on the central role of dynamic and committed staff result in locals run by members and their elected officers? Although she doesn’t address it directly, it’s pretty clear that the work of McAlevey and her staff did not result in such a local.

In the chapter “Things Fall Apart,” McAlevey describes what happened to the nurses at Catholic Healthcare West in the wake of the deal between DeMoro and Stern that paved the way for the CNA to become the bargaining agent. According to McAlevey, union membership fell from over 70% to around 15% in less than two years. She attributes this to turf wars and infighting within the labor movement.

This is the same unit she had described (in the paragraph right before she tells us about the membership decline) as one…where the new SEIU local won contracts that set a gold standard for the entire Las Vegas market; where the workers were working together to establish an alternative to the decrepit old grievance system and to create all-new work systems through worker-led initiatives; where a CIO-inspired goal of building one big union and then negotiating one big contract using big, representative bargaining had produced a hyper-democratic, wall-to-wall union, nurses and service workers marching together as one.

If that’s an accurate description of the union at CHW in 2008, how did it collapse so completely by November 2009? I’m sure the turf wars that McAlevey describes contributed to it, but I don’t see how a union that was truly being run by its members (isn’t that what “hyper-democratic” means?) would have fallen so far so fast.

McAlevey accomplished a lot at the Las Vegas local. She led campaigns that brought thousands of members into unions and won terrific contracts. Her description of those campaigns will inspire organizers everywhere. But her account leaves big unanswered questions — unanswered because they are never asked.

How do those democratic, transparent, campaigns get translated into a union that is member-driven and member-run? Given that McAlevey had not intended to challenge the incumbent president and her allies, what structures were being built to enable the members to run their union? What was done, other than negotiating with Stern, to make sure the dynamism of the local would survive the departure of the dynamic Executive Director and her staff? Finally, did the staff-driven model build working-class power in SEIU Local 1107?


  1. Raising Expectations has been reviewed and discussed by others. Steve Early’s very critical (and somewhat snarky) review at (https://talkingunion.wordpress.com/2012/12/22/bidding-adieu-to-seiu-lessons-for-its-next-generation-of-organizers/) and McAlevey’s sharp response (https://talkingunion.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/response-to-steve-earlys-review-of-raising-expectations/) are especially worth reading.
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  2. I have spent more than 30 years as a rank-and-file train operator, a dissident union officer and, most recently, a senior staff member (some would say bureaucrat) in the 40,000-member Transport Workers Union Local 100 in NYC. With others, I built a rank and file caucus that challenged management and the union’s leaders for 15 years. Through arguments, job actions and elections, the caucus built support until it finally won the top offices in 2000. Within two years, the caucus was dead and several of us were on the outs with very people we had helped win office. I lost an election in 2003, returned to office as an independent in 2006 and, in 2009, was part of a slate that defeated the remains of the leadership team I had run with in 2000.
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  3. “Staff-driven” and “top-down” are often used interchangeably. That’s not my intention here. While the process of rebuilding the Las Vegas local was always staff-driven, it’s not clear to me that it was always top-down. Or, more accurately, it wasn’t only top-down. I think Raising Expectations hints at the complexity of the dynamics of reforming a union local. McAlevey sought to increase membership involvement and control over their union. The staff-driven process was, at some point, embraced by many of the rank and file. The interaction between staff, officers and members; between top-down and bottom-up initiatives is messy and deserves more consideration than simply sticking a label on provides.
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  4. The TWU’s constitution also provides for staff who do not come from one of the represented bargaining units to be members of the TWU. I’ve always thought this was a bad idea. The TWU doesn’t represent them in any meaningful sense and, in the TWU, there is no chance they would run for office. They receive no benefit from being members of the union, but they do get to pay dues and vote for their employer at election time.
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March-April 2016, ATC 181