Bidding Adieu to SEIU: Lessons for Young Labor Organizers?

Bidding Adieu to SEIU: Lessons for Young Labor Organizers?
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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.

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.

Jane McAlevey, author of Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting For the Labor Movement (Verso Books, 2012) even became a member of the SEIU national executive before she too was cast aside. Her resulting fury, or political frustration, is reflected in many parts of her new memoir about being undermined and driven out of a 10,000-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 [Andy] Stern gang in D.C.," who helped shorten her career as a local union leader to less than five years.

The book is highly recommended reading for anyone hoping to last longer at that union--"before the rug is pulled out from under them" by the same "people at the top" who so disdained McAlevey because she wouldn't adapt to their "paranoid institutional culture."
Lest anyone think that the author's own employment was a little short-term for such a blistering critique, I should note (as the book's subtitle does) that McAlevey actually spent an entire decade trying to straighten out organized labor, as a whole, 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 " 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 had already accepted Stern's invitation to fill a vacancy on his executive board in 2007. At the convention a year later, she happily ran for a full four-year term on the body that Rosselli was being purged from. Remaining on the SEIU board, as a member of Stern's slate, 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 didn't last much longer, 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 SEIU board role goes entirely unmentioned. Instead, we learn only that she was among those "moderate" SEIU progressives supposedly "working to build opposition to [Stern's] policies" without being "loud" and "bombastic" like Rosselli, or joining his "frontal assault on Stern's leadership." Among McAlevey's 2008 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.

(Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972 as lawyer, labor journalist, organizer, or union representative. He is the author most recently of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor from Haymarket Books, which chronicles the struggle between SEIU and NUHW in California. Early can be reached at

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