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Unions Need to Build Power

Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), by Jane McAlevey (Image: via Verso Books)

This week, Verso has published the first paperback edition of Jane McAlevey’s Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), a memoir of her decade-long work in the labor movement. Truthout published Laura Flanders’ interview with McAlevey when the book first came out.

The paperback now includes a new afterword that contains McAlevey’s analysis of the current state of the labor movement and new developments since her book was first published. The new extract is below.

From the Afterword: San Francisco, February 2014

In the past two years, SEIU has all but forsaken actual worker organizing in the health-care sector despite the fact that the union’s gains in the years under discussion in this book were largest among health-care workers. The multistate assault by the right wing against the public sector has left SEIU fighting a primarily defensive action there. And in the third wing of the union, known most commonly as “Justice for Janitors” and officially as the Property Services sector, SEIU’s new President, Mary Kay Henry, forced out longtime organizer Steven Lerner because of his insistence that the union needed to take on the financial and banking industries. Hmm.

While some of our most competent labor leaders, namely the leaders of SEIU, the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), and the National Nurses United (NNU), perpetrate health care–union fratricide, the health-care system has been failing patients, communities, and workers and the Tea Party has emerged as the dominant voice in health-care policy making. Health-care advocates simply cannot challenge or change profit-driven health care as long as all the health-care unions are killing each other. Divided we fall, again.

“Rudderless” would be my polite description for SEIU today. The union has all but jettisoned the two foundational concepts of unionism: building strong worksite-based worker organizations and collective bargaining. The SEIU we have now more closely resembles a foundation or Nader-type advocacy group than it does a union. Polling workers has replaced talking to them. And the two biggest programs of the union are not organizing and bargaining but immigration reform and fast-food workers’ rights, campaigns that could be financed and orchestrated by a foundation. That said, the immigration fight is essential and should be a core mission for a union with millions of immigrant workers, but as SEIU’s priority, the fast-food campaign is off the mark.

Fast Food Forward, or FF15, the effort to boost wages for the lowest-paid food workers, is the only substantial effort for labor being attempted by the union of health-care and government employees and big-city security guards and janitors. But the motivation behind it, often described in SEIU meetings as easier turf with angrier workers, and the end goals, narrative change and increasing the minimum wage, aren’t building real power for U.S. labor. Once upon a time, unions – including SEIU – understood that their core mission was to build power: the kind of power that could challenge capital for a seat at the governing table; a level of power that could check the unrelenting stampede of “market forces” that has left hoofmark scars on 90 percent of the United States.

Narrative change and policy fights are precisely what foundations and foundation-funded efforts are good for. Marx got at least one thing right: the unique relationship between workers and the employer leads large numbers of ordinary people to more quickly understand who holds power over whom and how and why. When workers who are taking it in the neck see executive compensation skyrocket, they don’t need much political education to figure out why they have no health care or retirement funds, why they haven’t had a raise in how long?, or why they’ve got some schmuck messing with their schedules so that they can’t get their kids home from the school bus stop or to Grandma’s in time to get to their second job.

So-called strikes in the fast food and Walmart campaigns aren’t strikes just because someone spelled them s-t-r-i-k-e-s; they are press events and opportunities for liberals to wash away their guilt at this country’s disgusting levels of inequality. They are excuses for editorials in the paper of record. They are places where liberal religious leaders take congregants to pray for poverty alleviation. Feel-good narrative change really is good, by the way, but it’s utterly insufficient to actually rebalance wealth and power in America. A strike, to refresh our memory, means a majority of workers have walked off the job in a collective and defiant action and crippled production [cf the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012]. A press event is one or two workers who took jobs at an exploitive workplace for a few weeks and have walked off in coordination with other largely powerless groups who show up to cheer them on. Hooray.

These campaigns are appealing to liberals because liberals are never comfortable talking about class, unions or power. “Ending poverty” sounds good, and so does “raising wages” – these are safe sound bites. This simply ignores the actual history of how any meaningful progress has been won in America or anywhere else – victories that required organization and power, ah, and another crucial ingredient: moral authority. Mandela didn’t change South Africa by being nice, despite the whitewashing of his story after his death. Mandela embraced armed struggle: his analysis of the power context of apartheid demanded it. Each power analysis is contextual, and no, please don’t interpret that statement as a suggestion that armed struggle will work here. But in the American labor movement and among progressives generally, there’s virtually no discussion of power, the power required per fight, or the relationship between power and strategy.

Meanwhile, the right wing has precision instruments drilling to tap advantages from the biggest problem facing today’s unions: the lack of relationship between the union base – meaning the members – and union leaders. Two recent examples measure the success of this strategy: 38 percent of union households in Wisconsin voted to retain Scott Walker, who is pretty nearly the most antiworker, antiunion governor in the state’s history, and Michigan voters defeated a measure that would have enshrined the right to collective bargaining in the state’s constitution. Michigan governor Rick Snyder, emboldened by the defeat of the initiative, changed Michigan law to make this former bastion of unionization into a right-to-work state. Then, as if that weren’t enough, Snyder upended the concept of democracy itself by trusteeing – er, removing and replacing – an elected mayor of Detroit, putting in his own appointee, whose primary mission is to use an African-American city as testing ground zero for the elimination of once sacred public-sector pensions. Power is so skewed today that bosses are reaching into the past earnings of workers and stealing them. All this, under a Black Democratic president who bailed out Detroit’s CEOs but has failed to bail out the workers who made Motor City work. It’s a good thing unions have figured out how to hold “our politicians” accountable.

What should SEIU and the handful of other unions that still have the money and brains to mount large-scale efforts to win be doing? They should proceed as if this were entirely a right-to-work country again: they should return to the central task of building powerful worksite organizations. By doing so, they could defeat the intended outcome of a right-wing activist court decision (such as the forthcoming ruling in Harris v. Quinn) or well-financed state-level right-wing ballot initiatives. The reason collective bargaining is under attack is because it works. Not “worked” – works. This entire book describes the building of a strong worksite organization and the power of collective bargaining in the new millennium, accomplished by primarily female service workers in growth sectors of the economy, in a right-to-work state.

And on the crucial question of where should unions look for the additional power sources they need to mobilize against the employer in order to win? At SEIU, and at all the unions still trying to do this, they are looking in the wrong places. The house of labor, despite rhetoric to the contrary, continues to see the boss as its most important constituency in 2014. Unions have developed an apparatus called the corporate campaign to weaken employers’ resistance until the union can force a deal that allows what the law has long failed to guarantee: a free and fair election – one where the workers can choose unionization. But these deals are often supine and have hurt unions more than helped them, with trade-offs that are too high. Even if they win a vote, workers seldom go on to form strong worksite-based unions, precisely because the rules of these agreements prevent them from doing so. As we just saw with the UAW in Tennessee, even with these deals, it’s far from guaranteed that workers form unions. And though the Supreme Court missed banning such deals altogether for the 2014 cycle when a case commonly referred to as Mulhall got dropped from the docket on procedural grounds, they will likely be made illegal soon enough, because they have sometimes worked, and “sometimes” is intolerable to today’s business class.

The “corporate campaign” – devised by mostly white, educated men – has put everyone but workers in command of the struggle against the employer. Instead, it relies on opposition researchers, lawyers, lawsuits, pension-fund investors, lobbyists, consumers, business partners, pollsters, communication specialists, student radicals, and other nonworker agents deploying “gotcha politics” and a pressure campaign. Workers themselves are not involved, nor do the campaigns rely on workers’ knowledge or networks. They do not develop worker leadership. We have forgotten the crucial need to trust workers, to educate them about power and how it works, to educate them in the heat of a fight – which is where most adults learn best, when the stakes are high, not low. Identifying and developing organic worker leadership and teaching these leaders how to construct solidarity would give us back the most important weapons in the labor arsenal.

Every strategy available to our side relies upon sustaining high participation. And high participation is created and sustained only when workers feel deeply engaged in developing the plan to win. Everything that SEIU and other unions do should be measured against three hard tests: Is this strategy actually expanding our base of organic worker leaders? Is this strategy deepening working-class solidarity, and, Is this strategy building measureable power?

The good news is that our broadest global problem – saving the planet from climate change – can go hand in hand with rebuilding a bold movement using every strategy in this book. In my decades of talking to workers, and in my decade of bargaining contracts, I discovered that what workers want most are not wage increases but a safe place to live and to raise their families; meaningful work under respectful managers; control over their out-of-control lives. Male decision makers in our movement tend to drive the discussion toward wages, material gain, and putting more money in the hands of workers so workers can shop the capitalists out of this crisis they created. But this trajectory will quite simply burn the planet faster, and it ignores the real desires of most workers. Most workers want a quality-of-life standard more than a simple wage standard. Quality-of-life standards start with basic, inexpensive but profound things like predictable schedules, more time off, clean water and clean air. There is no innovation that will win these things that is more effective than worksite strategies and collective bargaining, by the workers themselves, on workplace issues tethered to broader community issues. That’s how we’ll win a just, healthy, and safe economy, and an environment guaranteed to support a good life, for all of us.

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