Raising Expectations


The result is many unions today are operating as ghost ships…

In the face of the kind of anti-union terrorism practiced by corporate America, there is no substitute for face-to-face peer reinforcement organizing


Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell) My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement
By Jane McAlevey with Bob Ostertag Verso Books 2012

Raising Expectations has been a controversial book on the labor left. Much of that criticism flows from the fact that this book covers some of the controversial history of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

SEIU positioned itself as one of America’s most dynamic unions in the late 1980’s by being willing to throw massive resources into large scale organizing campaigns, most notably the Justice for Janitors initiative, which successfully reorganized and organized a largely Latino immigrant janitorial workforce in many of the country’s largest commercial office building markets.

A disclosure note; I had the privilege of working on this campaign in the early nineties in Los Angeles where I was able to see the campaign’s strengths and weaknesses, that have since come home to roost. SEIU has been severely weakened by its overreaching arrogance in trusteeing its large California statewide health care Local 250 in 2009. Since then, Andy Stern, the mercurial former SEIU President, has left the union for the Board of Directors of a big Pharma company, and his hand-picked leader of the California home care workers union, Tyrone Freeman, is heading to prison after being convicted of massive corruption.

McAlevey is unsparing in her criticism of various factions in SEIU’s internal wars. It would take a whole issue of Social Policy, and a far more rigorous historian than I, to unravel all the SEIU history and subplots described in Raising Expectations. In this review, I will focus on two important contributions in McAlevey’s autobiographical work: her account of contemporary union organizing challenges and her emphasis on “whole worker organizing,” an approach I agree is necessary to help move the US labor movement out of its doldrums.

Organizing in Right to Work Nevada

A fitting moment for the publication of McAlevey’s bold recounting of her 10 years of hell raising on various US labor fronts was the Michigan legislature’s decision late in 2012 to make the birthplace of the United Auto Workers a “right to work” state. “Right to work” means that membership in the union can no longer be a condition of employment. Now there are 24 so-called “right to work” states in the USA. “Right to work” severely weakens unions, in part because unions have stopped talking and relating to their members on a daily basis. The anti-union princes of darkness have found a point of vulnerability in labor: our reliance on compulsory membership and dues check off. In non “right-to-work” states, membership and monthly dues payments may be a compulsory condition of employment. A union leader need not even talk to members to sustain the resources they provide. The result is many unions today are operating as ghost ships, financed with automatic dues payments but functioning with little connection and involvement from their membership. This leaves unions incredibly vulnerable; they’re unable to motivate members to organize nearby non-union workers; members are susceptible to reactionary political appeals, including decertification and “right-to-work” appeals from employer fronts.

The good news, as illustrated by McAlevey and others, is that some very strong union locals do get built in US “right to work” states because member participation is necessary to sustain the operation of the local. Members can’t be ignored, because without their dues the rent won’t be paid along with salaries of the union local’s leaders. The biggest chunk of McAlevey’s story is devoted to her work revitalizing the once dormant Service Employees International Union Local 1107 in “right to work” Nevada. Ten of the twelve chapters in her book tell the story of public and private sector organizing among health care workers in Clark County. These chapters are rich in detail and very evocative for any organizer who has experienced the highs and lows that McAlevey describes. She makes excellent observations on how to identify and develop leaders in the work force, how to move a large group of workers to action by escalating tactics that build their confidence, and how to tear down the invincibility of the boss. All this organizing, whether private sector hospital drives or contract campaigns in the public sector, shares the commonality of the need to engage with the existing members and ensure that they are signed on for the mission at hand. This involves the fundamentals of relational organizing; one on ones and deep worker contact. “Face book” and “open source organizing,” being recently touted as a new and more modern way to organize workers at WalMart, just don’t compare. In the face of the kind of anti-union terrorism practiced by corporate America, there is no substitute for face-to-face peer reinforcement organizing. In the four-year period that McAlevey describes, Local 1107 was able to achieve a membership level of over 70% in a right to work state. That high percentage of voluntary membership is a tribute to the intensive one on one work of McAlevey and her organizers.

“Whole Worker” Organizing

In describing a multi union AFL-CIO campaign to organize un-organized workers in Stamford, Connecticut, McAlevey points out “We found that it was actually important to replace community/labor with workplace/non-workplace in the everyday speech of our organizers and to talk about organizing whole workers.” What McAlevey highlights here is that those labor unions that are really in tune with the needs of their base can be powerful community organizations. They have softball leagues, turkey giveaways in the community, and countless other activities that stretch far beyond bargaining labor contracts. Many labor unions are more community rooted than many self described “community organizations” which are often funded almost entirely by foundations financed by liberal capitalists. But McAlevey went a step further and challenged the unions who were part of the AFL-CIO’s Stamford Organizing Project to engage in non-workplace struggles; what she calls “whole worker” struggles. She insisted that the Stamford Project make its first organizing drive a battle to save a public housing project inhabited by many members of the Service Employees local a battle they later won. It was a brilliant move that laid the basis for later victories in Stamford area workplaces. The unions won the confidence of workers by fighting for their immediate needs for affordable housing. With that victory and those lessons learned, facing employers became a lot easier.

The Long Haul

McAlevey’s book chronicles ten very rich years of hell raising, but she herself has moved on. She describes her own burnout and that of her fellow organizers, all brilliant young people who made contributions, but then moved on to other venues and in many cases other careers. These organizers are paid by the treasuries of national unions based in Washington, DC and have no real ongoing organic connection to the workers they are organizing.

Many other critics, including McAlevey, have cited this approach as a serious weakness that plagues modern union organizing, because young, outside organizers with little or no work experience have so little credibility with workers. This weakness is another symptom of the disconnected and disengaged membership in many unions that frequently hire successive waves of recent college graduates to work as organizers or business agents instead of developing leadership from among the union’s own ranks.

In her Epilogue, McAlevey notes that the two major social movements of the twentieth century, civil rights and labor, both got important resources from institutions that contributed leadership over the long haul; the Black church and the Communist Party respectively. “In both movements (Civil rights and labor) there were divisions within the institutional leadership over how much deep organizing to tolerate, but enough political space was created for a long enough period of time that the victories won are either still intact today or stood many decades before finally being torn down.” It took Harry Bridges and his band of left-wing agitators 20 years to build enough strength on the Pacific waterfront to ignite the general maritime strike in 1934 that led to a West Coast dockworkers union that is today’s ILWU. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union survives and prospers to this day because of the legacy of the Communist and labor left that McAlevey points to. Permanent revitalization of working class movements will require a similar long term and organic commitment of people and modern day institutions that have the roots and organic ties that McAlevey references in the Epilogue.

This last point raises an internal conflict within McAlevey’s account. Union organizing today is an extremely frustrating and difficult process, one that requires an ongoing commitment with plenty of reflection and critical thinking. Most successful organizers have invested decades of work to hone their craft and learn many painful lessons. But McAlevey has left union organizing work behind in favor of an academic endeavor. Since I did the same thing at one point, I can appreciate her decision, but I also hope she will consider resuming her organizing work at some point, because the long-term commitment is so essential.

“Raising Expectations” presents a vivid picture of life in the labor trenches. For those who have shared that experience it is a worthy read that will resonate on many levels. And for the uninitiated, it paints a graphic and compelling picture of the challenges facing U.S. organizers in the 21st century.

Peter Olney

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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3 thoughts on Raising Expectations

  1. Response to DiMaggio

    The challenge that DiMaggio is pointing to is actually larger than the matter of what should younger activists do in the present.  It speaks to the necessity for both the rebuilding of the organized Left along with the rebuilding of labor.

    The existence of Left organizations certainly provided a way for younger activists to have a focused means to enter into the ranks of labor.  This was the case with me.  But the broader point was that the Left, and specifically the socialist Left, recognized the key importance of the labor movement in the struggle for consistent democracy and, ultimately, for social transformation.  Thus, involvement in the labor movement, whether in organizing, strike support, work with the unemployed, education, etc., was seen as essential in meeting the overall objectives of any legitimate left-wing project.  In other words, the labor movement needed to be strengthened (and in some cases built) because there is no democratic environment in the absence of a strong, independent labor movement, plus, a labor movement can be a major contributing factor to the development of class consciousness and long-term social change.

    Organized labor, since the late 1980s when various reform efforts began to be undertaken, has sought to rebuild itself in the absence of a Left.  It has felt free to pick and choose from various tactics initiated by the Left, but it has shied away from any true recognition of the role that the Left has played, certainly in the 20th century, in labor’s emergence.  That must change.

    To the specific question, then, I would respond on different levels:

    Younger activists should engage in real study of society, social change and social movements.  This is critical if for no other reason, than to understand the strengths and limitations of even progressive social movements under capitalism.

    Younger activists, if they do not already know, should get a sense of the world of work.  There are too many activists who have jumped right into staff jobs without the slightest understanding of what it means to work–as a worker–and the pressures on workers.  Thus, such staff can become overly impatient when the workers may not necessarily agree with what the staff are asking of them.

    Join or form Left organizations:  There are no substitutes to engaging in discussions of strategy and tactics than being part of a Left organization, collective or study group.  You cannot work this out in your head as an individual.  There need to be places where you, as a left activists, can talk through plans and objectives, not to mention reflect on experiences.

    Look to locate in geographic areas with a history of struggle and where you might find support:  It is critically important to not simply move somewhere that sounds interesting.  This needs to be thought through.  If you are moving as an individual, is it a geographic area that has a supportive broader community?  Are there progressive bookstores and/or meeting places?  Are there people around who will support the sort of orientation that you have?  In an addition, are you moving somewhere that has some history of struggle so that it is more likely than not that there will be some receptivity to the sort of social activism and social justice unionism you wish to practice?

    These are a few thoughts regarding the questions DiMaggio poses.  Hopefully others will weigh in.

    Bill Fletcher, Jr.

  2. This is an excellent review of an excellent book. Here’s my question: In the past, left-wing organizers could join a group like the CP, or, in more recent years, some small left group, that would (ideally) give them some training and (ideally) orient and root them in a particular community/workplace for the long haul. I know it often hasn’t worked that way, but given the weakness of left organizations today, what should young would-be organizers do? As Bill Fletcher points out in an essay in the book “Labor Rising,” most young activists join the labor movement as individuals today, not as part of a left group with a long-term strategy for a renewed labor movement, and that can also contribute to the burnout factor. I don’t expect the situation in terms of left organization to change any time soon, unfortunately – so what, then, should we be doing?

  3. This is a very good piece, and I liked it alot. I wonder whether we need to redefine who are organizers and what they do, though. It’s clear in the piece about organizers who work in unions, and I think in labor these questions have been debated for awhile and are clearer than they are elsewhere.. But what does a real, long-haul community organizer look like today? This piece points to what it’s not, but not to what it is. Also, there are organizers who work on political questions over the long haul, and sometimes have the face-to-face contact, but other times do other kinds of organizing work. And then there are organizers who work on this question of the consciousness of workers more broadly, through writing, arts, etc.

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