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How Organizing for Change Is Very Different Than Winning Elections

Jane McAlevey talks about her new book "Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell)" about how to organize the right way and how big labor gets it wrong.

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Every radical organizer, if you look at who's been winning serious fights, where participation became enormous on the part of the rank and file, and the workers themselves together with good organizing direction won big shit, wages, housing, conditions, school reform, Chicago, whatever, it's all radicals. I know now that this craft of having the best of us get sent in to win big elections is a variation of not wanting to have the left radical organizers build permanent relationships with the workers.

SJ: The book is about, in part, you being dropped into places like Nevada and being expected to turn around contract fights in a matter of months.

JM: I wasn't expected to, though. That's the game. The people who asked me to go to Nevada, it was definitely their expectation that we would be making real radical change. But they weren't in control at the national union. My main person Larry Fox was quickly axed, which became part of the problem later.

When I went to work at SEIU, I had been recruited to work at the national union several times. It's a very nice compliment, and I said no. Because I didn't think that the values of Andy Stern's leadership team even way back were consistent with mine. I was trained at 1199 New England, I was there for three years, under the most renegade, rebellious local in the SEIU. I had seen plenty, as I talk about a little bit in the Connecticut chapter, when they cut the deal to end the strike in Connecticut without talking to the workers or the leadership of the local. But then Stern gives Larry Fox this huge powerful position, which shocked the progressives inside of SEIU because Larry is the real deal, he's a brilliant organizer and he's progressive! And I got phone calls from several of my mentors saying call him up right now and go to work for him because he's brilliant.

And of course, you know, five years into that, I'd been doing a ton of work for him, I got sent into Nevada with big ideas, and he got axed. So there was immediate change in the expectations of the person who ran the healthcare division after Larry Fox, which was Mary Kay Henry. Some people think I was sent in to do a trusteeship but in fact I made a conscious decision not to do that because I thought it wasn't consistent with my values.

When the national leadership would send people in to do that it was never “Go in and win a bunch of great contracts,” it was “Go in and build a political machine for elections and go grow the union.” Grow, mind you, not organize. Go be on the ground, facilitate a competent, efficient local union that we can convince a corporate boss that you'll play game with us and we'll get an agreement for an election and we'll go add five, 10, 20, 30,000 workers to the union over several years and you just need to manage the place.

Getting another shitty contract was fine then. People were like what, you think you're going to go win something? It was astounding. Larry was very different. And so was [Eliseo] Medina. I had Medina and Fox trying to hold a space for me because I think they had a more radical vision, that we should help workers fight and win, not thirty years from now but now.

That's the whole debate inside of SEIU. [Tom] Woodruff's philosophy, which dictated a lot of what Stern was doing, was we have to grow grow grow, get our density back up to like 15, 20 percent, and at 20 percent we can start to win again. Workers aren't going to wait 20 years to win. But that was literally the debate inside the union.

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