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What I Learned in a Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement

Jane McAlevey writes in her new book, "Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell)," about creative and effective organizing tactics in the fight against bosses and national labor leaders.

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By this point access to the hospital by any union organizers had been severely curtailed. Our organizers had to notify management whenever they were coming. They would be given special badges on arrival and were restricted to three-hour visits, clocked by security. After a few weeks of this we knew we had to shake up the dynamic. We called the national union and requested one of SEIU’s giant purple recreational vehicles, and Sal Rosselli’s California local sent one. If the boss was going to essentially kick us out of the hospital, we were going to set up a new satellite office right outside the front door, with staff living in it round the clock ready to talk to workers from each shift as they took their breaks or came and left work.

That RV was emblematic of the overall tension cutting strategy that Yessin’s campaign required 24/7. Yessin had no legal right to limit our hospital access in the manner they were, but instead of trying to fight him through a legal challenge that would disappear into some mysterious government cubicle in the sky for a judgment from on high, we seized the opportunity to build more community, to build enough worker power that the restriction of our organizer’s access became irrelevant. Nothing raised the spirit of the workers quite like the day the big purple RV pulled up directly across from the hospital, covered with banners and balloons. We moved our entire operation out of the union hall and into the RV. And, partly because we needed to talk to every worker and to be able to react quickly to changes in the situation, and partly because some thug might vandalize the RV in a New York minute, so some of the staff moved in, too. 

We brainstormed with the worker leaders on how to get their more timid coworkers out to our new headquarters. Just approaching the RV was an act of bravery, as Yessin had put it under surveillance. There were always at least three security guards there; they made a show of taking photos of every worker who crossed the street from the hospital to the RV. Our leaders thought that food might do the trick. The hospital cafeteria served hospital food. It seems like every hospital cafeteria is run by the same grumpy British guy with no taste buds. We stocked the RV with energy snack bars, quality candy, fruit, and drinks. At lunch and dinner we would cater in good local food and also held Mexican and Chinese nights.

That RV became the place to be. It developed its own microculture. The staff had lawn chairs spread out around it. The workers would walk up to the security men and do little skits for them, posing for their photos. “Wait, I need my lipstick, oh, and I want Sally with me, no wait, let me get some more people in the shot!” This was all great fun and serious organizing. Nevertheless, Morgan and I knew that although just about every Desert Springs nurse was visiting the RV, we weren’t hitting our goals with the technical workers who had the upcoming decert vote.

  • The CEO, the Union Buster and the Gunrunner 

As a result of my brief harrowing visit to Desert Springs hospital, we now had a picture of Brent Yessin, literally and figuratively. The platoon of union busters under his command, however, remained hidden. All the new security personnel were out in plain view, and of course we already knew the two union busting negotiators from California, Rick Albert and Larry Arnold.  But as for Yessin’s lieutenants, the suits who were really running the operation, all we had were their first names. Worker reports on the mandatory captive audience meetings at Desert Springs noted at least five full-time people on his core team—and this is in addition to the countless security guards watching every move the workers made. Yessin’s gang included a couple of well-dressed women, former nurses they claimed, who were the “good cops,” sent to talk nicely to the nurses and techs; a guy named Byron, who said he was a behavioral psychologist; and Jose. Jose was clearly the “bad cop.” At the captive audience meetings he would get right in everyone’s face, asking over and over (completely illegally), “Are you going to do the right thing and stand with your unit manager and your patients and keep your job, or betray your patients and employer?” This was 2006, just before the dawn of the age of cell phone cameras, and photographing everyone everywhere anytime was not the bizarre social norm it would so soon become. We decided it was high time to unmask these goons. 

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