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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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The plan was to send one of our organizers, Morgan Levi, to crash a mandatory captive. Of course she would be kicked out, but, we hoped, not before she had eyeballed and photographed the union-buster general command. Morgan was totally up for this sort of thing—she wasn’t a body builder for nothing. Our core new leadership—Morgan, Jessica, and Maryanne—was cut from the same mold of tough-as-nails women:. This had become so normal at our local it was easy to forget that most union locals in this country are run by men. And it really worked for one that represented so many nurses, a profession that draws tough—and smart and socially conscious—women.

We had to pick the right captive meeting, one in which all the workers attending were solidly with the union; we didn’t want to alienate anyone. The big day came. Surrounded by a group of nurses, Morgan navigated undetected through the back halls of the hospital to the conference room behind the cafeteria where the meeting was under way. The nurses opened the doors and in walked the well-known star union organizer. The hospital CEO Sam Kaufman was personally addressing some techs, and at the sight of Morgan he stood up and began to belch orders about this being a private meeting.  You could always count on Sam losing his cool, and making him do it was fun. The process of getting Morgan thrown out began almost instantly, but she got the photos we wanted, plus a good look at the whole setup of the suits in the room. 

Beyond Yessin himself, this Jose character was clearly a real problem, as he was actually beginning to scare the workers. Choosing Morgan to crash that meeting was real serendipity because she discovered, much to her surprise, that she knew this man. His full name was Jose Salgado. He had joined one of SEIU’s organizer-training programs three years earlier, in another state, and it had been Morgan herself who had fired him, after less than a week. Now either this guy was here because he had a crazy thing for getting back at Morgan, which seemed unlikely, or he had gone as a spy to get the SEIU organizer training manual, or maybe being fired had pissed him off and instead of going postal, he’d done the next best thing and gone rabidly anti-union. Whatever the reason, he was working for Yessin, and if he hadn’t lost his notes and manual, they now had some sense of our playbook—though ours in Nevada was a bit different from Washington’s.

Luck further had it that Morgan’s father was a private investigator, and she asked him to do some PI-level background research on both Yessin and Salgado. The dirt he turned up on Salgado was a mother lode. Jose had been convicted of running guns. Lots of guns, the sort that could arm a drug gang. We could never have made up something like this guy’s arrest record. So that was the sort of operation Brent Yessin ran, infiltrating unions with convicted gunrunners. Here were all our fresh-out-of-college idealistic twentysomething organizers, plus nurses themselves who had become our organizers, illegally banned from a hospital where they admitted a convicted gunrunner, who had clearly been brought in to scare the workers. Blowing this jerk out of the water was going to be a pleasure.

We called the national communications team in DC to get advice on how best to break this news. My mistake: I forgot this would trigger a review by the SEIU legal department, which told us that we couldn’t use the information because we couldn’t say where we had obtained it. I was mentally kicking myself: I should have known better than to call D.C. Now that they had discussed it with me, I would be directly disobeying legal counsel if I broke the story. I could have acted first and talked to our lawyers second. I already had a reputation among them for this sort of thing, and I readily admit it was well founded. Lawyers, not surprisingly, get very caught up in the law. But the laws regulating unions in the country are pathetic, and the amount of attention that unions pay to them is one reason (among many) that the labor movement in this country is dying. It was legalized to death. 

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