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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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In public, Morgan and Jessica and I were brimming with confidence about the decert vote but privately we were in panic mode. We had scored a major victory running Salgado out of the hospital, but it was still a tough campaign. Hell, we had been banned from the hospital for just about the entire fight, while the workers were locked up inside with Yessin’s gang. UHS had run the most expensive A-level boss fight any of us had ever seen. By now we’d moved every good organizer we had to this campaign. In the final days, we house-called every single tech worker, and more than once.

I am not sure whether Morgan, Jessica or I slept at all during the last three days. Our get-out-the-vote operation was tight. We had individual plans for each worker we were certain would vote union. If we could get every one of them to the polls, we would win. The boss’s campaign at that point was just to get the workers to shut down, stay home, stay away, not vote. The voting was at the hospital, and on any given day half the workers are not on shift. That afternoon our organizers and worker leaders chased down workers in shopping malls, casinos, wherever the people who answered their door at home told us they might be.

When the polls closed, we headed to the official NLRB counting room inside the hospital. Yessin was there, smiling. Rick Albert was there from Foley and Lardner, smiling. Some of the rad techs who had been promised big raises for destroying their own union were there, and so was the CEO himself. It was clear that they thought they had won. You don’t send all the big guys to a vote count if you think you are going to lose. Shit.

The count began. Vote counts are seriously high drama. Everything slows to a crawl. The NLRB officials have to read all sorts of laws out loud. Then there is a whole protocol for the unsealing of the ballot boxes. No one makes a sound. When the paper ballots finally come out, the NLRB agents carefully unfold each one, iron out the crease at the fold, and place it face down on the table. After all the ballots have been prepared, they pick them up one by one and call out “yes” or “no.” Everyone in the room knows the magic number that means they have won, and a running tally is kept. In this case, the boss needed a yes vote: Did workers want to decertify the union?

The first few ballots came. “Yes. Yes. Yes.”

What? We were keeping poker faces but inside I felt ready to crack. And then it started.

“No. No. No. No. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. No. No. No.”

At the exact “no” we needed to win, we exploded. Yessin and the CEO dashed out of the room. The final tally showed the workers voted by nearly 3 to 1 to keep their union. I am pretty sure I got drunk that night in the bar across the street. We all did. It was a repeat of the contract victory from 2004, with everyone phoning everyone else, ordinarily well styled women arriving at the bar with no makeup, hair in rollers, spouses in tow, and everyone ready to party. I was so tired I couldn’t move, but still happy. Never had we seen such ferocious intimidation. We had a great time trying to imagine what Brent Yessin was saying on the phone to UHS CEO Alan Miller back in his corporate palace in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, about the millions that had been spent on his losing effort to drive out the union. 

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