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The Story of an Organizer


Jane McAlevey excerpts from her new book of her decade as an organizer struggling against both corporations doing terrible things and the strategies of the labor leaders themselves. McAlevey talks of organizing against a decertification election at a for-profit hospital chain in Las Vegas. Pretty evil company in a horrible industry. But even more interesting to me was her discussion of labor law and how SEIU and other unions stuck to the letter of the law in campaigns but had a much more expansive view of the law when attacking each other:

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.

Don’t get me wrong here. The SEIU does have some excellent lawyers who are devoted to the labor movement. If some day I actually wind up in legal trouble I would be delighted to have a lawyer as good as them. The problem is that lawyers wake up each day and think about how labor leaders can get their work done inside a legal framework that is deadly to unions. I woke up every day and thought about how to disrupt that system. I respected and appreciated them—I just didn’t listen to them as often as they wanted.

Knowing when to listen to lawyers and when to ignore them is a key for an organizer. My own rule of thumb is this: If something I want to do might get me in trouble, I do it; if it might get the workers or staff in trouble, I don’t. Really good labor lawyers help people like me with militant impulses understand when to cut the crap. The very best also know that sometimes, ignoring them is part of the organizer’s job. When an action needs to be taken right away or the union will lose, you take it and resolve the legal issue later. We were fighting a decertification effort with enormous stakes. If we lost, UHS could kick the legs out from under a plan that had taken thousands of hours to assemble. If we won, we could create unprecedented standards for workers and patients in a right-to-work state, and a presidential swing state to boot. What drives me absolutely crazy is how so often over the recent history of the movement, labor leaders have followed the letter of the law when confronting the boss while throwing the book out the window when confronting each other.

Whole thing is very much worth a read.

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  • Fascinating, a resource we all need (climate change being an emergency).

  • Hogan

    A Steelworkers local executive board once told Thomas Geoghegan, “Your job isn’t to keep us out of trouble; your job is to get us out of trouble.”

    • That’s a good one. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the attitudes of a lot of international offices these days.

      • rea

        Well, no, it’s not unfortunate. The good guys obey the law; it’s the bad guys who break it. We don’t need more lawbreaking; we need better enforcement.

        • That’s a pretty naive view of the law.

          • rea

            Jeez, 35 years in practice and I get told that I have a naive view of the law.

            No, it’s a necessary view of the law, if we are going to have a decent society in which to live, and if we are going to complain when the other side breaks the law. And note, you are not talking about King/Gandhi/Thoreau civil disobedience here, which is another thing entirely.

            • mpowell

              It’s not your view of the law I would consider niave. It’s your view of the benefit of people following the advice of conservative legal counsel that I would consider naive.

        • Hogan

          Doesn’t that depend on how good the law is?

        • Bill Murray

          or better laws. But for labor, the laws are written by the other side, so obeying the laws will lead towards destroying labor

          • Also, conservative judges have little problem with ignoring/reading incredibly ridiculous interpretations of the law when they can use it to their corporate masters’ advantage. There’s no sense playing the sucker’s game of agreeing to obey every and all laws to the letter when the law is explicitly unfair.

  • firefall

    awesome excerpt, that’s a book I gotta have

  • Murc

    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.

    … wait, what?

    This doesn’t make sense to me.

    “Where did you obtain this information?”

    “It’s in the public record. Someone walked into a courthouse and looked through the publicly available records.”

    Or even:

    “Where did you obtain this information?”

    “We hired a PI to investigate the dirtbag union-buster, and we’re proud of it.”

    They “couldn’t” say where they obtained it… why now?

    • Hogan

      They got the guy’s full name by illegally crashing a meeting on company property.

      • Pestilence

        It’s by no means clear that they illegally participated, but it would get them dragged into a legal sewer that would have defeated their purpose (at least to my reading)

        • DocAmazing

          Solution: leak the info anonymously to one reporter, assuring him/er that if the story didn’t show up in the paper tout suite, it would be leaked to another. (Working with the nurses’ union, I have found that reporters are often quite useless at complex stories, especially those involving healthcare, but they do hate to be scooped.)

          • Although this assumes that any reporters would give a shit. Maybe in a union city as robust as Las Vegas there’s someone out there who would run with it. But I’m skeptical.

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