Labor legend Jerry Brown responds to critics of Jane McAlevey
This was not written for this blog, but I’ve been asked to circulate it widely. It’s a response by Jerry Brown—not the governor but the long-time leader of SEIU 1199 New England—to reviews by Steve Early and Joe Burns of Jane McAlevey’s excellent book Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), on how to revive the U.S. labor movement. Both reviews are extremely tendentious and unfair, and do not respond to Jane’s arguments at all. I am also addressing this re-post in part to all the people who’ve embraced the Early/Burns line without having read the book. My interview with Jane is here. I’ve done a little light copyediting on the piece, but nothing else.
I am writing as someone who was directly involved in the unusually effective changes led by Jane McAlevey in Local 1107, SEIU Las Vegas, and as someone who watched with real sadness the subsequent undermining and failure of that Local. I am the retired president of 1199 New England, a union of some 23,000 members with a proud history of militant rank and file activity and high standards in the public and private sector. McAlevy identifies me as one of her mentors in the labor movement and I am happy to wear that description.
I disagree with some of the examples of SEIU skullduggery recited by McAlevey—most particularly her description and demonization of Sal Rosselli and UHW under Sal’s leadership. But on most of the facts supporting her narrative, McAlevey is right on target. Yes, SEIU made private deals with national hospital chains—deals that gave away worker rights to strike and even rally. And these deals were never explained to or ratified by the members. Yes, SEIU undermined and then disrupted member activism, threatening Jane and the Local with trusteeship if it dared engage in job actions against these employers. And yes, the SEIU and the AFL-CIO failed in Florida during the 2000 presidential election and failed in any number of other crises because they did not motivate, support, or really believe in militant membership activity.
But Joe Burns and Steve Early think that somehow it is important to engage in ad hominem (I do not know the Latin for attacks on women) attacks on McAlevey rather than understanding and appreciating the unusual value added by her style of leadership. McAlevey went to Vegas to try to invigorate a moribund union in a very important growing market. She, and her staff and rank-and-file leaders were immensely successful in doing that. In an open shop state they took the dues-paying membership from 25% to over 75% in hospitals with thousands of employees. They organized numerous new units and reorganized all of the existing units. They led successful strikes and job actions, demonstrations and political campaigns. They elected hundreds of new stewards and began an intensive training program. They won a rank-and-file vote to increase the dues by a substantial amount to finance these programs and they were well on their way to consolidating and improving on these victories when they were undermined and derailed by SEIU collusion with bosses and an internal election campaign pitting holdover old guard leadership from the public sector against new, mainly Registered Nurse leadership from the private sector. The final chapter of the McAlevey work in Vegas brings no credit to her or to her opponents and the decline of the Local since then is a tragedy. But I challenge anyone to show another model of such growth and resuscitation in such a challenging open shop environment. To my knowledge such an example does not exist.
Burns and Early continually paint McAlevey as an elite stranger acting as a missionary to the working class with no real trust or belief in workers’ intelligence, initiative or courage. I observed her in Stamford, Connecticut, where she led a program that organized more than a thousand workers and developed deep and lasting ties with community leaders. Then I saw her lead a truth squad that chased Governor John Rowland all over Connecticut when we had 5,000 nursing home workers on strike and Rowland spent $30 million dollars of public money to finance scabs to try to bust our union. Then I traveled to Vegas on numerous occasions to consult with McAlevey and coach her in bargaining. I met those rank and file members. I saw their enthusiasm and drive. I saw how McAlevey and her staff treated them with profound respect. This was not top down. It was bottom up at its best. Maybe Early and Burns can’t get past the fact that McAlevey was sent to Vegas during the term of Andy Stern and therefore, in keeping with Early’s mostly correct narrative of the Stern presidency, this has to be a top down deal. The facts in this case just do not fit that narrative and if Burns and Early had approached it with an open mind they would have figured that out for themselves.
McAlevey’s book has its flaws, as most memoirs do. I have heard some critics say that the book is “all about Jane” as if a memoir should be all about someone else. I think the book is a provocative window on the labor movement and is worth a good read and a good discussion. What it does not deserve is small minded personal attacks that are not in any way grounded in reality.
I am submitting this as a review of Burns’ review of Raising Expectations and of Steve Early’s critique of McAlevey which in many ways is parroted by Burns. I served as President of 1199 New England from 1979 to November 2005. I also served as Secretary Treasurer of our National Union and then as a Vice President and Board member of SEIU. I was deeply involved in reform movements within SEIU and lost my Vice Presidency as a result. When I assumed staff leadership of 1199 in Connecticut in 1973 we had 900 members. Under my leadership and with a huge amount of help from other leaders and members we grew to 23,000 members when I retired. As a leader in our national union and in SEIU I played a role in building strong healthcare unions in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Seattle, Ohio and other places around the country.