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By Tara Ehrcke
It’s been a tough couple of decades to be a trade unionist. Since the early nineties, with Paul Martin’s cuts to transfer payments, through the Mike Harris’s assaults, to the BC Liberal’s ripping up contracts and the Harper Tories legislating them, it seems increasingly hard to find strategies that win.
Yet paradoxically, since about 2011, there has been a notable upsurge in progressive movements: teachers in Wisconsin, the squares of Egypt and Turkey, the world wide Occupy movement, the Maple Spring, Ferguson, and Burnaby mountain. These are just a handful of the recent uprisings against neoliberalism. Clearly, dissatisfaction with the status quo is rampant. So why can’t workers seem to harness this same energy?
On the worker front, the last three years in Canada have been pretty dismal. The wholesale dismantling of Canada Post, the ongoing decline of union density, increasing government intervention in contract negotiations, forced restructuring of bargaining units, tepid, long contracts mediated by Vince Ready, two tier contracts, attacks on pensions, Bill C-377, the list goes on.
Enter some optimism in the form of Jane McAlevey. During a period of general union decline, the mid 2000’s, she worked in one of the toughest right to work states to build strong unions and win good contracts. Her book provides not only a much needed dose of excitement, but also many lessons to rebuild worker power everywhere.
She takes us on a personal account of her journey through the world of the SEIU. Having come from the student and social movements, she brought with her a philosophy perfectly suited to trade unionism – an analysis of power. And she correctly sees power rooted directly in the worker. Although she only quotes Marx once, the book is a glowing example of the need for workers to take and build power themselves.
The main section of the book describes her fight in Nevada to win new certifications and new contracts in public and private sector hospitals. For any trade union activist, the little details will be an enjoyable read, and full of practical ideas to implement yourself. My favourite, and what I sense was the most powerful, was the use of very large worker bargaining teams. She describes in detail how the Nevada local built up the strength to force a thousand member, cross workplace, bargaining team on a powerful, intransigent employer.
Along the way, she outlines some very important lessons for trade unionists: the weakness of legal strategies; the importance of what she terms “whole worker” organizing, but what could be called a form of social movement unionism; the weakness of craft organizing and the sectionalism it inspires; and the dreadful and counter productive turf wars of the union bureaucrats in their endless fights for power from each other, instead of the bosses.
Every argument is made in straight forward, concrete terms. This again is especially useful for those hoping to win these same arguments in our own unions. For example, she describes the dangers of “elite” craft unions by comparing the nurse-to-patient ratios won in California, by a nurses only union, to those won in Nevada, where the whole hospital is in one local under one contract. Comparing the two, she notes: “But in our CHW contracts, we also won language prohibiting management, as they implemented our new nurse-to-patient ratios, from cutting non-nurse positions. This difference is crucial. Because the California Nurses Union was only fighting for the elite workers, the intent of the California law [to create nurse-to-patient ratios], when it took effect, was grossly undermined by hospital bosses, who gutted their ancillary staffs to pay for the additional nurses they were required to hire.” This same story is played out all the time to the detriment of us all.
There are a few ideas and opinions that will be thought provoking, to say the least. One is her attitude towards the grievance process, of which she is extremely critical. However this has to be taken in the context she found herself in – one where grievances are used by bureaucrats to build internal political power within the union. Nevertheless, as some critics have written, the grievance process is also often used as a potent tool along with organizing and many moribund unions suffer from filing too few grievances, not too many.
Also potentially controversial is her opinion on minimum wage organizing, which she considers a diversion from the immediate task of building the strength and power from a union’s base outward in stable workplaces. But it is worth thinking hard about what she is saying, particularly as we have seen the same phenomena here at home. The BC Federation of Labour’s $15/hour campaign is absolutely worthwhile and an important fight that needs labour’s support. But given the many battles labour is facing it is arguably a tangential focus away from building genuine worker power within existing unions to win gains for our members through real solidarity and action. Moreover, workers’ ultimate power is the strike in the workplace, and the yet the minimum wage campaigns have been predominantly politically based.
The one area where I do think McAlevey veers from a genuinely rank and file approach is her lack of focus on internal union democracy and acceptance of staff models of organizing. Despite her insistence on building worker power at every step, she nevertheless still sees and does this through initiation by paid organizers. Arguably, when things eventually fall apart, one factor is that not enough energy has been spent on building internal democratic processes so that the new worker leaders are able to withstand the massive onslaught from the bureaucracy to quash their power. She aptly describes the new confidence workers develop in confronting management, but not those within their own union impeding their grass-roots control. Ultimately, workers have to transform their own unions themselves, not with outsiders.
Nevertheless the book is undoubtedly a welcome breath of fresh air in a landscape where many worker activists are feeling downtrodden and unable to win. It provides both the inspiration and concrete organizing examples to inspire any activist committed to winning a better world through the power of their union.
This was originally published on Tara’s blog Staffroom Confidential