Raising Expectations and Raising Hell by US union organiser Jane McAlevey (with Bob Ostertag). The bulk of the book is a detailed description of a few years McAlevey spent organising hospital unions in Nevada.
The leadership of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) decided to experiment with more radical and old-school tactics. McAlevey was sent to assist the troubled Nevada local hospital union which had tiny membership and terrible contracts, although the hospital companies were making huge profits from the tourist trade. Nevada is a "right to work" state where individuals can easily drop out of a union. Under the US healthcare system tourists are highly profitable if they get sick or injured, since their insurer cannot easily control costs in a distant state.
One thing I didn't realise is that some US states, e.g. New York, actually ban for-profit healthcare: it's a lot more regionalised than I thought.
McAlevey believes in "whole worker organising", which revives aspects of the start of the labour movement. Workers are considered as members of the community, which means the union has a right and duty to take action on community issues like housing; and workers can be mobilised as voters and campaigners. She starts with a "power structure analysis" of where political power lies locally: which politicians, administrators, political groups, churches and church leaders, which corporations really exercise power. Then in the hospital or firm they analyse and diagram every shift and unit and who the "organic leaders" are. It's important to distinguish the organic leaders from the "loudmouths": an organic leader is someone the other workers seek advice from. Every unit has a loudmouth who is willing to sound off about the company, but they're usually not that respected. To raise membership it's necessary to work unit by unit persuading workers to join.
One thing McAlevey pioneered was large-scale negotiations, where as many ordinary workers as possible are invited to join in negotiations, with hundreds in the room at a time. They don't just sit in, there are presentations where every worker explains one slide for what they want and why they want it. For this to work the workers have to be briefed on how to act: keep a poker face and communicate with the delegates through notes. But in Nevada this worked very well in giving workers confidence that the union actually was negotiating in their interests.
For a short time, McAlevey was incredibly successful. She raised membership in various hospitals from minimal to near-universal. She defeated "union-busters" who tried to intimidate the workers into abandoing the union. Then in contract negotiation after negotiation she secured vastly better deals, including pensions and staffing levels and on-call access.
Then things fell apart. A power struggle in the national union lost her backing. They refused to support her in calling strike votes: they wanted to make national deals with corporations who would allow more membership in exchange for no-striking. McAlevey went ahead anyway, which undermined the national union who now didn't seem able to deliver no-strike agreements.
Not only did the national union turn against her, the old guard of the local union who she had naively left in office, started to take back control. Other unions, perhaps encouraged by the national SEIU, started "raiding" their hospitals. By creaming off the the more powerful employees (nurses have more power than cleaners, porters, administrators etc) the rival unions could raise the pay of those groups while abandoning the others. A few years later, membership had collapsed once more.
The book is half-inspiring, half-depressing. McAlevey shows that despite popular wisdom it's still possible to organise workers and win, and gives a detailed picture of how it can be done. But she is also very realistic about the problems with the existing union leadership, who are often bureaucratic and focussed on infighting in their own power struggles.
Overall though, a fascinating book, definitely worth reading by anyone who's interested in unions or radical politics.
What I'm Reading 2
The Sunless Countries by Karl Schroeder. Fourth book in the Virga series of science fiction novels set in a vast, air-filled zero-gravity sphere. Meant to carry on with this series and ucblockhead reminded me of it lately.
This book lives up to the standards of the others. It takes you into a new realm of the dark areas of Virga, adds a new protagonist, develops the established characters. It's a smooth and effective way to remind you of what happened previously.
The plot is fast with plenty of action, and you get to explore this universe more, with new details revealed. Definitely a good entry in a good series. Well worth reading but best to start this series at the beginning.
Sci/Tech. It's time to kill the web:
At the end of the 1990’s a horrible realisation was dawning on the software industry: security bugs in C/C++ programs weren't rare one-off mistakes that could be addressed with ad-hoc processes. They were everywhere. People began to realise that if a piece of C/C++ was exposed to the internet, exploits would follow... The final turning point came in 2008 when Google launched Chrome, a project notable for the fact that it had put huge effort into a complex but completely invisible renderer sandbox. In other words, the industry's best engineers were openly admitting they could never write secure C++ no matter how hard they tried.Random. Twitter thread disrespecting every flag? How a woman assails a man's heart, 1730. Do Commandos Go Commando? Metal detectorists unearth unique hoard of Roman artefacts .
Articles. On the beauty and burdens of the long haul.
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