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Hard Bargaining in Las Vegas Hospitals - pt 4/8

The story of big open bargaining and revitalizing the nurses union in Las Vegas. Jane McAlevey joins Paul Jay on Reality Asserts Itself.

TRANSCRIPT:

Paul Jay 

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to theAnalysis.news. Please don’t forget the donate button. In fact, we have a $2,000 matching grant campaign on. A generous donor put up the 2K, and we have a few weeks to match it. So, if you’ve been kind of holding off to donate for a matching grant, well, here it is. If you’ve actually never considered donating, well, maybe after watching this interview, you will. So, I’ll be back in a second with the person I call one of the world’s foremost organizer of organizers, Jane McAlevey.

So, this is a continuation of my series of interviews with Jane McAlevey, that focus on the lessons and experiences that helped shape her worldview and built her approach to organizing workers. Jane’s the author of several books, including Raising Expectations and Raising Hell, which was named the most valuable book in 2012 by Nation Magazine. She has organized tens of thousands of workers and union organizers. If you want to know more about Jane, well, start watching this series from part one because it starts as a biographical story. Thanks very much for joining me, Jane.

Jane McAlevey

Always a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Paul Jay 

So, we left off the last segment talking about how union leaders, on the whole, not all, but many, and most don’t really trust their own workers. I’ve covered strikes where you talk to workers on the picket line and I, as a journalist, know far more about what’s going on with the negotiations than the people actually manning the picket lines. You’ve gone quite the other way. You’ve got something called big— let me get it right, big open bargaining, which essentially invites all the workers to join the bargaining committee. Which I think most union leaders would think is a completely insane idea.

Jane McAlevey

Yes. 

Paul Jay 

So how did you come up with that, and what’s been the experience?

Jane McAlevey

Yeah, there is so much that’s important and exciting to say about big and open negotiations. It’s hard to know where to start, but where it began for me was my training. Like most things, it starts with some training I got. So, the union that I come out of, 1199 New England, is a union whose constitution explicitly says the members of the union have the right to any and all important meetings in the lives of the members. Well, that includes negotiations. That’s just a constitutional principle in our union’s constitution, and again, when I began there, I was young. I didn’t quite realize until I left, that wasn’t the norm when I went out into the rest of the United States trade union movement and now—

Paul Jay 

Just quickly. The union was what kind of workplace?

Jane McAlevey

Health care workers.

Paul Jay 

Health care workers.

Jane McAlevey

Mostly what we would call long-term care, nursing home workers, long-term care workers, home health care aid, etcetera, and some hospital workers, so the principle was that was the first time I ever did negotiations. I had been attending many negotiations with workers when we were organizing, and then at some point, the leader of the union said, McAlevey— always my last name. McAlevey, time to start negotiating. Okay? With very little training, which is a little bit different than the way I teach staff I work with and or members. It was sort of like trial by fire, that’s training in the old school way. Just take the workers, figure out what they want, and go to the table. Okay.

So, I had attended enough negotiations with one of my main mentors from that union to understand that the bigger the committee, the better. You want to have at least one worker who represents each different type of classification, each shift because they have different experiences, and they represent different workers in a facility. So, the principle was for sure that they were open to all members. That was a principle. The practice, in reality, was that we had what I would now call big committees. We rarely had, like, big, big, big committees. So that’s what I learned.

Paul Jay 

Wait, hold on a minute. Big, big, big means hundreds? 

Jane McAlevey

When I say big, big, big, I mean I bring hundreds into the room at a time, and it’s quite an experience for the employers. I mean, I’m interested in the experience it is for the workers, which is incredible, and it’s incredibly painful for the employers, which is perfect for me. It’s great for the workers, painful for the employers. It’s a perfect combination. 

So, essentially when I moved to the state of Nevada, which we call a right-to-work-for-less state in the United States, meaning it’s got very repressive anti-worker— not a lot of the United States has anti-worker laws, and then some States have even worse laws. So, Nevada is one such state where members don’t have to join the union. They can quit anytime. The laws about striking are horrible. The laws about political contributions are horrible. Very restrictive. I mean, they do everything they can to stop workers from forming strong unions.

I moved out from the northeast of the United States in a very good union. Not quite realizing how great the union was, to Nevada and now I’m hired as the Statewide Executive Director in a state where, I’ll just say, the language of the constitution was very much that the executive director of the union really had the sort of legal authority and technical authority. For example, I was Chief Negotiator and Chief Spokesperson. We can come back to that a different day. Is that the right structure? But that’s typical of a lot of public-sector unions in the United States. 

So, I’m like, great, one of my subtitles is Chief Negotiator. I need to start thinking a lot more so than I did back in New England, where the laws are quite a bit more favourable to a union. On a comparison, I should say— so I get there and right away find out that the union there is about to get destroyed into big hospitals. The only two big hospitals it really had unionized because they had met the minimum legal threshold to get ready for negotiations, meaning they filed a legal piece of paper. So many bureaucratic steps in the United States. It’s so Byzantine. It’s true in most unions, but the legal process is super Byzantine. 

When I got there, I realized that they had filed the legal paperwork to reopen two big contracts. The same owner of two different hospitals, but no one had done anything, and I mean, like, nothing. There had been nothing done except filing the legal paperwork, which must happen. 

Here’s the exact law in the United States before you start negotiations. Successor of the negotiations, meaning the workers already have a union. The law is, within the period between 90 and 120 days, the union shall notify the employer of their intent to bargain. If you miss what’s called the 30-day window, you’re done. So, they’d met the legal deadline.

Paul Jay 

What does it mean you’re done?

Jane McAlevey

You can just— the employer can roll the contract over on you. You can have no negotiations; that’s how legalized the process is. So this union, which was in very big trouble when they hired me, which is why they hired me. The union had been doing concession bargaining. Just rampant concession bargaining, meaning they hadn’t won anything in years. They had been giving things up left, right in every bargaining session they went to for all the different workers they had. And so I’m thinking to myself, jeez, we literally have contracts about to expire. 

One of the first things that I’m told by one of the smart members who I meet, long time members of one of these two hospitals, and it’s probably my fifth day as Executive Director. A nurse comes bursting into our office and says, there’s a decertification petition floating in the hospital. A decertification petition, of course, is when the workers— I’ll just be polite and say when the workers want to get rid of a union. Though truthfully, it’s almost always the United States-inspired boy by an anti-union consultant who’s been brought in. You’re always going to find one angry worker no matter where you are. So, they go find one angry worker, and they start to move a petition to decertify an existing union. 

So I’m being overwhelmed by all sorts of info, but this is what forces me into this method of negotiations, which I then adopted, and now I’ve standardized. And now I’ve finally written a report which I think will be a book soon laying out exactly how you transition from the way most unions negotiate, which is a teeny committee, not elected, behind closed doors, with gag rules, so that you walk onto as a journalist, walk onto the site, as you said, and it doesn’t surprise me at all. You know more than the workers do about their own negotiations. That makes me so angry. I’m just containing my anger listening to you say it and also realizing how true it is. So, I hear this, and I think to myself, oh, my God. 

Now, if you look, there are all these timelines; if we don’t quote, unquote, open the tables. Meaning, actually, just start the negotiations; we’re risking a failure of the next timeline, which means the employer can file an unfair labour practice charge against us for refusal to bargain because we’ve set no dates. We’ve done nothing.

So, I am scrambling. We’ve got mostly no staff, some staff and firing competent. I mean, it was a very bad— it was just not a well-run union. So, I have nothing to work with, but I have to do what I know how to do best. It turns out, which is rely on workers. Remember, okay, I have no staff for the situation, but I’ve got a couple thousand really smart registered nurses and technologists who can save a patient. They’re going to figure this out with me. So, I’m super open. Day five, I say, I just tell this nurse, get everyone together. Let’s call a mass meeting. Call everyone. She’s like, call everyone? I’m just like, call every single person you know. This is before social media. Just before the ubiquity of social media. I say, call everybody. This is the early 2000s. Get everyone you know. Who do you know at the other hospital? She’s like, I know a few of them. Great. Call them. I said, just get everybody. We pick a time for a few days later, and I’m like, we literally have to go to the bargaining table with something and then we can make a plan, but we have to legally do something. 

So, fast forward, I say, bring everyone you know to this meeting. Seven workers out of several thousand showed up. That’s the condition of the union. Okay, several workers. Seven. Count them out of several thousand. So I walk into this room ready for some 50, 60, 70, person turn out because there’s a few thousand workers, and that’s what I’m used to. There’s seven beleaguer, tired, exhausted nurses and a couple of technicians who are there, and I have to keep a happy face on because I walk in, and I’m trying not to look disappointed. And I’m like, well, this is so great to meet you all. I’m the new Executive Director and Chief Negotiator. Let’s hear if you could change three things in this contract. I want to go around, tell me your name, what you do in the hospital, and at least one thing, if not three things that you want to change.

I get a flip chart out. I start flip charting, and they’re all like, none of this is going to work, like, right out of their mouths. We’re not ready, and there’s going to be a decert, and we’re going to go down. They were so beleaguered. And I said, okay, enough of that. Well, let’s get to the plan later. I just want to know what three things you would each change about the hospital, and I say this because it’s the most important thing I’ve said my whole life. What are three things you would change if you could about work tomorrow? That single question sets up every organizing conversation of my life because workers have an answer to that question. If you say, what are your issues? What do you and your co-workers care about? What three things would you change tomorrow if you could do it?

So, they go around the room. I just get them talking, which is my job as an organizer. I’m trying to get them talking. So, I get them talking, and I’m hearing staff in crisis, mandatory overtime, and too much call time. Fast forward, I say, so this is terrific. We have a lot of work to do because seven of you came, but I’m going to set a date with the employer for next week if that’s okay. I just want to find a day that works for all seven of you because if we don’t have a negotiations date in about a week, we’re going to be legally dinged in a big way, and we don’t want that right now. So, they’re like, we’re not ready. I said, I know we’re not ready, but opening the negotiations is going to force us to get ready. So, then I say, by the way, invite everyone. And then the shock began in the room, and they said, no, no. Do you mean to a meeting? I said, no, no, I mean to negotiations. And they were like, members? All the members? And I said, absolutely, but by the way, I just looked at the number of members in this union; I actually mean all the workers covered by the contract. Invite anyone and everyone.

That led to this huge debate in the room. Well, why would a non-member be allowed to come? I said because they’re about 70% of your hospital. At this point, there’s only about 25% or 26% of you who are paying dues.

Paul Jay 

Okay, let me just— just to remind viewers that didn’t get it in the beginning. We’re in a right-to-work state, so you can actually work there without having to be a member of the union, but you’re going to involve people who aren’t paying dues into the union in the negotiation?

Jane McAlevey

Yes, which is so radical that the long-time nurses are freaking out, and they’re actually challenging. Am I legally allowed to do that? Because they’ve never heard of it. It’s just a genuine question. They’re like, are you allowed to do that? And I was like, you’re allowed to do that. Yes, you’re allowed to do that. It’s your negotiations, and you have the right under U.S. labour law to invite any worker you want. And they were like, but we always did it this different way with just a few of us and paid time and blah, blah, blah and blah, blah, blah. And I said, okay, well, that apparently wasn’t working, so let’s try something radically different.

Sure enough, we do some more prep work, they drag me into the hospitals, I meet a few people, and I say to them, just get me the best nurses. Just get me the person considered the best nurse in every unit; that’s who I want to meet. And they’re like, well, they all hate the union. I said I understand they think they hate something called the union, but they’re not going to hate themselves. Once the union becomes themselves, they’re not going to hate. Unless they hate themselves, this is not going to be a problem. Trust me. So sure enough, this is how it all begins, and it blew the socks off every worker who showed up to the first meeting, which is probably honestly what I expected from that first meeting is what showed up at negotiations.

The very first session we invited— it was only for one. The employer would only let us bargain one hospital time, even though they own both because they were union busting jerks. But I still said, bring as many nurses from both hospitals as you can, and they’re like, again, are we allowed? The number of times that the nurses themselves asked me if this allowed was so telling about how much control there had been in the union in their lives before I got there. I kept saying, yes, you are allowed to make these decisions to bring everybody. 

So, after that first session with probably 60 or 70 people, which that employer had never seen, the word— we took pictures of everyone, we took quotations about what issue they wanted to change at the hospital. Then we put out, as part of the method, this very simple flyer in both the hospitals, “Negotiations open with worker demands,” with a picture of all the workers in the room. That was it. 

Suddenly, there were people calling the office, coming into meetings, freaking out like we had no idea. Are you going to make us sign a membership card to come next time? And I was like, no, but I do hope that you will eventually but let’s just keep focusing on how you’re going to win the things you need. Again, I hinted at a later discussion. Let’s focus on what you need. I’m not going to lay into them about paying dues when they hate their union. Let’s focus on winning the things you need, and we’ll get to a discussion about membership when that time is appropriate. This turned into what’s become now a really serious method. Each negotiation I’ve done over the last 20 years, I think, it gets better and better each time because—

Paul Jay 

Let me just get back to that. So how do you deal with the fact— so let me just get the picture first of all.

Jane McAlevey

Yeah.

Paul Jay 

Sixty, 70 workers, and the employers in a room.

Jane McAlevey

Yeah. 

Paul Jay 

I guess you’re not all at one table with that many people but, —

Jane McAlevey

We were. Actually, I have great pictures of those. I have great pictures from all of them because we always document them.

Paul Jay 

So what do you do when some workers don’t agree with other workers, and they start arguing in front of the employers?

Jane McAlevey

Yeah. Great.

Paul Jay 

It must happen.

Jane McAlevey

Yeah. No, so here’s the amazing thing. It’s never happened in my entire life. That’s both true, and that’s where we finished off last time about the control of worker issue. This is what— this is part of why I love this work so much. To a person that I described this to if they’re in union leadership for a long time, they will say to me, well, how do you control the workers and the employers when they all start screaming? And I say to them, one thing we know about me is I don’t lie. Whether that’s good or bad in terms of what national labor leaders think about my

[inaudible 00:20:17], but I don’t lie. I don’t have the capacity to lie. So, it’s a really true statement that never in my entire life as a negotiator, which is now two decades, have I ever had a worker break ranks when the boss was in the room.

The first method we adopted at that very opening session, and I was kind of making it up as I was going at that point. I had called back to my trainer, my negotiator or leader who’s now retired, to say, I don’t know, there might be 50, 60, or 70 in the room coming. I’m not sure, but I’m trying to figure out, and he’s like, just establish rules for the room that the workers agreed to. So, we made up rules for the room. I’ll send these to you because they’re big and we put them on hand placards. There’s a whole system now for this, but it’s called the three rules for the room when the employer is present. I said to the workers, we can throw chairs at each other if you want when the boss isn’t there. I don’t really care, but— I’m not encouraging that, but like, literally, whatever we do in caucus time is fine; however, there’s one condition on you entering the room. When you enter the room, you must sign the three rules of negotiations when the employers are in the room. 

The sign-in system we created at that very first one; there was so little trust that I said to the nurses and to the technologists when people sign-in— we created a sign-in sheet, and I said, you’ll staff the doors to the room. Meaning it’s a worker-on-worker accountability system, so no union staff involved. Start there. I said to the workers, as a worker is coming into the room, you’ll have a little handout that explains the three rules in case they haven’t come to a meeting before. It was new then. So, if they haven’t been to one of our meetings, you’re going to step outside. You’re going to ask them to sign in on the sign-in sheet, and on the sign-in sheet in big print, it says, by signing this document, I agree to abide by the rules of the room set by the workers when the employer is present.

Those three rules were, one, no one talks with the Chief Negotiator unless it’s planned, and there’s a lot of it. There’s a lot of workers talking, but it’s strategic to say unless it’s planned because that’s one of the three ways that it helps the room stay together and unified. The second is, pass a note to the negotiator absolutely, anytime. If you think the employer lied, if you think she misspoke, send a note to her. Thirdly, anytime you want to speak or call for a caucus, just pass a note to the negotiator to say, I want to have a break to talk about what we just said across the table.

I’ll tell you how they evolved over the years, but that was the starting point of the three rules of the room when the employer was present. Because it was paired with a worker-on-worker accountability system where we would send the workers to the doors, pull someone outside, quiz them by saying do you know the three rules in the room are when the employer is present? I would say when the boss is present, and if they said yes, our team was trying to ask them what they were. Either way, they had to sign off each time they came to negotiations, saying, I agree to the three rules of the room when the employer is present. So, that being done by workers with other workers when they walked in, and who they knew. I’m absolutely convinced, 20 years later, creates a kind of an accountability system towards people’s behaviour that’s very different than if I tried to impose something like that on people.

Paul Jay 

That means you must have had, before you went into the room, hashed out quite a bit of stuff to decide who’s going to speak because it had to be planned. You have to agree to this plan.

Jane McAlevey

Well, not for that very first one. There wasn’t that much planned, except that people would not speak unless spoken to, and there was one other thing we did. We had enough time. I had like that seven, and by then, I had about twelve. In the one week that happened, I had, like, twelve that I’d met that I felt were reliable, were good, were solid, would not go off on a kind of a tangent, that were serious nurses about what they wanted to change.

I had the seven of them make a PowerPoint presentation across the table about what the demands were, and I kept them big because we hadn’t done a contract. We didn’t have time to do any of the things I would normally do, but we had to literally open it before, I think, it was the end of February. We had to have a date, or we were going to get dinged on a legal timeline. So I said, we’re not going to put anything across the table at the opening session. You’re going to make a giant presentation on the demands of the workers. We’re going to formally open negotiations, and we’re going to set some subsequent dates with the employer in the room, and that’s going to get us past this legal hurdle. That would be enough to satisfy the law. 

You’re going to lay out a vision and a core set of demands. We want better staffing in every unit. How many? We’re like, we’ll get back to you. We’re still working on our numbers. So they made big— less over time, less on-call time, and I had them tell more stories. So it was a storytelling session because we didn’t have proposals, really.

So I said, I think I put across— I had to put across something, and it was for a 10% raise in each year of the contract. Just to give me wiggle room and just say something went across the table. Ten percent in year one and 10% in year two. Who’s going to argue with that? No worker. Okay, great. So, I think we met, like, the basics of the law, but we had them make a presentation. I also said, when the employer walks in the room, each and every one of you will say your name, how long you’ve been a nurse or technologist not just at this hospital, but I want you to say at this hospital, but also in the scheme of your life. So who you are. Again, that ate up the first hour. So, we were just going through the clock and torturing the boss, by the way. I said to them, and the last person who goes, which we had set up as this nurse, Nancy, who I remember really well because she was ballsy. She had chutzpah.

I had Nancy set up to go last. Whoever went first, Nancy knew she was last. Nancy was with a calculator tallying the hours of experience that the workers had. When I got to Nancy, Nancy said— Nancy was an open-heart nurse. Super skilled, open-heart surgery nurse, and she said, well, my name is Nancy. I’ve been working as a nurse for 32 years, but in the room, as you’ve just heard, there was something like we have an excess of 579 years of experience in this room.

It was like you could just hear a pin drop if it hit the floor, and the employer, who had tried to interrupt several times. My only job was to shut him up, the union-busting lawyer. Then I said, you’re going to have plenty of time to speak, but right now the workers are going to speak, they’re going to make the presentation, and they’re going to do the introductions because apparently, you haven’t met most of them. In fact, you haven’t met any of them, right? Because I knew he was an out-of-town union-buster who had just flown in from San Francisco. We were in Vegas, and when we finished that, we had total control of the room already. We had total control of the room. I think the employer table was terrified, even just from that opening.

Paul Jay 

I was about to say before all this began, they thought this union was ready to shoot itself down out of its misery. Please kill me. All of a sudden, they have, never mind, a union that’s alive; they had something no one ever heard of before.

Jane McAlevey

Yeah, and in fact, the lawyer said across the table, which was both a great thing to say and showed how unprepared he was. At the end of the opening session, he said, I’ve never had an experience like this in my life. Every single nurse that was at the opening session, that was seared into their brain for the rest of my several years— because we went back to the table again and what would become the famous Vegas Wars, the first strikes in the Valley, and all that stuff. Actually, the whole first book is really about this story. I unfold the story of the war in these hospitals, which by round two when they’re ready for us because it was a two-year contract. By the way, we won the 10 and 10 raises.

Paul Jay 

You did?

Jane McAlevey

We won many—

Paul Jay 

You pulled that number right out of your, excuse me, rear end, and you won it?

Jane McAlevey

Well, we settled on what’s called Min-10 Max, Min-5-Max-10 for each year of the contract, and the language was by the end of the contract; every single worker would be on a brand-new wage scale that we passed. So, we won their first-ever wage scale and some nurses, the favourites, in some ways, were above it already. So, for those above this scale, what’s called above the wage scale, nurses were like, well, you’re not going to punish them. They’ve got to get a raise, too, but they’re going to get less of a raise. For the workers who were way behind doing minimums and maximums, this is a way that you end a fight with a very abusive employer.

The theory that I was taught as a negotiator in New England was the way you get unity is to bring them all together under one wage scale. So, they didn’t have a wage scale, which is— I do a lot of first contracts, so I was very used to this. I wasn’t used to this in a successor agreement. I’m like, where’s the wage scale? When I picked up their contract, I was like, where’s the wage scale in this contract? They’re like, wage scale? We don’t have one of those. The boss just pays you whatever they want to pay you the day you get hired, and I was like, oh, my God. So, this is their third contract, and they had never even heard of a wage scale. I was like, oh, this is a really anti-union State. We have a lot of work to do here.

So, they won their first wage scales. It was blood-curdling. There was a lot— it was the first strike votes in the history of Nevada, in the hospitals. People know that the casino union has done some good strikes, but there had never been a health care strike in Nevada’s history. So that very first time, by trusting the workers, by just walking in with me having no idea really what was going to happen but faith that the basic rules that were laid out that the workers had agreed anyone could come as long as they themselves abided by the rules. Then it would take it from there. 

It played out that I learned so many lessons from that one running by the seat of my pants, absolutely no preparation and no choice because it wasn’t my fault that there had been no preparation. I’d just been hired. So out of that one early experience with bringing all the workers in the room, I cannot tell you how many different things I learned besides that, we just kicked ass in terms of what we wanted. 

Paul Jay 

So, what are the critical things that you learn that you developed in the future from there? 

Jane McAlevey

Yeah. So, one is we’re a little refined on what the three rules are. They’re the same. We have this system down very, very well. Sort of like the palm-sized card that fits in your hand that you get handed that’s in red when you walk in that you sign off on, but I would say the model evolved in a lot of ways. So one is, even though I believe in open negotiations and I actively practice it, meaning everyone who’s covered by the contract can come, what I did learn, again, subsequent to that shit show— that’s how it began. It was crazy what we were doing. We had no preparation. 

In the course of my four years in Nevada, where we would organize the whole state. We had nine out of 10 nurses in the union by the time I left the state. That’s the highest nurse union density in the United States of America because we organized off that 10 and 10 raise. The phone was ringing off the hook.

When union leaders asked, like, well, how did you organize all those workers? It’s like, why don’t you try winning a great contract that everyone’s involved in, and the word is going to just spread. I mean, when the headlines, because we had gone to a strike vote. Serious strike vote. Serious countdown. In health care law in the United States, you have to give ten days’ notice. So those two contracts went down, three in a ten-day count down to their first strike in the history of Nevada. 

We had, like, TV cameras parked outside our headquarters. At that point, no one ever heard of nurses going on strike. In 2004, no one had ever heard of this before. It was completely crazy to me that I came from Connecticut, where we would strike every two years just because we thought it was good practice.

Anyway, so there we were with media cameras parked outside the offices, journalists pulling up outside the negotiations room, hundreds of workers pouring in by the end for negotiations, the local media had— we have video footage of this, they had countdown clocks going on all three of the major stations at the time. It’s day nine. It’s day eight. It’s day seven. Will there be the first strike in Nevada in the hospitals? It was literally crazy. It’s a low bar for getting media attention; I’ll just say, in retrospect but a smaller media market that I’m used to New England.

The lessons were, over the four years, we would involve a system where we would elect a very big, elect keyword, which was then just supplemented by the open negotiations method. I really wanted to be sure that there were workers from every single shift, every single unit, and every type of worker. Remember, we were going for whole hospital negotiations so they would get bigger, and bigger, and crazier, and crazier.

We had everyone from the dietary workers, the cooks, usually black in America and usually the basement of every hospital. It’s the most stratified racial thing ever. All you have to do is look at the American healthcare system, hospitals in particular, and watch racism in the United States. Black workers are in the basement cooking food. Latino workers are hired to do the cleaning jobs, except the sterilization level of cleaning. Filipino nurses in the lower-level jobs. Nurses of colour who are immigrants in the sort of general medical-surgical units. Then a powerhouse bunch of white nurses at the top of the food chain in the surgery rooms and then the ICUs.

I mean, that’s how it was when I got there. It changed, by the way, because of fairness, the wage scale, promotions, and a lot of work we did, but it was extraordinary. If you think about how many different kinds of workers there are, you want to select a committee that represents every single kind of work going on, plus every shift, because what’s happening on the night shift is very different than what’s happening on the day shift. 

So one is, hold elections for the negotiations. It’s going to get you different kinds of workers. A lot of unions rely on, like, the constitution says, the president, the vice president, the shop steward, blah, blah. There’s all these rules and some union constitution about who goes to the bargaining team, and they’re small. Our constitution in Nevada had some of that language, but it was like five people. They were all beyond paid release time in the public sector, but not paid release time. Meaning that they had to do it on their own volunteer time in the private sector.

We learned that we should elect committees and elect very, very big committees: one kind of worker from every single unit and every shift in the hospital. 

The reason I like elections is because it brings a very different kind of worker to the table. The kind of worker who’s often a very good worker, who’s very serious about making changes in the facility, and I have to say, as a generality in my life, a different kind of worker than a worker who wants to be a shop steward. This is not a downgrading of any position at all, but somebody who wants to be a shop steward, one of their jobs is to represent workers under the contract in grievance handling.

My life experience tells me that a lot of the best workers don’t have a lot of patience for that. It’s just not— they don’t want to read contracts, they don’t want to become junior lawyers, not in the health care setting. They’re not interested in being a junior lawyer. They’re interested in actually nursing. They’re not going to spend their time becoming contract experts, that they’re happy to spend time winning a great contract, and they are often the natural leaders of the workplace. They’re the ones who really want to make real improvements. So, when you elect a whole new group of people just for one purpose, which is to become a negotiator that your co-workers have elected to represent in the negotiations. Even if they can all come, which they can, it puts up a very different worker. Who stands for those elections is very different than who wants to become a shop steward. 

Let’s be honest. Most shop stewards are like who’s left last in the room because that’s who someone’s going to grab and make a shop steward. Who’s going to be the shop steward in our unit? It’s a joke; who’s left in the room when you ask that question, and then they’re appointed by some bureaucratic process, and then they become a shop steward— electing a negotiations team if you’ve done contract survey work. Okay, that becomes the next part of the method. 

We essentially do huge contract surveys that we take very, very seriously. These are not throw-away contract surveys, which most unions do. That’s being perfectly honest about it. If a Union puts out a contract survey, especially these days, they throw it up online. They invite anyone to fill it in. They might look at it. They might not. They don’t really care. They already have some preset low-balled expectations of what they’re going to take to the negotiations, and that’s what happens. 

So, we began to make the contract survey process very serious. By very serious, it had to be done through one-on-ones. Even now, with today’s technology, I will not do a contract survey online. No way in hell, because it’s the leaders going around to have a one-on-one conversation which begins the political education process about what negotiations are, who your employer is, and who your employer is connected to in the world. That’s what the opportunity begins with thousands and thousands of one-on-one conversations.

Paul Jay 

I got to just make a note here for people that have not worked in a unionized shop or place of work, which is actually in the U.S. the majority of people. What you’re talking about is so radically different. I mean, I do a survey when I go into some of the bigger grocery chains in the U.S., which are organized, and I play this game when I check out. I say, do you know the name of your union?

Jane McAlevey

Yes. 

Paul Jay 

And I would guess six, seven out of 10 can’t even tell me what union they’re in. Now, if they do know the name of the union, my next question is, do you know who your steward is? That’s another six, seven out of 10 who can’t remember the name of the person who’s the steward. 

Jane McAlevey

Absolutely.

Paul Jay 

So, what you’re talking about is like a different world.

Jane McAlevey

It is a different world, and what we show in the new report that we’ve written called, Turning the Tables, Power and Participation in Negotiations because it’s a series of recent under [Donald] Trump case studies. Different than all my other books. My life goal is just to keep showing how winning works. So this new report shows four unions winning like crazy under Trump. Again, at another time when national unions were saying, well, we can’t really win right now. Conditions are pretty hard out there. This new report is four case studies of workers just bringing it home by using big and open negotiations, and several of them going to big strikes.

That’s the case studies in the new report where I finally write all this up. The stuff I’m going to wrap down with you right now is— finally, I had a bunch of people, mostly ranking file leaders around the world, saying, damn it, write it up already. It’s a lot to remember all these steps we have to do, write it up. So, I finally wrote it all up, but some of what came out of the Nevada years were the shift to the huge contract surveys. We would say we’re not going to go to the negotiations table until at least 75% of all the workers have actually done a one-on-one, interviewed someone else about what they want in the negotiations, filled it in, and handed it in.

Paul Jay 

You must have a team doing the interviews?

Jane McAlevey

Yeah. Huge teams, but those are worker teams. So, it’s a worker-on-worker process. We train the worker leaders in a handful of steps, like, the best way to have the conversation and then there are hundreds and hundreds of workers going out to interview thousands of their co-workers about the changes they want unit by unit. Then we begin to incentivize the process by saying, we’re going to hold rolling elections. Once one unit hits 75%, they’re going to hold their election, and we’re going to announce the main person, the alternate, the night shift, and the alternate. Then we started to add a day shift, the night shift per unit, and then an official alternate in case they couldn’t get out of work that day so that there was an alternate who was just as ready to go. 

That’s four people per unit. In big hospitals, you’re already getting up to a 100-person committee minimum. The rolling elections part came in places where workers felt beleaguered or like, they could never do it. They’d say, can’t we just settle for 50% because we’re never going to hit 75%, and I was like, yeah, no. Yes, you can and no. Then I just had to wait for one unit to do it. Usually a stronger unit, but once one unit hit 70% of one-on-ones and submitted all their data, we would publicize that the elections were on in the intensive care unit. We would show who was standing for office. They would have to have nomination forms, no less than, I forget what percent, I think, 30% of the unit had to at least sign the petition for them to stand for office.

Now you’re getting it real by and that these people care about this person as someone who will stand for election. Again, all these positions are usually the last ones standing in the room. Do you know what I mean? So, we made elections to the negotiations team exciting and competitive with people actually vying for who would have the trust of their co-workers in that unit to be at the negotiation table. 

Again, even though they all know they can be there at the end of the day, you need a big committee who will consistently be there. We might bring in hundreds and hundreds to have a debate about the pension, or a fight about the staffing standards, or fill in a hot issue, safety in the emergency department, big issues in every emergency department. On big important topics, we might flood the place with hundreds of workers, but we wanted big committees, representative committees. The idea of the ruling elections was as soon as you announce with a picture and quote with three or four people saying, ICU is ready to go. We’ve elected our committee and flooded the hospital. Suddenly, the pressure was on every unit, like, well, that unit did it. Let’s get it together here. 

Paul Jay 

Let’s revisit this first Nevada experience, so everybody gets the significance of this. You go to a union that’s brain dead practically, and through this process, you have a union that’s not just willing but ready to go on strike and ready to win a strike.

Jane McAlevey

That was in five months.

Paul Jay 

That’s incredible. That’s a complete transformation because, as you’ve told me, you don’t win a strike unless you have a serious majority buying it. Especially, and I think this, really people know this, but I’ll say it anyway, I don’t know if there’s any workplace outside of hospitals, maybe a fire department or something, where you can get so much public media pressure not to strike.

Jane McAlevey

That’s right. Yeah. Well, and education, too. All the fields I work in, and all the so-called caring professions, which is its own genderized language, but the mission-driven, female-dominated professions are all ones where there’s pressure not to strike. What was amazing to me, the reason why my first book focused on those two hospitals, that opening negotiations, and then on the war that happened in round two is that what we didn’t realize was after we cleaned the employer’s clock in that first round, my first negotiations in Nevada, they went out and hired the top union buster in the United States and came back determined to teach us a lesson.

Once again, we would go on to kick their ass. That’s almost the whole book. It’s just stories about that employer and that set of hospitals because it was unbelievable how ferocious the round two negotiations became two years later. So, we called it the War in Vegas, which we won, meaning the workers won. The hardest campaign I’ve ever probably led in my life was that employer coming back to teach us a lesson after being humiliated with 10% raises, staffing standards, fully employer-paid health care, and fill in the blank. The contract we won had to double the cost of the employer, like literally double it. 

All of it was going on good instinct, trusting workers’ intelligence, trusting them in a way that they understood that trust was being given to them in a serious way. I think that’s where the responsibility and why no workers have ever had an outburst in negotiations in my whole life. You’re saying we’re going to treat everyone in this room as equals and seriously as grownups. In exchange for the right to be in your negotiations, which you’ve never been in, what we expect is for you to honour the responsibilities and the codes that your co-workers who are on the elected committee have determined, which is the three rules of negotiations when the boss is in the room. That’s the only rule. The rules we had for ourselves.

Paul Jay 

Alright, so we’re going to continue this discussion in the next segment. So please join us for that and thank you again, Jane.

Jane McAlevey

Always a pleasure to be here sharing the knowledge that we’ve learned from workers themselves.

Paul Jay 

Cool. So, thanks for joining us on theAnalysis.news. Again, please don’t forget the donate button because if you don’t do that, we can’t do this. 

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