McAlevey and Miller; two books about labor

Marvin Miller was the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) from 1966 to 1982. Jane McAlevey worked for the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union for ten years, most notably as executive director of SEIU Nevada from 2004-2008.

Both led their unions to significant victories while other unions were suffering setbacks; both relied on strategies and tactics learned from labor’s radical past; and both wrote books about their experiences.

McAlevey wrote Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, recently published by Verso, and Miller, who died in November at the age of 95, wrote A Whole Different Ballgame: The Inside Story of the Baseball Revolution, published by Ivan R. Dee in 1991 and reprinted in 2004.

When a small group of aging baseball players asked Marvin Miller to become the MLBPA’s executive director, they weren’t expecting to revolutionize the basic player/owner relationship; they just wanted a better pension plan and they thought that Miller’s experience as a leading negotiator with the United Steelworkers would help them get one.

They were right. Partly because of his skill and partly because of the owners’ ineptitude, Miller won a much improved players’ pension.

But players had many other grievances, not the least of which was the fact that they were little more than commodities that be could be traded and sold at their owners’ discretion.

Miller knew that his expertise wouldn’t be enough to force owners to address these issues. Only the collective power of the players could do that, and he set out to build power using a formula that any CIO organizer in the 1930s would recognize.

Most fans think of baseball players as men playing a boy’s game, a vision endorsed and perpetuated by professional team owners for more than 130 years.

But as Miller points out, professional baseball is a business, uniquely protected from anti-trust laws and highly profitable.

Some players are multi-millionaires, but most are well-paid role players whose careers are short and whose futures uncertain after leaving the business.

Before 1975, players lacked a fundamental right that most workers take for granted. They weren’t free agents. Once they signed a contract with a team, they were bound to that team unless traded or released. There was no free labor market in baseball, or any other professional sport for that matter.

But that changed under Miller’s leadership and that change came about because Miller built an effective, powerful union based on solidarity, rank and file participation, union democracy, and militant action.

When Miller took office 1966, MLBPA was a company union. His predecessor was personal friend of some of the owners.

The first thing Miller did was to visit all the teams during Spring Training and explain that the MLBPA needed to become a real union that bargained collectively.

One player asked if doing so might lead to a strike. Miller knew that most players opposed striking, but he instead of equivocating, he answered frankly. “Yes,” he said. “It might.” Then he went on to explain that a strike, though always a last resort, was the foundation of power that made employers take their employees’ concerns seriously.

Miller also encouraged members to participate actively in union affairs.

During the especially tense collective bargaining negotiations of 1976, he urged players to attend the negotiations, which many did.

“Attending (the negotiation sessions) day after day turned many of the players from interested spectators into hard-core union supporters,” wrote Miller.

When negotiations broke down, and the owners locked out the players, the players who attended the negotiation sessions played an important role in maintaining player solidarity, which forced the owners to sign off on an historic agreement that protected the players’ free agency.

(An arbitrator in 1975 ruled that players were free agents when their contracts expired. The arbitration process was won through a previous collective bargaining agreement.)

Miller also emphasized the importance of solidarity.

When the first collective bargaining negotiations between players and owner got underway, Miller urged players to make raising the minimum salary, which at the time was $6,000 a year, a priority issue, but some players balked. They argued that the minimum salary only affected a few first-year players, so why make it a priority.

Miller responded that when players only look out for their individual interests, they don’t have the power to take on management. When veterans stand with rookies and high paid player stand with low paid players, they do. The players responded by voting to make raising the minimum salary a priority.

The first collective bargaining agreement raised the minimum salary to $10,000 a year. By the time Miller retired in 1982, the minimum salary increased to $33,500. During his tenure, the median player salary also increased from $21,750 in 1970 to $170,900.

The MLBPA accomplished quite a bit during Miller’s leadership, but nothing was more important than the strike victory of 1981. Just as in 1976, owners were trying to derail free agency.

They forced a strike thinking that players would cave in quickly, and the owners could then regain the control that they once enjoyed.

But the players remained united. Scores of players had nothing to gain personally from the strike, writes Miller. “But there were veterans on every team who remembered  how it used to be, and the role of union solidarity in changing things.” Their leadership helped maintain the solidarity that won the strike and protected free agency for current and future players.

The players’ victory came at about the same time that President Reagan was firing 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and busting their union.

Like Miller, McAlevey relied heavily on strategies and tactics learned from labor’s radical past, but with a twist. She complemented the radical strategies and tactics with a set of organizing principles that she learned in the environmental and social justice movement.

McAlevey began working for the AFL-CIO in 1998 after serving as associate director at the Highlander Center, an education and research organization whose aim is to build a grassroots movement for justice, equality, and sustainability.

Over the years, the Highlander Center has trained a number of prominent movement activists including Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Anne Braden, Ralph Abernathy, and John Lewis.

According to McAlevey, “All the work I would later do in labor unions from Connecticut to Nevada had its roots in the time I lived on the hill at Highlander.”

She went to work for the AFL-CIO in an organizing experiment called the Geographic Organizing Project, “a multi-union, multi-sector project in which member unions pool resources, share lists, and adhere to collectively made decisions.”

McAlevey worked on a project in Stamford, Connecticut where she based her approach to organizing on what she calls “whole worker organizing,” which recognizes that workers have lives and concerns outside of their jobs.

One such concern she learned after talking to workers was the lack of affordable housing in Stamford. In response, the organizing project helped build a successful campaign for affordable housing.

The success of that campaign created a base of support for unions in the community that led to organizing victories that brought 4,500 new members into the labor movement and good standard-setting contracts for these workers.

The success in Stamford was not replicated in other Geographic Organizing sites, and the AFL-CIO ended the experiment.

McAlevey then went to work for SEIU where she worked on several corporate campaigns to advance organizing in the health care sector.

That work eventually led her to Las Vegas, which SEIU targeted as a key city in its campaign to increase union density in the health care industry.

Starting out as a consultant for what eventually became SEIU Nevada and then becoming its executive director, McAlevey was charged with invigorating the organizing work of the local.

SEIU Nevada, or SEIU 1107 as it was known at the time, was an amalgamated local consisting primarily of public sector workers who worked for Clark County and private sector hospital workers, who worked for two private hospitals–Desert Springs and Valley–owned by Universal Health Services.

There were six other non-union private hospitals in town, and McAlevey’s goal was to unionize them and to improve the contracts of the public sector and private sector workers who were already members.

Shortly after taking office, the contract at Desert Springs came up for renewal. Without much time and no experience in negotiating contracts, McAlevey’s original goal was to negotiate some modest improvements.

But after reading the contract, she realized how bad it was, and after talking to union activists, she and the activists decided to fight immediately for a good contract.

The road to a good contract, however, would be difficult. Fewer than 40 percent of the eligible workers were union members, putting the union in a weak position.

Success would depend on building union membership while negotiations were taking place.

“Winning a good contract,” writes McAlevey. “Was not about legal technicalities but about strategy and power, and power comes from organizing.”

She, her staff, and union activists began working to increase union membership to at least 70 percent. “The best way to get everyone to join (the union) was to talk to (non-members),” writes McAlevey, and so the union’s organizing team, which included staff and members, drafted a survey that union members used to learn the workers’ priorities.

The survey also gave union members an opening to talk to non-members about joining the union, and as a result, the union began to grow.

When negotiations began, McAlevey invited all members to attend the bargaining sessions. When negotiations began, union nurses took turns telling hospital management about their working conditions and the changes that they wanted.

The open negotiations created a buzz among workers, and union membership increased even more.

As the negotiations progressed, the union encouraged non-members to attend as well.

The negotiations were long and difficult. The hospital dug in its heals, but workers kept organizing, the union kept growing, and the workers were able to carry out a number of successful mobilizations.

At crunch time, the union was strong enough that it could threaten a legitimate strike, and the hospital had to take the threat seriously.

As a result, the new contract at Desert Springs was a substantial victory for the workers: an immediate 10 percent pay increase, company-paid health care for workers and families, decent floating rules for nurses that helped improve the quality of care for patients, and a host of other contract improvements that nobody thought were possible.

The good contract made workers at other hospitals take notice, and the union won a number union representation elections at non-union hospitals.

McAlevey’s successes didn’t necessarily win her friends in organized labor. Some of her ideas challenged some core orthodoxies. For example, she didn’t think much of the grievance process.

“A union that spends all its time on grievances has very little power,” writes McAlevey. Filing grievances can be an excuse for not organizing and mobilizing members. When a grievance is filed it leaves the hands of the workers and “gets plugged into a stifling chain of legalisms and bureaucracy.”

McAlevey also writes that sometimes grievances are filed on behalf of slackers, which can hurt members who are trying to do a good job. For McAlevey, union membership doesn’t include the right to be lazy or to perform poorly on the job.

A union that is effectively organized, according to McAlevey, can address real grievances through worker direct action.

McAlevey’s position on grievances put her at odds with the elected president of SEIU Nevada, who never felt comfortable with McAlevey’s insistence on hyper union democracy and her eagerness to confront employers.

As a result, McAlevey’s tenure with SEIU and organized labor came to end in 2008.

But McAlevey remains defiant. Her book concludes, with the observation that most labor leaders have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo even though the status quo is leading toward their oblivion.

McAlevey calls for a decided break with the status quo. Unions need to incorporate working class community struggles into their framework, make their organizations more democratic, be unencumbered by unfair labor laws meant to stifle worker solidarity and narrow the work of unions, and become less beholden to the Democratic party (“screw the Democratic party as we know it,” is how she puts it).

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2 thoughts on “McAlevey and Miller; two books about labor

  1. I am unacquainted with the McAlevey story, but your review is sending me to the ether to buy it. Her approach sounds as if it’s in the spirit of my favorite labor book–“Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice” by Bill Fletcher & Fernando Gapasin. They review the Stamford project as an example of the sort of program organized labor should pursue (and mention McAlevey’s name, which I wouldn’t have remembered except that I just looked it up in their index).

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