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Jane McAlevey and her Influence

Dear Pratt Faculty,

This week labor organizer and theorist Jane McAlevey passed away. Author of countless books and articles, McAlevey was a fierce voice in the contemporary labor reform movement. In the quiet of summer, I am afforded time to contemplate her history in labor reform, and consider her strategies as they relate to our struggles at Pratt.

McAlevey wrote extensively about the nuts and bolts of building strong coalitions through a focus on organizing disparate individuals by listening to them first and foremost. This is followed by persuading those same people to take action and advocate for themselves. This allows the union to create a rich tapestry of intersecting demands to organize around and turns the union into a collective of dedicated individuals fighting side by side. 

Her focus was always on strategy. She advises organizers to conduct a power-structure analysis and ask: who has the power to change an issue? And how can workers influence those actors? In our case, those actors include chairs, deans, the provost’s office, and the Board of Trustees. She advises a series of escalating actions to influence those actors, though how to do this is not always clear, and requires what she calls a “whole worker organizing” approach. She wants us to ask: what are the problems beyond those that can be solved by the union, or the contract, that need to be addressed to transform the lives of workers? The “whole worker organizing” approach goes beyond simply making changes in the workplace.

We too need to consider the “whole worker” approach. Our struggles are not ones unique to Pratt but reflect the precarious state of those who work in American Higher Education. We need to form coalitions with other Locals to address our shared issues including local issues like access to unemployment insurance for contingent faculty, but also, higher education faculty issues, like ever expanding administrative bloat, lack of funding for new tenure-track lines, dependence on contingent faculty, and finally, national issues like skyrocketing tuition and unaffordable housing and healthcare.

McAlevey first developed these strategies in the 1990s organizing diverse workers in Stamford, CT before moving to SEIU’s campaign to organize hospital workers in Las Vegas. She radicalized members by conducting open bargaining sessions so that members could discern management attitudes towards workers first hand. This tactic often put her into conflict with union leadership seeking to strike quick deals. 

McAlevey’s work is often tied to the shift away from a service model of unionism and instead to an organizing model. While this strategy makes sense broadly as a criticism of “business-friendly” unionism and its support of cushy leadership-management ties, this connection can also simplify the complexity of what unions actually need to do and lead to confusion about overarching strategy. 

The service model is limited to mobilization of a small group of like minded individuals. The leadership’s job is advocating for those people. It is a sort of vending machine model, one where leadership alone fixes everything. It is a model we are very much accustomed to at Pratt. The model is both corrupting and ineffective. It is corrupting because leadership must make compromises at the expense of the majority in order to service the minority they rely on for support. It creates a union that is incentivized to set limits on who can vote, how members can become involved, or who is eligible for leadership. Even worse, it is ineffective. Management understands that the leadership’s hold on power is tenuous and this will prevent any serious challenge to management's mode of operations. 

Implementing an organizing model offers a path forward. Learning about the needs of the membership at large by listening to individuals with complex views is nuanced, challenging work, but essential. The past year we have focused on increasing membership. This is vital. But we must be careful because a larger membership doesn’t always mean more engagement, especially in the case of a membership composed of people that are not all like minded. According to McAlevey, organizing is about expanding the base by engaging with the unconvinced.

McAlevey’s critique of labor movements needs to apply to all of us. We are a diverse union. The union leadership cannot be a leadership of some members and not others. Advocating for what you already agree with is not solidarity. It is important to recognize the complexity of our unit and our diverse needs. A union catering exclusively to the needs of part timers or full timers, or artists, designers, liberal arts faculty, or librarians would be a disaster for us all. McAlevey has sometimes been criticized for putting organizing ahead of instituting democratic norms. It is too easy when one believes one is progressive and on the “virtuous” side of an issue to justify steamrolling over the opposition. If history is any guide, revolutions of the virtuous without real democratic checks and balances in place never end well.

There are times when the union must become an advocate for individual members. An example would be our PART process, which comes out of the needs of our unique union makeup of both full time and part time faculty.  Peer Review can put the kinds of limits on administrative power that exclusively part time faculty unions will likely never be able to achieve because the legitimacy of the institution depends on the peer review process. This is a profound benefit of our unique full time/part time union.

Protecting peer review means having a union leadership that is skilled in interpreting our contract. It also means understanding the subtlety of department and school dynamics so that we can “advocate” for individuals as they seek promotion, appointments, reappointments, and tenure. This requires a good enough working relationship with the various administrators involved in the process and sometimes, the ability to strike creative compromises. 

I think about last year’s election often. For me, enough time has passed and I am deep enough into union work that I can see that we all failed in some sense. The kinds of divisive rhetoric and actions employed by all sides in the pursuit of victory only served to undermine all of us. I also think about next year’s election. I truly hope that there will be new voices that will create the opportunity for open, civil conversations and that we will build a diverse coalition to take us into the next contract negotiations.  

We need to be able to fight it out internally with each other, while also fighting FOR each other against the administration. Each of us is “the union”, and none of us can be on the sidelines.

In Solidarity,

Jamie Lipovac

President, UFCT 1460


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