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July 30, 2014

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New face of labor has heart, drive

Jane McAlevey traveled by train through Mexico and war-torn Central America in her early 20s. She has worked in Asia and Brazil and on a sheep farm in New Zealand. She rock-climbs and cycles and rides her horse at Red Rock Canyon. She's fluent in Spanish. She's an adjunct instructor at Cornell University, even though she has no college degree.

If the old image of a labor leader is a barrel-chested autoworker chomping on a cigar, McAlevey is the face of new labor: dynamic, professional, aggressive. She is executive director of the Service Employees International Union Local 1107 and the public face of 800 nurses engaged in a labor dispute with Valley Health System and its parent company, Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services.

The nurses were locked out until elected officials intervened Tuesday and the two sides agreed to 60 days of negotiation through mediators, a development widely viewed as a victory for nurses on the political and public-relations fronts. McAlevey and the nurses have dominated the narrative, in large part because they've focused on staffing levels and quality of care, not wages.

McAlevey is one of a handful of leaders trying to reverse the long decline of organized labor in the United States, infusing it with new ideas and fresh energy. SEIU is in the forefront of that approach nationally, broadening labor's outlook beyond just wages, and its reach beyond traditional union industries. These leaders are taking on employers they perceive to be inflexible. It's a vision McAlevey has laid out in labor journals.

Historical trends aren't with them, and neither are the powerful business lobby and its Republican allies.

Nevertheless, if Valley Health System believed it would roll over McAlevey and the nurses, it was badly mistaken, say people who know her.

"She's very intelligent. She's inspired. She's energetic. Her heart's in her people," Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins said.

McAlevey is the youngest of nine children, the daughter of a progressive New York politician. Her mother died of breast cancer a week after her fifth birthday, and her dad began taking her to work. She said her suburban New York City county then was growing like Clark County is now, and what she took from her father was the conviction that those benefiting from growth should contribute their fair share.

"He taught me inequality was just not OK in a society as rich as ours, that hard work should be rewarded," she said.

She spent a couple of years in college. "But I quickly got into my passion, which is making things better on this planet."

McAlevey spent her 20s working in the environmental movement, much of the time abroad, and some of it for David Brower, one of the most influential conservationists in history. She drives a Toyota Prius.

After a high-profile job at a religious foundation handing out large grants, she was recruited by the AFL-CIO, where she was groomed to be a new kind of labor leader. One part of the philosophy, she said, "is that it's more than just what happens when you punch the clock. It's bigger than that. Do your kids have a good school to attend? A clean and safe park? Affordable housing? Transportation?"

McAlevey, 42, has long blond hair that whipped around when she chased her horse, Jalapeno, around a ring on Friday. She was dressed in business attire and cowboy boots. When she drives, she wears wraparound sunglasses befitting a cop.

She will often go a few years of working long hours before dropping everything and grabbing a "Lonely Planet" book and taking off on a trip. She's unmarried ("many opportunities") and doesn't have children. After a stint with the AFL-CIO, she went to New Zealand, where she skied, kayaked and, though a vegetarian, worked on a sheep farm during lambing season.

Around this time, SEIU in Nevada was flagging.

"Our members here in Clark County believed they could achieve more," said Mary Kay Henry, international executive vice president. "They wanted more for themselves."

In spring 2004, McAlevey parachuted in, as she does. Since then, membership has increased from 9,000 to 15,000, including workers at several new hospitals.

Her negotiating tactics have been fierce and savvy. She demanded that 160 members be allowed to witness contract negotiations for county employees, 8,300 of whom are represented by SEIU.

When negotiating the newest round of contracts for nurses, she secured a deal from the nonprofit St. Rose Dominican Group first, which trapped the for-profit hospitals into favorable terms.

Paradoxically, despite the image of the tough, finger-jabbing union leader, she also has advocated collaborating with management that is willing.

"She's the most visionary union leader I've run into in my 25 years of doing this," said Tom Schneider, president of Restructuring Associates, a consulting firm that has worked for companies such as Kaiser Permanente, General Mills and Honeywell to bring employees and management together to improve performance. "She understands there's far more benefit for both workers and the company and customers when they work collaboratively rather than confronting each other."

Schneider, whose clients include St. Rose, said labor and hospital management were at a meeting in Phoenix last year, and McAlevey was mostly quiet. When he asked if everything was OK, she said the group wasn't being truly visionary. She proposed that the hospital make it a goal to be in the top 5 percent in the nation in all categories.

It's now a goal.

Henry said McAlevey embodies the new labor drive through her obsession with results. "We've grown, we've organized additional hospitals, we've set new standards," Henry said. "Members have goals, and they're achieving the goals."

McAlevey is on her way to becoming a national labor leader. She publishes in New Labor Forum, an influential journal, and she has ties to national figures in the AFL-CIO and the SEIU. Democratic presidential contenders have already begun feting her in advance of Nevada's presidential caucus.

She seems almost contemptuous of politicians, however. She once ran campaigns, and won eight of them while losing none, only to see the officials turn on her and the working people she thought she was fighting for.

"No one's going to solve your problems for you," she said.

Running with the politicians and the national labor movement might not be in McAlevey's bones: "I like to be out in the field, playing in the mud of making the world a better place."

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