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Labor’s Tangled Web: A Review of “Civil Wars in US Labor“

(Image: Haymarket Books)

“There are no shortcuts in politics,” bellowed a respected, much-older labor veteran as we young militants sat around hoping to pick up a few things. “No gimmicks, no tricks, you only end up fooling yourself.”

In his book, only working-class people themselves could solve the enormous social problems of war, poverty and discrimination. He emphasized that no matter how difficult it is to achieve, politics should be measured by how it helps or hinders the direct involvement and political empowerment of working people. There was no getting around it.

That was some 40 years ago, but I never forgot it.

This conversation from so many years past still resonated with me after reading Steve Early's new book, “The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor.” In fact, some pages seem taken straight from my mentor's own voluminous book of experience, as when Early concludes that “instead of unions that are top down and top heavy, too employer friendly and detached from their base, we need more that are lean and mean at the top, plus strong, broad and deep at the base.”

But “Civil Wars” does not simply offer a radical critique of current union policies. It does much more. It vividly describes, analyzes and contrasts actual labor experiences of the difficult and tumultuous recent past.

All is presented through the practiced eyes of an experienced journalist, who served as both a labor organizer and union staff person for over 30 years.

Readers can draw their own conclusions from the actual disputes between local and international unions, many of which had a major impact on literally hundreds of thousands of workers, because “Civil Wars” provides opposing examples of how these different approaches played out.

For example, Early describes episodes across the country over the last two decades explaining the damaging national controversies engulfing one of the most powerful and largest unions in North America, the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Much of this union's growth, critics claim, has come as the result of an overly centralized bureaucratic machine that tramples on the rights of members.

The few bright spots in labor's horizon today are precisely those examples Early cites where local unions or leaderships rejected undemocratic choices, at great personal cost, as the author tells it.

Class Snuggle

Early quotes a prominent union critic who colorfully described SEIU's evolution as “class struggle” becoming “class snuggle.” The most socially conscious union in the country has steadily devolved into a bureaucratic, bloated machine that cozied up with management while smothering membership democracy.

The more SEIU sought favorable organizing agreements from state governments and private companies, in home care and child care fields as well as with hospitals, the more it traded away wage and benefit increases, the ability to criticize management publicly and the right of members to exercise legitimate grievance rights on the job.

Essentially, SEIU's strategy was to recruit members through non-confrontational agreements with employers as the alternative to troublesome and time-consuming efforts involving members in traditional organizing campaigns led by work-site committees of rank-and-file members.

However, Early shows how these fragile arrangements with employers collapse when management or state governments change their minds, leaving SEIU without an active and informed membership base from which to appeal. As a result, several units organized under these circumstances have in fact been decertified or undergone dramatic decreases in wages and benefits without much resistance.

SEIU's policies led to disputes not only with its own members, but also with other unions.

As the largest hospital workers union, their partnership agreements with management led to a bitter quarrel with the California Nurses Association (CNA), who believed patient rights were being sacrificed.

And, again, with a seemingly endless and principle-less desire to grow at any cost, SEIU even began raiding members of UNITE-HERE, its Change to Win (CTW) national union federation founding partner.

Make Peace to Wage War

Both these costly and damaging disputes with CNA and UNITE-HERE were quickly resolved by the new SEIU leadership once Andy Stern abruptly resigned in 2010 as president. However, as an important chapter in “Civil Wars” describes, current SEIU leaders are more determined than ever to continue the war in California against its dissident, rebel offshoot, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

And it is using all the same combative and disruptive tactics it so destructively employed against CNA and UNITE-HERE. Only now, it has even more resources to throw against health care workers favoring NUHW's more militant bargaining style of involving and mobilizing members.

The Fall 2010 Kaiser election in California between SEIU and NUHW revealed how all these pieces came together, building toward the perfect storm of SEIU collaboration with management and deception toward its membership.

It is also noteworthy to point out that SEIU locals themselves are not immune to heavy-handed bureaucratic measures from national headquarters. “During his presidency, Stern put nearly eighty local unions under headquarters trusteeships or reorganized them under new leaders named by him,” Early writes. There were an additional “136 local reconfigurations-involving either total mergers or the transfer of some bargaining units – between 1997 and 2007.”

As a result, the top 15 SEIU locals collect dues from 50,000 to 350,000 workers, representing a whopping 57 percent of the total national membership. Clearly, behemoth-size locals spread across several state lines present a real challenge maintaining democratic norms, encouraging participation and defining leadership roles for rank and filers.

Critics believe this is by design.

An interesting corollary to the internal union disputes Early recounts is his description of objections to SEIU's disruptive relations with other unions raised by hundreds of pro-labor community, religious and academic leaders. These fraternal critics are all enthusiastic supporters of SEIU's previous record of progressive social involvement and member-based organizing like the Justice for Janitors campaigns of the 1990s.

But again, as the author does throughout the book, opposing opinions are also provided of scholars, labor lawyers and media sources supporting SEIU's current approach. But in this chapter, at the same time, Early convincingly discloses the extensive financial connections these pro-SEIU academics and writers have to the powerful union they so lavishly heap praise upon – something the seemingly objective sources, to their utter professional embarrassment, failed to disclose.

The Dilemma of Our Time

Every labor supporter wants to see union membership grow and reverse the shocking membership decline that now lingers at a depression-era low of 7 percent of the private workforce. Every labor supporter that wants to achieve these goals also faces the common problem of an emotionally frustrated and politically confused working class not yet ready to take center stage.

No doubt, the recent massive mobilizations of government employees in Madison, Wisconsin, which followed closely the deeper revolutionary worker mobilizations in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, gives some hope that forms of social, union and class consciousness may be on the rise both nationally and internationally.

Early provides much insight into how to promote this greater awareness by describing exactly the results, tragic in many ways, of SEIU's staff-driven, top-down approach as contrasted to the more difficult, but productive, examples he describes of seeking to inform and involve working people at the base around the goals and objectives of the union.

“Civil Wars” leaves the reader with a very sober understanding of current problems, which cannot and should not be discounted. These are difficult times, indeed. But, surprisingly enough, it also leaves us with an optimistic message about the ample rewards that come from continuing to emphasize democratic control and active involvement of workers in their unions as the way forward to achieving expanded social, economic and political goals of a revitalized labor movement.

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