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The Civil Wars in the U.S. Labor Movement

Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or the Death Throes of the Old?


When I went to the 2009 Labor Notes ‘Trouble Makers’ conference in Dearborn Michigan I never expected to be thrown into the middle – quite literally – of a dispute between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the California Nurses Association (CNA). But this is exactly what happened when I helped fellow conference participants push SEIU members and staff out of the banquet hall in which CNA president, Ross Ann DeMoro, was to address conference attendees. Immediately after the fracas, I went outside and spoke to one of the SEIU members that we had just pushed out of the hall. She told me that they were there to protest a bunch of union busters. Clearly this member had been misled, I thought, as I explained to her what the conference was actually about and that most of the folks attending were union members and activists [quite a few SEIU members, in fact] who had come together to share their experiences of struggle and talk about ways that we can all support each other and rebuild a labour movement from the bottom up, one capable of truly transforming American society, so that the interests of working class folks are put ahead of corporations.

The tumultuous back story to this event and how the rapidly shifting grounds of the U.S. labour movement has continued to be rocked by internal divisions and contradictions, is masterfully examined by the veteran labour journalist and activist, Steve Early, in The Civil Wars in the U.S. Labour Movement: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? Although Early sets his analysis of the most recent rounds of intra-union warfare in the American labour movement within the broader political and economic context of the U.S. scene, offering a searing critique of the attempts at labour law reform championed by the union movement, the principle focus of Civil Wars are the conflicts in and around the SEIU. In focusing the book in this manner Early successfully illustrates both the strengths and limitations of the organizing and transformations that have occurred over the past decade in the U.S. labour movement, led by the SEIU and other unions like UNITE-HERE.

Representing over 2 million workers, largely in the low-wage healthcare, service, and building maintenance industries, SEIU has been held up as one of the most dynamic unions in the U.S. labor movement. Indeed, as organized labour has continued its downward spiral—only 12.2 % of the U.S workforce is unionized— “Big Purple” has brought nearly 800,000 new members into its ranks in recent years. Moreover, with a membership that is 40% people of color and 60% women, SEIU has focused on organizing some of the most economically vulnerable sectors of the workforce – those who have been systematically discriminated against in the labour market and historically neglected by the trade union movement.

It is because of this record of organizing success and its focus on the most marginalized elements of the working class that many progressive academics and labour activists have seen SEIU (and the breakaway, but now all but defunct Change to Win federation) as a model and hopeful inspiration for the revitalization of the labour movements of both countries. Early takes a number of these folks to task for their uncritical boosterism of SEIU and CTW.

Seeking to reverse the decline in the strength and influence of unions in the United States – and in Canada – Stern and his allies argue that unions must prioritize “organizing the unorganized”—the vast majority of U.S workers—and must increase union density at any and all costs. Greater union density, the argument goes, will increase labor’s power to set standards within regional markets and industries. In turn this will provide the political leverage necessary to alter the legal environment that currently makes organizing sodifficult for workers in the United States. While SEIU has doubled the money it spends on organizing, to its credit, in the past four years it has also significantly centralized power and resources into the hands of a few top officers. In the name of streamlining its organizing efforts, SEIU has carried out a widespread program of merging locals, opening call centers to service current members (ostensibly to free up staff and resources for new organizing and political work), and signing “neutrality” or other partnership agreements with employers, usually from positions of weakness that have led to the exchange of major concessions (like the right to strike) for union recognition.

The importance of focusing on these new “innovations,” as Early does in Civil Wars, is significant because such practices have been seen, to our detriment, as pointing the way forward for the union movement in both the United States and Canada. Civil Wars offers a searing critique of these practices, which are central to a dangerous new form of corporate unionism–one that rejects class struggle in favor ofcooperation with employers and pro-corporate politicians, marginalizes workers and members from union life, and embraces the transnational corporation as its organizational model.

One of the most important organizational experiences explored, and unabashedly championed by Early, is that of The National Union of Healthcare Worker (NUHW), launched on January 29 2009 by Sal Roselli and other former leaders and activists of the California-based United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), affiliated with the SEIU. The New union was founded after Roselli and the entire elected leadership of UHW was removed by SEIU international vis-à-vis a trusteeship. In Civil Wars Early powerfully demonstrates that this takeover was orchestrated by Andy Stern, then president of SEIU (now since replaced by one of his protégés from the SEIU executive board, Mary Kay Henry), and the leadership at SEIU because UHW, under the leadership of Roselli and other dissidents, had been struggling to radically transform the autocratic – increasingly corporate – structure and organizing approach of the SEIU.

Without going into the details of the reform efforts of UHW and other dissidents in SEIU, it is worth highlighting the two fundamental principles that have been at the heart of efforts to change the direction of SEIU. They are: (1) a rejection of dealsthat marginalize workers and make serious concessions with employers in order to increase membership in the short term; and (2) a recognition that the central focus of rebuilding the labor movement needs to be the development of democratic and accountable unions with an active and empowered membership. At its core the reform agenda is about bringing organized and unorganized workers back to the center of their own struggles.

It is easy to see how such a perspective might be characterized as reflecting some kind of “romantic view” or “knee jerk preference” for organizing from below. But Early is quite cognizant of this critique and offers a credible response to it throughout the book by demonstrating that having members in charge of their own unions hasconsistently led to greater improvements in the lives of union members and the broader working class, while also acknowledging that sometimes innovative changes and strategies for labour do come from “above,” (indeed, Early himself admits to introducing such changes while he was a staff representative at the Communications Workers of America).

Rather than listening to generic focus groups and polling (as has been past practice in some unions discussed in Civil Wars), Early insists that we would do better to listen to workers who have actually taken part in organizing drives. A major tensions within these diverging views onwhat it takes to win organizing drives and improve conditions for workers revolves around the notion that we need to be more cooperative and avoid “confrontational tactics” with employers, rather than figuring out ways to “get people ‘working together’ with their co-workers “to solve problems” and, thus, demonstrate how a union might actually function for the betterment of its members. Here, Early provides invaluable criticism of the notion that our goal in organizing should be to stress that “conflict ends when the campaign ends,” and that our ultimate goal should be to foster a more cooperative relationship with employers.

Of the major lessons Early draws from labour’s recent civil wars the most important revolve around the challenges to private sectors organizing in the United States; if large scale membership recruitment into unions is to take place today, labour will need to continue to develop ways to by-pass the constraints imposed by labour law. For Early, however, the crucial thing is that unions pursue such alternatives from a position of strength. Perhaps the most important lesson Early highlights in his concluding chapter is that what most animates workers to struggle is a “sense of organizational ownership, a willingness to take risks and make sacrifices because the union they were trying to build, extend, defend, or reclaim inspired strong allegiance based on relationships of trust and mutual respect.” If we take nothing else from Civil Wars, it should be that: “Workers do not unite and fight – for organizing rights, a first contract, a better contract, or a better functioning and more democratic union – unless they have reason to believe in each other and the leadership that has emerged from their own ranks…And fewer still will support union growth campaigns that ‘by-pass the Board’ if, as John Wilhelm notes, if they are by-passed too.”

Civil Wars is a masterful exploration of the dynamics of the U.S. labour movements and will surely prove to be a classic of participatory labour journalism. In it, Steve Early doesn’t just make a principled argument for union democracy and rank-and-file militancy; he demonstrates that they are the key to organizing the unorganized and revitalizing working class resistance in an age of global capitalism. Labor activists and scholars will find this book invaluable.


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