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Labor’s Love Lost: War Among the Unions

Steve Early, Labor’s Civil Wars (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 440 pages, $17.00, paperback.

Jon Flanders (jonflan [at] gmail.com) is a railroad machinist, past president of his IAM local, co-chair of Railroad Workers United, a cross-craft caucus of railroaders, and Trustee of the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

In the late 1970s, I returned to Vermont after nearly a decade of living in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, a time of tumultuous antiwar protest, socialist agitation, and labor battles. I went back to Vermont for personal reasons, and I soon was looking for a job.

I found one driving a bus for the transit authority in the Burlington area, a “part-time” job at meager pay, working more than forty hours a week. The drivers were organized by the Teamsters, but they comprised only half the total transit authority workforce. To my surprise, I found a fraction of my fellow radicals colonizing the bus drivers’ ranks. They were trying to make the authority a union shop, with all the drivers fulltime. Although they were part of a Maoist group and I was a Trotskyist, we found common ground in the shop and worked together successfully to win fulltime status for all the drivers. We were able to mobilize support both from our fellow workers and the riding public to win a union shop.

This small episode in a small state was part of the much bigger picture that suffuses the recent work of the labor journalist Steve Early. He looks back at the generation of young radicals that went into the U.S. workforce in the 1960s and 1970s, idealists who wanted to transform the moribund labor movement, much as our revered forebears did in the 1930s halcyon days of the CIO. Former student radicals like Andy Stern, Bruce Raynor, Sal Rosselli, and John Wilhelm ended up running large unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Their energy and drive in the early years were rewarded by ever more important union positions. They went through significant organizing battles. Early’s book, Labor’s Civil Wars, examines how this generation fared, as it lined up on opposite sides of a bitter dispute over strategy.

Would the labor movement recover its dynamism through centrally directed building of union density in key industries, or would it be built by rank-and-file democratic participation in winning better contracts? Could sophisticated staffers in a union’s headquarters build a dynamic labor movement more effectively than rank-and-file activists in the workplace? What role would merged internationals and merged locals play in winning union power?

And, as these questions were debated, how did the “generational cohort” that we ex-student radicals, antiwar activists, and civil rights campaigners represented come to grief in disputes over who would represent and extract dues from extremely low-paid and isolated workers?

Much of Early’s book is spent documenting in relentless detail (Early is a lawyer, among his other occupations) how Stern and SEIU stumbled in this field, despite a period of immense growth and success that made SEIU—recognizable in public demonstrations by its “purple ocean” of union shirts whose color aptly blended red with blue—the fastest growing and largest union in the country. Certainly, as a blow-by-blow documentation of the bloody doings of labor’s best and brightest politicos, Early has provided future historians a goldmine of leads to follow.

While I am sure that SEIU will regard this book as nothing more than an anti-purple army screed, Early does not spare other unions, not even the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the union he worked for. He writes:

By 2005, it was no longer true, if it ever was, that only SEIU wanted to provide a home for the working poor. In some parts of the country, the potential membership gains in this sector of the population were so tempting that a union free-for-all ensued. The competition between SEIU and AFSCME in Illinois and California become particularly intense and costly, right before and after the AFL-CIO split. And AFSCME wasn’t the only AFL-CIO union trying to emulate SEIU’s success with low paid, direct care providers at the bottom tier of government employment. Other labor organizations with a public sector presence—the American Federation of Teachers, UAW, and my own alma mater, CWA—all launched their own home-based worker campaigns.

However, it is the “purple army” of SEIU that dominates the discussion in this book. It could not be otherwise. These organizers were the first, biggest, and baddest of them all, roaring out of the box with young radicals epitomized by Andy Stern, all ablaze with the commendable desire to organize the poor, the minorities, the unskilled, all those people with whom the “pale, male, and stale” union leaders could not be bothered.

And SEIU did just that for many years, in the process becoming the largest and most politically influential union in the United States, even in 2008, getting major credit for and access to the Obama administration. As Early demonstrates, however, much of this political clout flowed from dues payers secured, not by workplace organizing, but by making political deals with politicians like Rod Blagojevich, the now disgraced governor of Illinois. SEIU’s help was critical in getting him elected, and he helped SEIU get representation rights for eighteen thousand home-care providers. But, as Early points out, the cost was high in the end: “The union’s very close, once useful but now extremely embarrassing connection to the governor proved to be a propaganda jack-pot for right-wing foes of organized labor and their drive to defeat EFCA [the Employee Free Choice Act]. Headlines like the one in the New York Times on December 9,—‘Union is Caught Up in Illinois Bribe Case’”—quickly found their way into big anti-EFCA ads, as critics of labor law reform recycled every tawdry detail of Blago-gate. So eighteen thousand dues payers came at the price of discrediting the key legislative goal of organized labor, a Pyrrhic victory, at the very least.

The EFCA takes the stage in the chapter, “How EFCA Died for Obamacare.” After all the organizing and political deal-making made SEIU a power among unions, capping it off was their role in electing Barack Obama, the country’s first black president. Labor at last had a Democratic president, Congress, and Senate that, it was thought, would reward all the work SEIU and other unions put into getting them into office by making legal “card check” legislation, which would give workplaces union status by requiring only a majority of the workforce to sign union authorization cards (and bypassing elections so often sabotaged by employer intimidation and misconduct).

It was not to be. Obama and the Democrats told labor leaders that they did not want to endanger the health insurance bill with a diversionary battle over employee free choice. Labor leaders reluctantly agreed, fearful of losing their “seat at the table” if they made a fuss. As the health care debate raged on, with bitter and total opposition coming from the Republicans (despite the bill’s resemblance to “Romneycare” in Massachusetts, which mandates the purchase of private health insurance), Democrat enthusiasm for EFCA, never very great, melted away. After all, they were seeking the same corporate dollars as their opponents, and corporate America was bitterly opposed to making labor law more union friendly.

There’s the rub. Corporate America owns both major political parties. Rather than confront this grim reality, which necessitates the formation of a true party of the working class, labor’s leaders have sought shortcuts by allying with “friends” in the Democratic Party who will make deals that result in quick membership gains.

These new members, however deserving of representation, have little involvement in their own organizations. All too often, they have been simply “pools” of potential dues money, to be herded into “mega locals” of many thousands of members headed by appointed leaders answering only to the apparatus above them, leaving the members to seek support from—I kid you not—“call centers” to serve in place of a real live union steward.

Early documents the rise of SEIU “Megalocals.” He points out that “as a result of this trend, the fifteen largest SEIU locals—which now have 50,000 to 350,000 workers apiece—represented 57% of the total national union membership. More than forty locals boasted 10,000 to 50,000 dues-payers. The overall number of SEIU affiliates was down to 140, from 373 when Stern took over; their average size had increased six-fold.”

Now, I am a member of a railroad craft union. I am frustrated by the fragmentation of the industry by craft (there are seven unions representing workers in my shop, for example), which makes a united fight with the corporations difficult. But would I be happy to be in a local where I could not talk to my steward, my local president, or go to a union meeting where I could influence a decision of the local? Where I had to dial 1-800-STEWARD to get some help with a problem on the shop floor? I do not think so.

The final chapters of the book tell of the break with the Stern strategy of leadership control by the leaders and members of United Health Care West (UHW), leading to the formation of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which left the SEIU in a bitter dispute. In January 2009, SEIU put UHW in receivership. Headed by Sal Rosselli, this dynamic unit of SEIU had become a “problem” for Stern and the SEIU. At the heart of the dispute were different visions of how labor could advance. Stern was an advocate of the aforementioned “union density” at all costs, often by making political deals, like that with Blagojevich, to sweep up workers. These workers were then encased in the mega-locals headed by appointed leadership.

Increasingly, this strategy ran afoul of the desire of Rosselli’s UHW to involve the members in fighting for better contracts. SEIU regarded such efforts as diversions from the grand project of achieving the holy grail of density. UHW attempted to change SEIU’s course at its Puerto Rico convention—a convention that was marked, appropriately enough, by protests outside its gates by Puerto Rican teachers, whose union was being raided by SEIU in a deal with the governor of Puerto Rico. The UHW proposals were brushed aside at the convention, and the scene was set for the collision that ended with receivership.

The rank-and-file activists and Rosselli did not take the SEIU takeover lying down. They decided to launch a new national health care union, the NUHW, which immediately challenged Stern and SEIU in a series of union elections. To date, NUHW has increased its membership to eight thousand, in a series of hard-fought battles, in which SEIU spent millions to stop them.

The dedicated activists in this organization give us a glimpse of what a real working-class upsurge will look like, both in success and defeat. Early chronicles their struggles from the protest demonstrations while they were still in SEIU to the present day battles to organize the NUHW. We follow the trail through a punishing lawsuit against the NUHW by SEIU that left the young union with court-ordered fines, through the early successes in building NUHW by winning elections, through the dramatic battle over the forty-thousand-plus workers at Kaiser Permanente won by SEIU. Early gives us a first-hand look at the Kaiser battle, which saw SEIU deploy hundreds of staffers, millions of dollars, and a campaign of fear-mongering that, in the end, won for them.

Yet a glance at NUHW’s Web site shows them hanging on despite Kaiser, winning other elections, and very possibly getting the Kaiser election reversed. Quoting from the site:

In its January 14, 2011 finding, the NLRB found sufficient merit in dozens of objections filed by NUHW to warrant holding a full-blown hearing, including that:

SEIU unlawfully threatened Kaiser employees with loss of wages and benefits if NUHW won the election.

Kaiser paid SEIU representatives to campaign for its preferred union, SEIU.

Kaiser provided special access to SEIU staff and supporters that it denied to NUHW representatives.

SEIU engaged in various acts of physical force and violence against supporters of NUHW. (http://theunionlabelblog.com)

While NUHW struggles to build a member-driven way forward, U.S. union membership is in decline, and labor’s political clout is weak at best, as the EFCA outcome showed. As the post-2008 capitalist crisis deepens, with public employees under attack by the very politicians labor relied on for past gains, it will take a resurgent movement from below to make the course corrections needed for working people. The rank-and-file uprising in Wisconsin has now run up against a labor leadership perspective of channeling energy back to supporting the Democratic politicians whose inaction led to right-wing Republican victories. Movements like the one that resulted in the formation of NUHW will have to be built. Steve Early’s book will provide cautionary stories and essential guidance for a new generation of labor activists.

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