The Civil Wars in US Labor: A Review

In The Civil Wars in US Labor published by Haymarket Books, Steve Early tells the story of an internal upheaval that cost the labor movement dearly in blood, sweat, and treasure. It affected millions of workers and will continue to do so in the years to come, but most of us know little or nothing about it.

The book covers a two-year period between 2008 and 2010 when SEIU members fought each other for control of locals, SEIU and other unions fought each other to represent workers who were already organized, and SEIU and other unions sabotaged each others campaigns to organize non-union workers. A truce has stopped the war; the body count is ongoing.

The war began when former SEIU president Andy Stern began implementing his vision for a new labor movement. For Stern, union growth was paramount even if it meant making concessionary deals with employers. Some of his opponents balked at change and were leery of organizing, but others complained that Stern’s organizing-at-any-price strategy lowered contract standards and his top-down management style undermined union democracy.

Most wars have a winner and a loser; this one had only losers. Take for instance, those involved in the fight between SEIU’s leadership and the United Healthcare Workers (UHW), a 150,000 member SEIU local in the San Francisco Bay area. UWH president Sal Rosselli had been an open critic of Stern, arguing that Stern allowed contract standards to erode. He also wanted the rank-and-file to have more input in contract negotiations.

When UHW leadership and members opposed Stern’s decision to move 65,000 UHW home care workers into a local based in Southern California, SEIU put the local in receivership, fired local staff, and removed local leaders. UWH responded by breaking away from SEIU, creating the National United Healthcare Workers (NUHW), and fighting SEIU to represent workers it represented before trusteeship. For the right to represent workers who were already organized, both unions spent $30 million, money that could have been much better spent organizing the unorganized or fighting employer attacks.

A fight with SEIU’s Change to Win partner UNITE HERE cost even more. Stern grew impatient with UNITE HERE for not organizing more workers. When UNITE HERE president John Wilhelm resisted Stern’s advice to seek strategic partnerships with employers that would allow more access to unorganized workers, Stern and former UNITE president Bruce Raynor set up Workers United and began raiding UNITE HERE shops. The eventual divorce that settled the dispute between UNITE HERE and SEIU cost about $40 million.

There were other losers. Low-paid home care workers in Southern California had their local’s treasury looted by a Stern appointee, put in charge of the local because of his loyalty to Stern’s program rather than his competence or integrity. Member input and participation went by the wayside when Stern put more than 80 locals in trusteeship, some because of mismanagement but many more because local leaders didn’t back Stern’s program. Organizing campaigns like the one at Hyatt Hotels received less attention and others were scuttled because of inter-union fights.

The biggest loser was David Smith, an SEIU member from Detroit. He boarded a bus to Ann Arbor to participate in a demonstration against union busting, or so he was told by SEIU staff. The demonstration was really against Rose Ann DeMoro, president of the National Nurses Organizing Committee, who had spoiled an SEIU organizing drive in Ohio and was speaking at a Labor Notes conference in An Arbor. SEIU staff led a charge to interrupt DeMoro’s speech. The charge led to a melee. The excitement was too much for Smith’s heart. It failed. He died.

Early glosses over DeMoro’s questionable role in Ohio as he does a similar action in Arizona by UNITE HERE. Future accounts of this civil war may correct this oversight. But Early never claims to be disinterested. In fact, he is candid about his viewpoint as a partisan observer.

For his sources, he relies heavily on interviews with participants in the struggles he describes. By and large, those he interviewed were Stern opponents. To Early’s credit, he tried to interview Stern and other SEIU leaders; most turned him down. That was a mistake because Early did a good job of allowing pro-Stern leaders to present their side when they agreed to talk to him.

Tom Balanoff president of Local 1 in Chicago and his staff presented a good case for why call centers, or Member Resource Centers as they’re known in SEIU, were a good way for his local to handle grievances and other member services. Call centers are one of Stern’s innovations; Early doesn’t like them.

Early ends on an upbeat note. It’s possible, Early says, that the fallout from SEIU’s top-down approach to union building will spark a backlash that will encourage more union democracy and more member participation and initiative. But before he’s done, Early engages in a bit of red baiting by comparing SEIU’s leadership to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He tries to cover himself by invoking the work of Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollantai, two early 20th century revolutionary communists. But this particular criticism sounds too much like those of right-wingers and their liberal counterparts when they attack those of us on the left.

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