“All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice…The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” –Karl Marx
For those of us on the left who have observed the SEIU-centered Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, as Steve Early so aptly describes them in his book title, there is little that is farcical and much that is tragic about the outcome. If Early is correct, what hung in the balance was nothing less than a possible resurgence of the beleaguered American labor movement. Many problems in the labor movement pre-dated Andy Stern’s SEIU, but deception reached ridiculous new lows, and much of the labor left fell into Stern’s purple “progressive” trap.
In painstaking detail gleaned from firsthand experience and extensive communication with union leaders, organizers and rank-and-filers, Early describes the rise, fall and post-retirement fallout of the SEIU under Andy Stern. The irony of the whole thing is that for a lengthy period from the early 1990s to the 2000s, the SEIU appeared as the most likely union to lead a revitalized American labor movement. It greatly expanded its membership and ran some of the most vibrant - and successful - organizing drives in recent history, such as the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors campaign. The union’s national leadership had no scruples about shaking up and ousting old-time bureaucrats at the local level through “trusteeship” - a move which sociologists Kim Voss and Rachel Sherman hailed as “breaking the iron law of oligarchy”! How soon they would have to eat their words...
Early describes the rise of Andy Stern in the SEIU along with a cohort of post-1960s social movement veterans. Many of them had entered the labor movement in an attempt to transform it for good, in the process “confronting the cigar-smoking ‘pale, male, and stale’ bureaucrats who ruled the labor movement of the 1970s and ‘80s.” In the end, as Early notes, this same group of former radicals “would have the Pogo-like experience of looking in the mirror and realizing: ‘We have met the enemy - and it is us.’”
How did this happen? How did seemingly progressive “intellectuals” who first turned to organized labor to transform it away from the atrophied bureaucracy that was - and in many cases, still is - business unionism themselves become insular bureaucrats who would forcibly quash rank-and-file demands, waste union funds and seek cozy “partnerships” with employers and corporate politicians?
SEIU and NUHW
The most visible outward signs of internal decay within the SEIU leadership were the recent and ongoing wars between it and the breakaway National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) over the representation of over 40,000 hospital staff in California. In this fight, which stretched beyond Stern’s tenure as president, the most vicious tactics of intimidation, employer alliance, slander and the forcible eviction of NUHW’s leaders from their offices were used to browbeat rank-and-file members into continued acceptance of SEIU as their representative. Even in the face of this formidable onslaught, SEIU barely passed in the October 2010 election over NUHW - a result which has since been thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board. This is the ugliness and decay of which Early already warned the labor left in 2004, calling Stern’s commandeering leadership style “Reutherism Redux,” in reference to (in)famous UAW president Walter Reuther, who led that union into an institutionalized “class snuggle” with America’s big auto companies in the 1950s.
In the SEIU of the 1990s, it seemed that sixties-era idealists had indeed triumphed over old-school bureaucrats such as Local 32BJ president Gus Bevona, who was forced to resign over longstanding corruption charges. Part of the answer to the riddle of this quick turnaround - from reform to reaction among the new leadership - lies in the very mechanism of the attempted reforms: top-down trusteeship, staff-driven organizing and glossy public relations with Democrats, foundation-funded non-profits and liberal intellectuals.
As Early points out, a generation of SEIU leaders, despite their “social movement” backgrounds (often a code term for foundation-funded advocacy work), remained detached from the rank and file, seeing themselves as self-appointed saviors and advocates of a “pitiable” and passive working class. From this elevated perspective, which includes the status and lifestyle perks of running a large-scale organization lauded by uncritical intellectuals and liberal elements of the ruling establishment, it is not hard to understand why SEIU’s leaders made the turn from “comprehensive” - and often militant - organizing strategies, to employer-friendly “neutrality agreements” for organizing. Why rock the boat if you’re sitting in a yacht?
This book is an almost endless source of illuminating facts about the current labor movement, but the conclusion seem out of place. Strangely, the last few pages of the book make an abrupt leap toward early 20th Century Russian history. Unfortunately, Early misses the mark by blaming the leaders of the Russian Revolution for the Stalinist monstrosity that followed. (For Socialist Alternative and the Committee for a Workers’ International’s view of the Russian Revolution, see http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/russia/index.html.)
In the past weeks, an important new chapter has begun in the NUHW struggle. On September 21, 4,000 NUHW members went on strike at Kaiser Permanente and were joined in a solidarity strike by 17,000 nurses (labornotes.org: Strike Giant California Hospital Chains). Kaiser has taken an especially hard line with these embattled health care workers - pushing for massive concessions despite reaping equally massive profits - seemingly seeking to punish them for allegiance to the more militant NUHW instead of SEIU. This newest rank-and-file upsurge in California shows that the “birth of a new labor movement” is a real possibility, not merely the “death throes of the old.”
Early’s book is a must-read for all young radicals and labor activists because it goes a long way toward explaining why, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, the U.S. labor movement is still in its worst slump since then - and why it didn’t have to be that way.
Civil Wars is a dire warning to all who care about justice and progress for working people that trust in charismatic leaders is not enough - democratic control is always better. While a flexible, committed and militant union leadership is certainly welcome and always helpful, it is increasingly clear that revitalized social movements cannot be instantiated from above through “best practice” organizing or improving the “efficiency” - through call centers! - of an undemocratic union apparatus. In the final analysis, lasting justice for working people can only be achieved through efforts of our own, since it is we who have been excluded from the halls of power, from the decisions that affect our lives. And as Early’s accounts of SEIU members’ organized resistance to Stern’s and employers’ rule clearly show, it is we, working people, who can transform the world with fighting, collective and democratically controlled movements with mass participation.
The opportunity for labor resurgence came again in the form of the Wisconsin revolt, only to be held back by union leaders (SocialistAlternative.org: Wisconsin - Lessons from a Historic Struggle). A victory in Wisconsin, only possible through mass strikes and direct action, would’ve completely turned the tide of the labor movement, giving workers momentum and initiative in the face of the current corporate onslaught.
The tide could still turn in our favor. The Tacoma teachers’ strike (http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article14.php?id=1685) and NUHW itself are taking on big battles, while the ILWU struggle continues, as well (http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article14.php?id=1684).
In order to revitalize the labor movement, we will need to learn the lessons of both our defeats and victories. For this, Steve Early’s book will be useful. Going forward, good intentions and even democratic decision-making won’t be enough. We’ll need to put forward strategies of struggle and the political ideas that socialists have often provided in labor struggles of the past.