BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

America's Labor Wars

Some activists of the 1960s entered and rose in US labor unions. That trend shadowed the decline of a “strong labor” phase, when unions helped workers get their share of productivity growth. A corporate-government assault ended that so-called “golden” era. For more of this story with a fresh focus on internal union dynamics, we turn to Steve Early’s new book, The Civil Wars in US Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old?

In a preface, introduction, 10 chapters and conclusion, Early helps readers to better understand the question and its implications. To this end, he connects crucial dots between the 1960s and labor’s current malaise.

Health-care workers take center stage in the narrative, as the vast bulk of the nation’s work force labors as union-free employees in the service sector now. Early opens with a 2008 labor convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico, rife with antagonisms. For instance, SEIU national leaders confront rank-and-file members of Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico. What is at stake here and throughout Early’s book shapes up as an intriguing view of a protracted confrontation around two labor union models.

One model is the “top-down” approach. In brief, it’s a corporate structure of governance. Power rests at the top. Leaders “earn” six-figure salaries funded with members’ dues, and control contract talks with employers. By contrast the other union model is “bottom-up.” Workers elect co-workers to bargain with employers and communicate with the rank-and-file. As a freelance reporter, I have interviewed many health-care workers who support such an approach to garnering improved working conditions, both in-home and at acute and long-term health-care facilities. Early’s accounts match that.  

He makes a strong case that the more the rank-and-file involve themselves in day-to-day activities at their workplaces through elected stewards, the better for current and potential union members. He captures the other model detailing a “brave new world” of SEIU’s 1-800 call centers for members.

His book’s longest chapter, “Who Rules SEIU (and Who Doesn’t),” notes in part a metric for the 10 years that ended in 2007, a decade that changed the face of SEIU. This is a good thing if one has a theory of power that bigger is better. Former SEIU President Andy Stern did. Early does not.

“Under Stern,” he writes, “the total number of SEIU affiliates dropped to 140 from 373 while their average size increased sixfold.” Stern’s appointed leaders arrived to oversee these “megalocals,” as workers’ elected job stewards departed. This is not the cup of tea for Early, or for members of SEIU/United Healthcare Workers West.

The national SEIU’s move against a 150,000-member California local propelled the birth of the National Union of Healthcare Workers. NUHW’s challenge to SEIU in the Golden State is growing.

A main workplace site of struggle is at Kaiser Permanente, a non-profit HMO. Early charts that at length, in  writing on NUHW’s relations with SEIU, the California Nurses Association and UNITE HERE.

Through interviews, Early investigates these unions as conditions change at work and away with the eye of a discerning skeptic. His perspective derives in part from decades spent as a negotiator and organizer, now retired, with the Communications Workers of America.  

If you are unclear about progress or lack of it in labor law and health-care reform since the last presidential election, Early’s chapter “How EFCA Died for Obamacare” is revelatory. His detailed account of unions’ “fatal attraction” to the Democratic Party upends mythology about the progressive reality of top labor leaders such as Stern. We learn that Stern enabled the corporate status quo to grow in both health care and labor law.  

Early’s new book builds on Embedded With Organized Labor (Monthly Review Press, 2009). Each are required reading for a majority non-union US working class facing austerity as far as the eye can see. 

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2011

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