Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Review: Civil Wars In U.S. Labor by Steve Early

Ever since Florence Reese wrote the lyrics to Which Side Are You On? in 1931, that question has been posed between labor and the bosses. With his latest offering, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, Steve Early will have workers and activists asking themselves where they stand in the labor movement.

In Civil Wars, Early, who is a well known critic of SEIU’s lack of internal democracy, meticulously dissects the various internal issues that have plagued the organization over the last several years. At the same time he also gives a historical background to provide adequate context for the reader to understand where the problems originated. Early discusses the failure of the MAC (Member Action Center) Call Centers in a chapter that is humorously titled, Dial 1-800-My-Union? The MAC line was a running joke during my time as an SEIU Organizer with District 1199 in West Virginia, as it consisted of an answering machine and an email being sent to the organizer to fix whatever issue had been reported.

While Civil Wars gives a very detailed account of the hostile takeover of United Healthcare West that led to the formation of NUHW (National Union of Healthcare Workers), Early also points out that while this trusteeship is by far the most publicized and biggest action by SEIU, it is certainly not the first. Early explains how Andy Stern crushed dissent in other locals by forcing their members into other locals who were either already under trusteeship, or under the leadership of Stern loyalists.

Early does not end his coverage of SEIU’s woes with internal issues. In a section titled How EFCA Died for ObamaCare, Early explains how SEIU burrowed into a position of influence inside the Obama administration and effectively elbowed out other unions. This is something that has put even more stress on the already fractured relationship SEIU has with the rest of big labor.

As a former SEIU staffer, I found myself cringing as I read Civil Wars, much as many rock stars must have cringed watching Spinal Tap for the first time. I believe this book should be required reading, not only for members of SEIU, who will find Civil Wars to be a disturbing peek behind the purple curtain, but also for anyone who cares about the future of the labor movement.  I found Civil Wars to be a disturbing validation of what I experienced firsthand as an organizer with SEIU.  The chickens have finally come home to roost after twenty years of shifting from a grassroots democratic union into a top-down bureaucratic corporation that places a higher value on political influence than it does on member representation.  

Civil Wars offers a unique look inside the challenging proposition facing NUHW that is all too familiar for IWW members – surviving as an independent union.  Among the major labor organizations in the United States, only a few, namely IWW and the United Electrical Workers(UE) have survived over the long-term.  NUHW’s recent partnership with the Machinists(IAM) demonstrates just how difficult it can be.
While Early focuses on SEIU, the issues that are raised in Civil Wars are faced by members in many other unions. When unions begin to look more like the corporations they are supposed to be fighting than the militant, democratic voice for workers that they are meant to be, it is only natural that the battle lines will begin to form, as Civil Wars clearly shows.

The real question Early seems to be asking is, very simply, Which Side Are You On?

No comments:

Post a Comment