The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old?

Reviewed by Andrew

Steve Early, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old?

Steve Early addresses here the fate of the US labor movement in the context of the “civil wars” between the two rival trade union federations, the AFL-CIO and its split-off Change to Win (CTW) led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The Civil Wars in US Labor details the spectacular growth of SEIU and its development as a partner to business. Most of the book is devoted to recounting the infamous battles between SEIU and the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), the California Nurses Association (CNA), UNITE-HERE, AFSCME,1 and the thousands of rank and file workers frustrated by SEIU in their attempts to organize.

By the time of the Wisconsin Winter of 2011, labor’s civil wars seemed to have reached an armistice. After Governor Scott Walker announced his now infamous “Budget Repair Bill,” which would effectively eliminate collective bargaining for public sector workers, the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO organized two days of rallies and lobbying for their members that would, unbeknownst to them, explode into two months of mass protests at the state capitol in Madison. Despite early militant actions such as teacher “sick strikes” and blockades inside the capitol building by workers and students to prevent a vote on the bill, trade union officials continued to make concessions and refused to increase political pressure on Walker through continued job actions, opting instead to divert energy into recalls of Republican state senators.

So, while Civil Wars tells a story about the battles between trade unions for members and political clout, Wisconsin is a more classical story about the role of the trade union bureaucracy in a moment of historic attack. Though the two situations may have different guiding narratives, Civil Wars does give us a wealth of information about the US trade union movement that helps us understand what went into Wisconsin: Why a public sector struggle? Why a shift to recalls over job actions? What next from here?

Beginning with his own experience in the 1970s, Early points to how economic restructuring at that time led to a decline of union membership in its traditional industrial base, accelerating a trend that had begun at least a decade earlier. As the mainstays of the US labor movement (auto, steel, communications) withered, struggles for labor rights opened up new opportunities in the public sector and service industries. Teachers, nurses, and government workers provided the bulk of union growth for the next forty years to the extent that in 2009, “[f]or the first time in U.S. history, government-employees represented by unions (7.9 million) outnumbered dues payers in private industry (7.4 million)” (32).

Early shows how the drive to organize the public sector was in large part a response to the historic problem of organizing new workers under existing labor law, which in general creates more problems than it solves for US workers. A significant draw for unions to organize the public sector was that they could deploy a different set of tactics with politicians than with private capitalists. Much of SEIU’s enormous growth, Early notes, has been due to political deal-making to bend labor law and create new classifications of workers who can then be represented by a union with cards ready to go.

Civil Wars uses this discussion of the shift to public sector organizing to anticipate and explain the tension between SEIU and “competing” unions, but for Wisconsin it helps us understand the assault on public unions. If labor’s response to the crisis of membership in the private sector was to move into organizing the public sector (relying to some degree on political deals), it makes sense that labor’s next crisis would be located here. As part of an austerity agenda designed to roll back working-class gains, Walker’s bill targeted organized labor in its public sector refuge. Walker and his backers intended not just to lower the living standards of public sector workers, cutting artificial “costs” for the state, but also to limit trade union pull on electoral politics and policy.

This takes us to the tactical questions about trade union practice in Wisconsin. Militant activity by teachers and individual trade unionists suggested that Wisconsin workers were ready to escalate the struggle and become more confrontational with the Walker administration. But Walker ordered teachers back to work, and trade union officials offered contract concessions to Walker in exchange for continued collective bargaining rights. What seemed like an exciting and historic moment for labor militancy shifted decisively into recalls and special elections.

Civil Wars’ contribution to this discussion is in describing labor’s reliance on partnerships and politics in the formal sense. After forty years of union contracts designed to maintain good faith relationships between labor and the state, unions had developed increasingly into business institutions, largely hollow in the sense that they existed as collective bargaining units and not as instruments of working-class mobilization. Trade union leaders and rank-and-file activists alike lacked a history of struggles to prepare them for the Walker conflict. Moreover, trade union officials continued to see themselves as partners to politicians, even in the face of a hostile regime, and so the only approach that made sense (from their point of view) was to “correct” the system’s wrong turns and reinstate labor-friendly politicians to continue business as usual.

After passage of the Budget Repair Bill, a stolen Supreme Court election, failed recalls and the beginning of public union decertification across the state, it’s certainly worth asking “What next?” Early devotes considerable attention to the problem of low union density across the United States and how it generated conflict among SEIU, NUHW, UNITE-HERE, AFSCME and others. He stresses the need to organize the unorganized, but in a militantly democratic fashion. His steadfast defense of NUHW’s break from SEIU points to how member democracy is not just a principle that should be observed when possible, but is critically necessary for the vitality of unions and seems to deliver more consistently for rank and file workers than the political games played by union officials at the top. Moreover, instead of simply denouncing existing US labor law, Early lends critical support to efforts like the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) as a possible transition that can begin to mobilize workers for the trade union movement.

Although originating in a different context, the ideas are transferable to the Wisconsin experience. First and most importantly, the principle of member democracy has to be emphasized in a variety of ways. The repeated offenses of the trade union bureaucracy – not only in offering concessions, but in failing to respond to Walker’s aggressions – are the result of unaccountable officials and a system that is designed to be off-limits to ordinary workers. In the heat of the moment, no rank-and-file networks or caucuses existed to check the power of the bureaucracy and push them into a more militant and sensible direction.

Second, Wisconsin will have to take up the question about organizing workers where the division between public and private had been sharp. It remains to be seen whether we can “get collective bargaining back,” though given the consensus on austerity and the anti-worker climate, it is doubtful. Instead we should ask what kinds of visionary and transitional demands can be made to move beyond the situation and not just attempt to return to a fabled norm. Trade unions worked hard to brand the Wisconsin struggle as being solely a union struggle, even though unorganized workers rallied by the thousands in support of Badgercare (the state’s public health service), public transportation, civil rights, and environmental protections. Considering the road ahead, the unions will have to go beyond their traditional limited concerns and take seriously the larger attacks on the working class.

Lastly, the forms that class struggle takes in the 21st century are sure to be experimental and diverse. The restructuring of the economy will open up new fronts in the struggle and will give rise to new forms of organization. Civil Wars carries the subtitle, “Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old?” The question remains apt for us today.

Andrew Sernatinger baker, journalist, activist Madison, Wisconsin

Notes 1. UNITE-HERE, a CTW affiliate, represents textile and hotel & restaurant workers; AFSCME is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.