Justice or Just-Us? Why Are Unions in Decline?
As the failed recall election in Wisconsin has reminded us, the labor movement in the United States has been on a downward trajectory for some time. Despite surges of public employee unionism, occasional rank-and-file militancy, the impact of civil rights and feminist organizing on workers, and even the innovative and inclusive labor campaigns that followed the integration of 1960s radicals into union ranks, the labor movement and its political influence continue to deteriorate. While it is possible to chalk up losses in union membership and density to economic forces and the effective opposition of employers and conservative politicians, fratricidal conflicts among labor’s progressive forces have played a crucial role. As Steve Early argues in his thoroughly researched The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, two unions that were responsible for dramatic gains in recent decades—the Service Employees International Union and UNITE-HERE—have been engaged not only in organizing the unorganized but also in raiding other unions, breaking strategic alliances, and taking over dissident locals. They have been at war with each other, even when opportunities to reform labor law and make new political gains demanded greater unity and even as political opposition has become more toxic and effective.
A richly detailed, straightforward, and compelling account of the recent collisions in the labor movement, Early’s book focuses on the union with the most spectacular, if controversial, record of growth and political influence—the SEIU. The book, which began as an exploration of the integration of Baby Boomers into the labor movement, evolved into an indictment of SEIU’s ascension into the ranks of Big Labor. Early’s chapter “Ivy League Amigos No More,” about friends Andy Stern, John Wilhelm, and Bruce Raynor going head-to-head over UNITE HERE and its relationship with SEIU and union federation Change to Win, provide some entertainment, but no reason to champion one side or cause in the fight. Imbued with the journalist’s duty to investigate, and his own partisan advocacy (combined with a distrust of that advocacy), Early finds few heroes here. Those that he does find are chiefly rank-and-file workers who found traction in the labor movement in the days before the Amigos Stern, Wilhelm, and Raynor came to power.
For Early, it is not just disappointment in labor’s failure to take advantage of Obama’s election to pass the Employee Fair Choice Act (EFCA) and improve the terms Obamacare, or the moral scandal of a few SEIU leaders like Tyrone Freeman embezzling union funds, or even the paradox of a social movement of workers led by college-educated men (and a few strategically placed women, gays, and lesbians) in which rank-and-file workers get no traction on the road to leadership positions. He is deeply offended by the hypocrisies and contradictions of a democratic movement for social justice that doesn’t act democratically. Only United Health Workers (UHW-SEIU), later National Health Workers (NUHW), conduct themselves with the democratic values that Early champions.