At a recent fundraising event for a city councilor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was drawn toward two UNITE-HERE staffers by their easily identifiable red and black shirts. I broke the ice by asking if they knew a friend of mine whom worked at UNITE-HERE, my former supervisor at 1199 Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This sparked a discussion about National Union of Healthcare Workers (formerly SEIU United Healthcare Workers West), SEIU, and UNITE-HERE, all of which have been involved in major internal struggles among major labor unions. One of the trade unionists gave an optimistic spin on the situation: UNITE-HERE came out stronger because of their battle with the purple giant, SEIU.
I pointed to Steve Early’s new book The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, to provide a counter-point. While his book focuses mainly on SEIU, Early also writes about Elvis Mendez, a fellow Massachusetts resident inspired to join the labor movement. At first attracted toward UNITE-HERE because it was more worker-led, Mr. Mendez found himself leafleting a workplace where SEIU was on the ballot, instead of mobilizing the unorganized. His union had no intention of running an election there, but merely wanted to punish SEIU for its transgressions against UNITE-HERE. Mendez said “I was essentially union-busting in a place where workers needed a union.” I brought this story to them and said “was all this union in-fighting really worth it?”
The story of Elvis Mendez is only one of the many powerful and convincing aspects of Early’s book. For me, however, the simplest and most powerful statement was the question of whether or not the union movement’s resources are being well spent. I respect the UNITE-HERE staffers with whom I spoke, and I might even be sympathetic to what they faced as a union. I could not, in all due respect, agree that what they went through was “worth it.” I saw first-hand how these civil wars – which seemed more like power grabs than ideological battles – hurt friendships, dampened morale, and channeled valuable staff time from organizing workers into a turf war. One can’t help to think of the millions of dollars spent that could have been used in new organizing or building relationships with communities. Imagine if the current SEIU seventeen-city plan to reach out to nonunion workers to build grassroots participation in community groups had been done in 2009 before the midterm elections.
You don’t need to read Steve Early’s book to understand that the battles between major labor unions in the midst of a major economic crisis was worse than wrong. It was stupid. Distracted by internecine warfare, the combatants not only wasted massive amounts of their members’ dues money – they failed to take advantage of the potential political opening created by the meltdown of neoliberal capitalism. What makes Early’s book a necessary read is the ideological framework he provides to critique this misguided era in American labor history. Moreover, as the previous story illustrates, he does so not only by critiquing the “democracy challenge” in SEIU, but many other unions as well – including the supposedly sacrosanct United Farm Workers.
The emphasis on the need for democratic control of labor unions might be overlooked by those looking for some Andy Stern bashing. Likewise, those who wish to paint Early’s work as a personalized vendetta may miss the broader institutional critiques he presents.
I have been active in and around the labor movement for over a decade. That includes student-labor solidarity, summer internships, and a few full-time jobs in the labor movement. I do not (and cannot) attempt to speak from the same kind of experience that other sisters and brothers in the union movement can draw on in addressing the many challenges confronted by organized labor in the U.S. What I can speak to is the question of democracy within large organizations like labor unions, and why this is not a question of personalities, but rather institutional structures.
Jerome Brown, a former Local 1199 and SEIU official in New England, was critical of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor because of Early’s reference to James C. Scott’s book Seeing Like a State, his well-known critique of the elitism often found within large, bureaucratic organizations. Early drew a comparison between SEIU leaders making decisions for workers with the dilemma of working class democracy faced by the Bolsheviks in post-1917 Soviet Russia. Brown writes:
Early reaches too far in his conclusion, comparing Stern’s loss of faith in membership democracy with the Bolsheviks’ loss of connection with the Russian proletariat. Stalinism in SEIU is a reach too far. Group-think on the executive board? Yes. Cult of personality for Stern? Yes. Elements of a Greek tragedy? Yes. All of these and probably a little bit more were present in SEIU. But the civil war in American labor – as troubling as it is – does not rise to the level of the arguments between Stalin and Trotsky.
This problematic simplification of Scott’s and Early’s works undermine their progressive message and democratic warning. To be sure, Andy Stern is not Joseph Stalin. But that’s not the point. Trade unionists support democracy over authoritarianism because we believe working people should have a voice not just at the ballot box, but also in the workplace. Our critique of totalitarianism is not just about a few awful murderous dictators, but also the lack of freedom for people to make decisions that affect them, and the rights to free speech and free association that makes the exercise of such freedoms possible. Just because a union president is not corrupt doesn’t excuse the lack of a democratic, participatory culture that defines life in most U.S. unions. Such an uncritical attitude toward the labor leadership among some on the left is nothing new in U.S. history. During the Cold War, many left-wing anti-Communists in the U.S. criticized their Stalinist counterparts for being slaves of Soviet autocracy while turning a blind eye toward the elitist practices of the “new men of power” at the top of the post-war labor movement.
Likewise, Scott and Early tackle the tough fact that many progressive and egalitarian movements have utterly failed in their quest to democratize large, complex institutions. The scale of these failures corresponds to the scale of the experiment – a union local, a city council, or a national state. Personalizing such a problem avoids dealing with the real issue: that power must come from the bottom up, even (especially) within organizations that are at least nominally progressive in their political orientation.
It is a fool’s errand to discuss whether Stern would become an American Stalin if he ever gained state power, or if any particular individual would abuse his or her position of power more than another. We should do all that we can to avoid creating, fostering, and supporting organizations where too much power falls into the control of one person or a small group. Every organization, but especially a progressive organization, needs democracy because people are imperfect, power corrupts, and decisions should be made as collectively as possible. That is where the comparison between, say an undemocratic union in the U.S. and a totalitarian party-state, come into play.
The existence of a progressive and diverse leadership in a union does not excuse the existence of undemocratic institutional relations within the organization. This can be just as problematic (perhaps more so) as a leadership composed exclusively of reactionary white males. Why? Because the latter has no pretensions of enacting the kind of broad based social and economic changes that radical democrats of all stripes wish to ultimately see in the world.
Those interested in fighting for a more democratic labor movement as an integral part creating a more just and democratic society should read The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor.