Difference Maker Steve Early takes on SEIU and Labor’s Civil Wars.

Steve Early's second books takes on SEIU and U.S. labor's civil wars.

Social change efforts often run into multiple obstacles.

The first, and often most visible, are the external barriers to change.  We have seen this dramatically during the past 10 days in Egypt, where tens of thousands of citizens have gathered daily to demand that longtime leader Hosni Mubarak resign immediately.   During the apartheid regime in South Africa, the government was another clear example of this category.

The internal challenges are often the less visible ones that can be harder to successfully surmount for a number of reasons, the first of which is resources. Almost invariably, one of  the internal factions has more people, money and access to power than the other.  There also can be the pressure of presenting a unified front so as not to appear splintered,  to have less effect and to be prone to manipulation.

Even with these challenges, some people and organizations decide it is worth it to wage the equivalent of what many African-Americans during World War II called the quest for the Double Victory-defeating Hitler at home and segregation abroad.

Longtime labor writer Steve Early focuses his considerable intelligence, experience and knowledge on such an instance in The Civil War in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old?, his second book.

I read, enjoyed and wrote about Early’s first book, Embedded with Organized Labor, a collection that organized some of his many previous publications into chapter form.

The seeds of the second book were visible toward the end of the first, when Early devoted a full chapter to the anti-democratic leadership of former SEIU head Andy Stern.  I wrote about Early’s first book that his tone “shifts at different points from an earnest and informed historian to a disappointed friend to a hopeful brother. ”

In Civil Wars, the tone is more consistently outraged and even disgusted.  In the book’s conclusion, for example, he compares SEIU’s misdeeds to the early years of the Soviet Union, persisting with the example even after he acknowledges that some might object to it!

Indeed, SEIU’s abuses are the sole focus of this work, which throws and lands a lot of blows.   Early writes in great detail of the purple brigade’s top-down management style, corruption, increasingly pro-business orientation, implementation of call service centers, and outright invasion and ransacking of competing unions’ offices.  Stern comes in for the heaviest criticism, but Early spares neither successor Mary Kay Henry nor the other executive board members.

If SEIU, Stern and his cronies are the villains in this story, Sal Rosselli and members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers are some of its heroes.  Early shows how they found within themselves the courage to confront and oppose SEIU’s actions.

As with his previous book, Civil Wars is richly informative, with Early’s willingness to take on sacred cows very much in evidence.  He offers a detailed and myth-puncturing critique of labor icon Cesar Chavez’s autocratic management style and a less revelatory, but also thorough, account of Obama’s tepid support of the movement that poured millions and millions of dollars into his campaign to get him elected.

Chicago area readers may wince when they read the part of the book in which former Gov. Rod Blagojevich makes a cameo appearance, while the section about how many sixties era radicals decided to settle in the labor movement is an intriguing take on those people and that time.

Civil Wars does have some drawbacks.  The work has an absolute panoply of acronyms that at times can make it hard to follow.  To a large degree this comes from Early’s encyclopedic knowledge of the labor movement, and a list of relevant organizations might have been helpful.

Beyond that, though, Early is so committed in the work to exposing SEIU’s flaws that he spends minimal time on the new workers’ movement mentioned in the title. His belief in a grassroots and “small d” democratic style is apparent, yet he does not provide a broader description of the unions, besides those affected by and opposed to SEIU, who operate in that style.

In this way, the book mirrors some of organized labor’s struggles.  At times the workers and leaders are spending so much time and energy on battling each other that there is precious little left to combat an increasingly globalized economy and a correspondingly decreased unionized workforce.

In other words, the external adversaries have been gaining strength while the civil wars have been raging.

Early of course is all too aware of this danger.   He writes in the book’s final sentences that the failure to create more viable and just union options to those of SEIU means that “management won’t have to do much to prevent unions from spreading beyond the seven percent of the private sector workforce they already represent.  The damage done to organized labor’s prospects for revival will be, at least partially, self-inflicted.  And the continuing downward spiral of union density could reach the point of no return.”

Sober words from a dedicated, insightful and hopeful observer of, and participant in, the labor scene.  Civil Wars is far from the only book to not fully deliver on its title’s promise by being heavier on problem identification than it is on articulating a solution.  Early’s book is a valuable contribution that helps us gain a deeper understanding of the causes and costs of civil war as well as of the external difficulties  the labor movement faces in its efforts to enact its vision.

 

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