Rebuilding fighting unions: Lessons from the US

The Civil wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old?
By Steve Early, Haymarket Books, $24.95

The “organising model” developed by unions in the US has been held up as a way to reverse shrinking union density across the Western world. 

But as long-term US union official Steve Early chronicles in his book The Civil wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old?, the model has proved disastrous for American unions.

Early argues that in the interests of building greater density, union leaders traded away working conditions and the right to strike, and sacrificed union democracy, leaving members as passive onlookers rather than participants and leaders. 

Over the past three decades, US union officials have sought new strategies to stem a serious decline in membership, now at 16.1 million representing just 11.4 per cent of the workforce (down from 20.1 per cent in 1983), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The organising model pioneered by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) under President Andy Stern held out a popular vision of union success and saw the union recruit 2.2 million new members, many among vulnerable casual employees in previously poorly organised workplaces.
The high-profile Justice for Janitors campaign in the mid-1980s revived an ailing SEIU and drew attention to this new approach.

The SEIU model has been taken up by many trade unions in Australia, faced with the same declining membership. Many officials have visited the US to learn about the model.

By 2005 the SEIU and other union officials were building a new union federation, Change to Win, after a split to the left from the existing AFL-CIO union federation.
But since then it’s gone pear-shaped. Steve Early argues there is now widespread disillusionment with the model.

“The Stern/SEIU model … abhors rank-and-file initiative, shopfloor militancy and democratic decision making by workers themselves,” he says.
Early argues that the SEIU became a “… deeply flawed, increasingly autocratic institution that doesn’t deliver as advertised, no matter who is in charge.”

What went wrong?

Their union-building methodology is called “Organising Works” which sounds like it aims to build strong unions. The SEIU did build a large membership—recruiting about 21 per cent of all new members across the union movement in the US. 

However, “organising” came to mean just recruiting. In the public sector they tried to “neutralise” employer hostility by supporting local and state politicians who then let them recruit in public service workplaces without hitting them with the full force of a modern American anti-union campaign. In the private sector they would “neutralise” employers by giving them concessions over wages and conditions, as well as no-strike provisions for up to 10 years.

This meant trading away rights in exchange for recruiting more members—which did nothing to increase the union’s ability to take action on the job or its real strength.

The SEIU also introduced call centre unionism. Instead of a workplace delegate, you rely on advice from a call centre. Many Australian unions have followed this path.

According to an SEIU report, titled Union of the Future, the idea was to build a “rosy future in which members would be so strongly supported” by call centres that stewards and field staff could then “focus on building the union: identifying and developing leaders; organising around workplace issues; fighting for better contracts, uniting more workers, and winning politically and in the community.”

This may sound good to union delegates bogged down by huge numbers of membership grievances in the context of a low level of struggle.

In fact it was another way of sacrificing workplace organising in favour of recruiting, leaving members relying on distant offices staffed by people without an interest in the local conditions, and did nothing to build members’ confidence to fight at a workplace level.

Top down leadership
Andy Stern and his union were well-supported by the press as the “most savvy, well-funded labor player in politics”. They became a driving force behind the election of Barack Obama, spending $60.7 million on the election campaign, hoping for union-friendly legislation which has still not eventuated.

But it was not the rank and file members who gained from the union’s tremendous financial and political clout, but a small layer of officials, who over time, reduced the decision-making role of ordinary members to almost zero. Thus Andy Stern described his union’s style, in the Wall Street Journal, as “a new model less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.”

Full-time union officials are a conservative layer with a distinct class interest separate to the workers they represent. Removed from the everyday experience of the workplace, their positions and influence are reliant on the wealth and resources of the union. Union leaders are professional negotiators who rely on their ability to do deals with the bosses.

When the confidence of union members to take industrial action is weak, union leaders are especially vulnerable to the wishes of the more powerful bosses.

Early explains how the drive for increased density meant compromises with politicians and managers, leading to increased inter-union competition and demarcation disputes. SEIU’s rise in density sometimes came from poaching members from other unions.

This process is illustrated in Early’s account of the 2008 SEIU Convention, held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was held under strict security, including mounted police and private security guards, along with metal barricades. Delegates were bussed in and had to show ID at the door.

All this protection was tragically designed to undermine striking teachers in San Juan and defend their employer and local governor, Anibal Acevedo Vila. Workers in the public school teachers union, the FMPR, set up pickets at the convention, opposing the 30 month stalling of contract talks.

The SEIU were also protecting a project to replace this union with one of their own making, associated with the existing school principals and supervisors union, the UPRT. The SEIU was doing something it often did in the US—fighting for coverage of sections of the workforce against another union, regardless of the wishes of the actual workers.

Over time, members accused the SEIU of being a “company union”, as it traded away more rights and working conditions. As the San Francisco Weekly reported: “model contracts in California prevented SEIU members from reporting ‘healthcare violations to state regulators, to other public officials, or to journalists except in cases where the employees are required by law to report egregious cases of neglect and abuse.’”

The SEIU leadership dealt with internal opposition by bureaucratically taking over sections of the union, replacing dissidents with loyal officials. One example was longtime elected leader in the UHW section of SEIU, Sal Roselli.

After leading a reform movement at the convention he then found his union committee ousted, with himself and 100 other officers overthrown from above. They have since established a new union, the NUHW. This produced another inter-union war over coverage in that industry.

This is a sad story. Andy Stern started as a militant union delegate in the public service union, PSSU, in the late 1970s, opposing conservative union officials, and becoming president of that union. By 1996 he was president of the SEIU.

The SEIU experience became an extreme example of collaboration with employers to aid recruitment. But this was the result of the flawed idea that density alone could rebuild union strength.
The real key to unions’ strength is the capacity to take industrial action and to strike. This is the only real power unions have to force concessions from the bosses. But it is precisely this kind of strength that the SEIU’s approach did nothing to build.

Here in Australia, the peak union federation the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) adopted a version of the organising model in its efforts to reverse declining membership through the 1990s. But this has done nothing to halt the decline, with membership continuing to fall as a proportion of the workforce and only stabilising in the second half of the 2000s.

Australian unions also failed to grow out of the 2005-07 Your Rights at Work campaign, despite the success in defeating the Howard government. Total union membership actually fell by 89,000 in the year to August 2007. This was the result of the ACTU prioritising community-based campaign groups in marginal electorates, rather than action at a workplace level.

The result was neither an increased confidence to campaign in the workplace nor a larger layer of rank-and-file union activists.

But some unions have been able to reverse the trend.The Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union doubled its size in the 10 years to 2008, and won better pay and conditions by so-called “old-fashioned” organising.

The Australian Education Union grew by 20,000 members in 2007-08, mainly on the back of a strong industrial campaign in Victoria. State-wide strikes during the campaign were the best supported in its history, with over 25,000 teachers striking and 10,000 attending a mass meeting and march in February 2008.

The lesson is that unions can reverse the decline if they involve their members and engage in action over pay, conditions and wider political issues. In the 1970s, the link between union militancy and membership was obvious—when strike days trebled from two million in 1972 to over six million in 1974, union membership leapt by 300,000.

Steve Early supports a model of unions where organising means building strong rank-and-file leadership—shop stewards and local officials elected by the members. Such unions can only be built in struggles carried out by ordinary workers with leaders who follow the direction of the members.

With the aid of US working class history, Early points to a history of resistance to business unionism and how, even in very difficult times of high unemployment like the 1930s Depression, working class mobilisation built strong union structures based on democratic rank-and-file participation.

This book is an important read for all union activists.
By Judy McVey


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