Arts & Events

Book Review: CIVIL WARS IN U.S. LABOR:Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? by Steve Early (Haymarket Books, 2011)

By Paul Rockwell
Sunday March 13, 2011 - 12:14:00 PM

In classical drama, tragedy is the story of a noble hero whose fall, whose ultimate ruin, flows from a tragic flaw of character—extreme pride, excessive ambition, lust for power—the flouting of natural limits imposed by the gods of justice. 

Steve Early’s riveting history of the second-largest labor union in the U.S.—the rise and decline of SEIU (Service Employees International Union)—has the feel of tragedy. It’s a cautionary tale about SEIU’s fatal flaw: centralization of union power by any means necessary. 

Almost twenty years ago the SEIU was one of the most progressive unions in the United States. Its outreach to immigrants, the Justice for Janitors victory in 1988, its organization of women and homecare workers all raised hopes that the decline of the American labor movement could be reversed. 

The 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers West, led by Sal Rosselli, former president of Local 250, played a pioneering role in the ascendancy of SEIU. The historic, “gold-standard” contract with Kaiser in 2005, crafted by the same negotiators who lead NUHW (National Union of Healthcare Workers) today, bolstered SEIU’s power and prestige. One hundred and fifty local activist members participated directly in the 2005 contract negotiations. 

Now the glory days of SEIU are over. Stern’s old Change To Win Federation, cannibalized from within by SEIU raids on sister unions, has already self-destructed. SEIU is no longer the same international union in which so many workers placed their hopes some years ago. SEIU today is the most hated, the most divisive labor organization in the U.S. No union in recent times raised hopes so high, and no union has sunk so low. 

To what end, for whose benefit, and by what means, did SEIU turn a member-active international union into a corporate hierarchy, dominated by lawyers, $230,000-a-year executives, consultants, 1-800 remote call-centers, and well-paid staff who now manage the workforce? And how did SEIU leaders—not only Stern, but Mary Kay Henry and her own sidekick, the hate-preaching Dave Regan—alter the internal relationships of power so swiftly and dramatically? And with such impunity. These are the kinds of questions that Early addresses in CIVIL WARS IN U.S. LABOR. 

Early is a participatory journalist who’s handled contract grievances, trained shop stewards, recruited youth to the labor movement, led strikes and boycotts. He is not only an experienced organizer, he is a polished writer with a knowledge of labor history, as well as the history of politics and war. No writer is in a better position to survey the rise and fall of SEIU. 

Early’s chronicle is based on meticulous research: direct observation at worksites, published and unpublished documents, interviews with rank-and-file activists, with key players like California Nurses Association’s Rose Ann Demoro and UNITE HERE’s John Wilhelm. Early also draws on the best contemporary pro-labor, pro-democracy writing: POOR WORKERS' UNIONS, by Vanessa Tait, and BEYOND THE FIELDS, by Randy Shaw. 


Trusteeship—or rather, the abuse of trusteeship power—is the key to understanding the moral and structural degeneration of SEIU. 

Trusteeship is a form of martial law. In so far as trusteeship is legal, trusteeship is an exceptional event under exceptional circumstances. At best, it is an extraordinary measure designed to rescue members of a local union from corrupt or inept officials. Any takeover of a union that removes hundreds of elected leaders and thousands of stewards is not a legal trusteeship; it’s a purge, a coup. 

In the 1950s the United Mine Workers carried out open-ended trusteeships that produced disastrous consequences for the coal miners. In the aftermath of political trusteeships, contract negotiations were conducted in secret. Sweetheart contracts were signed. Working conditions deteriorated. Black Lung disease spread. The end of member control in the UMW, Early reminds us, “led to a dark descent into the worst sort of union racketeering….” 

Jimmy Hoffa’s mob-run Teamsters also used trusteeship as a way of rewarding political allies and punishing rank-and-file activism. In the history of American labor, trusteeships are more often a cause of corruption than a remedy for wrongs in local affairs. 


No labor union in modern history has employed trusteeship so ruthlessly and systematically as SEIU. A pamphlet by the California Nurses Association is entitled: “Andy Stern’s Playbook for Conquest. Hostile Takeovers of Unions and Workers.” 

According to Vanessa Tait in POOR WORKERS’ UNIONS, published in 2005, fourteen percent of SEIU affiliates were under trusteeship at that time. Some 40 locals were already “forced into trusteeships with officers newly appointed by the national union, usually from outside the units they handled.” In the same period, Stern also engineered 136 forced mergers. Locals were dismembered. Experienced organizers (like Paul Krehbiel of Local 660) were fired. Shop steward networks were replaced by Call Centers. 

The systematic destruction of democratic infrastructures of SEIU, the product of years of organizing and struggle, spawned a culture of resignation, conformity and fear. 

Between 2005 and 2010, the number of takeovers doubled. According to Early’s account, by 2010 Stern had put more than 80 local unions under trusteeship or forced mergers. No period in history matches the scale and scope of SEIU’s serial takeovers. Juan Gonzalez, columnist for the New York Daily News, captured the meaning of the trusteeship campaign when he called SEIU “the Roman Empire of the labor movement.” 


SEIU trusteeships are part of a longterm agenda to corporatize the union—by command, by force, and fiat. Each trusteeship is planned long before SEIU manufactures a scandal, some pretext for a takeover. Notwithstanding a master plan, when the actual takeovers take place in specific jurisdictions, they are marketed to the local victims as rescue operations. 

In 2000, SEIU trusteed virtually the entire province of Ontario, Canada. SEIU attempted to merge eight local unions, only to provoke an exodus from SEIU. In order to void a membership vote against involuntary mergers, SEIU trusteed six locals. Trusteeship was a pre-emptive strike, though no weapons of union destruction were ever discovered. The Ontario tornado manifests a pattern. Forced mergers drive members to resist. Trusteeship is imposed. All staff lose their jobs—their livelihoods. Executive committees are dismantled. Then unscrupulous law firms launch punitive lawsuits. SEIU filed a $3.7 million lawsuit against Ken Brown, former vice-president of the Canadian local. Since SEIU locals have no rights which the International is bound to respect (under the present constitution), elected officers who oppose mergers can be sued. 

Local 87 in San Francisco faced the same fate as Canadian locals. Contrary to their express wishes, Local 87 members were forced to merge with Local 1877. When the International placed 87 in trusteeship, all staff were dismissed, the elected president removed as well. In the aftermath of the takeover, “workers ended up with health care givebacks in a local unwilling to fight layoffs,” writes Early. 

Early quotes Monty Kroopkin on the disappointing effects of SEIU forced mergers in San Diego: “The 2007 mergers resulted (for us) in not only no elected leadership, but a culture of no accountability, grossly overpaid senior staff, a severe reduction in the amount of information members got about anything; weak-to-nonexistent enforcement of our contracts; a steady decline in our membership numbers; loss of two bargaining units to decertification and independent unions...” 


Steve Early is not a muckraker. His approach to SEIU is sociological, focused on the structures of power. According to Early, excessive power and corruption are twins. The recent corruption scandals in SEIU are not mere accidents of time and place. Corruption is an inherent feature of business unionism by trusteeship. 

Long before the Los Angeles Times, in Paul Pringle’s 2008 award-winning series, disclosed rampant corruption in SEIU (in the very locals under trusteeship), Steve Early himself, in 2004, warned the labor movement about the potential for SEIU scandals. The forced mergers and purges, the trusteeships were omens. While many pro-labor academics were still in awe of Stern’s audacity, Early called attention to the SEIU patronage, where loyalists and suck-ups are rewarded with “consulting fees,” where trustees and outsiders spend other people’s money without transparency or accountability. Early predicted that abuse of trusteeship powers would “come back to haunt the union.” “Corruption scandals will erupt sooner or later,” he wrote. Sooner as it turned out. 

The scandals broke. Byron Hobbes, the executive vice president who billed his local for $9,000 in personal expenses; Tyrone Freeman, the much-coddled president of the largest local in the U.S., found guilty of embezzlement; Rickman Jackson, head of Michigan’s largest local (and Dave Regan’s co-organizer of the “brown shirt” disruption of a Labor Notes conference), mired in lease-payment scandals; Annelle Grajeda, who used her influence to put her ex-boyfriend on a county payroll; Garold Lawson, who grabbed more than $70,000 from a small union with 200 members—the list of criminals and double-dippers goes on. 

Far from cleaning out improprieties within local jurisdictions, the Stern and Henry trusteeships actually infused corruption and malfeasance into locals that were once healthy and democratic. Corruption grew like mushrooms in the dark. The trusteeship campaigns essentially dismantled the frail safeguards by which rank-and-file members protect their rights, their dues and treasury, the very integrity of union life. 


No one writes more convincingly about the power and hope of union democracy than Steve Early. CIVIL WARS IN U.S. LABOR is not only a comprehensive history of the rise and degeneration of a once-progressive union, it’s also a story of the resistance—the democracy movement within SEIU and the insurgency of the National Union of Healthcare Workers—the same activists who built UHW, until they were trusteed in 2009. 

The resistance first appeared a few years ago as a challenge to the openly anti-democratic ideology of Andy Stern. Stern rewrote the SEIU constitution, depriving local members of control over their own contract negotiations. 

Stern was not especially subtle about SEIU aims to remake the union along corporate lines. He mocked the defenders of democratic unionism, and he called membership-run locals impediments to change. 

In a series of interviews, he claimed that workers don’t really care about abstract democracy. “Our members are more concerned about being serviced.” “It’s hard to make the argument that unions with direct elections better represent their members.” 

In The Wall Street Journal, Stern called for “a new model of unionism less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.” 

Stern often used caricature to express his contempt for membership-run unions. He called Local 29 an “anachronism.” “Leaders who stand in the way of change, screaming democracy...just don’t get it.” For workers “who just don’t get it,” he advocated the “persuasion of power.” Ergo trusteeship, the use of police against dissidents, the use of espionage against union members, vigilante violence, punitive lawsuits against elected union officers who stand with the members. 

Lies are halfway around the world before truth gets out of bed. And many SEIU locals were already dismembered when committees of correspondence began to form. Pro-democracy activists throughout the country—the very organizers who devoted years of their lives building steward councils, safeguards against layoffs, local power—slowly began to challenge the totalitarian visions of Stern, Berger, and Henry. 

Sal Rosselli is the most passionate, the most articulate defender of grassroots power in the labor movement. For Rosselli, democracy is not (as Stern’s caricature implied) some moral abstraction; it’s the lifeblood of a union, the primary means by which labor empowers itself, secures and enforces decent contracts. 

Every major victory in labor history, from the right to organize, to the eight-hour day, was achieved through mobilization of the rank and file. Centralization of power, seductive as it seems to college-educated reformers who seek quick results through top-down commands, is fatal to union vitality and health. 

While others in the labor movement slept, NUHW took a stand. As Amy Ryan, a Kaiser worker, put it in her testimony during the trial of the NUHW-16: “We knew SEIU was coming, and we wanted to be there to make our stand and let them know that the members don’t want them to destroy the union that was the citadel of our hopes and dreams.” 

In a fitting conclusion to his definitive work, Early writes: “One can only hope that the creativity, tenacity, and courage of the California health care workers—who stuck to their guns when the political artillery of others fell silent—points the way toward a better model of worker organization. Until there is a broader rank-and-file militancy, the NUHW struggle will remain an inspiring example and necessary experiment in independent unionism in a situation where the road to internal union reform was hopelessly blocked. Sustaining a fledgling labor organization, with few resources but a resilient rank-and-file, has not been—and will not be—easy. The path taken by NUHW members was born of internal union strife occurring at a bad time for union organizing in general. It was not a path freely chosen.” 

And to this I humbly add: History will vindicate Sal Rosselli, the leaders of NUHW, and thousands of activists who, at great cost to themselves, in face harassment and intimidation, took a stand in defense of the right of workers to control their own destiny.