Unions Can’t Revitalize Without Bolstering Rank-and-File Power

Within the labor movement, all of the bright ideas and strategic insights in the world won’t amount to much if the democratic rights of union members themselves aren’t respected, restored, and expanded.

SEIU Justice for Janitors rally in Seattle, Washington, June 15, 2016. (Wikimedia Commons)

In a recent conversation with an otherwise well-informed young labor activist, I made a passing reference to Change to Win (CTW), a national labor federation formed in 2005 by defectors from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). “Change to what?” she asked. “Never heard of it.”

Her response was not surprising, given the short shelf life of the organizational brand in question. Launched with much media fanfare, CTW initially represented 5.5 million workers, about one-fifth of the AFL-CIO’s total membership. Its founders — the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters, Carpenters, Laborers, United Farm Workers (UFW), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and UNITE HERE — saw themselves as the second coming of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the rival federation created in the mid-1930s to spearhead mass organizing in that era.

To “build power for workers” seventy years later, key CTW strategists favored organizational consolidation in the form of more mergers between national unions and internal consolidation of members into larger regional or multistate locals. Labor scholar Ruth Milkman penned a New York Times opinion piece hailing CTW as “labor’s best hope — maybe its only hope — for revitalization.”

CTW did not live up to such hype. It was soon wracked by internal conflict, precipitated by then SEIU president Andy Stern’s controversial restructuring of health care locals in California and his disastrous meddling in the internal affairs of UNITE HERE. That organizing-oriented union and two other founders of CTW, UFCW and the Laborers, returned to the AFL-CIO and were welcomed back.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters quit CTW but did not rejoin the federation. Instead, under the authoritarian rule of president Douglas McCarron, jurisdictional battles with AFL-CIO construction unions continued to rage. Rather than adding to any political shift for the better within organized labor, McCarron became President George W. Bush’s biggest union supporter and endorsed other Republicans like Bush’s brother Jeb when he was governor of Florida.

Last year, under new and improved national leadership, the Teamsters finally quit CTW. This led SEIU, the still-tiny UFW, and my own union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), an AFL-CIO affiliate which opposed the creation of CTW, to rebrand their current collaboration as a Strategic Organizing Center (SOC). The SOC maintains a small staff to produce “cutting edge research for innovative campaigns.” On its modest new website, Change to Win (and its original pledge to devote nearly a billion dollars to new organizing) is relegated to the memory hole, getting no mention at all.

Signature Campaigns

After the rise, decline, and now official disappearance of CTW, labor activists interested in strategic thinking associated with its founding unions should check out two new University of Illinois Press offerings: Purple Power: The History and Global Impact of SEIU, edited by Louis Aguiar and Joseph McCartin, and The Way We Build: Restoring Dignity to Construction Work, by Mark Erlich, a former regional leader of the Carpenters in New England, who is now a research fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy.

Both books include valuable studies of industries where workers once had bargaining clout and then deunionization occurred, which required new membership-recruitment strategies in response. While modernization efforts in SEIU and the Carpenters ended up having similar problematic features, the differences between a multisectoral industrial union and a more traditional building-trades organization are often apparent.

In Purple Power, twelve academic researchers plus the coeditors recount SEIU’s more varied history as a health care, public employee, and service-sector union. Chapters trace the development of signature campaigns among janitors and fast-food workers and SEIU’s promotion of its “organizing model” among labor federations abroad (even as CTW floundered back home). Unfortunately, there is no account of the current Starbucks drive, backed by Workers United, an SEIU affiliate acquired (at UNITE HERE’s expense) during the CTW crack-up. That more worker-led effort has gained far greater shop-floor traction, via hundreds of representation election wins and an ongoing first contract struggle, than SEIU’s more community-based, past agitation for fast-food wage increases, “the Fight for $15.”

Purple Power does focus, in revealing fashion, on the career of SEIU’s best-known organizer, Stephen Lerner. A key strategist behind Justice for Janitors campaigning in the mid-1980s and later, Lerner got his start in labor, like many others, as a UFW volunteer. He then helped organize factory workers and public employees. Within SEIU, he became a Stern-appointed national executive board member and director of SEIU’s building services division, before being pushed out of the union after Mary Kay Henry replaced Stern as president in 2010.

Lerner is now a research fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, directed by Purple Power coeditor McCartin, a Georgetown history professor. In McCartin’s view, as a labor historian, 1.8 million workers greatly benefit from the work that Stern, Lerner, former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and many others did to make SEIU “the most successful union in North America, and one of the most influential in the world.”

Rebuilding in Core Industries

To achieve that degree of success, SEIU first had to address a late-twentieth-century open-shop trend in building services, its traditional core jurisdiction. As Lerner recounts, “the original roots of the union were dying — cities were going non-union. The industry was getting contracted out [and SEIU] was accepting concessions in an attempt to protect union contractors from lower-paying non-union contractors.”

As documented in Purple Power (and previous books or films like Bread and Roses), SEIU organizers succeeded in mobilizing a now largely immigrant workforce through strikes, building occupations, protest vigils, and civil disobedience that sought union recognition and master contracts in more than thirty cities in the United States and Canada. At its peak, Justice for Janitors activity helped win improvements for several hundred thousand janitors by making their plight a much-publicized labor cause célèbre, locally and nationally.

Justice for Janitors demonstration in Denver, Colorado, August 1986. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Way We Build provides a detailed account of a parallel threat to US construction workers. Since 1971 in the building trades, Erlich reports, “real wages have plummeted by an astonishing 15 percent, a function of the decline in union density and the corresponding growth of the lower-waged, non-union sector.” The resulting two-tier workforce now includes union members who have apprentice programs, good wages and benefits, and workplace safety protections, while working on big projects with public or private funding in regional union strongholds. But a much larger pool of workers, particularly in the South, Southwest, and Rocky Mountain states and working on residential construction, have “lower pay, unsafe conditions, no benefits, no collective voice, and periodic wage theft.”

As Erlich shows, one key management tool for union busting and lowering labor standards has been the widespread misclassification of these often foreign-born workers as “independent contractors.” In the race to the bottom in construction, nothing gets you there quicker than shedding normal employer responsibilities for providing group health insurance or workers’ comp coverage and paying payroll taxes for Social Security, Medicare, or state unemployment benefits.

As Erlich notes, the resulting loss of “union market share” led the Carpenters to “streamline and reduce the number of struggling locals.” Beginning in the 1990s, and with greater impact during McCarron’s twenty-eight-year reign, the union “established regional councils as intermediary bodies to reflect changing dynamics in the industry, to mirror an increasingly regionalized group of employer counter-parts, and to replace the chaos of decentralized and sometimes contradictory decision-making by autonomous local unions with a more uniform set of policies and guidelines across multiple states.”

A graduate of Columbia University, Erlich was uniquely positioned to play a role in this process. Few ’60s radicals joined the conservative building trades rather than “colonizing” in white-collar or industrial union workplaces where left-wing labor traditions, however tattered, seemed easier to invoke and uphold fifty years ago. Yet Erlich ended up working for thirteen years as a rank-and-file carpenter in Massachusetts. He was elected business manager of a small Carpenters local in Boston before becoming a creative and energetic regional organizer for the union.

In 2005, he won a contested election for executive secretary-treasurer of a New England–wide Carpenters Council with twenty-four thousand members and an appointed staff of one hundred. In that leadership role, he became one of the highest paid building-trades officials in eastern Massachusetts and personally had to manage “the tension between the efficiencies of a streamlined operation and the democratic nature of local grassroots activity.” In The Way We Build, the author acknowledges that union “centralization can come at a cost” because “centralized power can and has been abused.”

However, Erlich’s book never grapples, in any more detail, with a problem that the Association for Union Democracy has well documented for the past half century. Top-down control in the building trades is a major obstacle to their revitalization, because it breeds organizational corruption involving payoffs from employers or rip-offs of union treasuries and benefit plans by officials already collecting outlandish salaries. For example, despite having only 430,000 dues-payers, the carpenters’ union pays seventy-three-year old McCarron more than $600,000 a year — an amount twice Mary Kay Henry’s pay for presiding over a membership four times larger.

Convention election of top Carpenters’ officers is tightly controlled, and internal restructuring has deprived rank and filers of the ability to directly elect key officers in the union’s regional councils. After Erlich retired, his own six-state council was subsumed into a new North Atlantic States Regional Council that includes members from New York. Under McCarron — like SEIU’s Stern — dissident locals were put under trusteeship, and members seeking more democratic internal structures were forced to disaffiliate.

In 2007, for example, thousands of British Columbia carpenters won a decade-long struggle to create an independent union called the Construction Maintenance and Allied Workers (CMAW), which followed a trajectory similar to that of the fifteen thousand–member National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). The latter was formed in 2009 after Stern seized control over SEIU’s third largest affiliate, United Healthcare Workers–West, because the elected leaders of its 150,000 members had questioned his health care organizing and bargaining strategy.

A Mega-Local Mistake?

The architects of SEIU restructuring, who are much applauded in Purple Power, believed that the largest trusteeship in US labor history was justified by the need for internal unity behind Stern’s preferred strategies for SEIU’s core industries. Few were worried that top-down control, in multiplying forms, would ever adversely impact the multistate Justice for Janitors campaign led by Lerner and others.

In Purple Power, Lerner describes his own initial enthusiasm for “creating larger locals within geographic areas that mirrored how the [building services] industry was structured” in order to better coordinate organizing and bargaining involving common employers. But when SEIU headquarters took this consolidation trend too far — over Lerner’s objections, he now discloses — the result was multistate entities like New York City–based Local 32BJ, which currently boasts 150,000 members from Boston to Miami.

According to Lerner, such “mega locals” were “a mistake which cut the heart out of Justice for Janitors,” because they soon began operating “as regional fiefdoms, focused on negotiating and organizing regionally [thereby] undercutting a national industry wide strategy.” Worse yet, SEIU now has giant affiliates “that in some ways mirror building-trades locals in that they align with the industry and oppose ideas like rent control because the industry opposes it.”

Lerner now faults Stern and other SEIU executive board members for believing they “could have a different kind of relationship with the industry that no longer required pitched battles.”

We [in Justice for Janitors] believed in using our base and power to build a mass movement and exponential growth. They [Lerner’s foes within SEIU] believed in incremental gains and finding ways to show employers the union could be a good partner. It was often called “peace plus.” Meaning SEIU needed to convince employers that not only did settling with the union bring “peace” — no strikes — but the settling with the union also meant we would be their ally on issues like zoning, rent control, etc.”

Similar labor-management partnering and transactional politics have long been the conservative modus operandi of construction unions, with the mixed results described by Erlich. Conspicuously missing from his argument for craft union innovation in the twenty-first century is much discussion of who can propel “the trades” in a better direction.

Douglass J. McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, speaks at the annual meeting of the Council on Competitiveness, in Washington, DC, October 26, 2007. (Jay Mallin / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Painters Union gets a shout-out for electing its first African-American president, Ken Rigmaiden. Before his recent retirement, Rigmaiden took the enlightened stance that “we need to support our current members but also support those workers who want to do the same work we do — people of color and newly arrived workers in this country.” Just as SEIU, in its Justice for Janitors heyday, formed coalitions with immigrant rights organizations, some building-trades affiliates have linked up with community-based groups fighting wage and hour law violations, worker misclassification, job safety hazards, and other threats to the undocumented.

In other sectors of organized labor, institutional change of the sort favored by Erlich has required membership activity, inspired or led by reform movements operating at the local or national level. That’s not an “internal organizing” model that Erlich, Lerner, or other contributors to Purple Power pay much attention to. Instead, they downplay or ignore the importance of union democracy in ousting entrenched leadership and making labor bureaucracies more effective vehicles for new organizing, effective contract campaigns and strikes, and greater membership participation in legislative/political fights.

In fact, Lerner’s catalytic role in rallying immigrant janitors didn’t deter him from later helping to crush a nascent network of SEIU members in California, who favored reforms like direct election of top SEIU officers and board members. Lerner’s reward for that 2008–09 United Healthcare Workers trusteeship work was getting purged himself not long afterward, when he lost his “political fight” with Stern’s successor over organizing strategy, a parting of ways obliquely referenced in Purple Power.

Meanwhile, Erlich kept his head down in the domain of McCarron, a key building-trades CEO never mentioned once in The Way We Build. Erlich was able to leave the Carpenters without any publicly embarrassing push out the door, unlike Lerner. And they are both now free to promote “best practices” for labor in books, articles, interviews, or campus-based consulting work. But any blueprints for union revitalization based on newly articulated critiques of SEIU or the building trades aren’t worth much if workers have little decision-making power within those unions and few structural mechanisms to improve their organizational functioning.

Labor campaigns for dignity and justice on the job are essential progressive causes. But they would have more movement-building impact if the democratic rights of rank-and-file members were more widely respected and restored, rather than curtailed in the name of union modernization and consolidation.