Labor’s Uncivil Civil Wars

Employee Free Choice Act Labor Organizing Organizing

Early015_flatNew Orleans Steve Early is a organizer, lawyer, journalist, and without question longtime labor activist in the best, classic sense of the word, which also means he can be a royal pain in the butt to bosses and colleagues alike, a tireless advocate, and one-man jihadist on something he feels strongly about like SEIU and Andy Stern. Over the last couple of years though I’ve found him to be a very decent and generous guy, so though we don’t see eye to eye on many things, I’ve come to respect and admire his relentless pursuits even when quixotic and somewhat inexplicable to me. I joked opening a panel the other day named after his most recent book, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? that I thought sometimes he invited me to such events because I was the only person with a connection to SEIU who would talk to him, which of course isn’t true, since he’s a magnet for any dissident or unhappy former SEIU soul.

The panel itself was fascinating. The room was packed and Early was committed to letting everyone have their say, and largely let them do so evenhandedly and without argument. It was how I would have imagined a session on some kind of group organizational therapy. The assembled folks who were long time and dedicated labor educators meeting in New Orleans with the United Association of Labor Educators were universally clear on only one thing: they did not like conflict! They differed sometimes on whether it was a good or bad thing, but there was high consensus that they felt torn between sides, too often forced to choose when they just wanted to serve the labor movement, and frustrated that they could not find either safe space for their own programs or common ground between the combatants. They had chosen the bridge between unions and the academy looking to walk on higher ground and have a good vantage point and all of a sudden they felt way too close to the action.

Many spent a lot of time on a letter they had signed as a message to SEIU and its then President, Andy Stern, asking them not to trustee the big health care local in northern California. When the letter ended up in the New York Times, some of the signers jumped ship and wanted their names retracted. I had trouble following this long debate, though I had remembered the letter. It stretches the imagination for any of the signers or non-signers to not have known they were being “used” as a tactical deterrent “strike” to send a message to Stern. It’s hard for me to believe that they thought it was a private note. And, they were clearly horrified that SEIU took it very painfully and seriously and pushed back, which might not have been the best response by SEIU, but it was a “civil war” so who would have been surprised, and they wanted to be taken seriously, so what did they expect? Probably to be ignored as academics and educators or something? Like I said, I had trouble following the problem here, though I could hear clearly that many of them were still in pain. My slim contribution was that educators were making a mistake not training and teaching more about internal conflict, how to prepare for it and avoid it, and how to handle it both organizationally, personally, and professionally, since I’ve always argued that is the demarcation line that marks whether someone is day tripping in this work or able to make it for the long haul.

A small caucus evolved of organizational behaviorists of sorts who argued that a lot of this was just normal behavior for big organizations, their leaders, and the project at hand, which seemed right, but didn’t solve anything. These are tough times and any problems become more pronounced, so it was good that we had a “sharing.” I’m not sure what many may have learned about what they would do differently the next time, but it’s clear there will be a lot more looking before leaping, and folks will be more prepared to find higher ground or take the chances of injury if they choose to join the combatants on the field.
All of which seems fair enough.