BOOK REVIEW: Steve Early (2011). The Civil Wars in US Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? Haymarket.
In the opening chapter of his book, Early states his goal:
“to explore, through interviews, what my own New Left generational cohort set out to achieve in unions, what we have and haven’t accomplished, and what useful lessons might be derived from this collective experience by younger activists more recently arrived in the ‘house of labor.'” (p.21)
Early makes a solid case for democratic, rank-and-file controlled unions to replace corporate-style, top-down unions.
The vast majority of workers would agree, and in a democratic society it would be a done deal. However, as with most matters under capitalism, the majority get no choice.
The book’s major weakness is that it does not achieve its goal of explaining why a generation of activists failed to democratize the unions and what the next generation of activists must do differently to avoid repeating that failure.
While Early exposes the corrupt underbelly of union officialdom, describing who did what to whom in meticulous detail, he fails to position these details in a broader social context.
Early describes how, after the decline of the social movements in the 1970s,
“thousands of veterans of anti-war activity, the civil rights movement, feminism, and community organizing migrated to workplaces and union halls with the professed goal of challenging the labor establishment. They formed the largest radical presence in the unions since the 1930s, when members of the Communist Party and other left-wing groups played a key role in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).” (p.1-2)
Unfortunately, the 1970s was not the 1930s, and the New Left was not the Communist Party.
The Great Depression of the 1930s created mass deprivation, while the economic boom in the Soviet Union raised the credibility of communists in the labor movement. The organic connection between the labor movement and the socialist movement was key to the rise of industrial unions in America.
The 1970s followed decades of economic expansion that financed the growth of a managerial class, including a substantial union bureaucracy. And while 1960s activists had been radicalized by the Black freedom struggle and the anti-war movement, socialists had been purged from the unions during the Cold War and Stalin’s dictatorship had discredited the revolutionary left.
The employers’ offensive
When mass movements won real gains in the 1960s, the capitalists pushed to recover lost ground with increasingly aggressive assaults. Cut off from the revolutionary socialist tradition and held back by a conservative bureaucracy, the working class could not hold the ground it had gained and fell back.
As Early points out, the employers’ offensive was fierce and unrelenting. Companies shed jobs, attacked unions, and demanded concessions. Governments supported this assault by eroding labor standards, deregulating industries, and privatizing social services.
Union bureaucrats complied by negotiating lower wages and fewer benefits. Unwilling to launch an all-out class war to defend workers’ rights, they accepted employer demands for concessions, no matter how deep, on the company promise that all would be regained after profits were restored. It was an empty promise. Emboldened by the weakness of the unions, employers demanded ever more concessions, even as the economy boomed and profits soared.
Workers who fought back were fired and combative unions were put in receivership or decertified. With few notable exceptions, strikes were defeated, union drives failed, and workers became demoralized. The proportion of workers in unions sank into the single digits.
Why have union bureaucrats consistently refused to fight in the face of such defeat? Early provides the liberal explanation that union leaders are simply wedded to the wrong strategy. A class analysis reveals something different.
The union bureaucracy cannot lead the fight against the employers because, unlike union members, union officials have a stake in the capitalist system.
Union bureaucrats who challenge restrictive labor laws risk losing the union assets that fund their careers. Maintaining a ‘working relationship’ with management and protecting their own well-paid positions are more important than protecting union members.
The capitalist class understand the true nature of union officialdom. Over the past four decades, employers have relied on the compliance of union officials to raise productivity by driving down the living standards of the entire working class.
Civil Wars describes in great detail the corruption, backstabbing, power-grabbing, and opportunistic alliances that have characterized recent turf wars among American unions.
To protect their dues base, union officials adopted the capitalist model of turf wars, takeovers, and amalgamations. This corporate model of organizing was presented as a means to advance workers’ interests when it was actually fought at their expense. Millions of dollars in members’ dues and countless union-hours have been squandered on lawyers, consultants, politicians, smear campaigns, court battles, settlements, and security forces – not to fight for workers’ rights but to raid or destroy other unions and to consolidate power over union members.
Embracing the capitalist strategy of compete-or-die, union bureaucrats strive to increase their ‘market share’ of the labor movement, that is, to grow their own unions at the expense of other unions and of the labor movement as a whole.
Sacrificing the many to benefit the few is the central dynamic of capitalism – a word that does not appear in Early’s book, but is key to understanding what happened.
The Cold War broke the link between the fight for workers’ rights on the job and the struggle for working-class control of society. This link has not yet been rebuilt, and the US labor movement will remain weak until it is.
During the turbulent 1960s, the socialist left was too small to challenge the power of the capitalist class and their bureaucratic managers. With the unions in retreat and the working-class demoralized, the left split.
One segment of the left, to which Early belongs,
“went into unions to change the balance of power between labor and capital by first changing power relationships within unions themselves.” (p.16)
The other segment retreated to college campuses in the hope of being able to inject revolutionary politics back into the labor movement when it rose again.
How successful were these strategies?
Early provides an abundance of evidence that the dedication, hard work, and personal sacrifice of union activists is not sufficient, on its own, to counter the combined power of the capitalist class and the union bureaucracy.
The fight for workers’ control on the job cannot be separated from the struggle for workers’ control over society. While workplace struggles are vital to the socialist project, avoiding the larger political struggle limits what can be achieved.
Campus-based socialists fared even worse. Disconnected from the working class, they accommodated to academic and movement politics or dissolved into them.
The capitalist class will continue to assault labor, and workers will continue to fight for their rights. Whether workers prevail will depend on the extent to which they fight as a class, using their power to stop production.
Our most urgent task is to reconnect the labor movement with the genuine socialist tradition. For this to happen, labor activists need socialist politics, and socialist organizations need workplace leaders.
Early does not use his impressive experience to rebuild the link between the cause of labor and the struggle for socialism; he attacks it. His final chapter repeats the most vulgar anti-Marxism, equating the victory of the workers’ state in Russia under Lenin with its crushing defeat under Stalin.
Like other books that address the state of US labor, such as Solidarity Divided, and Labor in Trouble and Transition, Civil Wars rejects a political solution to the class war in favor of reforming ‘the house of labor.’ As Early documents so well, this strategy is doomed to fail. The alternative is to champion the power of the working class to end capitalist rule on the job and also in society.