Remaking Labor–From the Top-Down? Bottom-Up? or Both?

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  This is an amazing review which captures what many folks that I know have been saying since the early 2000’s. The writer, long time labor activist Steve Early, contrasts the perspectives between two recent authors and their analysis of the labor movement in LA Stories: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement by UCLA professor Ruth Milkman and US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above the Promise of Revival from Below by Labor Notes co-founder Kim Moody. It articulates well the critique of the professional staff driven “change from above” unions (such as SEIU and the unions associated with the Change to Win Coalition) which often brand themselves as progressive or social movement unions, or are characterized as such by their supporters on the left and academia. What the review unfortunately doesn’t do well is delve into the concrete of  Moody’s potentially alternative vision for “revival from below.” Early roundly criticizes Milkman’s support for SEIU and the “change from above” approaches in the labor movement:

Milkman “never addresses the serious concern … that SEIU growth has been achieved, in some sectors, at the expense of contract standards, community allies, workers’ rights, membership participation, and leadership accountability.” Milkman’s infatuation with the vanguard role of the union’s “innovators”—college educated organizers, researchers, strategic campaign coordinators, local officers and trustees—also leaves little room for examining more incisively how SEIU operatives actually interact with the working members who nominally employ—and, more rarely, elect—them.

  Unfortunately the boosterism and cheerleading on behalf of the “change from above” self-styled reformers that comes from academics like Ruth Milkman as well as other authors such as UC Berkeley professor Kim Voss (with her Hard Work, Remaking the American Labor Movement with Rick Fantasia)was parroted or perhaps reluctantly swallowed by many on the left so disappointed with the conservatavism of mainstream labor that any promise of change seemed better than nothing. Only with the recent moves by SEIU and the division between HERE-UNITE has the thin curtain been pulled away to reveal the situation that has been at hand for many years. Sadly I feel many radicals, myself included of course, missed the boat in not putting forward these criticisms sooner when they became apparent in the early 2000’s, perhaps even the late 1990’s. Let it be a word to the wise.


Remaking Labor–From the Top-Down? Bottom-Up? or Both?

By Steve Early (original link to this review online here)  

Review of: Milkman, Ruth. L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. 244 pp.$24.95 (paper).

Moody, Kim. U.S. Labor In Trouble And Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above and the Promise of Revival from Below. New York, NY: Verso, 2007. 289 pp.$29.95 (paper).

From Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, March, 2008 Vol 11. Issue #1

The veterans of Sixties radicalism who became union activists in the 1970s belonged to a variety of left-wing groups. Regardless of other political differences, most of them shared one common belief—namely, that union transformation and working class radicalization was a bottom up process. As Stanley Aronowitz observed in Socialist Review (nee Socialist Revolution) in 1979—when Ruth Milkman, author of L.A. Story, belonged to its “Bay Area Collective”—young radicals usually became “organizers of rank-and-file movements” and builders of opposition caucuses. They immersed themselves in “day-to-day union struggles on the shop floor” and the politics of local unions, often displaying in the latter arena “almost total antipathy toward the union officialdom.” Because “union revitalization” also required organizing the unorganized, rather than just proselytizing among existing union members, Aronowitz approved, “under some circumstances,” leftists becoming “”professional paid organizers.” But he encouraged those who took this path to “see their task as building the active rank and file, even where not connected to caucus movements.”

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The Purple Bureacracy thugs it up at Labor Notes Conference

My heart goes out to all the Labor Notes folks who had to put up with the thuggery of SEIU members this past weekend at their annual conference. It must have been ugly. I did not attend, but I have a number of friends who did (it crossed my mind, but I have to prioritize financially and time wise what I can attend and the IWW Organizing Summit far outweighed Labor Notes).

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.Below is a eye witness account of the mob of several hundred SEIU staff, officials and members who attempted to disrupt the Saturday night dinner. Their target was an official of the CNA (California Nurse’s Union, which has launched a national organizing effort in direct competition to SEIU’s efforts in the healthcare industry) whom was scheduled to speak that night, but had cancelled after receiving threats. From reading several articles and accounts, as well as the comments of friends (and even a blog reader below!) the piece below is accurate. Though there are lots of conflicting information and even dis-information (PR spin) still floating around about what happened at this point- so be careful with what you find out there. What I especially enjoyed in the account below is the comparision with actions by the Teamsters in the 1980s to disrupt reform efforts within their union- historical context and comparative analysis always helps us understand current events better. The writer is a leader in Teamsters for a Democratic Union, so I’m sure he’s seen his fair share of union thuggery, but he also has no particular stake in the running SEIU vs. CNA battle.   


 Here are the questions this raises for me: SEIU has attempted to position itself as the progressive, organizing wing of the labor movement, wrapping itself in the cloak of social movement unionism and receiving lavish praises from academics such as Kim Voss (UC Berkeley Chair of Sociology, see her discussion of this with Rick Fantasia in Hard at Work). Critical analysis should cut right through the smoke and mirrors of Stern et al though. What he gives is a regurgitation, though a much more savvy and marketable version, of John Sweeny’s corporate unionism (See this book review comparing and showing the similarity between Stern’s An America That Works and Sweeny’s America Needs a Raise). In practice it means top-down control, a belief in compatible interests of capital and labor (Stern called the “class struggle unionism” of the CIO passé- as if), maintaining their role as the popular mobilization wing of the Democratic Party (not to mention committed donor as well) and their reliance on non-worker organizing methods to bring in new members- neutrality agreements, sweetheart deals, political lobbying and corporate campaigns that have not managed to raise wages substantially for most of the low-wage workers brought under their tutelage- let alone worked to build the independant, self-organized leadership and power of workers that is needed to make substantial change.


Will this action break the illusions promoted by Voss and held to by others on the progressive left and even a few on the revolutionary left? How will SEIU and their defenders relate to these actions? Will they defend them? And as Stern’s Change to Win coalition effort seems to flounder, internal reform efforts or inter-bureacratic rivalry (depending on how you want to see it) emerge within SEIU to challenge Stern and rival unions such as the CNA step to SEIU, do these tactics represent a sense of desperation?

From: Ken Paff  <kenapp [at] gmail [dot] com>
Sent: Monday, April 14, 2008 8:45 AM
Subject: SEIU break-in
A few people have asked for the real deal on the disruption at the
Labor Notes conference by a group of SEIU officials and members.  Here
it is, for those interested…
SEIU Officials Have a Blast

It was a weird scene: busloads of SEIU officials and members trying
to bust into a conference of labor progressives –bullying, punching
and chanting in a scene that gave me flashbacks to the Teamster
officialdom of yesteryear.

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