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)--is a cautionary tale about SEIU's fatal flaw: centralization of power by any means necessary.
Twenty years ago SEIU was one of the most progressive, influential unions in the U.S. Now the glory days of SEIU are over. Early tells us why. Andy Stern's Change To Win Federation, scarred by SEIU raids against the Puerto Rican Teachers Union and Unite Here, is in its last stage of self-destruction. No union in recent times raised hopes so high or sunk so low.
According to Early, serial trusteeships virtually destroyed the democratic infrastructure of the international union. Trusteeship is a form of martial law. Stern and Henry put more than 80 locals under trusteeship and forced mergers, all in a single decade. Locals were dismembered. Organizers were fired, elected shop stewards throughout the country removed. Trusteeships spawned a culture of resignation, conformity and fear. No labor union in modern history, not even the mob-run Teamsters in the 50s, has employed trusteeship so ruthlessly or systematically as SEIU.
Early also recounts a series of corruption scandals, from Tyrone Freeman to Byron Hobbes. But more important, he draws a connection between corruption in SEIU and the loyal-or-else patronage system, the hierarchy, which trusteeships established. Far from saving local unions from local improprieties, trusteeships introduced corruption and favoritism into locals once healthy and democratic.
Along with Vanessa Tait, author of POOR WORKERS' UNIONS, and Randy Shaw, author of BEYOND THE FIELDS, Early is a passionate, well-informed defender of member-powered unions. His book includes a survey of the pro-democracy movement within SEIU as well as an evaluation of the resistance movement led by Sal Rosselli and NUHW (National Union of Healthcare Workers).
The research is voluminous, the footnotes extensive, the writing quite polished and one chapter on Call Centers is downright humorous. "Got a grievance? Call 1 800..."
For any one who wants to learn why good unions go bad, Early's rise-and-fall story is the best place to start. At a time when the labor movement fights for its very survival, Early insists the need for strong democratic locals is greater than ever. Don't mourn; organize.