“Civil Wars” Misses the Mark

“Civil Wars” Misses the Mark

by Susan Rosenthal

BOOK REVIEW: The Civil Wars in US Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? by Steve Early (Haymarket, 2011)

In the opening chapter of this 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 unions, ending the book with a call for rank-and-file controlled unions as the superior choice over corporate-style, top-down unions.

The vast majority of workers would agree with Early’s prescription, 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.

Early does a fine job of explaining who did what to whom in meticulous detail, but he fails to locate these details in an accurate historical 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… 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)

Historical context

Unfortunately, the 1970s was not the 1930s, and the New Left was not the Communist Party.

The 1930s followed the crash of 1929. The Great Depression created mass deprivation and the economic boom in the Soviet Union gave credibility to communists in the labor movement. The link between the labor movement and the socialist movement was key to the rise of industrial unions in America.

In contrast, the 1970s followed decades of economic expansion that enabled a sizable union bureaucracy to develop.

The 1960s generation was radicalized by the fight for Civil Rights and opposition to the US war in Vietnam. However, the “Red Scare” in America had pushed socialists out of the unions and Stalinism in the Soviet Union had discredited the revolutionary left.

The employers’ offensive

While mass movements won real gains in the 1960s, the capitalist class had been organizing since the 1930s to regain lost ground. Cut off from the socialist tradition and held back by a conservative bureaucracy, the working class was unable to counter the increasingly aggressive assaults of the capitalist class.

As Early points out, the employers’ offensive was fierce and unrelenting. Companies laid off workers, attacked unions and demanded concessions. Governments of both parties supported this assault by eroding labor standards, deregulating industries, privatizing social services and supporting job migration.

The union bureaucracy was used to negotiating wages and benefits. It recoiled from the prospect of fighting an all-out class war to challenge the right of employers to profit at workers’ expense. So it accepted employers’ demands for concessions, no matter how deep, in the hope that once profitability was restored, lost ground could be regained. Emboldened by the weakness of the unions, employers demanded more concessions, even as the economy boomed and profits soared.

In essence, the union bureaucracy imposed the employers’ agenda on their own members. Workers who fought back were fired, and combative unions were 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.

Liberal explanation

Why have union bureaucrats consistently refused to fight in the face of such defeat? Early provides a 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, not because of wrong ideas, but because (unlike its members) the bureaucracy has a stake in the capitalist system.

Union bureaucrats cannot challenge the labor laws that hold workers down without risking the union assets that fund their careers. In other words, protecting their wealth and social status is more important than protecting their members.

The capitalist class understands the true nature of union officialdom. Over the past four decades, employers have relied on the compliance of union leaders to drive down the living standards of the entire working class.

Bureaucrats turn on members

Seeking to protect their dues base, but unwilling to fight the employers, union bureaucrats chose instead to sacrifice the class they profess to represent.

To their everlasting discredit, top union officials adopted the capitalist model of turf wars, takeovers and amalgamations. Embracing this ‘compete or die’ strategy, each set of union bureaucrats fought to increase its market share, that is, to grow its own union at the expense of other unions and the labor movement as a whole.

Civil Wars describes in great detail the corruption, back-stabbing, power-grabbing, and opportunistic alliances that have characterized recent turf wars among American unions.

Early explains how the corporate model of organizing was presented as a means to advance workers’ interests (“justice for all”) when it was actually fought at their expense. Millions of dollars in members’ dues and countless union-hours were squandered on lawyers, consultants, politicians, smear campaigns, court battles, settlements, and security forces – not to fight for workers’ rights but to battle other unions and to dominate the rank and file.

The fight for better contracts, for Medicare-for-all and for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act were all sacrificed to expand the control of high-paid union bureaucrats.

Squashing resistance

As Civil Wars documents, it wasn’t easy to transform unions into power bases for self-serving bureaucrats. Standing in the way were militant union locals and rank-and-file activists who rely on their unions to defend them at work.

Applying the most disgusting tactics, bureaucrats used members’ dues to finance an attack on any local and any militant who fought for democratic control of their union.

The many were sacrificed to benefit the few. This is the social dynamic of capitalism – a word that does not appear in Early’s book, but is key to  understanding what happened.

How could this happen?

During the Cold War, capitalism severed the link between the fight for workers’ rights in the workplace and the fight for working-class control of society (socialism). This link has never been rebuilt, and the US labor movement will remain  disintegrated until it is.

The tradition of socialism as democratic working-class control was rediscovered late in the 1960s. However, the revolutionary left was too small and inexperienced to counter the growing confidence and strength of the capitalist class. 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 chose to build a base on 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?

From the abundance of evidence in Early’s book, we can conclude that the dedication, hard work and personal sacrifice of union activists is an insufficient social force, on its own, to counter the combined power of the capitalist class and the union bureaucracy.

Unions cannot be democratized, or remain islands of democracy, in a class-divided society. All capitalist social institutions are constructed to prevent the working-class majority from exercising any real control over the matters that shape their lives.

The demand for democratic unions can only be realized in the context of the fight for a truly democratic society – one that is collectively controlled by the majority working class.

Campus-based socialists have fared no better. Because they were building in a period of deepening defeat, these organizations became, inevitably, dominated by middle-class academics and professionals. Disconnected from the working class, these organizations offer abstract, not real, leadership. They wait for the labor movement to revive, not knowing what role to play in that revival.

What now?

We can be certain that capital will continue to assault labor, and workers will continue to defend their rights. Whether workers prevail will depend on the extent to which they fight as a class, using their greatest power – the power to stop production. When the working class is on the ascendance, this can happen spontaneously. When the class is on the defensive, workers need the intervention of socialists to show them what they are capable of achieving.

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 must reconstitute themselves to place those who lead in the workplace in the leadership of the organization.

Early does not use his hard-won knowledge and experience to rebuild the link between the cause of labor and the struggle for socialism; he attacks it. In the final chapter, he promotes the most vulgar anti-Marxism, equating the victory of the workers’ state in Russia under Lenin with its crushing defeat under Stalin.

Like other recent books that address the state of US labor (Solidarity Divided, 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 has failed in the past. And it will continue to fail, because it ignores the power of the working class to transform society.


The key lessons that flow from Early’s book are ones that he misses.

  • The working class must abandon middle-class methods of negotiation and conciliation. Workers must use their power as a class and fight as a class.
  • The working class must organize itself separately from the middle-class bureaucrats and professionals who dominate it.
  • The working class must create its own independent political party, one that is dedicated to bringing the working class to power.

See also Fighting to Win, War in the House of Labor and Class-Divided Unions

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Jacob Richter Says:

    Kudos for emphasizing the fundamentals of independent political organization and the “merger of socialism and the worker movement.”

  2. Larry Says:

    Excellent. I picked up your flyer at Labor Notes 2012 and I am glad to read your material. Of course it’s very hard to turn thought into action but some are trying.

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