By Steve Early 

In a recent conversation with an otherwise well-informed young labor activist, I made a passing reference to Change to Win, a national labor federation formed in 2005 by defectors from the AFL-CIO. “Change to what?” she asked. “Never heard of it.” 

Her response was not surprising, given the short shelf life of the organizational brand in question. Launched with much media fanfare, Change to Win initially represented 5.5 million workers, about one-fifth of the AFL’s total membership.  Its founders—the Service Employees, Teamsters, Carpenters, Laborers, United Farm Workers, Food and Commercial Workers, and UNITE-HERE—saw themselves as the second coming of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the federation created in the mid-1930s to spearhead mass organizing in that era. 

To “build power for workers” seventy years later, key CTW strategist favored organizational consolidation—in the form of more mergers between national unions and internal consolidation of members into larger regional or multi-state locals. One cheerleader for that approach, Professor Ruth Milkman, penned a NY Times opinion piece hailing CTW as ​“labor’s best hope — maybe its only hope — for revitalization.”

  CTW did not live up to such hype. It was soon wracked by internal conflict, precipitated by then-SEIU President Andy Stern’s controversial restructuring of healthcare locals in California and his disastrous meddling in the internal affairs of UNITE-HERE. That organizing-oriented union and two other founders of CTW– UFCW and the Laborers– returned to the AFL-CIO and were welcomed back.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters quit CTW but did not rejoin the federation. Instead, under the heavy-handed rule of President Douglas McCarron, a former drywall hanger from Chatsworth, CA., the Carpenters continued to battle other AFL-CIO construction unions.  Instead of contributing to any progressive political tilt by labor during the Bush Administration, McCarron became George W’s biggest union backer, endorsing other Republicans like his brother Jeb when the latter ran for governor of Florida.

Strategic Organizing?

Last year, under new and improved national leadership, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters finally quit CTW. This led SEIU, the still tiny Farm Workers, and my own union, the Communications Workers of America, an AFL-CIO affiliate which opposed the creation of CTW, to rebrand their current collaboration as a “Strategic Organizing Center.”  The SOC maintains a small staff to produce what it calls “cutting edge research for innovative campaigns.” On its modest new website, Change to Win (and its original pledge to devote nearly a billion dollars to new organizing) is relegated to the memory hole, getting no mention at all.

More than a decade after the rise, decline, and now official disappearance of CTW, labor activists interested in strategic thinking associated with two of its founding unions should check out some new titles from the University of Illinois Press.  In Purple Power: The History and Global Impact of SEIU, co-editors Louis Aguiar and Joseph McCartin have assembled a collection of laudatory essays, by labor-oriented academics, on SEIU’s history as a healthcare, public employee, and service sector union, how it developed signature campaigns among janitors and fast food workers, and then promoted its “organizing model” among labor federations abroad (even as CTW floundered back home). 

Unfortunately, there is no Purple Power report on the current Starbucks drive, backed by Workers United, an SEIU affiliate acquired (at UNITE-HERE expense) during the Change to Win crack up. That more worker-led effort has gained far greater shop-floor traction–via hundreds of representation election wins and an on-going first contract struggle–than SEIU’s past more community-based agitation for fast food wage increases (aka “the Fight for Fifteen”).  

Purple Power’s most interesting feature is its focus on the career of SEIU’s best known organizer, Stephen Lerner, the key strategist behind its multi-city Justice for Janitors campaign in the mid-1980s and later. Lerner got his start in labor, like many others, as a UFW volunteer, then organized factory workers and public employees.  Within SEIU, he eventually became its building services division director and a national executive board member, before being pushed out of the union after Mary Kay Henry replaced Stern as president in 2010. 

Lerner is now a research fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, directed by Purple Power co-editor McCartin, a Georgetown University Professor. In McCartin’s view, as a labor historian, 1.8 million workers greatly benefit from the work that Stern, Lerner, former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and many others did to make SEIU “the most successful union in North America, and one of the most influential in the world.” 

Restoring Dignity

In The Way We Build: Restoring Dignity to Construction Work, Mark Erlich, a now-retired regional leader of the Carpenters, provides a detailed account of the daunting challenges facing U.S. construction workers. A graduate of Columbia University, the author is a rare Sixties’ radical who joined the conservative building trades, rather than “colonizing” in white-collar or industrial union workplaces where left-wing labor traditions, however tattered, seemed easier to revive fifty years ago. 

Erlich worked 13-years as a rank-and-file carpenter in Massachusetts. He was employed, for the next three decades, by either his state Building Trades Council or his own affiliated union. He was elected business manager of a small Carpenters local in Boston, before becoming a creative and energetic regional organizer for the union. In 2005, he won a contested election for Executive Secretary-Treasurer of a New England-wide Carpenters Council with 24,000 members and an appointed staff of 100.  In that leadership role, he became one of the highest paid building trades officials in eastern Massachusetts. During his full-time union career, he penned two earlier books and, after retirement, returned to the Ivy League as a research fellow at the Center for Labor and A Just Economy at Harvard Law School.

Both Purple Power and The Way We Build include valuable studies of industries where workers once had bargaining clout and then de-unionization occurred, which required new membership recruitment strategies in response. In SEIU, this open shop trend hit its traditional core jurisdiction—building services. As Lerner recounts, “the original roots of the union were dying—cities were going non-union. The industry was getting contracted out [and SEIU] was accepting concessions in an attempt to protect union contractors from lower-paying non-union contractors.” As documented in Purple Power (and previous books or films like Bread and Roses, SEIU organizers succeeded in mobilizing a now largely immigrant workforce through strikes, building occupations, protest vigils, and civil disobedience which sought union recognition and master contracts in more than 30 cities in the U.S. and Canada. At its peak, JfJ activity helped win improvements for several hundred thousand janitors by making their plight a much-publicized labor cause celebre, locally and nationally. 

Lost Market Share

  Since 1971 in the building trades, Erlich reports, “real wages have plummeted by an astonishing 15%, a function of the decline in union density and the corresponding growth of the lower-waged, non-union sector.” The resulting two-tier workforce included union members–on big projects with public or private funding in regional union strongholds–who have apprentice programs, good wages and benefits, along with workplace safety protections. 

But a much larger pool of construction workers, particularly in the South, Southwest, and Rocky Mountain states, have “lower pay, unsafe conditions, no benefits, no collective voice, and periodic wage theft.”  One key management tool for union-busting and lowering labor standards has been the widespread mis-classification of workers as “independent contractors.” In the race to the bottom in construction, nothing gets you there quicker than shedding normal employer responsibilities for providing group health insurance or workers’ comp coverage and paying payroll taxes for Social Security, Medicare, or state-level unemployment benefits.

As Erlich notes, the resulting loss of “union market share” led the Carpenters to “streamline and reduce the number of struggling locals.” Beginning in the 1990s—and with greater impact during Doug McCarron’s 28-year reign—the union “established regional councils as intermediary bodies to reflect changing dynamics in the industry, to mirror an increasingly regionalized group of employer counter-parts, and to replace the chaos of decentralized and sometimes contradictory decision-making by autonomous local unions with a more uniform set of policies and guidelines across multiple states.” 

 According to Erlich, “managing the tension between the efficiencies of a streamlined operation and the democratic nature of local grassroots activity” can be a challenge. However, as the author points out (without citing a single illustrative example), “centralization can come at a cost” because “centralized power can and has been abused.” As the Association for Union Democracy has documented for the past half century, top-down control in the building trades remains a major obstacle to their revitalization because it breeds organizational corruption, involving pay-offs from employers or rip-offs of union treasuries and benefit plans by officials already collecting outlandish salaries. 

Despite having only 430,000 dues-payers, the Carpenters Union pays 73-year old McCarron more than $600,000 a year—an amount twice Mary Kay Henry’s pay for presiding over a membership four times larger. Convention election of top Carpenters’ officers is tightly controlled and internal restructuring has deprived rank-and-filers of the ability to directly elect key officers in the union’s regional councils. (After Erlich retired, his own 6-state council was subsumed into a new North Atlantic States Regional Council that includes members from New York.)  Under McCarron—like SEIU’s Andy Stern—dissident locals were put under trusteeship and members seeking more democratic internal structures were forced to disaffiliate. 

In 2007, for example, thousands of British Columbia carpenters won a decade long struggle to create an independent union called the Construction Maintenance and Allied Workers. CMAW followed a trajectory similar to that of the 15,000-member National  Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). The latter was formed in 2009 after Stern seized control over SEIU’s third largest affiliate United Healthcare Workers-West because the elected leaders of its 150,000 members had questioned his healthcare organizing and bargaining strategy.

A Mega-Local Mistake?

In Purple Power, an Andy Stern loyalist heavily involved in that California fiasco, now seems to have developed second thoughts about top-down restructuring elsewhere in SEIU. In a chapter entitled “The legacy of Justice of Janitors and SEIU for the Labor Movement,” Stephen Lerner recalls his original advocacy of “creating larger locals within geographic areas that mirrored how the [building services] industry was structured” and could better coordinate organizing and bargaining involving common employers. But, when SEIU headquarters continued this consolidation trend—over Lerner’s objections, he reports– the result was multi-state entities like NYC-based Local 32BJ which now boasts 150,000 members from Boston to Miami. 

According to Lerner, this restructuring was “a mistake which cut the heart out of Justice for Janitors” because such “mega locals” began operating “as  regional fiefdoms, focused on negotiating and organizing regionally [thereby] undercutting a national industry wide strategy.” Worse yet, SEIU now has giant affiliates “that in some ways mirror building trades locals in that they align with the industry and oppose ideas like rent control because the industry opposes it.” With great hind-sight, Lerner faults Stern and his SEIU e-board allies for believing they “could have a different kind of relationship with the industry that no longer required pitched battles.”

“We [in Justice for Janitors] believed in using our base and power to build a mass movement and exponential growth. They [Lerner’s bureaucratic foes] believed in incremental gains and finding ways to show employers the union could be a good partner. It was often called ‘peace plus.” Meaning SEIU needed to convince employers that not only did settling with the union bring ‘peace’—no strikes—but the settling with the union also meant we would be their ally on issues like zoning, rent control, etc.”

Similar labor-management partnering and transactional politics have long been the conservative MO of construction unions–with the mixed results described by Erlich. Conspicuously missing from his argument for craft union innovation in the 21st century is much discussion of who can propel “the trades” in a better direction? 

The Painters Union gets a shout out for electing its first African-American president, Ken Rigmaiden. Before his recent retirement, Rigmaiden took the enlightened stance that “we need to support our current members but also support those workers who want to do the same work we do—people of color and newly arrived workers in this country.” Just as SEIU, in its Justice for Janitors heyday, formed coalitions with immigrant rights organizations, some building trades affiliates have linked up with community-based groups fighting wage and hour law violations, worker misclassification, unsafe working conditions, and other exploitation of the undocumented.

Agents of Change?

 In other sectors of organized labor, institutional change of the sort favored by Erlich has required membership activity, inspired or led by reform movements operating at the local or national level. That’s not an “internal organizing” model that either Erlich, Lerner, or other contributors to Purple Power pay much attention to. Instead, they downplay or ignore the importance of union democracy in ousting entrenched leadership and making labor bureaucracies more effective vehicles for new organizing, effective contract campaigns and strikes, and greater membership participation in legislative/political fights.

In fact, Lerner’s catalytic role in rallying immigrant janitors didn’t deter him from later helping to crush a nascent network of SEIU members in California, who favored reforms like direct election of top SEIU officers and board members. Lerner’s reward for that 2008-9 UHW trusteeship work was getting purged himself not long afterwards, when he lost his “political fight” with Andy Stern’s successor over organizing strategy, a parting of ways obliquely referenced in Purple Power.

Meanwhile, Mark Erlich kept his head down in the domain of Doug McCarron, a key building trades CEO never mentioned once in The Way We Build. Erlich was able to leave the Carpenters without any publicly embarrassing push out the door, like Lerner got. And they are both now free to promote “best practices” for labor in books, articles, interviews, or campus-based consulting work.  But any blue-prints for union revitalization–based on newly- articulated critiques of SEIU or the building trades–aren’t worth much if workers have little decision-making power within those unions and few structural mechanisms to improve their organizational functioning. 

Labor campaigns for dignity and justice on the job are essential progressive causes. But they would have more movement-building impact if the democratic rights of rank-and-file members were more widely respected and restored, rather than curtailed in the name of union modernization and consolidation.

(Note about photo above) Carpenter leader Doug McCarron (in white beard, white hair, and dark glasses) was first high-level Trump Administration meeting with anyone in labor, held early in 2017.

Steve Early was a CWA International Union Representative and Organizer for nearly 30 years. Since retiring, he has remained active in union reform campaigns, involving the NewsGuild/CWA and its parent organization. His past labor-related books include The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket Books, 2011), which recounts the unravelling of Change to Win amid multiple SEIU-instigated conflicts with other unions and its own members. He can be reached at

Books Reviewed in this piece