Thursday, July 23, 2009

Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home by Steve Early

Reviewed by Tom Gallagher
published, July 10, 2009

Ed Sadlowski; Jay, Maine; Pittstown Coal, Tony Mazzochi, the Charlestown Five; Ron Carey – as the names float by on the pages of "Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home," it sometimes seems that Steve Early's new collection of articles must encompass every person, place, or corporation of significance to the labor movement over the past four decades. Not quite, but actually the volume's thirty nine essays – most of them book reviews – cover even more ground than that. For instance, there's stories of labor journalists from the deep past of whom you've likely never heard. But the topic most of interest to Early, recently retired from the Communications Workers of America but preferring to think of himself as "redeployed," is the future of the American labor movement.

There was a time when leftists of a certain age asked themselves how they could love a labor movement that didn't seem to want to love them back. Certainly the welcome mat wasn't out on that day Early recalls "In May of 1970, [when] hundreds of flag-waving New York City construction workers ... attacked a crowd of antiwar demonstrators on Wall Street." The breach between labor and the left would actually broaden two years later when the AFL-CIO refused to back George McGovern against Richard Nixon. The South Dakota Senator would come closer to espousing the politics of the leftists of the day than any other Democratic nomine e in their life time, but for AFL-CIO President George Meany he was too antiwar, too radical. (Some se e payback in McGovern's current opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. But ironically, the individual he cites for past opposition to the concept of binding arbitration that constitutes one of the bill's components is none other than Meany.)

Still some, like Early, persisted. A few unions like the United Electrical Workers (UE), which to this day maintains the egalitarian tradition of paying no official a salary higher than the highest you can earn under a UE union contract, actually worked with and encouraged student radicals – such as this writer. (Early drops the sobering fact that this honorable organization – which had half a million members before leaving the CIO in 1949 rather than submit to the government-driven purge of Communist Party members going on in other unions – has now shrunken to 17,000 members.)

Acceptance came much harder in most other unions, though, but ultimately those who didn't see the labor movement as a collection of "real-life Archie Bu nkers who railed against a whole generation of spoiled 'meathead' college kids,0 would even prevail, to a degree, and by "the fall of 1999," Early notes, "steelworkers and radical students were seen marching side by side (or at least on the same side) in street protests against the World Trade Organization."
The signal change of those intervening years was John Sweeney's 1995 election as AFL-CIO president. Although a book that Early reviews on that subject bears the tile, "Not Your Father's Union Movement," his election did represent a return to the past in the sense that afterwards the labor movement would again more or less openly welcome the left as it generally had before the Cold War. Of course, with Joseph Stalin now more than forty years dead and the Soviet Union itself gone for a decade, this thaw came none too quickly.

Sweeney comes in for his share of criticism in Early's book, yet it seems fair to say that he did pretty much try to do what he said he would – reverse the long term decline of labor that Early notes in the book's first paragraph: "When I first got involve d the labor movement in the early 1970s, unions still represented almost a quarter of the country's workforce. Now, unionization is down to 12.4 percent overall and only 7.6 percent in private industry." Sweeney had assumed the Federation's leadership largely on the strength of the fact that his own Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had been an exception to the general downward trend, largely due to the fact that much of its constituency was public employees, more than a third of whom are now unionized.

But Sweeney has not been particularly successful in reversing the overall trend, although SEIU has continued growing to the point where it is has become the nation's largest union. And in 2005, Andy Stern, Sweeney's successor at SEIU, led unions comprising about a third of the AFL-CIO's membership into a rival Change to Win federation dedicated to doing what Sweeney could not. About the best thing that can be said about the split to this point is that it has not damaged the labor movement nearly as badly as some had feared. The overall national percentage of union membership has even risen for the past two years, although it remains lower than before the split.
Not one to see easy fixes for labor's decline, Early is skeptical that even the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) currently pending in Congress will represent the cure-all some hope for. He cites a Canadian labor relations scholar's findings that "union density and bargaining coverage are falling even in provinces such as Saskatchewan and Quebec that have card check and first-arbitration clauses" – precisely the EFCA items that its advocates hope will save union representation drives from the often debilitating process of National Labor Relations Board elections and management refusal to bargain. The measures he thinks are really needed – repeal of "Taft-Hartley Act restrictions on real union solidarity and the Supreme Court's seventy-year old sanctioning of the use of striker replacement" are not part of political discourse today – "except in the speeches of Ralph Nader."

And as SEIU has dominated the labor movement of recent years, so it dominates Early's book, with Stern coming in for fairly severe criticism. "Since 1996," he writes, "when Stern replaced Sweeney, 40 SEIU local s – or 14 percent of it s 275 affiliates – have been put under trusteeship to implant new officers." While he grants that "[S]ome of those ousted ran old-guard fiefdoms," others just didn't want to go along with what he views as questionable programs coming from the top, and perhaps the "air of arrogance and exclusivity" emanating from some SEIU staffers or an "attitudinal style ... closer ... to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs than to veteran staffers of the trade union movement" that one reviewed author describes.
(The largest of these trusteeship battles is currently playing out with the leadership of the newly formed National Union of Healthcare Workers claiming to have filed decertification petitions aimed at taking back close to 2/3 of the 150,000 members it formerly led in SEIU's now trusteed California-based United Healthcare Workers West.)

The fact that book reviews constitute the core of Early's book naturally constrains him largely to topics that other writers have chosen and many of the more interesting matters are raised only peripherally. There is the fairly central question of just what a labor radical is to do. At the one end are the "colonizers" like Wellesley graduate Elly Leary, interviewed in Staughton and Alice Lynd's "The New Rank and File," who spent twelve years building cars at the Framingham, Massachusetts General Motors plant. Jobs like this were hard enough, Early notes, "without the additional task of proselytizing." The group of radicals that Leary eventually became part of was just about learning its ass from its elbow on how to proceed sensibly when the plant closed in 1989 and they were deindustrialized out of the working class.

At the other end there is "SEIU's 'best and brightest'" who come in for Early's criticism because "most have never been a janitor, security guard, nursing home worker, home health care aide or public employee." Of course, Early himself came in for that very criticism back in the mid-1970s as he recounts in the book's first piece: when he was interviewing coal miners for the United Mine Workers Journal, one obviously wary miner politely shook hands with him, then "looked me in the eye and said knowingly, 'Ah, pencil hands.'"

<>And then there's the question of why the labor radicals do what they do. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb in saying that most of the people we encounter in these pages saw themselves as socialists, if not by that name precisely then by some synonym they thought more appropriate to the time and place. They weren't motivated just by the hope of a better labor movement, but of a better country, a better world – and they saw the labor movement as the best means to that end. For that sort of thing we will have to wait for Early's next book, though – he is currently writing his history of the sixties radicals and the labor movement. But the current book will give you plenty to chew on for the moment. And, oh yes, it comes with an excellent index, unusual in an essay collection, but extremely useful because this book is dense – and I mean that as a complement.

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