Friday, October 2, 2009

Steve Early reviews views of the labor movement

From the July-August 2009 issue of Union Democracy Review #180

Reviewed by Herman Benson

When Steve Early applied at the 2008 SEIU convention in Puerto Rico for press credentials as a reporter for Union Democracy Review and AUD, he was abruptly turned away as persona non grata. Not you, Steve Early! The guardians at the gate were not bothered by the UDR/AUD label. In fact, we got a nice note later explaining that we were quite welcome to send some other reporter. But definitely, NOT STEVE EARLY! And so we learned, to our surprise, that of all the people in, around, and for the labor movement, Steve is perhaps the only pro-labor activist capable of getting under the skin of some labor leaders more deeply than AUD. That shows there is something unique about Steve. Unique and persuasive. Last year, he helped convince 100 writers, educators, and scholars to sign a public protest against Andy Stern's plans to trustee the 140,000- member SEIU health care local in California.

Now you should read his book, where you can learn a lot about the labor movement, especially about what could be characterized as the intelligent, practical, rank-and-file oriented, dedicated sector of the left-leaning labor activists. In a word, about "bottom-uppers" as distinguished from "top-downers."

While still in law school, Early wrote briefly for the United Mine Workers Journal after the union had been taken over by the Miners for Democracy. Then a year or so working for Ed Sadlowski in his run for president of the Steelworkers, followed by a short career as organizer for the Arthur Fox-founded Professional Drivers Council which Early led into the Teamsters for a Democratic Union in 1979. In 1980 Early joined the staff of the Communications Workers of America where he stayed until 2007, when he retired. (Retired, not from the labor movement, but apparently only from remunerative employment.)

These biographical details should interest readers. Steve was indeed "embedded" in the labor movement during those long years in the CWA. Knowing Early, I am certain that he was a great asset to the CWA, surely one of its best. But that experience is not the subject of this informative book; he mentions the CWA here and there only cursorily. During these 27 years, he explains, in his spare time he wrote about 300 articles in a raft of publications. His heart is obviously in those writings and that's part of what makes them so interesting.

This book presents a slightly edited reprinting of a selection of his articles, which are mainly comments on the writings of others. More precisely, he reviews others' books; my guess, without an actual count, is that he reviews at least 100 books, grouped for convenience under some 30 chapter subject headings.

It is a useful collection. For one thing, left-leaning labor activists will find it extensive. There are selections about most contemporary writers on subjects of interest to them. For another, I find Early to be accurate and fair, even while insisting on his own views. If writers favor one form of bottom up unionism or another, they are sure to get Early's approval even if he may dismiss, mildly, their eccentric conceptions about the labor movement. Anyone who defends a top down view gets frosty --- but fair--- treatment. And so it goes through the writing of, say, Marty Glaberman, Nelson Lichtenstein, Dan Clawson, Andy Stern, John Sweeney, and a hundred others.

From his writings, you will learn what he believes most deeply: to keep strong and to organize, unions must depend mostly on activating their members. He wants unions to stand up against racism and sexism, to respect dissent, to reject NAFTA, to be more demanding in politics, to oppose war in Iraq, to shun bureaucracy, to resist concessions, to shun deals with employers and bargain aggressively. Labor radicals are bound to be pleased. Everything they stand for is ably and persuasively presented.

Still there is something important missing. In these 288 pages, including the index, and in reviews of those hundred books, in discussions that sometimes reach back a hundred years, there is not a single mention of one of the most significant pieces of legislation to affect democracy in unions: the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959. Perhaps because the law does not fit comfortably into the big debate over top down and bottom up.

In a sense, the LMRDA is top down in pure concentration. It was imposed on unions by the government above and opposed by the entire labor establishment with the possible exception of the UAW. Yet, because it gave some modest protection for democratic rights in unions, this top-down law gave an enormous bottom up impulse to union reform movements. It helped Miners for Democracy oust Tony Boyle. It enabled the Save our Union caucus to rescue Local 1199 in New York. It made it possible for dissident groups to survive in the IBEW. It gave a boost to TDU, encouraged Teamsters to wrest their union out of the hands of organized crime, and gave them the right to elect international officers. In sum, it made union democracy, while still embattled, a legitimate force in the labor movement.

Without hesitation, left-leaning labor activists and insurgents use the law to advance the cause; but they seem uncomfortable talking about it. You should read Early's fine book to be reminded that unionism and union reform should be organized from below and not await bureaucrats above. But the subject of union democracy and the law is left in the closet.

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