Sunday, November 1, 2009

Embedded, but Not in Bed With

Social Policy, Summer, 2009
A review of Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home. By Steve Early, Monthly Review Press. 288 pp.

By Ken Paff
Some writers who have spent their lives as career union reps are just about as independent as the media who were embedded with US troops in Iraq. However, there is no danger of that in Steve Early’s new book, Embedded with Organized Labor. Though he worked for the Communications Workers of American as an International Rep for nearly 30 years, Early has never been accused of channeling the union leadership. Thus he writes with a clear headedness that makes his new book useful for anyone interested in labor’s future as well as its history.

In fact, his CWA day job is barely mentioned in this collection, which is primarily a compilation of more than 30 book reviews (of nearly 100 books), a number of them on struggles or issues in with which he has been personally involved.
Writing about Powers Hapgood, a left intellectual miner who took a job working for John L. Lewis in the CIO boom period of the 1930s, Early comments that Hapgood “never stopped trying to reconcile the demands of his own conscience with the sometimes conflicting dictates of organizational policy and day-to-day pressures of trade union work.” He could have been writing about his own personal challenges in that respect.

I first met Steve in 1978 when he was working for PROD, a Ralph Nader-inspired Teamster reform group. He was instrumental in helping pull off a merger between PROD and Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the competing insurgent Teamster group.

Early never lost his passion for labor rebels and “bottom-up” unionism, and I again worked with Steve in 1990-92 when he volunteered to help raise funds for our campaign to elect Ron Carey as Teamster president, then followed with a short stint as a consultant (on loan from CWA) to the new Carey administration.

That rank and file perspective is pervasive in the book, with the author ever suspicious of top leaders who don’t rise from (or answer to) the members. But Early offers surprisingly fair treatment to a variety of viewpoints, sometimes reviewing divergent pieces together, as in the chapter “Not Your Father’s Union Movement” on the meaning of John Sweeney’s 1995 election to head the AFL-CIO.

Most of the first half of Embedded is historical, taking up issues of race, class and gender. The essays cover a rich history of strikes, struggles, victories and defeats, with good pieces on the relationship of the left (and some interesting leftists) to the union movement.

The later sections take up more contemporary issues and struggles. The section “Organizing in the Global Village” includes a half-dozen essays on the role of workers centers in organizing immigrants and issues of globalization and international solidarity.

Early’s passion of the past few years, since he retired (he prefers “redeployed”) from the CWA, has been as the Anti-Stern. So, in the sixth section of the book, with essays on Change to Win and SEIU (including a review of SEIU president Andy Stern’s own book), he bring his guns out.

Early has earned a unique distinction from the SEIU leadership. Herman Benson, writing in a recent newsletter of the Association for Union Democracy, notes that when AUD asked for press credentials for SEIU’s 2008 Convention in Puerto Rico, they were told they were welcome to send anyone they wanted… except Early.

A few years ago, writing as the anti-Stern partisan for a labor/left audience would have been like selling condoms in the Vatican: a small, not very public market. But recent events -- CtW’s apparent inability to deliver on its promising start, and Stern’s controversial role in UNITE-HERE and in driving the leaders of United Health Care West out of SEIU – place Early’s work well within the current debate on labor’s direction.

Embedded reminded me how much more I have to learn about our own history, since I haven’t read most of the books reviewed. But at least I got a good sample in an easy read.

Ken Paff is the National Organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the reform movement within the Teamsters Union.

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