Sunday, November 1, 2009

Embedded in the Class War: An Interview with Labor Journalist Steve Early

Published on: October 15, 2009

For close to forty years, Steve Early has served as a union organizer and activist, most recently with the Communications Workers of America. He has been an outspoken critic of conservative and undemocratic tendencies in the labor movement since he first worked for the United Mineworkers of America, after the victory of Miners for Democracy in 1972, and other 1970s union reform movements. In July, Monthly Review Press published Early’s first book, a collection of insightful and highly accessible essays on the highs and lows of U.S. labor organizing that examine events spanning from the 1930s to those still unfolding today. We asked Steve to help explain the recent acrimony choking the movement and to share lessons from previous periods of struggle.

Left Turn: When the U.S. invaded Iraq, leftists critiqued major media sources for “embedding” reporters with military units, since that almost guaranteed one-sided coverage. Your new book is called Embedded with Organized Labor. What’s your relationship to the labor movement, and how does that affect the analysis you present in the book?

Steve Early: The concept of embeddedness is certainly problematic in the way network journalists have covered the military. We adopted that concept and applied it to the terrain of the labor movement for two reasons: first, to highlight the fact that there is a class war going on; secondly, many of those journalists identified strongly with the army that they were embedded with, and likewise, I’ve always been a partisan, someone who’s committed to building the labor movement, whose been an activist and a participant observer. I think it’s impossible to be neutral, and that’s where mainstream journalists go wrong—trying to claim standards of objectivity that really don’t exist. The writing I’ve done over the years in the labor movement has been informed by practical experience. Having actually been involved in organizing, bargaining, strikes, and union democracy reform struggles has given me a grounding that I believe is helpful in trying to make sense of them for readers of the book.

LT: You write that one of your influences was your involvement in reform struggles for democracy in the 1970s. Can you elaborate on some of the key lessons from those experiences?

SE: In recent years, people trying to revitalize the labor movement by organizing the unorganized have tended to downplay the importance of democracy and member control. They think the movement is in such crisis that we have to focus almost exclusively on increasing union growth and that we can worry about how unions are structured, how much of a voice members have, later on when we’ve expanded the percentage of the workforce that is even represented. I think the 1970s are instructive here. Back then, there were unions—like the United Mine Workers, Teamsters, and Steelworkers—that were very powerful in their heyday. But, when their officialdom became more inaccessible and unaccountable, these same unions were not as effective in collective bargaining and day-to-day contract enforcement. The notion that members could just count on big powerful table-thumping leaders, like John L. Lewis or Jimmy Hoffa, to deliver the goods proved not to be true, particularly when their successors took over and proved to be both incompetent and corrupt.

In the 1970s, there was a big management counter-offensive--aimed at labor gains achieved in earlier decades. Unionized workers in several major industries found themselves to be relatively defenseless. Their working conditions were deteriorating, there was less employment security, pensions and benefits were being eroded, but their unions were basically telling them, “Don’t blame us. Be thankful you have a job. Keep your mouth shut and do what you are told—by us and by management.”

This mantra that people should just keep their mouths shut, and their heads down, and not be troublemakers didn’t sit well with many rank and file activists who had some historical memory of unions being more militant and democratic in the 1930s and 40s, or who were recently returned Vietnam veterans, or had a few years of college and exposure to the subversive ideas of the 1960s. In many places, workers began to rebel against having a second boss. They rejected this attitude that the union really didn’t belong to members and that the business of dealing with the employer should be left to the full-time officials and staff.

LT: Speaking of member control, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), the local we discussed in Left Turn #31, seceded from SEIU and is attempting to establish itself as the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). What led to this split?

SE: A lot of publicity about the split has cast it as a personality conflict or a jurisdictional dispute. Actually, there was a principled parting of ways around organizing and bargaining strategies. UHW had participated in an experiment in which SEIU locals agreed to work with an industry group, the Nursing Home Alliance, to lobby for higher Medicaid reimbursement rates in return for management giving union organizers selective access to workers in nursing home locations they designated. The union agreed upfront that any newly organized workers would be covered by a template agreement which limited the right to strike and which made wage increases dependent on the union’s ability to successfully lobby for increased state reimbursements. It was an experiment in how far you could or should go in terms of a quid pro quo for "card check and neutrality."

UHW was very self-critical about the results of this experiment. In May 2007, the local’s executive board sent a letter and a member petition to SEIU rejecting the template contract approach favored by the national union. UHW believed the best way to organize was not to hand workers a pre-fab agreement that tied their hands going forward, but through building the union on a strong basis of member mobilization, education, and participation. Essentially you had a situation where a leading SEIU affiliate was organizing a grassroots campaign, within the union, to try to change the direction of its healthcare organizing and bargaining strategy. That was the root of UHW's dissent. It led to SEIU President Andy Stern retaliating in various ways, culminating finally in a trusteeship in late January, 2009,which removed all of UHW’s elected leaders and tried to squelch their constructive criticism and dissent within a two million-member union. Now, the deposed leaders and dissident members of UHW are trying to build a new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, in competition with SEIU in California.

LT: The other ugly split happening right now is between UNITE and HERE. What provoked that, and what role is SEIU playing in the conflict?

SE: In 2004 the garment workers and the hotel and restaurant workers merged, creating a joint structure with joint presidents—Bruce Raynor from UNITE and John Wilhelm from HERE. When they consummated this marriage, it was projected as a model for unions working together to enhance their effectiveness. The Change to Win coalition, with Raynor in the lead on this issue, argued that the fifty or sixty unions affiliated with the AFL needed to merge, as UNITE and HERE had done, arguing that labor wouldn’t be effective until we only had ten or fifteen mega-unions. Four years later, a dispute developed over the line of presidential succession at UNITE-HERE. As in SEIU, there were also important disagreements related to bargaining and organizing strategy--ie how management friendly the union should become in order to grow via top-down deals that tended to deprive workers of their ability to fight for future contract improvements. Raynor wanted to become the sole president of the merged organization but recognized that the hotel workers side--unhappy with his leadership--was going to outvote him and make Wilhelm the president in the summer of 2009. So, Rainer started dispersing large sums of treasury money to his allies on the UNITE side of the union and encouraged these locals to split away from UNITE-HERE, which they’ve done. Most UNITE locals and joint boards, plus some hotel workers, adding up to about 100,000 of the 400,000 members of the merged organization, left UNITE HERE. They renamed themselves Workers United and affiliated with SEIU last Spring. There is a continuing dispute about which faction will end up in control the Amalgamated Bank, a union-owned bank that came from the garment workers side.

What has made the dispute even messier is that SEIU has announced that it is going to be organizing actively in the traditional jurisdiction of the hotel workers--food service, gaming, and hotels. So, we have a situation where UNITE-HERE, a union affiliated with Change to Win, is, in effect, being raided by a minority faction of its own union, which left and affiliated with another Change to Win founder, SEIU! This replicates on a grander scale some of the worst internal squabbles in the AFL-CIO that the Change to Win unions claimed they wanted to get away from when they formed their rival labor federation just four years ago.

LT: It’s especially disheartening to radical young unionists from our generation that the unions at the center of these faction fights are the same ones that drew many young people to the labor movement in the first place.

SE: You’re absolutely right., The three outfits most involved in these inter-related disputes were the "progressive organizing unions" that attracted many young activists, from campus and community organization backgrounds. It’s been very disillusioning and disorienting for some of these folks. We are seeing a rising tide of resignations and defections by organizers, young and older, who worked for SEIU for various lengths of time--as a form of protest over some of the things that Stern is doing. Due to this experience, I think some people are going to reexamine their views about union democracy and reform, about the importance of creating more organizational alternatives, whether they be new independent unions or worker center based-vehicles for workplace and community mobilization. In the meantime, a lot of past alliances, funding relationships, and coalition partnerships are now at risk or subject to a lot of tension because of the rifts that have developed in and around SEIU.

LT: Given the state of the movement what would your advice be for young radicals who are looking to get engaged in the labor movement—particularly folks who are thinking about taking a paid job at a union?

SE: There’s really a range of routes to union activism. The one that people took in the 1970s, that’s still open to people today, is to get a job in a union or non-union workplace and be a workplace organizer. That route doesn’t have to involve getting a job in a factory; there are lots of non-union white collar workplaces where having someone with community organizing or student movement skills would be very useful in helping to build a new union, for example. It’s always good to have young activists in a unionized environment, contributing to shaking things up and keeping the leadership accountable by building opposition caucuses or becoming militant shop stewards. Sometimes young radicals getting jobs as teachers or social workers or in other kinds of government or service sector employment enables them to be part of very important union democracy and reform struggles.

LT: I’m glad you brought up the tradition of radicals becoming rank and file organizers—a tradition you took part in and that you write about in the book. What lessons should we take from 1960s radicals who took this approach?

SE: Well, I would propose a more ecumenical approach to “colonizing” today than was common back then. In the 1970s, people usually got jobs in blue collar workplaces as part of a political project, including a lot of people whose more natural progression from on-campus to post-graduate activism might have been to go into one of the professions instead--ie teaching, social work, various forms of government appointment, or even private sector professional and technical employment. In other countries, like Germany or France, it's not unusual to run into political activists who are union members employed at high-tech firms as engineers or software developers. Here, there was a conception that the only really strategic workplace organizing you could do was in traditional manufacturing industries, trucking, or utilities as a blue-collar worker.

Unfortunately, many of these folks, after ten, fifteen, even twenty years of devoted base-building, got de-industrialized out of their jobs and lost their ability to influence blue collar union politics. While many of them gained an enormous amount of workplace and union experience and went on to be activists in other settings or went back to school, they were sidelined from direct involvement in broader struggles to revitalize the labor movement. Ironically, it was the people who stayed on the track that middle and upper middle class people normally took—and went into SEIU, AFSCME, or the teachers unions—whose careers weren’t disrupted by industrial restructuring. Some of them ended up, for better or worse, being quite influential in building our still-growing public and service sector unions. And they didn’t have to go through the contortions that people sometimes did, trying on top of everything else to become blue-collar workers when that wasn’t necessarily part of their own class background or what they really wanted to be doing.

LT: How can a trade unionist with strong anticapitalist views make her or himself relevant to workplace struggles?

SE: Well, it’s definitely a balancing act. You can be a great radical pamphleteer, a great soap-boxer about your particular left party's maximum political program, but if you don’t develop the respect of coworkers by engaging in the day-to-day work of dealing with management, handling grievances, and organizing contract fights, you won’t have much of an audience for what will probably be seen as rather unconventional ideas about how American society and the global economy should be restructured.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is the danger that, to gain co-worker credibility, activists become so absorbed in trade unionism that whatever other political agenda might have originally motivated them, they no longer have much time for such non-workplace concerns. So, I think the challenge is finding some balance between the day-to-day union work and political agitation and education about U.S. foreign and military policy and all the other "big picture" issues that are still most effectively raised, within unions, by people who have been recognized as shop-floor leaders. Without their kind of track record and credibility, you’re not going to get much of hearing for politics very different from what most people have been exposed to, growing up in the US of A.

LT: In Embedded you discuss the importance of forming “intermediate organizations” like community solidarity groups. Could you say more about those kinds of organizations and how they connect to the larger goal of building independent political organizations for working people?

SE: Another pitfall of trade union work is the tendency toward parochialism. People begin to identify not with the workers’ movement as a whole, but with their own union, and develop an institutional loyalty that can be an obstacle to the kind of cross-union solidarity building that groups like Labor Notes, Jobs with Justice, and US Labor Against the War have tried to promote.

Groups like Jobs with Justice bring activists from the public and the private sector together and get people interacting with student, religious, and community organizations that they might not have otherwise interacted with. People get a sense that there is—or could be—a movement out there that is broader, more dynamic, and more diverse than their own unions. So, I think another role for activists is to also be involved in these cross-union coalitions.

LT: You argue that the decline of labor journalism has left us with an informational and ideological void. What hope is there for new media technologies to fill this void? Do you think this technology will lead to noteworthy developments in how organizing happens or increased member involvement?

SE: Creative use of new media technology can go a long way toward filling this void. There has been a great proliferation of labor-related list-serves, web pages, and blogs like Solidarity Information Services, Talking Union, LaborPortside, Gangbox News, Working Minnesota, and new sites created by Labor Notes and In These Times. Sources like these make it much easier for trade unionists to follow developments in a wide range of unions and industries, comment on them, and forward material of interest to large numbers of fellow activists. Groups like the Labor Video Project in San Francisco have, in the meantime, helped promote the use of short, catchy YouTube-style videos, and the network of local correspondents developed by Wisconsin-based Workers Independent News has greatly expanded radio coverage.

The downside is there’s little or no one-on-one human contact involved through this medium. It takes more than impersonal email contact or anonymous blog postings to generate effective collective action in any workplace, particularly under the disapproving eye of a non-union boss. There remains no substitute for old-fashioned workplace organizing, rooted in personal conversations, direct two-way communication, and the development of relationships of trust, without which you’re not going to have expressions of solidarity on the job, which often require risk-taking.

When unions combine new and old tools, the results can be pretty impressive. Rapid communication through email and texting is becoming essential. It enables organizers to get strike and mobilization bulletins out to members quickly, keep everyone updated on the status of negotiations, play back examples of successful mobilization activity, and gather rank-and-file feedback on future campaign plans. American unions are operating in a very dysfunctional “last century” manner when they encourage membership passivity by hoarding information about what’s going on. More and more members—particularly younger ones—will refuse to put up with this treatment. The greater organizational transparency and speed of information sharing that’s now possible, thanks to the internet, have raised the bar for union performance.

LT: Since many of the chapters began life as book reviews, Embedded could serve as a syllabus for radicals looking to deepen their understanding of work and class struggles. What books do you consider indispensable for young activists interested in learning more about the labor movement?

SE: Over the last ten to fifteen years, a lot of really good, accessible, books have been published about labor history, culture, and politics. The downside is that most don’t seem to have reached a very broad audience. There is a lot that can and should be done, by unions, university labor education programs, and workers centers, to promote more labor-related reading. We need to find ways to revive traditional methods of workplace reading, discussion and debate. The Scandinavian unions, for many years, have used the device of study circles where they take labor education into the workplace rather than just see it as something that involves taking people off the job for a day or a week for training. Locally, there ought to be union book clubs.

I would highly recommend recent studies of labor history like Nelson Lichtenstein’s The State of the Union. Three terrific new books about the role of women and immigrants in the labor movement that I would recommend are Dorothy Sue Cobble's The Sex of Class: Women and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement; Jane LaTour's Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in NYC; and David Bacon's Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. There’s also a very good new book about the attempt to revitalize labor, called Solidarity Divided by Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin.

Andy Cornell is a member and a former staff organizer of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/UAW, and has organized with SEIU and the United Steelworkers of America. He is completing a dissertation about 20th century anarchist history.

Peter Brogan is a writer and labor activist, now based in Toronto. He has been a union staff organizer and activist in the United States and Canada, in both the public and private sectors.

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