Review From The UE News, Winter, 2009
By Al Hart, Editor
The title of Steve Early’s book is somewhat misleading. It’s a collection of 38 essays he’s published over the past 11 years in a variety of labor journals, newspapers, and progressive political magazines.
Almost all of these articles are reviews of books about contemporary labor issues. So among other things, his book is a very useful reader’s guide to dozens of other labor-related books published in recent years – and reading this book, you may be surprised how many books have been written about labor over the past decade. (Sadly, only one of the books he reviews – Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed – ever made it onto the best seller list.)
Early has been a union activist, organizer, and educator since the early 1970s, working for the United Mine Workers, a Teamster reform group and, for 27 years starting in 1980, for the Communications Workers of America (CWA.) He has a very high opinion of UE, which he describes as the first “real workers’ organization” he encountered, in Vermont in the early 1970s soon after he finished college. One of his essays he gives a positive review of a very deserving book on UE history – Rosemary Feuer’s Radical Unionism in the Midwest. Early analyzes the leaders, strategies defeats and victories of American labor’s recent history from a perspective very close to that of UE. The qualities he values in unions are the ones we value: democracy, accountability, inclusiveness and genuine empowerment of members to conduct their own battles.
Among the themes Early addresses are race, class and gender; labor and the left; dissent and reform movements; globalization and international solidarity, and labor and the law. His essay of EFCA, first published in November 2008, usefully reminds us how both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton disappointed their union supporters who had hoped for labor law reform during their respective presidencies. Many of the essays address the 1995 palace coup in the AFL-CIO in which John Sweeney and Rich Trumka ousted the Lane Kirkland old guard, and the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO. He devotes the last section of the book – four essays and nearly 50 pages – to the union that led that breakaway from the AFL, the SEIU. He’s very critical of SEIU leader Andy Stern for his top-down restructuring of the union.
Early’s epilogue, “Reading, Writing and Union Building,” regrets that books about labor do not sell better, particularly among labor people. Part of the problem is that many of these books are published by university presses who don’t do much to promote them. But he also criticizes union leaders who could gain much by reading books about the strategies and experiences of other unions. And he criticizes them for not doing more to promote union books as a means to educate and activate members. Two unions gain his praise as notable exceptions – UE, for marketing on our website “two labor classics,” Them and Us and Labor’s Untold Story; and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union whose newspaper plugs labor books and videos, including biographies of ILWU founder Harry Bridges and histories of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike.
For those of us who care about the future of the labor movement and would like to read more about what’s going on in labor, Early’s book is a good place to start. By the time you set this book down, you’ll probably have assembled a list of several other books you’d like to read based on Early’s reviews – as well as a list of other books he’s convinced you that you can skip.