Friday, January 15, 2010

Steve Early’s reflections on being embedded with organized labor.

by Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Being an “embedded” journalist has negative connotations for many in the industry, but some may change their opinion after reading Steve Early’s book.

A long-time union organizer for the Communication Workers of America, Early has gathered many of his reviews of labor books and ruminations about things labor in general. Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home is a collection that sparkles with Early’s intelligence, many years of experience, perspective and heart.

Many thanks to dear friend and uber-connector Danny Postel for sharing this book with me. I may add a category of books bearing his name since he has given me so many useful ones!

Early divides his work into six sections, each of which has some introductory text before moving onto the specific articles that comprise that part of the book.

Readers are treated to essays about some of the labor movement’s historic dimensions, the movement’s inconsistent and even tortured relationship with race, class and gender, voices of dissent and reforms, workers’ rights and wrongs, organizing in the global village and changing to win.

Early’s values are evident throughout the book.

His tone shifts at different points from an earnest and informed historian to a disappointed friend to a hopeful brother. But his belief in the potential for a truly grassroots and democratic union made up of actively reading members in which race, class and gender are seen but do not disqualify people from full participation does not waver.

That Early has attempted to live out his beliefs give his words more credibility.

Embedded with Organized Labor gave me literally dozens of books from which to draw to learn more, knowledge about individuals about whom I had never heard and a clearer sense of the broad narrative arc of labor in the American story.

Such sharing of information could easily be accompanied by arrogance. However,at no point did I that Early was performing intellectual pirouettes to show off his vast knowledge of the movement. Rather he is continually sharing and evaluating texts, and the people who wrote them, in an effort to inform, prod and help move people to productive, collective and positively self-interested action.

Early’s got guts, too.

The section of race, class and gender squarely confronts the way in which the movement has fallen short in history and today of reaching some of its loftier ideals,for example. The failure to deliver on promise shown during the early part of John Sweeney’s New Voice era gets similar treatment.

One of my favorite sections involved the pieces about the growth of SEIU and the anti-democratic and technocratic leadership that he says has emerged under Andy Stern. These articles were not as book review-oriented as some of the others, but were no less informative for their different focus.

Again, Early’s unyielding commitment to the role of labor and his considerable critical faculties allow him to make these critiques in an unflinching and constructive spirit.

My only quibble is that it would have been helpful to know the where and when of the publication so that we could see his reflections and thought develop over time.

If this is a blemish, it is a small one.

Early will be speaking next Monday night at the No Exit Cafe at an event organized by Postel. Whether you can make it or not, I urge you to consider purchasing, reading and sharing this valuable and informative book.

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