Chronicling the Thirty Years War: A Review of Steve Early, Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home
From New Politics, Winter, 2010, Vol. XII, No.4
By Michael Hirsch
Saying there is no class struggle is like denying gravity exists. Corporate America knows the stakes in a class war. So does Steve Early, and so does DSA. Does U.S. labor?
In one sense the question is nonsensical. Unions are by nature class institutions. They work to secure member interests in a conflict-riddled if not homicidal economic environment.
But what workers’ interests are actually secured? How generalized are the benefits? And how goes the fight?
Even the noisy debate between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win union federations over how best to revitalize the labor movement – at least as it surfaced publicly – was never framed in terms of class war. No fertile engagement in ideas and counterpoised initiatives over how best to build up labor’s power was ever launched, if such an engagement was even intended. The debate, such as it was, was tactical.
Meanwhile, the class war against American workers and their families has raged unabated since the days of Jimmy Carter’s unfortunate administration. Where once labor-management cooperation got lip service, and where labor was treated as a junior partner with business in what was sold as a mutually advantageous social compact, the terrain is changed.
After the oil crisis of the mid-1970s, fang-and-claw industrial relations returned. Some say they never left.
Whatever the context, labor’s been hammered. The inviolate Treaty of Detroit, like the treaties the U.S. government signed with Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries, was repeatedly violated, even as early as the late 1950s when shop floor conditions declined, fear was the real face of workers under scientific management, and the Steelworkers launched a three-month strike, with mixed results.
From the collapse of industries once the hallmark of the American Century – textiles in the 1950s, shipping in the 1960s, steel in the 1980s – to concession bargaining, business outsourcing to the “developing countries” abetted by free-trade agreements and the collapse of the U.S. auto industry today, labor is on the defensive and its ranks have thinned.
Before John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president in 1995, even labor’s rhetoric
was stilted. As business waged a scorched earth campaign, labor mostly settled for a Christmas truce. Today, with the union movement talking a tougher line, the percentage of unionized workers in the general population is declining in all states but California.
When the AFL merged with the CIO in 1955, some one third of the American labor
force was unionized. In 2009, even with more labor leaders talking left, speaking at DSA functions and proposing what in any other country would be called social democratic policies,
just 12 percent of the U.S. workforce is represented by collective bargaining agreements.
Worse, less than eight percent of the private sector workforce is unionized. New York State, with just 25 percent of its workforce in unions – largely in New York City and its surrounding suburbs – has the nation’s largest concentration of unionists.
The lack of a critical mass of organized workers who can humanize industry work standards hobbles not just workplace agitation and job security but political action, too. A
labor reform bill President Carter was elected to pass – and didn’t – and that bears a striking resemblance to the possibly stillborn Employee Free Choice Act of today, died absent
Carter’s spending needed political capital on its passage. Hundred-million-dollar electoral campaigns by both union federations in 2008 resulted in a Congress that can’t seem to
pass a healthcare reform package worthy of the name.
The rash of daily newspaper closings nationwide affects not only journalists but printers, truckers, clericals and retailers, too. To compete internationally, domestic food processors increasingly subcontract to temp hiring agencies who offer below-standard wages and no job security or benefits. With even the once mighty construction trades retreating in the face of nonunion contractors, it’s been one long, defensive war. Now even the Ford Motor Company, with its relatively small losses, wants the same sweet stimulus taste offered to the broken General Motors. And GM wants to be stimulated again.
Meanwhile, income inequality just in this decade alone has worsened, the transfer of wealth from the working class to capital creating a financial gulf wider than anything seen since the gilded age. It’s small comfort that it took Wall Street’s bubble bursting and a full-blown recession to narrow the gap.
Embedded on labor’s side the whole time was Steve Early, who held the sometimes tenuous positions of being both a New England representative for a major AFL-CIO union
and a close observer and sympathizer of progressive and rank-and-file movements. His new book, Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War
at Home, is a compendium of some of the savviest writing on working men and women written over the last 20 years. His writing evinces a feel not just for the politics of labor vs capital, but also for the tactile realities of work and status in America. In breadth it ranks with C. Wright Mills’ The New Men of Power. The difference: Early is no academic.
One theme cuts through each essay: that the best way to revitalize the labor movement is to empower its members. Early would jettison the in-vogue brand of “progressive managerialism” for an “organizational transformation that puts members
in charge of their own unions.” He would nix using members as film extras, or so many feet to be mobilized in the streets and state capitals, and instead give workers a stake not only
in the outcome of union campaigns, but in their planning and execution, too. Do that and they will come in the millions.
He’d also take a chance on union democracy, because U.S. culture
already has enough condescending saviors.
Ranging from a close reading of labor’s history during the second half of the twentieth century to contract reporting, the persistence of racism and ethnic discrimination in industry,
the plight of undocumented workers and the political jousting between the competing labor federations, Early even manages to cull some of the best bits from others’ work, as when
he cites Nelson Lichtenstein writing that “the treaty of Detroit was less a mutually satisfactory concordat” than “a limited and unstable truce, largely confined to a well-defined set of
regions and industries; a product of defeat, not victory.”
It was indeed.
Early’s book isn’t only about traditional unions. He includes a fine essay on community-based worker centers, too, showing both the strengths of organizing new immigrants on the
basis of their common plight as marginalized ethnics and the weaknesses inherent (the huge potential for employers to play off one racial and ethnic group against another).
Now a quibble. The title, Embedded with Organized Labor, isn’t quite right, in part because each of the book’s essays is a review of others’ books. As it only incidentally contains
dispatches from the war zone, a more fitting title would be Embedded in the Labor Section of the Library of Congress.
Even in “Reuther Redux,” his lengthy essay on the AFL-CIO imbroglio with its rival Change to Win, and in “Afterthoughts on Sweeney,” which are among the strongest essays in the
book, what Early is doing is critiquing key books on labor.
Still, it’s a boost to know that someone with Early’s competence is bookspotting, given that more than half of the some 64 works under review – all but the two by the execrable
Linda Chavez worth a read – are from academic houses with small press runs and limited distribution capacity. Just 10 are from major publishers.
Saying it’s for the most part a collection of reviews is also no slam on Early for failing to write the book he didn’t write; the pieces easily stand on their own. Early, almost singular
among journalists (David Bacon is another, as is Jane Slaughter) writes from the standpoint of knowing the terrain first hand. He’s uniquely qualified to treat others’ material well, and he does. The book also should be required reading for younger DSA comrades who, in my experience, tend to treat unions as if they are Edenic institutions instead of After-The-Fall political arenas.
That brush with reality comes across sharply in his discussion of the “democracy vs. density” debate, where Early faults Change to Win (and particularly the Service Employees
International Union) for staking its fortunes on union mergers and mammoth locals. Traditional trade union servicing and a regard for members’ opinions, Early says, get short shrift. He
sees the wholesale trusteeing of locals as payback for local leaders refusing to be team players, not as acts of vigilance to end corruption or mismanagement. And he reads the move
toward multistate mega-locals with appointed officers – marketed as putative efforts to streamline operations – as politically motivated, and with nothing in common with internal union reform.
For Early, the real agenda of appointed leaders – those coming out of a social movement background as well as those former workers in their industries – is to build a job base
for themselves while institutionalizing international union control. Democracy and member empowerment don’t even compute, and easily turn into the kind of “cartel unionism”
that Mexican workers chafe against.
Even so, the density argument Change to Win makes – that increased membership
numbers give unions power in particular industries – has some veracity to it, and something I think Early underplays. What is the point of a democratic union that can’t bring employers
to heel, or that is the plaything of any coterie capable of cobbling together an election plurality? For Early, the results that Change to Win touts don’t guarantee influence, either, and
he gives numerous examples of sweetheart contracts signed and militants burned by the new leaders. Still, there are any number of public sector unions that – top down as they may
be – have served their members well, if only as clients and not as partners. Sometimes clients just want to be served.Sometimes authoritarian leaders do get the job done.
Of course, the battle between empowerment and effectiveness isn’t new, nor is it a zero-sum game. In the mid-1920s, A.J. Muste observed (in an essay sorely absent from Nat
Hentoff’s one-volume edit of Muste’s collected works) that unions necessarily perform two roles: that of a mobilizing army and that of a democratic town meeting. As Muste noted, the two don’t easily fit together, but they must.
Michael Hirsch is a New York-based labor journalist and DSA member and is on the editorial boards of New Politics and Democratic Left.