April 20, 2010, Posted at "From the Left Bank of The Potomac" and published in The Ark, magazine of the National Organizers Alliance
I’m chary about reviewing the work of other writers: I never read a book I didn’t like, and I never met a author I didn’t admire (or at least envy). And when ARK MAGAZINE (official publication of the National Organizing Alliance) asked me to review books by four friends , I knew I was about to get neck deep in a small muddy if I dug in with my usual critical shovel. Alas, I came up dirtless — these are all must-reads, not only because of superb content and good writing, but because they are written by people who were all organizers at some point in their lives. I urge you to buy them, lest the authors be forced to give up their inside-jobs- with-no-heavy-lifting and return to their halcyon days of cheap motels and Don Martel wine.
There I was, finally able to get into a book reading at Busboys & Poets, our relatively new DC coffeehouse/pub-cum-den of radical literature, and prepared to intellectually confront a self-styled fiery leftist who’s been pissing me off for 30 years. I’d finally met Steve Early at the AFL-CIO Convention in Pittsburgh, but we’d had only a small talk at a reading by Amy Dean for her new book. I’d promised to read and review his stupid book full of stupid observations about well-educated white guys screwing up the labor movement, but wanted to hear him first.
Steve came off as much more of a monkish bookworm than a radical union reformer, a slight, mild-spoken, male-pale fellow who turned out to be a professional nice-guy, not only acknowledging everyone who had helped him with the book, but recognizing his wife as the “real writer” in the house. She must be a Hemingway clone, because Imbedded is one of the most accessible, readable pieces of labor history you’ll ever pick up. The book is made up of selections from more than 300 articles, columns, essays, reviews and op-ed pieces Steve’s written over a long career as a “participatory” labor journalist, i.e., a union staffer writing as a freelancer for publications ranging from Mother Jones, Labor Notes and In These Times, to The Boston Globe, New York Times and the Washington Post.
The first section of the book is devoted to “labor activists or organizations whose work provided the historical backdrop for organizers with a similar left-wing orientation who came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s” and for me it was boring. I mean how many times can you spook the ghosts of Samuel Gompers and John L. Lewis into mortal conflict? But the pages turn faster as Steve romps into contemporary labor history, from the hopeful onset of the Sweeney years (Not Your Father’s Union Movement), to the AFL-CIO fracture at its 2005 convention in Chicago (Solidarity Sometimes), to the rise and sagging of the Change to Win federation (From Monsignor Sweeney to Reverend Andy; Reform From Above or Renewal from Below.)
While returning time and again to his personal (and laudatory) obsession with a labor movement run from the bottom up instead of the top down, Steve digs equally deep into other challenges perpetually vexing unions and their leaders — among them globalization, diversity, inclusion, politics, organizing, social justice, business unionism, and corruption. Holy moly! I found myself mostly agreeing with Steve, chuckling out loud at times, just scratching my head at others and wondering, “What the hell are we doing here, anyway?”
For rest of review, see: http://www.rayabernathy.com/