Roger Bybee review of Embedded with Organized Labor
in WorkingUSA, Volume 13, Issue 2, Spring, 2010
The past three decades of labor history have been largely scarred by tragic defeats and heartbreaking disappointments, enfeebling the labor movement to the point where it represents just 7.6% of private0sector workers and 12.4% overall.
"Beginning with the PATCO disaster in 1981, when thousands of striking air traffic controllers were fired and replaced, the US labor movement entered a dark decade of lost strikes and lockouts," as former CW staffer and freelance writer Steve Early grimly recounts in Embedded With Organized Labor. "Many anti-concession battles ended badly at Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Hormel, International
Eastern., Continental Airlines, International Paper, and other firms. "
But over the same period, labor has witnessed flashes of extraordinary fearlessness, surges toward greater internal democracy, bold and creative, strategic thinking , and, increasing ly, an eagerness to rebuild itself as a social movement speaking with moral authority for working Americas.
Although "embedded" as a staffer with the Communication Workers for 27 years, Early maintained the autonomy that allowed him to rigorously analyze labor's problems and prospects and function as in the unique role of a "participatory journalist," writing nearly 300 articles for a variety of leftist and other publications. Embedded With Organized Labor reflects the sharp insights Early accumulated directly from his years of experience and his omnivorous reading of important books on labor. The result is a smoothly blended and extraordinarily readable set of essays exploring key issues such as the increasingly insecure and anxious lives of the contemporary working class as movingly documented by Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed and other books , the "business unionism" which has limited labor's ability to stand up for broad conception of social justice, including the women and people of color within in its own ranks, and the devastating impact of corporate globalization on both workers in the US and abroad.
But most importantly, Early challenges labor on its failure to practice genuine internal democracy and he sharply scrutinizes a host of new strategic proposals, using a very tough standard of analysis. What makes Early's book so authoritative is his both his sense of fairness (e.g., his discussion of Walter Reuther incorporates both the UAW leader's visionary and progressive side as well as his glaring failure to challenge the auto corporations over the control of production. ) and his credibility as a veteran of labor wars. Early has been a labor journalist, organizer, negotiator, contract campaign coordinator, and strike strategist for CWA. Thus, says Early, "If there's criticism of other unions or the behavior of fellow trade unionists in the book--and there's plenty of that in some sections--it's never in the form of potshots from sidelines or 'Monday morning quarterbacking' from an ivory tower."
The careful sifting of past experience and thoughtful evaluation of potential strategies for the future are at the core of Embedded. Labor's re-mergence as a central force for justice, Early stresses, is complicated by the way in which labor law and its enforcement have effectively stripped workers of both the right to organize unions and the right to strike. Philip Dine, author of State of the Unions, points out that employers illegally fired 31,358 union sympathizers in 2005, recognizing that merely paying back pay (minus subsequent earnings) is a tiny price to pay for avoiding unions. Similarly, strike activity in the US has collapsed from 470 in 1950 to a mere 14 in 2003. reflecting management's overwhelmingly superior position. Unique among advanced nations, the US gives corporations the legal power to bring in "replacement workers" and the threat to relocate production in response to union activity--long regarded as illegal--has been so little sanctioned that it has become a routine part of contract negotiations in manufacturing.
"As strike activity continues to decline in the United States, the pool of union members and leaders with actual striker experience shrinks as well," Early points out with alarm. "That's why union activists need to analyze, collectively and individually, their strike victories and defeats-summing up and sharing the lessons of those battles so that they can become the basis for future success rather than a reoccurring pattern."
In order for labor to draw out the potential might of its members, it must practice the democracy it preaches. Even the much-revered Cesar Chavez, Early oncedes, allowed the United Farm Workers to deteriorate into a top-down operation where he refused to permit the formation of locals that would give rank and file members a stronger voice.
Particularly disturbing at present is the conduct of the Service Employees International Union under the leadership of Andrew Stern, Stern, the labor movement's bibeest celebrity in the mass media, has presided over a vast expansion of the SEIU's membership that is a remarkable achievement compared with the limited efforts of most other unions. But Stern's reign has increasingly been marked by a concentration of power in his hands and a willingness to appoint college-educated labor professionals in place of workers elected by the rank and file. Since 1996, Stern and the SEIU have placed fully 14% of their locals in trusteeship under which Stern obtains the right to appoint trustees to run these locals.
Currently, the SEIU has immersed itself in an extended, ugly, and expensive battle with a breakaway branch of the SEIU called the National Union of Healthcare Workers in California led by President Sal Rosselli. The NUHW pulled out of the SEIU after Stern attempted to place the unit under trusteeship based on charges that inspired widespread criticism from other labor leaders and intellectuals closely associated with labor. Early also calls attention to Stern's emphasis on "partnership" with management rather than the class struggle approach needed to win improved pay, pension, and health benefits for low-paid hospital and nursing-home workers. Stern's critics in the NUHW argue that Stern is trying to gain rapid management recognition of large numbers of healthcare workers--defended by the SEIU as necessitated by the urgent need to build union density-- from hospitals in exchange for contracts that will largely neglect pension and health benefits negotiated without worker involvement.
Stern, who created a breakaway federation called Change to Win which has not exactly flourished in its five years of existence, has alienated many in labor with his actions like asserting that "responsible unions" should agree to accept the outsourcing of jobs and publicly joining with the president of the ferociously anti-union WalMart to call for a vague version of "healthcare reform." But most disturbing to Stern's critics, especially including Early, is his habit of taking such actions, including the formation of Change to Win, without the full involvement of his members. This pervasive pattern of undemocratic practices can only alienate members and, weaken labor by undermine its public credibility.
Second, labor must lose its reluctance to name the enemy. Early approvingly quotes Michael Zweig's The Working Class Majority, which argues, "One of the great weaknesses of the standard view of class is that it confused the target of political conflict." As a result, "the capitalist class disappears into 'the rich.' And when the capitalist disappears from view, it cannot be a target."
Third, to briefly summarize a number of points Early drives home, the union movement needs to re-formulate itself as a social movement. This means regaining the ability to inspire both its members and public with coherent and unifying goals, to build respectful alliances, spawn a rich cultural milieu that will attract supporters, forging effective international bonds with labor around the world, and promoting a sense of collective economic rights.
At the same time, labor needs to avoid subordinating itself to the interests of the Democratic Party (which seems to be happening yet again on the principle of taxing healthcare benefit, to which the seemingly militant new AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka acceded) and attaching itself single-mindedly to legislative goals like the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act to facilitate organizing without recognizing the .necessity of all-out rank and file mobilization and the barriers posed by employers' right to hire permanent replacement workers.
Further, Early argues, many conceptions of a restructured labor movement fall short of the new strategies and new organizational forms that are needed by today's realities. While labor has finally recognized the importance of working with coalition allies, unions relying on coalitions while they often bypass their s own members, as Dan Clawson asserts in The Next Upsurge. Early underscores Clawson's warning on this, stating that "Some 'organizing unions' may be putting a higher priority on forming alliances with other social movements that mobilizing their own members." As Clawson adds,
" These New Unity Partnership affiliates are not fully developing and deploying labor's greatest source of power--the participation and solidarity of millions of members able to disrupt the economic functioning of the system."
"Instead, "says Early, "they are focusing more 'corporate campaign research', lawsuits, and symbolic protests, paid media, and other staff-directed efforts to 'take battles to a wider public.' "
But Early's book does more than provide critiques. He draws out crucial lessons from positive examples like the Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997.. The Teamsters found wide support for their message, "Part Time America Won't Work," and succeeded in wining the conversion of many part-times jobs into full-time positions. "If I had know that this it was going to be go from negotiator for UPS to negotiating for part-time America, we would have approached it differently," admitted a badly out-maneuvered UPS executive.
The 1989-90 Pittson strike, led by then-UMW President Rich Trumka also offered valuable lessons. The United Mineworkers built up intense solidarity among its members by providing camouflage clothing to them and their family members, and they responded by reaching out broadly to build alliances with other unions across the country. They also took part in countless acts of civil disobedience and many of the members and their supporters were repeatedly arrested, occupied a Pittston processing facility, and founded Camp Solidarity to draw supporters from across the country. Eventually, the UMW's unyielding determination and their broadly-based support forced a relatively good settlement for the union. .
Another key victory was scored by dockworkers in 2001 in the least-unionized state in the nation, South Carolina, as detailed in Suzen Erem and E. Paul Durrenberg's On the Global Waterfront. Confronted with Denmark-based Nordana shipping line that attempted to substitute non-union workers for International Longshoremen's Association members, Local 1422 responded with militant picket lines. When five African-American leaders were singled out for stiff felony charges after a ferocious night-timedockside confrontation, the local reached out internationally and nationally for support. "What turned the tide against these multiple threats--and beat Nordana in the process--was a creative, wide-ranging effort to invest 1422's fight with national and international significance. Not surprisingly, the initiative did not come from the top of organized labor which, as the authors note, is often long on threat and short on action."
Early has also been impressed with "workers centers" aimed at educating the growing number of immigrant workers about their rights. Although he notes the cultural gap between the relatively informal centers and the highly-structured unions that sometimes impairs cooperation, both are making inroads among immigrant workers.
Efforts to organize workers in New York's informal sector---among immigrants in the informal sector of "black" (unregistered) taxicab drivers and workers for green-grocers in New York --suggest that labor has to be open to new forms of organization. Immanuel Ness, author of Immigrants, Unions and the US Labor Market, emphasiszes that organizing in this sector will depend on workers mobilization and direct action to impose pressure on the management to gain concessions. These campaigns "may not start or end with a union contract, and their success can't be "measured solely by membership gains or greater union density. "
"If the only immediate result is the development new workplace leaders, improvements in working conditions and greater dignity and respect on the job, that constitutes 'success,'" declares Early.
While not attempting to lay out a precise roadmap for labor's revival, Early's Embedded With Organized Labor offers an astute picture of labor's present situation and a remarkably inclusive and provocative set of potential strategies. Embedded is both a an absorbing, provocative read for everyone interested in America's working class, and indispensable for those who care about devising and assuring a more vibrant future for labor.