Rebuilding the Labor Movement
Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress
by Steve Early
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013
At the beginning of 2013, American workers were reeling from body blows -- in Michigan among other places. How does that state transmogrify from being the heart of the labor movement to a "right-to-work (for less)" locale, taking its place alongside the Deep South? This anti-worker plague swept through surrounding states. Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, in that order, took away workers' right to negotiate their conditions, even though this tack was defeated by a vote of the public in Ohio in November 2011. Indiana enacted a right-to-work law affecting private sector employees. A year after the Ohio vote, workers in Michigan were defeated on two referenda concerning government workers' ability to negotiate. At that stage, what happened in the latter state shouldn't have shocked anyone.
The Great Recession of 2008 and counting hit working people very hard -- loss of jobs, benefits, value in their homes and retirement investments -- all these things headed downward. Workers' share of national income fell dramatically while corporate profits and wealthy people's incomes rose. This was partly due to the finance sector's tanking of the economy and partly due to bipartisan attacks on wages and benefits.
The left's recipe for turning things around is far more easily said than done. Most on the left in labor say unions should do more thorough political education of members, democratize their structures and practice, hold 'direct actions' in the workplace, organize the many now outside unions, especially immigrants, build international alliances of workers, and participate in citywide and neighborhood organizations, distancing themselves, at least somewhat, from the Democrats.
Lots of reform-oriented workers have tried for years to democratize their unions, Both in the private sector and in government, labor's opponents have been on a near-constant attack. Steve Early spent years working with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Along with many others, he held back the otherwise precipitous drop in members and clout. He and they have not been able to stop it, however.
In 2011 and 2012, working people and their allies fought back with a tremendous grassroots rebellion against Scott Walker and his agenda in Wisconsin and, spreading all over the country, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement highlighting income inequality. Both uprisings rejuvenated the half-dead labor movement to some extent.
Early, a long-time labor journalist, wondered about the extent of that change. It's frankly hard to believe that the union movement, thanks to Occupy's influence, will foster civil disobedience, democratization of its structures, more participation of front-line members and less exorbitant pay for its leaders. What will help working people rediscover their own power is actual practice involving rank-and-file workers asserting their rights..
He points to the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012 as a prime example of the interplay of labor reform, democratic practice, bottom-up rebellion and alliances with the communities. He cites the walkouts of 2012-'13 of fastfood workers, bigbox store employees and retail clerks in several states as a sign of the continuing power and effectiveness of ordinary folks' withdrawing their labor. Early cites the "Fight for $15" campaigns and walkouts by fastfood employees in 58 cities at the end of August 2013. These actions raised awareness concerning near-starvation wages around the nation..
Early names the courageous low-wage working people and the many shop stewards in the already-organized job sites as the "key agents of change." It's those who organize on the shop floor on a near-constant basis, as well as those for whom the union movement has made a real difference, who can most effectively spread the word about the worth of unions.
In Save Our Unions, Early reviews past labor reform efforts which played out locally or around the country in the United Mine Workers (UMW), the Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the United Auto Workers (UAW). He tells us of valiant efforts at reform and renewal, some of which, especially in the UMW and the Teamsters, were successful for a while.
He examines the present-day realities surrounding work stoppages and the very right to walk off the job. Early then looks into two ways of rebuilding private industry unions. One is "salting" workplaces with planted organizers. The other is international solidarity.
The author goes into quite a bit of detail concerning young radicals and college graduates entering workplaces with the intent to organize, some of them already union employees; others doing it somewhat more independently. He tells us of some successes and a lot of failures. A major reason for the failures is the great disparity in strength between unions and employers these days. Other not insignificant reasons are the difficulty young, educated leftists have relating to working people, both native and foreign-born, and the different levels of risk faced by each during an organizing drive.
The main instance of international solidarity cited by Early is that between German and American Telecom workers. Of course, these days, at the Nissan plant in Mississippi, there has been solidarity shown by German and South African workers with their American counterparts.
The author goes into the history of the labor movement a bit, both at Lawrence, MA and Dagenham, UK. His emphasis is upon the initiatives shown by women and men from the shop floor in the realities of both the mill town and the English city. Next, he spends quite a bit of time on the fight for survival of CWA-IBEW in Telecom, facing off against both Verizon and AT &T. He holds out hope for those unions if grievance strikes can be used to supplement both the fight at the bargaining table and in the public eye.
Early goes into the history of and lessons from the fight between NUHW/CNA and SEIU. He returns to this later on. Throughout, there's an emphasis upon rank-and-file empowerment, its squelching and its fostering.
From the dramatic rise of the CIO unions in the 'Thirties to the "alt-labor" (worker centers, community alliances) of today, Early says that the objective of "saving our unions" is best served by both "external" and "internal" activism. Those who want to construct "alternative institutions" should not ignore the many rank-and-file workers who are trying to construct unions which are responsive to, indeed driven by, the needs and efforts of their sisters and brothers. A new "social justice"-oriented labor movement will arise from the fightbacks of ordinary members and their community allies.
Early spends a great deal of time and space in this book on the fights and troubles of SEIU and its several opponents, and yet there are lessons to be drawn from these bad policies and confrontations which can be real, vitally necessary learning experiences for the labor movement. If trade unionism is to survive, it must be driven by the rank-and-file and their many partners in the larger society, both in the US and in the rest of the world. One day we'll see a labor movement with renewed strength helping to re-orient our country's social priorities in a far more humanistic direction, to our benefit and to the relief of the rest of the world, which now has to put up with our murderous bullying. Perhaps in the future they will instead benefit from our democratic impulses, emanating from the bottom on up.
Greg King is an active member of SEIU Local 888.