Save Our Unions, a Battle Cry and a Must-Read

Early_book_cover3.jpg

By Michael Hirsch
 
Does Steve Early exist? Or is his the brand name for a syndicate of crack labor journalists who in James Thurber’s words “get the story and write the story,” but write it from the perspective of working people? That’s a talent that often unappreciated, even by many unions. And, yes, he exists.

When Early was in Vacaville, Cal., last year, covering the state’s contentious healthcare representation election, he got an earful from one side and stony silence from the other. An email after the fact from the communications director of the state’s SEIU healthcare division, whose organizers studiously passed on talking to Early, informed him that his union limits media responses to “legitimate journalists.” Even knowing the prickly back story—Early staunchly supports workplace organizing, rank and file activism and control by workers of their own unions, and is skeptical that the SEIU’s vaunted “partnering” with employers either has worked or can work in delivering anything beyond labor peace via substandard contracts—the slam that he is not a legitimate scribbler is bizarre.

The author of Embedded with Organized Labor and The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, the latter a stinging indictment of the foibles of Change to Win and its break with the rest of organized labor, Early is a fecund, scrupulous and always informed writer. His slew of repeated contributions to dailies such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Enquirer and journals and magazines including Social Policy, Dissent, New Labor Forum, Labor Notes and others mark him as not only a consummate professional but also a friend of working people. If union press flacks can talk to Investor’s Weekly, whose credulity barely rises above the expectations of day traders, they can talk to Early.

As with all Early’s work, his Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013) combines sharp reporting with a deep understanding of working class history, the quotidian lives of workers on the job and labor’s struggles and political affairs.
 
The book recounts the Teamsters’ travails over winning the historic UPS strike in 1998 and minutely examines how preparation for job actions matters, as does having leaders who see the necessity of building what New York Transit Workers Union President John Samuelson calls “rebuilding layers of union density on the shop floor.” He commends a host of new book authors who “let the rank and file do much of the talking.”  

He trumpets filmmakers such as British director Nigel Cole, whose recent Made in Dagenham immortalizes the late 1960s strike of women workers at a London Ford plant, hails the scene where the heroine commandeers a shop meeting as “a great tutorial in how to make effective job-upgrade presentations,” and thinks “that kind of labor relations lobbying is always done best by those who actually do the work.”  

Throughout the book runs the theme that the best union leaders are there to aid and model and suggest and learn from and not displace—let alone sabotage—workers’ initiatives. Things are hard enough in the era of multinational corporations, job flight and in the case of the valiant but failed 583-day Detroit Free Press Strike, “where the employer has deep pocket, lots of revenue-properties and the same management-friendly private sector labor law on its side” to co-opt shop-floor initiatives.  

Among the book’s 33 timely essays, all but the epilogue first appeared elsewhere, and all come with up-to-date postscripts. (The concluding chapter also appears post-publication in the February issue of Monthly Review.) Among them is a remarkably astute essay on “salting,” or placing almost uniformly young and mostly college-educated activists into jobs where they can organize from the inside.

The advantage: it allows direct and regular contact among union agents who share the work lives of their co-workers and (just as important) offers an alternative vehicle to young activists to taking other-directed union staff jobs.

The disadvantage: overcoming whatever cultural baggage these ex-students of any ethnic or class background may bring with them to a workplace not only sizably non-white but also non-native born.  
 
Other essays deal with taking on global corporations that are constrained by strong labor laws in Europe but free to raven in the U.S., and the “muddle” labor is in over backing mediocre-bordering-on-bad healthcare provision and countering corporate moves to tamper with even that. There’s also a sharp analysis of the 2011 Wisconsin labor uprising against its imperious Republican governor, and a refreshing look at political possibilities through breakthroughs in Vermont.

Early even surprises with micro-level factoids. Despite my knowing and working with Teamster insurgent leader Sandy Pope for decades, I needed Early to tell me that her actual first name was Alexandra. Who knew? Clearly Early did. And he knows a lot more.

Read this book. You will, too.

Michael Hirsch, a longtime union activist and DSA member, is a New York-based labor and political writer.

This article previously appeared in Union Democracy Review.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 9 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.