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

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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.

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