Three lessons for young labor organizers

by Neal Meyer

Young activists seeking an introduction to the contemporary US labor movement have few places to turn. There are countless histories of labor’s golden age in the middle of the twentieth century. But there are too few analyses which have the courage to be critical and the perspective to place the movement today in the context of the last 40 years of struggle. Fortunately for activists in search of such an introduction, one does exist now in Steve Early’s latest book, Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013).

Save Our Unions is a collection of Early’s recent writing on the history and prospects of US labor. Spanning the heyday of the rank-and-file rebellion of the 1970s to the organizing battles of the Great Recession, Save Our Unions will help any new labor activist situate herself. A young organizer who seeks answers to where she should concentrate her energies, what values organizers need, and what prospects there are for labor in the next decade will find much to think over.

To give you a taste, I’ve compiled three of the most important lessons from Early’s new book.

 Union democracy is key

The rank-and-file rebellion has sadly been forgotten by most activists. But for a few years in the 1970s, democratic caucuses were launched by shop stewards and union members in many of the countries’ most important unions. Early’s first section, “Rebels with a Cause”, is a great introduction to the emergence of some of these caucuses and their fate.

The key lesson here is that when workers are engaged and participate in the life and decisions of their union their loyalty to one another and their capacity to fight their employers increases immeasurably. Early focuses in on the example of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, one of the most successful of the reform caucuses and one which actually succeeded in electing its candidate, Ron Carey, as president of the Teamsters in 1991. In 1997, Carey went on to lead one of the most successful strikes in an otherwise depressing decade. Carey and TDU were able to mobilize 185,000 teamsters to actively participate in a strike against UPS and built a 30 member bargaining committee which included rank-and-file workers for the first time, tactics which played a critical part in defeating UPS.

Too many unions today are content to substitute the organizing power of staff organizers for the initiative of shop stewards and members, and far fewer still have real contested elections for leadership. Early demonstrates how mistaken this strategy is. To combat cynics who will argue that this kind of participation is not possible, young organizers should approach the first section to Early’s book as a primer on really existing rank-and-file rebellions.

 2. Where you work matters

Eventually every college labor activist faces the question of what to do with themselves when they graduate. Should they try to get a job as a union organizer or researcher? If so, where should they go? Again, Early’s work will help give activists direction.

For the activist committed to working directly for a union the key question will be how democratic the union you are considering is. Are members an integral part of the life of the union, or are they cajoled into signing petitions and holding signs during contract negotiations and then relegated to the sidelines?

But Early also introduces an alternative to the union staff route, known as “industrializing” in the 1970s and as “salting” today. This is the practice of sending politically committed organizers directly into the workplace to get jobs and organize from within, and it’s one of the most challenging but potentially rewarding experiences a young organizer can take on. In Save Our Unions, Peter Olney, who after dropping out of Harvard had worked as a refrigeration mechanic and elevator operator in a unionized hospital before becoming a full-time organizer and eventual Organizing Director of the ILWU,  argues that in an organizing campaign “nothing can replace the presence of these politicized organizers in the workplaces of America.”

Although as Early notes salting has not yet become “sufficiently fashionable” to make a real breakthrough possible, it’s a route that more activists should consider seriously. Not only will they become more powerful organizers on the job to the benefit of their coworkers, but especially for college-educated activists from any class background, this strategy can be the best way to keep or find a firm political foundation in working-class communities.

  1. Vision is central

The most important lesson young activists can take from Early’s book is a constant refrain in each story. This is the importance of having a vision of what you’re fighting for and a political commitment to the cause. The heroes of Early’s stories are the radical organizers who make sacrifices for the labor movement because they see it as part of a long-term struggle. They are the socialists, communists, and anarchists who lead democratic reform caucuses, salt unionized and non-unionized workplaces, and champion unconventional, working-class electoral campaigns.

In the official history of the labor movement, and in too much of contemporary journalism around labor, union activists are depicted as bread-and-butter pragmatists fighting for higher wages and better fringe benefits. Laudable as these goals are, this approach misses one of the most important factors in what determines the success of organizers. Organizers need an ideological commitment to building a better society and a structural analysis of capitalism and the role that labor plays within contemporary society. It’s this vision and analysis that keeps salts and reformers in the struggle to build a better and more militant labor movement.

There is so much more to be gleaned from Save Our Unions. Activists of any age or familiarity with labor will benefit from Early’s coverage of battles in telecommunications, hospitality, and healthcare. Everyone should acquaint themselves with the latest developments in the multi-year fight between SEIU and the National Union of Healthcare Workers on the west coast. But especially for a young activist looking for lessons and an introduction to labor, Early’s book delivers.

Neal Meyer is a Brooklyn-based activist and member of DSA. He was previously an organizer for YDS.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: