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.

Steve Early on Labor Reporting: ‘Unions Can Be Thin-Skinned About Criticism’

by Mike Elk

Steve Early

Steve Early

Since the 1970s, Steve Early has produced more than 300 pieces of labor journalism for publications as varied as the New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, LaborNotes and In These Times. Throughout his career, Early has covered stories of dysfunction and corruption within unions that many labor reporters are afraid to touch out of fear of upsetting high-level union sources.

At time when the labor beat was disappearing from mainstream publications, Early’s writing formed a valuable body of work that inspired many young writers—myself included—to stick with the profession through its highs and lows.

Early sat down with me to discuss his new book, Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress, out this spring from Monthly Review Press. Continue reading

A Review of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from A Movement in Distress

by Carl Finamore

SOUThere is still time during the holidays to purchase labor journalist Steve Early’s very readable and quite reflective latest book, Save Our Unions, published by Monthly Review Press.But books on labor are notoriously misunderstood and conspicuously undersold. This is really too bad. Like other books describing how people live and what they struggle for, Save Our Union records a very human story – a running narrative from an author who was directly reporting, and often directly participating, in the unfolding human drama as it occurred. In 335 pages, Early analyzes the leadership, organization and strategy of the most significant labor struggles, debates and controversies of the past 40 years, right up to now.It was during this period that “overall employee compensation—including health and retirement benefits—dropped ‘to its lowest share of national income in more than 50 years while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share over that time. Thus, as the low-wage and benefits period we are now suffering through today would indicate, most of the strikes, struggles and union reform movements in those decades were not successful – but not because of lack of passion or determination by the workers at the bottom, as Early describes it, but by a combination of serious mistakes made by otherwise honest militants and/or by the failed conservative leadership at the top. Continue reading

Jerome Brown Reviews Two Reviews of Jane McAlevey’s Rising Expectations

by Jerome Brown

Jerry Brown

McAleveybook

Talking Union previously featured Sarah Jaffe’s interview with Jane McAlevey. Joe Burns’ review of McAlevey’s book can be found here. Steve Early’s review of McAlevey’s book can be found here. McAlevey’s response to Early can be found here. We encourage further discussion.–TU

I am submitting this as a review of Joe Burns’ review of Rising Expectations and of Steve Early’s critique of McAlevey which in many ways is parroted by Burns.

I am writing as someone who was directly involved in the unusually effective changes led by Jane McAlevey in Local 1107, SEIU Las Vegas and as someone who watched with real sadness the subsequent undermining and failure of that Local. I am the retired president of 1199 New England, a union with a proud history of militant rank and file activity and high standards in the public and private sector. The growth of Local 1199 in Connecticut from 900 members when I assumed staff leadership in 1973 to 23,000 members when I retired required the dedicated efforts of many leaders and members. McAlevey identifies me as one of her mentors in the labor movement and I am happy to wear that description.

I disagree with some of the examples of SEIU skullduggery recited by McAlevey–most particularly her description and demonization of Sal Roselli and UHW under Sal’s leadership. But on most of the facts supporting her narrative, McAlevey is right on target. Yes, SEIU made private deals with national hospital chains, deals that gave away worker rights to strike and even rally. And these deals were never explained to or ratified by the members. Yes SEIU undermined and then disrupted member activism,threatening Jane and the Local with trusteeship if it dared engage in job actions against these employers. And yes, the SEIU and the AFL-CIO failed in Florida during the 2000 presidential election and failed in any number of other crises because they did not motivate, support or really believe in militant membership activity.

Continue reading

Response to Steve Early’s Review of Raising Expectations

Talking Union recently featured Sarah Jaffe’s interview with Jane McAlevey. We followed with Steve Early’s review of McAlevey’s book.  Here is McAlevey’s response to Early. We encourage further discussion.–TU

McAleveybook

 By Jane McAlevey

The editors have graciously offered me the opportunity to respond to Steve Early’s review of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell). I want to respond to Early’s review, which focuses primarily on about ten percent of the book, but also to give people some idea of what the other ninety percent is about.

It will be no surprise to knowledgeable readers that Steve Early’s review is heavily focused on the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).  In Early’s The Civil Wars in US Labor, he declares himself as not only a partisan, but as among the biggest cheerleaders of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).
However, in his review of my book, Early keeps his sympathies under the table. This does a disservice to readers who try to make sense of all this. Readers of his review of Raising Expectations might get the impression that my book is all about his interest, NUHW. Not at all. My book is about organizing, and how to rebuild the US labor movement in a time of tremendous difficulty and multiple setbacks.

In my book, I clearly identified myself as someone who tried to steer an independent course amidst complicated turf wars–the issues that matter most to Early.  That’s apparently enough for Early to direct a lot of criticism at me, some of it directly on NUHW matters, some of it spillover about somewhat related points.  (I am not, it might be noted, alone as an object of Early’s criticisms.)

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Bread & Roses STRIKE Centennial “Double Feature!”

The Lawrence History Center will be hosting what is calls “an academic symposium on the Bread & Roses Strike of 1912” on April 27-28, 2012 in Lawrence, MA. But it should be of great interest to more than academics.  Union activists, 99 percenters, and occupiers should check out  two exciting panels.  One on “Labor Today” and another on  “The Importance of Strikes in Building New Unions.”

The symposium will feature a concert on Friday night April 27th at the Everett Mill (15 Union St.) on the 6th floor in the exhibit space. Saturday the 28th will be a full day of panel presentations, music, artwork, and walking tours. Click here for a schedule of Saturday’s programs, events, and registration information.

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Back to the Future: Union Survival Strategies in Open Shop America

by Steve Early and Rand Wilson
 
The rupture of labor-management relationships that may have been “comfortable” in the past, plus the accompanying loss of legal rights in a growing number of states, have triggered membership-mobilization activity reminiscent of the original struggles for collective bargaining. In Wisconsin and elsewhere, labor’s recent defensive battles demonstrate that a new model of union functioning is not only possible but necessary for survival. As a first step in this process of union transformation under duress, workers must definitely shed their past role as “clients” or passive consumers of union services. In workplaces without a union or agency shop and collective bargaining as practiced for many decades, they must take ownership of their own organizations and return them to their workplace roots, drawing on the experiences of public workers in the South whose practice of public-sector unionism has, by necessity, been very different for the last half century.
 
When the history of mid-western de-unionization is written, its sad chroniclers will begin their story in Indiana. That is where Governor Mitch Daniels paved the way, in 2005, for copycat attacks on public-sector bargaining in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan — and for a successful assault on privatesector union security in his own state earlier this year.

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