Save our unions

Lessons are here for Australian unionists in a new Steve Early book on US unions – here promoted, reviewed and chapter posted.

As well, Joe Burns on the public sector unions and strikes.

“Reading “Save our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress
” is like sitting in on a seminar on the modern labor movement—with Steve Early playing the role of opinionated professor.

Research has confirmed that we learn best when we are hearing stories. So the prolific Professor Early wisely builds his “Save Our Unions” seminar around case studies of labor’s triumphs and tragedies, past and present.

His syllabus is packed with book and film reviews, essays, and interviews, most of them previously published in periodicals, including Labor Notes. One section is based on his decades of experience as an organizer and international representative for the Communication Workers.

No overview of the early 21st century labor movement can avoid sad stories, of course, and Early pointedly chronicles the realities—shrinking union density, growing income inequality, and labor’s missteps on big-picture issues like health care reform.

But more often and more helpfully, Early furnishes historical and current examples that offer blueprints for the revival of the labor movement and the rise of the working class.

Lessons from Past and Present

first join a union

first join a union

Early describes the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as an object lesson in how a coalition of recent immigrants, helped by an inclusive organizing union (the Industrial Workers of the World), can pull together.

Leftist organizers’ immersion into the factories and mills of the 1930s is held up as a model for labor-sympathizing young people today to “salt” in unorganized sectors.

And longtime Machinists leader William (“Wimpy”) Winpisinger was the kind of labor leader we need today, Early writes. Winpisinger was unafraid to be labeled a socialist.

He called for demilitarization even when some of his union’s members thought their short-term interests were best served by the military-industrial complex.

Winpisinger also did not hesitate to criticize a Democrat president—Jimmy Carter—who disappointed working people. Insert modern analog here, from the 1990s or today.

Early finds inspiration in the Teamsters for a Democratic Union movement, which not only wrestled control away from a corrupt union leadership but also built the grassroots power that fueled the successful 1997 UPS strike.

He is enthralled by the huge protests by foreign-born workers that culminated in the demonstrations and stay-home actions of May 1, 2006—a movement widely considered to have killed off the evil Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act.

Early has a soft spot for Vermont’s embrace of third-party politics and efforts to create a state single-payer health care system, trends he would like to see embraced at a national level. And he sees hope in the grassroots organizing of home health care workers, one of the economy’s most marginalized workforces.

Cross-border collaboration by Western European unions is praised
here, as is the growing quality and quantity of online labor journalism.

Democracy Can Save Labor

Above all, Early loves the workers who struggle to move their unions toward internal democracy.

Rank-and-file activism saved the labor movement in the 1930s, he says, and it can do so again.

Ironically for a writer known by many readers of the labor press to be a relentless critic of current unions, Early reacts angrily to those who pronounce the death of the labor movement.

In his review of Staying Alive: The 1970’s and the Last Days of the Working Class, Early calls out the author, Cornell professor Jefferson Cowie, for ignoring the decade’s great union democracy campaigns, such as the United Mine Workers’ and Teamsters’ reforms. Early labels Cowie’s account “selective at best, and tinged with cynicism.”

Such cynicism is wholly unjustified today, Early argues, given the bottom-up emergence of the Occupy movement, the Chicago Teachers Union’s community campaign and strike, and even the unsuccessful but energetic protests against labor law roll-backs in Wisconsin. There is much to be hopeful about, he writes, if we can follow the lead of the folks toiling at the grassroots:

Who are the key agents of change on today’s difficult workplace terrain?

In yet-to-be unionized work locations, it’s the brave individuals who are joining the new retail, warehouse, and food service worker networks. In unionized workplaces, the tens of thousands of shop stewards who still form the backbone of the labor movement remain key to its revitalization today . . . Their day-to-day organizing activity on the shop floor is what brings unionism to life where it counts the most.

Reporting First-Hand

Given Early’s experience in the union movement—and his consumption and review of seemingly every volume written on the topic in the last half-century—this seminar/book would have value even if he were offering insights from a retirement armchair.

But the case-study lessons in Save Our Unions often benefit from Early’s insistence on reporting first-hand from union conventions, town hall meetings, and interviews with workers and activists.

For example, Early’s shoe-leather journalism yields the story of a young hotel worker salt. During lonely days embedded in a hostile workplace, the salt bolstered his spirits by channeling the patience of a guerilla fighter who spent eight years on a mountain toiling as a radio operator during El Salvador’s civil war.

“This hotel is my mountain, and I too have my little role to play in a worldwide struggle,” the worker told Early.

However, Early declines to hide behind the mask of a disinterested reporter.

He reliably criticizes most current labor leaders
, including those at the head of the AFL-CIO (President Richard Trumka plays a “tabby-cat role” at the White House), the United Auto Workers (“more devoted to dividing and conquering its own members than uniting them in fights with management”), the modern-day Teamsters (“Hoffa’s total compensation is $362,889 a year, at a time when tens of thousands of Teamsters are losing their jobs, pay, or benefits” ), and especially the same top-level folks at the Service Employees (SEIU) whom he thrashed in the pages of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor.

The recurring theme of Early’s indictments is union leaders’ trampling the will of the rank and file.

Workers, he insists, are uniquely capable of cooking up the remedy for labor’s ills.

The recipe is a mixture of working class militancy, union democracy, and a far less cozy relationship with Democrats.

Healthy Debate

Predictably, his critiques have earned Early some push-back. He panned former SEIU organizer Jane McAlevey’s memoir, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, in a review reproduced in Save Our Unions.

Early labeled the account “self-mythology” by a “progressive prima donna.” McAlevey responded that Early was obsessed with labor turf wars and that his review was “drenched in sexism.”

A UNITE HERE organizer wrote that Early’s account of union salting was “irresponsible, clumsy, selfish, and detrimental to the task of new organizers in the labor movement.”

If this kind of response indicates that some of the students in his seminar are getting a little unruly, Early doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he provides a link in Save Our Unions to McAlevey’s comments.

His celebration of union democracy underdogs and grassroots reformers suggests he relishes the prospect of his class evolving away from a history lecture into a debate—or better yet, a session on the picket lines.

The immigrant workers of modern-day Lawrence face many of the same struggles the Bread and Roses strikers endured a century ago, he notes in one essay, and writes, “Injustice will not be cured until U.S. workers and their allies find a way to make history again, not just celebrate it.”

As long as we are drawing from the lessons of the labor movement past and present to organize for a more just society, we are passing the Save Our Unions course.

Fran Quigley is a clinical professor at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, where he teaches a workers’ rights clinic. He is the author of How Human Rights Can Build Haiti: The Activists, the Lawyers, and the Grassroots Movement (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014).

– See more at:

Save Our Unions: Dispatches From A Movement in Distress
brings together recent essays and reporting by labor journalist Steve Early. The author illuminates the challenges facing U.S. workers, whether they’re trying to democratize their union, win a strike, defend past contract gains, or bargain with management for the first time. Drawing on forty years of personal experience, Early writes about cross-border union campaigning, labor strategies for organizing and health care reform, and political initiatives that might lessen worker dependence on the Democratic Party.

Save Our Unions contains vivid portraits of rank-and-file heroes and heroines, both well-known and unsung. It takes readers to union conventions and funerals, strikes and picket-lines, celebrations of labor’s past and struggles to insure that unions still have a future in the 21st century. The book’s insight, analysis and advocacy make this an important contribution to the project of labor revitalization and reform.

Very important work!

—Noam Chomsky

‘Save Our Unions’ is a plea we hear from workers seeking a better life throughout our country these days. This book shows what it takes to defend democracy, workers rights, and social justice unionism when all are under attack by big business.

—Dolores Huerta, co-founder, United Farm Workers and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Once upon a time, in the golden age of labor and the golden age of labor reporting, America had plenty of bold and independent writers who reported on the issues that were vital to working people and the unions that represent them. Today, labor reporting has taken even harder hits than labor. Most American media outlets neglect not just working-class issues but the working class itself. Against the odds, Steve Early has kept the faith, creating a body of work rooted in the very best traditions of radical labor and political reporting going all the way back to the days of Tom Paine.

—John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation and co-author, The Death and Life of American Journalism

Never one to mince words or bow to authority, Steve Early’s latest work is hard hitting and thought provoking. Early is an activist/writer who sees unions, including his own, facing massive challenges but still searching for successful strategies. In Save Our Unions, Early chronicles recent workplace struggles with great sympathy and insight, showing the road taken by workers trying to reignite labor as a movement.

—Elaine Bernard, Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School

With labor now searching for new directions, this book should be at the top of activists’ reading lists. In his latest collection of essays, Steve Early hits on the key themes necessary for reviving the labor movement: union democracy, workplace activism, and a willingness to confront corporate power.

—Joe Burns, AFA/CWA negotiator and author of Reviving The Strike

strike as a last resort

strike as a last resort

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

by Carl Finamore‚ Dec. 12‚ 2013

“There 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 Early informs us “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.

Is There a Sea Change in America

But quite different from the last 40 years, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there seems to be a more radical consciousness developing today.

Of course, it began with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) which changed the whole national dialogue away from speaking about the fake “deficits” of government toward the very real “surpluses” of Wall Street.

As Early summarizes it: “whereas the Tea Party activity of 2009–10 scapegoated taxes, immigrants, and big government, Wisconsin and OWS refocused public attention on the real threat to all working people, namely the power of big business and the political agenda of those doing its bidding.”

I do believe OWS anti-establishment consciousness has been reawakened – all this time, still latently residing in the public’s mind even as the protestors themselves were forcibly evicted from the public’s spaces. It has just taken awhile for its spirit to reappear in somewhat different forms.

For example, Kshama Sawant, a socialist economics professor, has just been elected with over 93,000 votes as Seattle city supervisor against an entrenched Democratic opponent. Voters also passed a $15 minimum wage ordinance for their Seattle international airport workforce. And, thousands of Boeing workers in that same area rejected a concessionary contract even though strongly recommended by national union officials and even after the company threatened to close up shop.

And this isn’t just a west coast thing. A national contract agreement covering 30,000 employees with United Airlines, also highly recommended by union officials, was also turned down by the long-suffering membership a few months ago, the first time in decades this has happened.

Plus, on Dec. 5, fast food workers and their allies mobilized in 100 cities demanding a $15 minimum wage. Polls indicate most Americans believe in their cause, thus compelling President Obama to up his anemic minimum wage proposal from $9 to $10.10.

But the Democratic Party shouldn’t get off so easy.

Ralph Nader recently called out both Clintons for not publically speaking out in favor of a $10.50 minimum wage proposal that would still only bring it back to 1968 levels. No surprise there despite a well-cultivated liberal image, Hilary Clinton served on Wal-Mart’s board of directors from 1986-1992 and was completely silent as they fought employee organizing efforts.

Liberal politicians should be worried about polls showing more and more realize that the Democratic Party is part of the problem. But an alternative solution has always been too difficult to even contemplate for most folks.

Problem solved in Lorain, Ohio.

Labor Notes reported recently that “union-dense Lorain County, Ohio, is now home to an independent labor slate of two dozen newly elected city councilors—recruited and run by the central labor council there. Lorain County AFL-CIO President Harry Williamson said ‘when the leaders of the [Democratic] Party just took us for granted and tried to roll over the rights of working people here, we had to stand up.’”

What all this means will become clearer in the months ahead. I hope I am right that we are turning a corner and that a radical consciousness might just be taking hold, in which case, Save Our Unions is coming out just at the right time with a potential wider audience eager to learn its hard-learned lessons.

Looking Back to See Forward

As in his previous 2011 book, Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, the reader will hear authentic voices of genuine local worker leaders. Their stories are quite compelling because of the personal cost to them and to their families after confronting overwhelming corporate power while at the same time often battling against conservative bureaucratic union officials.

Put these two institutional forces together and it’s not hard to figure out why so many rank and file reform movements are squashed, and not only in this country.

Early quotes a British Miners Union attorney remarking to a labor rally in the 1990s that “I want to talk about trade union rights, and I will be short because we don’t have any.”

As was so effectively done in his last book mentioned previously, Early also includes analysis and comments from academics, union officials and rank and file dissidents, often conflicting, to round out the history. Of course, this is very beneficial for the reader.

In addition, while Early clearly has a point of view of “bottom up change” he does not preach. He documents the record, mentions opposing views and then provides a postscript for each chapter that informs the reader of how it all worked out in the end.

I really appreciate this approach because along the way, some myths are dispelled.

For example, there are times when union reform movements fall back even with the most honest and militant leaders at the top.

So, Save Our Unions examines for the reader those serious pitfalls that inexperienced leaders sometimes stumble into.

Perhaps the most tragic failure described by the author is of the valiant and brave Miners for Democracy (MFD). Its candidates ran a successful 1972 campaign for the presidency of that great union against the entrenched and corrupt regime of Tony Boyle.

Boyle was later convicted of orchestrating the brutal 1969 assassination of his election reform opponent, Jock Yablonski, and his wife and daughter.

However, the MFD tragically fell apart a short time after their 1972 victory and today, the legendary union, which has such a celebrated part in American history, has less than 20,000 working members.

Former UMW General Counsel Chip Yablonski seems to be reluctantly conceding some mistakes by remarking in Save Our Unions that not all of his union’s “failings are self-inflicted.”

Around this same time as the MFD, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) reform movement faced many of these same violent obstacles. Early examines both these two pioneering movements and “challenges to the leadership of other now declining industrial unions.”

We learn that not all reform movements developed in the same way.

In some cases, it wasn’t rank and file rebellions from below but “inside” union leaders like two dissident regional directors in the Midwest. Ed Sadlowski, from the Steelworkers, who formed “Steelworkers Fight Back” in the late 1970s and Jerry Tucker, from the Auto Workers, who formed the “New Directions” caucus a decade later.

In addition to describing more recent union reform movements such as the current battles in healthcare between the rebel upstart National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and SEIU, the bookdiscusses tactics and strategies of the country’s most important strikes and analyzes and offers critical assessments of different approaches toward organizing – familiar organizing terms like colonizing, SALT and inside committee will be explained for the reader.

A very important section explains how even a dedicated union staff can sometimes interfere in developing rank and file leadership and a “steward army,” as Early refers, something he believes is so necessary to beating back corporate power and transforming unions into militant defenders of the social and economic needs of all working people – immigrants, women, minorities and youth.

It’s a lot to take on but there are concrete examples in our history, in some small measure, how struggles attempted to put these various economic and social elements together. Early cites the successful 1989 NYNEX-Verizon four-month strike of telephone workers over health benefits. The IBEW and other striking unions won new community allies by campaigning for national healthcare for all.

Unfortunately, in all too typical fashion, the unions, over time, backed off their national “healthcare for all” campaign once their own members won the strike and once labor lobbying eventually resulted in passage of Obamacare. This is the sad legacy of narrow “Maintenance of Benefits (MOB) bargaining just designed to preserve pensions, sick leave and healthcare for union members while these same benefits remain far out of reach for most Americans.

MOB bargaining began in the early 1950s when union membership was at its height. But it contributed to further political isolation from the rest of our class and proven in recent years of mounting premium payments for employer health plans and termination of pensions to be an utter failure for current union members as well.

Today, union members are left even more isolated bargaining for “me, me, me” employer benefits instead of campaigning for “we, we, we” national government health, retirement and sick leave benefits for all, the same as enjoyed by citizens in other major industrial countries.

As a result, both union power and size has steadily declined in this country with membership now comprising a smaller and smaller fraction of the working class.

But I’ve told only part of the story. The bigger picture of how working people resisted these past decades and what worked and what didn’t deserves to be studied more fully by today’s youth and Saving Our Unions is a good place to start.

Carl Finamore is former president (ret) of Machinist Lodge 1781 & its current delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at

Reposted from San Francisco

It’s no secret that organized labor is on the ropes. Steve Early has a keen eye for where and how labor can revitalize itself by exerting its strength in strategic ways. Save Our Unions is both analytical and a battle cry. A must read for activists.

—Clancy Sigal, author, Weekend in Dinlock, Going Away, and Hemingway Lives!

Save Our Unions is a much-needed discussion of problems arising from the corporate-type structure of many U.S. unions. It is hard to fight this war on workers when unions behave like businesses and act like it’s all about the money. This book shows why we need a labor movement that represents all working people, not just a few.

—Nichele Fulmore, Teamsters Local 391 and member, Labor Notes Policy Committee

No observer of the current labor scene writes with the cutting edge lucidity of Steve Early. His many years of experience as a national union representative makes his work essential reading for anyone trying to build a new type of labor movement.

—Robert M. Schwartz, labor attorney and author, The Legal Rights of Union Stewards

Unions once had high hopes that the Obama administration would help them resist health care cost shifting. Instead, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is actually increasing bargaining table pressure for more medical benefit givebacks. As Steve Early documents, labor needs real health care reform—and greater independence from the Democrats—now more than ever before.

—Dr. Jill Stein, 2012 Green Party presidential candidate

As a past president of my local union and then leader of our state and local labor councils, I know what a challenge it is to sustain grassroots movement-building. Readers of Save Our Unions can draw inspiration and ideas from the many labor struggles described by the author. Steve Early draws on a wealth of national and local union examples, highlighting the role played by rank-and-file organizers in strikes, contract campaigns, cross-border solidarity, and new forms of political action.

—David Newby, president emeritus, Wisconsin State AFL-CIO

Steve Early has served as an inspiration to many in the younger generation of reporters now covering the labor beat for alternative media and, where it’s still possible, in the mainstream press. Early’s writing is not only insightful, but often witty as well, which makes for fun and informative reading.

—Mike Elk, In These Times

Steve Early is one of organized labor’s most astute and constructive critics, who knows which side of the class struggle he’s on. Anyone wishing to better understand the troubles, often self-inflicted, of the U.S. union movement would be foolish not to read him.

—Sasha Lilley, author, Capital and Its Discontents and host, Against the Grain, KPFA Radio

Praise for previous books by the author:

Steve Early has long been a voice of distinctive clarity, honesty and intellectual seriousness in and about the labor movement … At a time like this it is all the more important to have the benefit of a voice like his.

—Adolph Reed Jr., Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

Civil Wars in U.S. Labor is based on thorough reportage, a lifetime of labor activism, and a deep commitment to union democracy and militancy … It is an excellent guide to contemporary labor history.

—Nelson Lichtenstein, Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara

Chapter reproduced.

Saving Our Unions: Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win? Monthly Review

“Any review of the recent ups and downs of U.S. labor must start in Michigan, long a bastion of blue-collar unionism rooted in car manufacturing. Fifteen months ago, this Midwestern industrial state became another notch in the belt of the National Right to Work Committee, joining the not-very-desirable company of Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and twenty other “open shop” states.

The emergence of sun-belt labor relations in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers (UAW) was shocking to some. But this political setback was preceded by high-profile defeats in neighboring states that began in 2005.

First Indiana, followed by Wisconsin and Ohio, stripped public workers of their bargaining rights (although the Republican attack on government employees was later repelled by popular referendum in the Buckeye State). Then in early 2012, GOP legislators in Indiana passed a right-to-work law applicable to private industry. It banned any further negotiation of labor-management agreements that compelled workers to make a financial contribution to the cost of union representation, in established bargaining units or newly organized ones.1

In November 2012, organized labor tried to buck the emerging anti-union trend with two ballot questions designed to strengthen public-sector bargaining rights in Michigan.

Despite the expenditure of many millions of dollars by affiliates of the AFL-CIO and Change To Win, both measures were defeated.2 In its lame-duck session just a few weeks later, GOP legislators in Lansing took retaliatory aim at union security in Michigan’s private sector. When the region’s latest “right to work” bill landed on his desk, Republican Governor Rick Snyder was most pleased to sign it into law.

During the intervening political furor, even labor’s “friend” in the White House, felt compelled to speak out.

“We should do everything we can to keep creating good middle-class jobs that help folks rebuild security for their families,” Barack Obama told a union crowd in Detroit, after his own reelection victory. “What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions. The so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws—they don’t have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics. What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”3

A Battered Workforce

Unfortunately, by this point in Obama’s presidency, working for less money, with fewer job rights or benefits and little employment security, was an experience shared by millions of white-collar and blue-collar workers.

Even those still lucky enough to have union contracts (just 11.3 percent of the workforce in 2012) were battered by the great Wall Street meltdown and its continuing aftershocks.

When push came to shove in 2008–2009, there was much emergency relief for those at the top of our economic pyramid and far less for the millions of wage earners and homeowners at the bottom. The latter suffered from layoffs, pay cuts, loss of home equity, and the evaporation of retirement savings.

As a result, by 2013 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.”4

Union members had more protection, of course, but only if their legal rights were not undermined by political friends and foes alike, both influenced to varying degrees by corporate funders. Just as President Obama’s own tutorial on the politics and economics of “right-to-work” failed to sway Governor Snyder in Michigan, labor’s efforts to enlist prominent Democrats in a vigorous defense of unionism has been a serial disappointment. During Obama’s first term, the desperate plea to “Save Our Unions!” often fell on deaf ears among labor’s supposed allies in Washington and many state capitals. From New York to California, Democratic governors and other public office holders joined the budget-cutting Republican chorus criticizing teachers and other government workers or seeking to curb their bargaining rights.

Thanks to this bipartisan hostility and/or indifference to collective bargaining, U.S. labor can expect little respite from its uphill battles in recent years, despite much initial union relief over Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney. Throughout our last three decades of retreat and defeat, the generally agreed-upon left-wing formula for union revitalization has been a “to-do” list more easily recited than implemented. In some combination or fashion, most labor leftists agree that unions should resist contract concessions, do more systematic and radical membership education, become internally democratic, engage in direct action on the job, organize the unorganized (particularly foreign-born workers), build cross-border solidarity, and get involved in broader community-labor alliances leading to greater independence from the Democratic Party.

If this recipe for change were easy, there would have been far more union transformation than we have seen to date.

Instead, thousands of dedicated labor activists have toiled diligently, for years, to change their own particular nook or cranny in the “house of labor,” while myriad private and now public sector enemies have tried to demolish the whole shaky structure.

Reform campaigns, new organizing initiatives, and some high-profile bargaining standoffs have helped slow the process of de-unionization and contract unraveling, but they have yet to reverse the steady decline in union membership and bargaining clout.

As Labor Notes reported, unions confronted with impending open-shop conditions in Michigan rushed to lock in automatic dues deduction for one more contract term, before the new state law went into effect. But the quid pro quo was “long, concessionary contracts” that will not enhance dues collection on a voluntary basis in the future. When that day comes—and some disgruntled workers drop their union membership or cease to be “agency fee”-payers—their unions will still have the legal obligation to represent them, a financial burden that can be debilitating over time.5

Unexpected Uprisings

Since 2011, an unexpected wave of collective activity, involving workers and their allies, inside and outside of unions, has become a beacon of hope for saving our unions.

In all its diverse manifestations, this multi-front struggle has been a revolt, from below, against “the right to work for less money.”

In both the public and private sector, older forms of protest—like tent cities, worker sit-downs, building occupations, civil disobedience, and quickie strikes—were recast by a new generation of activists searching for effective ways to resist corporate domination and workplace exploitation, by linking labor and community concerns.

In the year following the big midterm Republican gains in 2010, the uprising by Wisconsin public employees and the more diffuse Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement both mounted a long-overdue challenge to working-class disempowerment and the not unrelated growth of income inequality.

From their earliest stage, the mass marches and rallies in Madison sought to unite private and public sector workers, and thwart Governor Scott Walker’s right-wing populist strategy of “divide and conquer.”

The demonstrators (and occupiers) included public-service providers and those who rely on tax-supported state and local programs, working together as allies, not fiscal policy adversaries.

Whereas the Tea Party activity of 2009–2010 had scapegoated taxes, immigrants, and big government, Wisconsin and OWS refocused public attention on the real threat to all working people, namely the power of big business and the political agenda of those doing its bidding.

Both protest movements also gave our timorous, unimaginative, and politically ambivalent unions an ideological dope-slap, not to mention a much-needed injection of youthful energy and ideas.

AFL-CIO union leaders first sought an infusion of those scarce commodities in labor when they jetted into Wisconsin in the winter of 2011.

Without their planning or direction, the spontaneous community-labor uprising in Madison managed to reframe the debate about public-sector bargaining throughout the United States. So the top officialdom flocked to the scene even though the protests were launched from the bottom-up, rather than in response to union headquarters directives from Washington, DC. Six months later, OWS became another Lourdes for the old, lame, and blind of American labor. Union leaders began making regular visits to Zuccotti Park and other high-profile encampments around the country, offering material aid and union reinforcements for Occupy-related marches and rallies.

Occupied Labor?

Based on this interaction with the 99%, Stuart Applebaum—a New York City union leader whose annual earnings put him near the 1%, income-wise—assured the media that “the Occupy movement has changed unions.”

The question was: How much? And in what fashion?

It would be a miraculous transformation indeed if organized labor, inspired by OWS, suddenly embraced more direct action, greater democratic decision-making, rank-and-file militancy, and salaries for officials closer to the pay of workers they represent.

It would also be helpful if unions more consistently positioned themselves as champions of America’s working-class majority against the economic elite represented by Wall Street, while adopting Occupy’s brilliant popular framing of that class divide as a conflict between “them and us.”6

Unfortunately, many national unions, pre- and post-Occupy, utilize the same high-priced Democratic Party consultants, focus groups, and opinion polls that fuel the Obama administration’s endless conflation of “working class” and “middle class.”

As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein argues, proclaiming yourself to be a defender of the latter “will only mislead and confuse.” The contemporary category of middle class “has no sense of agency, purpose, or politics—while the idea of a working class is (by virtual definition) a font of all of this.” Says Lichtenstein:

We need to construct a sense of class dignity and destiny for all those whose work fails to provide social recognition and economic wellbeing.

We need to restore some definitional precision to those who truly constitute America’s working-class majority. Unionists and those who advocate on their behalf need to use the kind of language whose emotive power and historic resonance match the political audacity of those who occupied both the Wisconsin statehouse and the Wall Street parks. To speak on behalf of the working class is to begin to educate millions of Americans to the realization that their future is linked to their own capacity of organization and empowerment.7

As educational and empowering as they were, the Wisconsin and OWS protests proved hard to sustain. Both ultimately fell short of achieving their goals, which, in the case of OWS, tended to be far more diffuse than the demands echoing through the Wisconsin state capitol building when it was occupied. In Wisconsin, union-backed efforts to recall anti-union Governor Scott Walker failed at the polls, as did various legal challenges, so the Republican rollback of public-sector bargaining rights was still largely intact for the duration of his four-year term, if not longer.8

Return of the Strike

In 2012, while Obama’s reelection campaign commanded most of mainstream labor’s available resources and attention, there were further grassroots stirrings that pointed in a positive direction.

The year’s biggest strike, by 25,000 public school teachers in Chicago, combined elements of the Wisconsin upsurge with the anti-corporate themes of OWS. Under new and more activist leadership, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) also provided a much-needed demonstration of the powerful synergy between union reform, internal democracy, workplace militancy, and effective community organizing.

Prior to the strike, CTU members elected new officers and board members from the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE). CORE remained active, as a reform group, after the election of new president Karen Lewis, and its members played a key role in the systematic internal organizing that CTU undertook to rebuild union structures and prepare for 2012 bargaining. CTU activists also did extensive outreach to the community to neutralize, as much as possible, anti-teacher union sentiment whipped up by city hall, the school board, and corporate-backed “education reform” groups.

When the CTU strike began, then Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressed his solidarity with Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who formerly served as Obama’s White House chief of staff. During the nine-day walkout, tens of thousands of students, parents, and other community members stuck with the teachers, making it difficult for Emanuel to isolate and demonize the CTU, as planned.9 In May 2013, CORE-backed Karen Lewis was elected to another three-year term as president of the CTU with 80 percent of the vote, a strong membership endorsement of her strike leadership during the previous year.

At the same time that the CTU was providing an inspiring example for embattled teachers everywhere, other workers in the private sector showed that similar militancy is possible. While strike activity in large established bargaining units has reached an all-time low in recent years, retail, warehouse, and fast-food workers, who lack collective bargaining rights, staged a series of walkouts over low pay and unfair labor practices that generated national publicity.

These protest strikes involved low-wage workers who are pro-union.

Unfortunately, under current legal conditions they have little realistic chance of winning union recognition at any single work site of the corporation that employs them, either directly or through a sub-contractor or franchisee.

So, they have banded together in broader and looser networks, like OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart) or Fast Food Forward, which generally disclaim unionization as a short-term goal. Instead, they have picketed, appealed to the public, and petitioned management for better pay and working conditions, with the backing of local workers’ centers or national unions, like the United Electrical Workers (UE), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), or Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In the case of Warehouse Workers for Justice (aided by the UE in Illinois) and Warehouse Workers United (a group backed by Change-to-Win in California) one strike objective was to force Walmart to take responsibility for the personnel practices, including wage and hour violations, of the logistics chain staffing agencies that it employs.

In New York City, fast-food workers used their one-day work stoppage in November 2012 to protest the long-term wage stagnation of the nearly four million workers trapped in these $8 or $9 an hour jobs. The campaign there was kicked off by New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a successor to the now defunct community organization ACORN. NYCC had previously supported neighborhood-based organizing of immigrant workers at carwashes and supermarkets. To dramatize the plight of fast-food workers, NYCC joined forces with the SEIU, which provided more than $2.5 million to hire forty organizers and pay other campaign expenses in 2012.

As NYCC organizer Jonathan Westin explains, Fast Food Forward’s initial “roaming strike” was an approach influenced by Occupy because it involved “confronting [industry] power more openly and publicly and directly” than formal union drives in the past.10 Even though only a small fraction of the city’s 55,000 fast-food workers participated, media coverage was widespread and favorable. The initial New York City protest—and others patterned after it—generated new political pressure for long overdue minimum-wage increases, at the state or city level.

Last winter, both Fast Food Forward in New York and the SEIU-backed “Fight for 15” campaign in Chicago (to raise industry wages to $15 an hour) organized a broader round of protest activity at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, Subway, and similar chains. In Chicago, SEIU spent nearly $2 million jump-starting the campaign. Similar one-day walkouts and demonstrations soon followed in Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and other cities. Over the summer, even fast-food workers in southern locales like Memphis and Raleigh joined the fray. On December 5, 2013, organizers extended strike activity to first-time locations in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, as part of a projected two-hundred-city “day of action” by fast-food workers and their supporters. According to one journalistic observer, the rapid spread of Fight for 15, combined with recent Walmart strike activity, is generating a serious and sustained challenge “to two industries that increasingly define the new U.S. economy.”11

In Seattle, community college professor Kshama Sawant became the first socialist, in nearly a century, to be elected to municipal office there—after she campaigned as a Fight for 15 supporter.

Also active in Occupy, Sawant won impressive union backing for her race against a centrist Democrat, who was a longtime incumbent with past ties to the local labor establishment.

Black Fridays

The parallel escalation of OUR Walmart organizing began in October 2012, when workers walked off the job in thirty stores in twelve states. On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving a month later, strike activity by four hundred Walmart workers—backed by a much larger number of labor-community supporters—spread to one thousand locations, in three times as many states. In the spring of 2013, Walmart workers and their supporters confronted store managers in one hundred locations to keep the pressure on Walmart to make scheduling improvements first promised after the Black Friday protests. In early June 2013, just prior to the company’s annual meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, some workers tried to mount a longer work stoppage in several states where the OUR Walmart has been strongest. The nation’s largest employer responded by firing or suspending more than sixty workplace activists, including some who left their jobs to attend the shareholders meeting.12

On the eve of Black Friday last fall, the National Labor Relations Board announced its intention to issue a wide-ranging unfair labor practice complaint over management discrimination against the several thousand “associates” (Walmart’s name for its employees) who have signed up to be OUR Walmart members.

The NLRB action would contest some of the retaliatory dismissals and a company-wide pattern of supervisory threats, intimidation, and interference with legally protected strike activity. With this timely legal boost, OUR Walmart reported Black Friday protests in 1,500 locations on November 28, 2013. Demonstrators waved picket signs and banners challenging the company to “Stop Bullying, Stop Firing, Start Paying.” (More than 800,000 of the company’s 1.3 million U.S.-based employees earn less than $25,000 a year.)13 Workers and their usual labor allies were joined by members of Congress, environmental and consumer activists, ministers, and economic justice advocates. Civil disobedience, which began with fifty arrests in Los Angeles two weeks before Black Friday, continued on the retailer’s busiest shopping day. More than twice that number of activists were jailed in the protests after Thanksgiving.

Back to the Future?

U.S. labor’s revived use of direct action harks back to an earlier era of industrial relations, prior to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. It draws on organizational models more typical of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than the last seventy-five years. At a conference last year on “New Models of Worker Representation,” AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka declared that our “system of workplace representation is failing to meet the needs of America’s workers.” He touted “new models for organizing workers” that do not necessarily involve traditional collective bargaining relationships and pledged to assist “any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace.”14

The “Alt-labor” initiatives now being embraced by the AFL-CIO reflect a broader conception of labor organization long championed by the left. Critics of “contract unionism,” like Stanley Aronowitz and others, have argued for years that union membership and functioning should not be defined by statute or limited to formal collective bargaining units. Losing a Labor Board election, not having enough support to get one, or lacking a union contract does not pose any legal barrier to workers acting collectively for their own benefit.

With or without outside organizational backing, they can maintain workplace committees and engage in “concerted activity” aimed at getting management to improve wages, working conditions, and benefits.

At least one well-known labor law professor, Charles Morris, has even argued that the NLRA supports such “minority union” efforts to engage employers in “members-only bargaining.”15 (Several labor attempts to get the real-existing NLRB to act on this theory have been unsuccessful in workplaces where union supporters had not yet demonstrated the majority support necessary for legal certification of a new collective bargaining unit.)

Not surprisingly, “do-it-yourself workplace organizing” was championed on the margins of organized labor, before it became, under duress, more mainstream.

In their lively pamphlet, Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks, former Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Daniel Gross and labor historian Staughton Lynd recount the history of recent IWW skirmishing with the coffee-shop chain created by billionaire Howard Schultz.16

In 2004, the century-old radical union became active among New York City “baristas,” most of them part-timers, who were “fed up with living in poverty and being mistreated.” According to Gross and Lynd, Starbucks workers are not, as a practical matter, able to seek NLRB-sponsored elections “even if they wished to do so,” because the company “maintains that the appropriate bargaining unit for employees would be a prohibitively large multi-store unit.” In addition, the low-budget IWW has a political bias against even “using the statutory mechanism designed to produce exclusive bargaining representation.” When U.S. unions get legally certified, they acquire “the power to bargain away members’ rights to engage in concerted direct action.” That is why, the authors believe, “workers themselves on the shop floor, not outside union officials, are the real hope for labor’s future.”

Militant Minority Unionism?

Instead of seeking formal bargaining rights via NLRB-conducted representation elections, IWW supporters at Starbucks tried to extract concessions from the company through direct action on the job, combined with creative public protests and embarrassing publicity. (When Starbucks retaliated against inside organizers like Gross, the IWW did file unfair labor practice charges at the NLRB, just as OUR Walmart has done to contest the retaliatory dismissal of its supporters and other forms of illegal management behavior.)

As one sign of the IWW’s impact, Gross and Lynd cite wage increases introduced by Starbucks, in response to New York City barista agitation, which “increased pay almost 25% in a period when retail wages in the city were essentially stagnant.”

In Massachusetts, an IWW-assisted online petition campaign and a threatened strike by shift supervisors won concessions from management worth a million dollars annually in bonuses and raises. This dispute broke out after Starbucks was forced to exclude its shift supervisors from sharing in tips—a practice that violated the wage-and-hour law rights of hourly workers. For some supervisors, however, this policy change meant a pay cut of nearly 20 percent. The supervisors sought help from the union for a protest campaign that led to an increase in their hourly wages from $11 to $13.59 and additional bonuses of $350. “I think this is the shape of things to come,” predicts IWW-activist Erik Forman. “Workers are deciding to take action on the job because capital is destroying the legal framework that unions have existed under in the U.S. since 1935 in the private and public sector.”

As a former fast-food worker himself, Forman finds the “prospect of a new militancy emerging with backing from bigger institutional players” to be “exciting.” Over the past year, he notes, “a wave of telegenic one-day fast food ‘strikes’ has exposed an ugly reality. The world of exploitation behind every hamburger and fries is hidden no longer.” But Forman worries that Fight for 15 may not represent a sufficient “departure from business unionism as usual.” Already, he reports, “rank-and-filers in the Fight for 15 have begun building their own organizations autonomous from the campaign bureaucracy, connecting with community supporters who are free from the fetters of a paycheck signed [by the SEIU].”17

Reflecting similar left skepticism, Labor Notes reporter Jenny Brown observed, with no small degree of wonder, that “after years of downplaying strikes, the union that’s funding fast food organizing is now embracing the tactic.” Some activists interviewed by Brown worry that SEIU is not “providing a sustainable organizing home beyond the workplace—particularly important in the high turn-over restaurant industry.” Others question whether “the union will commit sustained resources and not leave workers in the lurch if legislative goals [i.e., a higher minimum wage] aren’t immediately met.”18

After his own extensive interviews with Fight for 15 organizers around the country, In These Times writer Arun Gupta praised the campaign for “setting in motion thousands of working poor, mainly African Americans and Latinos” and “generating excitement that a popular movement can finally go on the offensive against corporate power.” Like Forman and Brown, however, he also expressed doubts about “whether Fight for 15 is fundamentally a worker organizing campaign or a ‘march on the media,’” masterminded by SEIU-funded PR consultants like BerlinRosen or Purpose, which helped “brand” the campaign as part of its own multinational promotion of “movement entrepreneurship.”19

Opening for the Left?

But other young leftists, including some directly involved in recent strike activity, see expanded opportunities for bottom-up organizing. According to Whole Foods worker Trish Kahle, the city-wide walk-out by two hundred fast-food and retail workers in Chicago last year emboldened nine coworkers in her own store to take a stand against “a draconian attendance policy and poverty wages.”

Kahle notes that “strikes are nearly non-existent in shops like mine, and almost none of my co-workers have ever been in a union.” The cofounder and CEO of Whole Foods is Texas-based John Mackey, a libertarian union-buster who once famously compared unionization to herpes because “it won’t kill you, but it’s very unpleasant and will make a lot of people not want to be your lover.” Nevertheless, after joining the strike, Kahle got a raise from her store manager and more than a dozen other Whole Food workers all wanted to know how they could join “the union.”

“Is this a worker-run campaign that workers have conceptualized and carried out entirely by themselves? Not yet,” Kahle admits. “But workers are being transformed into union leaders for the first time by participating in this movement and radicals are in a position to shape it by rebuilding the tradition of radical unionism.” In Chicago, one other influence cited by Kahle is the local teachers’ union, whose striking members were seen as “standing up for all working people” in the fall of 2012. Months later, Kahle reports, “workers would break out into applause” whenever the CTU was mentioned at fast-food organizing meetings.20 She believes that picket-line fraternization between fast-food workers and rank-and-file SEIU members could raise expectations among the latter. “They’re thinking, ‘I only make $10 an hour and I’m in the SEIU,’” she says. “The people on top at the SEIU aren’t interested in organizing on the shop floor, but we are.”21

Texas labor activist Ryan Hill takes a similar ecumenical tact in his appraisal of both OUR Walmart and Fight for 15. “There’s an impressive boldness in both of these campaigns that we haven’t seen from labor in many years of defensive struggles, setbacks, and outright defeats,” Hill contends. “Many of the activists involved cite the Occupy encampments of two years ago as a formative political experience…. Most importantly, workers have been energized—not just any workers, but those in industries still largely considered ‘unorganizable.’”

In Hill’s view, “both campaigns have been building organizations that can keep workers plugged in for the long haul,” even if the current “layer of leaders, activists, and supporters within targeted companies is still thin.” He urges others on the left to forgo the comforts of armchair generalship, not to mention the temptations of Monday-morning quarterbacking. If more labor activists pitched in to build “independent support committees”—or better yet, took a job with an employer targeted by one of these campaigns—the “army of dedicated, militant, and motivated supporters” needed “to beat a company like Walmart or McDonalds” would be much stronger and deep-rooted.22

Whatever long-term fate awaits either campaign, the opportunity to be part of a “militant minority” within the working class—that is currently engaged in rediscovering older forms of labor struggle—is not one to be missed. And there is no better place to relearn lessons about workers’ capacity for self-organization and empowerment than struggles that are not going to be won if either force for change is constrained in any way.


↩Union security clauses typically require that all union-represented workers have either dues deducted from their paychecks or, if they choose to be non-members, an equivalent amount in the form of “agency fees.” The strongest form of union security requires everyone in the bargaining unit to become a union member. In September, 2013, a county judge struck down Indiana’s right-to-work law but the state supreme court was expected to uphold its constitutionality. See Tim Evans, “Indiana Attorney General Appeals Ruling That ‘Right-to-Work’ is Unconstitutional,” IndyStar, September 12, 2013,

↩Change To Win is the coalition of unions—now numbering only three—that broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005, with the original intention of creating a rival national labor federation.

Quoted by Monica Davey, “Michigan Labor Fight Cleaves a Union Bulwark,” New York Times, December 10, 2012,

Steven Greenhouse, “Our Economic Pickle”,” New York Times, January 13, 2013,

See Jane Slaughter, “Coping With Michigan Right-to-Work Law,” Labor Notes, May 2013, 4–5.

For a lengthier appreciation and defense of Occupy’s resonant political rhetoric, see Michael Yates, “‘We Are the 99%’: The Political Arithmetic of Revolt,” New Labor Forum (Winter 2013): 10–13.

Nelson Lichtenstein, “Class Unconciousness: Stop Using ‘Middle Class’ to Depict the Labor Movement,” New Labor Forum (Spring 2012): 11–13. For the most persuasive book-length statement of this argument, see Michael Zweig, The Working-Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000).

For the best collective assessment of all aspects of the struggle in Wisconsin, see Michael D. Yates, ed., Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
↩For more detailed accounts of the CTU struggle, see Lee Sustar, Striking Back in Chicago: How Teachers Took on City Hall and Pushed Back Corporate Education ‘Reform’” (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014); Micah Uetricht, Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (New York: Verso/Jacobin Books, 2014); and Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, Jenny Brown, Jane Slaughter, and Samantha Winslow, How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers (Detroit: Labor Notes, 2014). Also, multiple contributors to Monthly Review analyzed the Chicago contract fight and related public education trends in the June 2013 special edition “Public School Teachers Fight Back,” edited by Michael Yates.
↩Alan Feuer, “Life on $7.25 an Hour,” New York Times, December 1, 2013, 34–35.
↩Josh Eidelson, “Surprise Fast Food Strike Planned in St. Louis,” Salon, May 8, 2013,; and “Fast Food Strikes to Expand Massively,” Salon, August 14, 2013, For a more sober appraisal of the difficulty of building durable, self-sustaining workers organizations in these sectors, see Arun Gupta, “The Walmart Working Class,” in Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber, eds., Socialist Register 2014: Registering Class (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014).
↩Jenny Brown, “Retaliation is Illegal, But Walmart Doesn’t Care,” Labor Notes, September 2013, 14–15. As Brown reports, “some fast-food workers have also been fired for organizing.”
↩Peter Dreier, “Walmart Workers Will Make History on Friday as America Confronts Growing Inequality,” Truthout, November 27, 2013,

For a summary of this Trumka speech, see Jackie Tortora, “Future of Unions: New Models of Worker Representation,” AFL-CIO Now, March 7, 2013,

Charles Morris, The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace (Ithaca, NY: Cornell ILR Press, 2004).

Daniel Gross and Staughton Lynd, Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks (Oakland: PM Press, 2011).

Erik Forman, “Fast Food Unionism: The Unionization of McDonald’s and/or The McDonaldization of Unions,” Recomposition, November 17, 2013,

Jenny Brown, “Fast Food Strikes: What’s Cooking?,” Labor Notes, July, 2013, 1–3.

Trish Kahle, “Beyond Fast Food Strikes,” Jacobin, October 22, 2013,

Quoted in Peter Rugh, “Low-Wage Workers, Top-Down Unions,” Waging Nonviolence, September 30, 2013,

Ryan Hill, “Opportunities Present for ‘Labor Left’ in Walmart and Fast Food Fights,” Solidarity, October 1, 2013,

Steve Early has been an organizer, strike strategist, labor educator, and lawyer. He recently retired from his job as national staff member of the Communications Workers of America. Early is the author of Civil Wars in U.S. Labor and Embedded with Organized Labor; his writing on the labor movement has appeared in many publications, like The Nation, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Progressive.

US labor against war

US labor against war

As well, a new book by Joe Burns.

Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today

How public employees can use lesson’s from labor’s militant past to reignite public sector unionism.

During the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of thousands of teachers, sanitation workers, and other public employees rose up to demand collective bargaining rights in one of the greatest upsurges. These workers were able to transform the nature of public employment, win union recognition for millions, and ultimately force reluctant politicians to pass laws allowing for collective bargaining and even the right to strike.

Strike Back uncovers this history of militancy to provide tactics for a new generation of public employees facing unprecedented attacks on their collective bargaining rights.

Joe Burns is the author of Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America. A veteran union negotiator and labor lawyer, he has negotiated contracts in the airline and health care industries. He has a law degree from New York University, and currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Joe Burns: Joe Burns is a veteran union negotiator and labor lawyer, and a former local union president. For the past decade, he has negotiated labor contracts in the airline and health care industries. As a former local union president involved in strike solidarity, Burns supported many of the key strikes of the last several decades. He has a law degree from the New York University School of Law.

Earlier posts on US union civil wars

US unions by Steve Early Lessons for Australian unionists

right to strike

right to strike


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