More on Save our Unions

I believe there are lessons for Australian unionists in Steve Early’s Save Our Unions.
See earlier review
Update: An important review by Jon Flanders
“For union officials, too often “saving the union” means maintaining union dues from a workforce suffering under bad contracts.” From Jacobin

More Reviews of Steve Early’s “Save Our Unions”
Does Organized Labor Have a Future?

by CARL FINAMORE from CounterPunch
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 our unions logo

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 book discusses 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

Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress
by Steve Early

New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013
by Greg King (Independent)

At the beginning of 2013, American workers were reeling from body blows — in Michigan among other places. How does that state transmogrify from being the heart of the labor movement to a “right-to-work (for less)” locale, taking its place alongside the Deep South? This anti-worker plague swept through surrounding states. Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, in that order, took away workers’ right to negotiate their conditions, even though this tack was defeated by a vote of the public in Ohio in November 2011. Indiana enacted a right-to-work law affecting private sector employees. A year after the Ohio vote, workers in Michigan were defeated on two referenda concerning government workers’ ability to negotiate. At that stage, what happened in the latter state shouldn’t have shocked anyone.
The Great Recession of 2008 and counting hit working people very hard — loss of jobs, benefits, value in their homes and retirement investments — all these things headed downward. Workers’ share of national income fell dramatically while corporate profits and wealthy people’s incomes rose. This was partly due to the finance sector’s tanking of the economy and partly due to bipartisan attacks on wages and benefits.

The left’s recipe for turning things around is far more easily said than done. Most on the left in labor say unions should do more thorough political education of members, democratize their structures and practice, hold ‘direct actions’ in the workplace, organize the many now outside unions, especially immigrants, build international alliances of workers, and participate in citywide and neighborhood organizations, distancing themselves, at least somewhat, from the Democrats.

Lots of reform-oriented workers have tried for years to democratize their unions, Both in the private sector and in government, labor’s opponents have been on a near-constant attack. Steve Early spent years working with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Along with many others, he held back the otherwise precipitous drop in members and clout. He and they have not been able to stop it, however.

In 2011 and 2012, working people and their allies fought back with a tremendous grassroots rebellion against Scott Walker and his agenda in Wisconsin and, spreading all over the country, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement highlighting income inequality. Both uprisings rejuvenated the half-dead labor movement to some extent.

Early, a long-time labor journalist, wondered about the extent of that change. It’s frankly hard to believe that the union movement, thanks to Occupy’s influence, will foster civil disobedience, democratization of its structures, more participation of front-line members and less exorbitant pay for its leaders. What will help working people rediscover their own power is actual practice involving rank-and-file workers asserting their rights..

He points to the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012 as a prime example of the interplay of labor reform, democratic practice, bottom-up rebellion and alliances with the communities. He cites the walkouts of 2012-’13 of fastfood workers, bigbox store employees and retail clerks in several states as a sign of the continuing power and effectiveness of ordinary folks’ withdrawing their labor. Early cites the “Fight for $15” campaigns and walkouts by fastfood employees in 58 cities at the end of August 2013. These actions raised awareness concerning near-starvation wages around the nation..

Early names the courageous low-wage working people and the many shop stewards in the already-organized job sites as the “key agents of change.” It’s those who organize on the shop floor on a near-constant basis, as well as those for whom the union movement has made a real difference, who can most effectively spread the word about the worth of unions.

In Save Our Unions, Early reviews past labor reform efforts which played out locally or around the country in the United Mine Workers (UMW), the Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the United Auto Workers (UAW). He tells us of valiant efforts at reform and renewal, some of which, especially in the UMW and the Teamsters, were successful for a while.

He examines the present-day realities surrounding work stoppages and the very right to walk off the job. Early then looks into two ways of rebuilding private industry unions. One is “salting” workplaces with planted organizers. The other is international solidarity.

The author goes into quite a bit of detail concerning young radicals and college graduates entering workplaces with the intent to organize, some of them already union employees; others doing it somewhat more independently. He tells us of some successes and a lot of failures. A major reason for the failures is the great disparity in strength between unions and employers these days. Other not insignificant reasons are the difficulty young, educated leftists have relating to working people, both native and foreign-born, and the different levels of risk faced by each during an organizing drive.

The main instance of international solidarity cited by Early is that between German and American Telecom workers. Of course, these days, at the Nissan plant in Mississippi, there has been solidarity shown by German and South African workers with their American counterparts.

The author goes into the history of the labor movement a bit, both at Lawrence, MA and Dagenham, UK. His emphasis is upon the initiatives shown by women and men from the shop floor in the realities of both the mill town and the English city. Next, he spends quite a bit of time on the fight for survival of CWA-IBEW in Telecom, facing off against both Verizon and AT &T. He holds out hope for those unions if grievance strikes can be used to supplement both the fight at the bargaining table and in the public eye.

Early goes into the history of and lessons from the fight between NUHW/CNA and SEIU. He returns to this later on. Throughout, there’s an emphasis upon rank-and-file empowerment, its squelching and its fostering.

From the dramatic rise of the CIO unions in the ‘Thirties to the “alt-labor” (worker centers, community alliances) of today, Early says that the objective of “saving our unions” is best served by both “external” and “internal” activism. Those who want to construct “alternative institutions” should not ignore the many rank-and-file workers who are trying to construct unions which are responsive to, indeed driven by, the needs and efforts of their sisters and brothers. A new “social justice”-oriented labor movement will arise from the fightbacks of ordinary members and their community allies.

Early spends a great deal of time and space in this book on the fights and troubles of SEIU and its several opponents, and yet there are lessons to be drawn from these bad policies and confrontations which can be real, vitally necessary learning experiences for the labor movement.

If trade unionism is to survive, it must be driven by the rank-and-file and their many partners in the larger society, both in the US and in the rest of the world.

One day we’ll see a labor movement with renewed strength helping to re-orient our country’s social priorities in a far more humanistic direction, to our benefit and to the relief of the rest of the world, which now has to put up with our murderous bullying. Perhaps in the future they will instead benefit from our democratic impulses, emanating from the bottom on up.

Greg King is an active member of SEIU Local 888.

BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky Labor Struggles In and Out Of Unions

Steve Early’s insightful writing on employment struggles in a time of political retreat for most American workers captivates. In Save Our Unions: Dispatches from A Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013), he shares riveting descriptions of workplace struggles.

Early’s approach to labor journalism is simple.

He questions the deeds and words of the power class, in and out of unions.

His focus on internal union democracy is a recurring theme in the book’s seven sections. From health care to media, he goes where mainstream press coverage fears to tread.

In this way, Early educates readers on the whys and wherefores of the decline of organized labor as a political force. His narrative opens with reporting on union reform campaigns from 1972 to the 1990s.

Why did members of the United Mine Workers and International Brotherhood of Teamsters clash with company bosses and union leadership?

What worked and what failed? What lessons can we learn from then for now?

These are no academic questions. Early is no armchair writer, though he documents his work for readers seeking to get down in the weeds with more details.

Early’s is a pro-labor union view. Bias-free journalists are a fiction.

Reporters choose slants and sources. These two approaches do not appear magically.

Early’s vision of getting the labor story right is to demand accountability and transparency from its appointed and elected leaders.

He is at the top of his game taking on the hierarchy of the Service Employees International Union as its labor-management accords with health-care giant Kaiser Permanente bids to neuter the rank-and-file by opposing strikes, for instance.

Early challenges, with fact and evidence, SEIU’s top-down approach. He highlights an alternative unionism, chronicling the rise of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and its on-again-off-again relationship with the California Nurses Association.

Against the backdrop of such health-care conflicts, Early connects legal and organizational hurdles to workers walking off the job to improve their employment conditions, as fast food and retail employees have done recently. What emerges is complex, as SEIU is the major funder of dissident fast food workers seeking a union and $15.00 an hour wage, a pay rate near half of the union’s 2 million membership lacks, Early writes.

Amid a relentless onslaught of contract givebacks and takeaways, Early looks at organizing tactics to empower workers. His canvas in part ranges from bike messengers in the San Francisco Bay Area and hotel workers in Pasadena, Calif., to Industrial Workers of the World activists at Starbuck’s outlets in New York City.

Typically, such workplace news appears in corporate business reporting. This trend is a symptom of the crisis in journalism.

Reporter job losses are the new normal. This is an attack on the public’s right to know about power relations in the workplace, the special focus of Early’s efforts.

Information is part of what constitutes class power. Who the producers are matters in part for reasons of political consciousness

Early’s coverage on strategic cross-border union cooperation in the telecom industry is instructive. He shows how investment capital is global, and organized labor must rise to the challenge.

The author’s critical reporting of what did and did not work, and why, with T-Mobile workers, enlightens. The class interventionist role of the state looms large.

Far from withering away, the power of the state is central to class dynamics for workers, organized or not.

Early integrates this dynamic into his reporting, fleshing out the politics of labor union economics well, such as the use of member dues against their interests, with offenders from the ranks of the AFL-CIO’s “gerontocracy,” drawing six-figure salaries well past standard retirement age.

Early’s canvas features a diverse array of working people, from United Kingdom autoworkers, to immigrant rights activists, a century past and in 2006.

For the so-called millennial generation (born between 1982-2000), such history relates to their bitter employment plights in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

First, though, one must grasp the past. This fact remains, despite or because of social media’s growing presence in US culture.

In Early’s “Telecom Labor Trouble” section, he discusses the relentless campaign to de-unionize organized workers. A major villain is Verizon Wireless, which refers to at-will employees as “associates,” borrowing Walmart’s term for its union-free workforce.

Early advocates lowering the Medicare-eligibility age to birth as a policy to replace the current multi-insurer nightmare of rising prices and falling coverage. Early considers Vermonters’ bid to reform health care by removing for-profit insurers, a crucial state struggle to watch as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act rolls out.

Early’s new book is a must-read for working people.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2014


It was the summer of 1969. I was living in San Francisco. I had just gotten a job with Pacific Bell, the West Coast telephone company.

One afternoon, I was performing some routine maintenance when a shop steward walked up to me and said, “Put down your tools; we’re walking out.”

I looked up, saw other workers heading for the exit, and dutifully followed.

We gathered across the street from Pacific Bell building and milled around for a while.

Finally, someone (I can’t remember who) told us that the company had disciplined two stewards for union activity and that the walkout was called to protect them. We were told to go home and report back to work the next morning. If the issue was resolved, we’d work; if not, we’d stay out.

The next morning, I showed up and resumed working. The disciplined stewards were also back on the job.

My wildcat strike experience wasn’t unique. There had been another one at another Bay Area Pacific Bell work site within the last year.

African-American auto workers in Detroit and sanitation workers in Memphis had conducted wildcat strikes to fight racism, and other workers in other cities had walked off the job to protest speed up, safety problems, management harassment, and other grievances.

In 1970, more than 200,000 postal workers walked of the job defying their union leadership and President Nixon who both told them to return to work.

Over the next ten years, wildcat strikes took place among auto workers, municipal employees, miners, truck drivers, food processing workers, and workers in other industries.

During the 1970s, workers’ real wages continued to rise, more got access to health care and pension benefits, and more won a voice on the job through union membership. (The peak year of union membership in the US was 1979 when 21 million workers were union members.)

But those victories would not last.

Capital during most of the 1970s had been on the defensive, but by the end of the decade, it was beginning to revamp, restructure, and reorganize. It also recommitted itself to the class struggle.

It didn’t take long for capital to counterattack, and by 1981, it was labor that was on the defensive.

Steve Early in his newest book Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress published by Monthly Review Press surveys and analyzes the damage done to the US labor movement by capital’s resurgence.

Early’s book, a collection of loosely organized essays, focuses most of its attention on more recent developments, but he begins with some history and context including appropriately enough the 1981 strike by PATCO, the US air traffic controllers’ union.

The strike, a crushing defeat for labor, wasn’t really a fair fight. Capital acted decisively and in concert; labor was tentative and splintered.

Before the strike, President Reagan, serving as capital’s surrogate, marshalled support among key players like the Air Transport Association, the air carriers’ trade association, which despite concerns that business would suffer, backed the President when he fired the striking controllers.

Labor responded timidly. Leaders paid lip service to solidarity but told members to cross PATCO picket lines and keep working.

Reagan’s victory, writes Early, “strengthened the hand of airline management in its own future showdowns with ALPA (the pilots union), IAM, the Flight Attendants, and other unions.” The same could be said of capital in general.

The defeat of PATCO was a watershed moment for the working class. During the three decades that followed wages stagnated, benefits eroded, and millions of good paying jobs migrated to low-wage regions in the US and abroad. Union membership declined and union power waned.

Early says that unions were unable to resist capital’s onslaught for a number of reasons:

A sclerotic union leadership, more interested in preserving privilege than fighting capital, clung to the idea that a union’s role is to work with management to prevent labor unrest; capital on the other hand embraced class war.

Unions isolated themselves from the broader public.
One example was labor’s position on health care, which until 2010 had been to concern itself only with protecting employer-based health plans. Early argues that unions for the last 30 years should have been fighting for health care for all and points to the success of telephone workers in the 1980s who protected their health care benefits by publicly supporting the idea that health care is a right not a privilege.

Unions paid too little attention to internal organizing,
i.e., educating and mobilizing their own membership; when unions conducted education campaigns, the campaigns focused on a narrow political narrative that gave uncritical support to the Democratic party.

Union leaders allowed and in many cases encouraged union democracy to wither.

Early argues that labor’s revitalization will depend on a re-energized grassroots movement that unites non-union, low-wage workers like those who have been striking for a living wage and forward thinking rank-and-file workers engaged in day-to-day ”shop floor organizing.”

As Early acknowledges, this work won’t be easy, and some of his dispatches describe missteps like those of Ron Carey and Arnold Miller.

Miller was a leader of Miners for Democracy, Carey of Teamsters for Democracy.

Both won elections that ousted entrenched and imperious union regimes.

Both were unable to sustain their victories.

Miller was ruined by incompetence.

Carey was more successful. He led a winning strike against UPS but was outmaneuvered by remnants of the union’s old order and forced from office.

Early’s dispatches, however, aren’t just about missteps. Some describes some promising new developments.

At T-Mobile, the nation’s fourth largest wireless service provider that has fiercely resisted unionization, CWA helped workers build an organization called T-Mobile United, or simply TU. While not recognized by the company, TU acts like a union and has won some victories.

UNITE-HERE has recruited and trained people to be salts–pro-union people who go to work at non-union hospitality businesses to help workers at these businesses organize. Early describes the successes and setbacks experienced by three of these young salts as well as some insights they learned while working.

Early’s dispatches tell the good, the bad, and the ugly of labor’s fight for survival, but they also describe a new era of capitalism that makes worker collective action harder.

Service jobs now dominate the economy,
and these jobs are difficult to organize through traditional means. How do you organize Starbucks workers as some have tried when the company’s ubiquitous coffee shops that employ a handful of people are scattered widely across a city?

(Union-backed worker centers for low wage workers that Early mentions may be one answer.)

Even old industries are new. Take for instance telecommunications. When the regulated and highly unionized telephone monopoly was broken up and deregulated, it became more difficult to coordinate bargaining and strikes.

On top of that, their landline business is dwindling and being replace by wireless services, where most of the jobs are non-union.

While much has changed, other things have remained constant. It’s still possible for an energized, motivated, and organized group of workers to stand up to their bosses and win,

That’s why, if I were Early’s editor, I would have encouraged him to spend more time examining the work of the Chicago Teachers Union.

At the beginning of the book, he devotes a paragraph to CTU’s successful strike and an end note refers the reader to other works about the strike.

One hundred fifty pages later, Early mentions the strike again but only to criticize a concession that the union made to preserve its health care benefit. (The union agreed to a dubious wellness program pushed by the city as a way of reducing health care costs.)

Despite that concession, the contract won by CTU’s nine-day strike was a solid victory for public school employees specifically and public education in general. Other unions, especially public service unions, could learn from CTU’s success.

While CTU’s success is instructive, so is the recent defeat of UAW’s organizing campaign at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant.

UAW relied heavily on a hands-across-the-ocean outreach effort to Volkswagen management in Germany to win the campaign.

Considering UAW’s lack of success organizing southern auto workers by traditional means and Volkswagen’s accepting attitude toward unions, this approach may not have been a bad idea.

But it didn’t work.

Now it’s time to consider some new approaches to union building, and while Save Our Unions spends a lot of time analyzing labor’s problems over the last thirty years, it also describes some new approaches that more people should know about.

Does Steve Early’s ‘Save Our Unions’ Have a Message for Chattanooga?


What does Steve Early’s ‘Save Our Unions: Dispatches From A Movement in Distress’ teach us about UAW’s recent defeat in Chattanooga? (Photo via Monthly Review Press / AK Press)

The defeat of a union organizing election at the Volkswagen auto plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. this month has stimulated intense national scrutiny of the United Auto Workers (UAW). As labor’s friends and enemies debate over the places UAW leadership fell short in the campaign, journalist Steve Early’s new book, Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press) seems especially relevant. Though Early’s work doesn’t analyze the Volkswagen campaign itself—and makes only passing references to the UAW—the declining power of the country’s leading labor organizations is a consistent theme in his reporting.

The book is first and foremost a journalistic enterprise, bringing together news articles and related material that Early produced for a long list of labor-friendly publications, including In These Times. Labor reporting is a second career for Early, who spent 27 years as a Boston-based staffer for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and he brings to his work a real depth of understanding about how unions work in practice. This is his third book since retiring from CWA in 2007—Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home was published in 2009, followed by The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor in 2011—and the three volumes together present a well-researched and crisp account of Big Labor’s troubles in the modern era.

Early is especially well known for his reporting in recent years on the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), particularly the efforts by some of the union’s California branches to break away and establish the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). And Save Our Unions contains plenty of material on NUHW’s post-schism campaigns to recruit new members out of SEIU’s ranks, as well as the continuing SEIU-NUHW clashes that have ensued. Early’s sympathy with NUHW is plainly stated and supported by a stinging critique of SEIU’s leadership. He depicts senior SEIU officials as divorced from the workplace concerns of most members, overly accommodating to the financial goals of large employers, and ham-handed in their dealings with union rank and file. Ultimately, his narrative is that of the NUHW as a scrappy underdog struggling against an entrenched and largely unresponsive SEIU bureaucracy.

That antiestablishment theme is echoed in Early’s reporting on other labor organizations in Save Our Unions, including his coverage of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ 2011 presidential election. The race in question was a three-way contest between incumbent president James P. Hoffa and two other union officers—pension administrator Fred Gregare and New York City local leader Sandy Pope. As the candidate from the dissident group Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Pope campaigned for stronger union contracts and against the high salaries and generous perks granted to union leaders. But her on-the-ground activism didn’t resonate widely with union voters. When the ballots were counted, Hoffa had racked up an impressive victory, trouncing both Gregare and Pope. Early doesn’t dwell too long on the apparent contradiction between his faith in rank-and-file democracy and the plainly expressed preference of Teamster voters. Instead, he counts the election as another instance of union officers manipulating the system to cling to power at a time that demands fresh and inventive approaches.

In an interview with In These Times, Early insists that his journalism is not intended to hammer the existing power structure of Big Labor, but rather to celebrate innovations in union organizing, especially at the grassroots level. But the conflicts he portrays are almost always centered on union leaders stubbornly resisting any change that might chip away at their power and privilege.

He savages American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) leader Gerald McEntee, for example, for holding the union in an iron grip for 30 years before delivering the presidency to his hand-picked successor Lee Saunders in 2012. Early also implicitly blames McEntee and other high-ranking officials for the 2011 fiasco in Wisconsin, when anti-union legislation sponsored by Gov. Scott Walker proved especially destructive to AFSCME.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, now aged 64, is not spared either. Early wonders—rather wearily—if Trumka will follow the example of his federation predecessors and remain in office into his 80s; such scrutiny seems especially apt considering other critics’ observations of Trumka’s overall failure to stem labor’s decline during his presidency. An acceptance of term limits, or a mandatory retirement age, is long overdue at the highest levels of the Big Labor hierarchy, Early argues. Not only would that allow younger, fresher blood to rise, he writes, but many of labor’s senior leaders could serve workers’ interests far better in other fields, like academia or electoral politics.

Early is an avid consumer of other labor-related books and news articles; Save Our Unions finds him frequently engaging with these sources on an in-depth level. One highlight is his treatment of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), a 2012 memoir by Jane McAlevey detailing her years as a mid-level SEIU officer. Early delights in skewering the SEIU, of course—especially retired leader Andy Stern—and he takes McAlevey to task, too, for being what he calls a “progressive prima donna” who benefited from the very structures she lambasts. On a more academic note, Early is meticulous when it comes to references: The book contains extensive endnotes for readers who want to seek out additional details of the multiple labor dramas presented.

By his own account, Early does not intend to offer any grand scheme for rescuing labor from its current troubles, so any student of last week’s defeat in Chattanooga will not find any direct answer to UAW’s problem in these pages. (He did, however, publish his own “postmortem” in CounterPunch on February 19; unsurprisingly, he found fault with the UAW leadership.) Early does seem to imply that his home union is a good example for others to follow—for the most part, his fascinating descriptions of CWA’s long-running organizing campaigns at T-Mobile and the 2011 Verizon strike remain free from critique, and the book is dedicated to CWA President Larry Cohen, described “as the best of his generation in labor.”

Overall, Early’s workmanlike journalism is at its best when he illuminates the day-to-day problems faced by labor, such as the apparently intractable problems unions encounter with Obamacare. By leaving the grander themes and prescriptions for salvation to others, he can focus on his clear passion: the struggles of the rank-and-file against the powerful force arrayed against it, including, too often, its own leaders.

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Full disclosure: The UAW, CWA and AFSCME are website sponsors of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.


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