Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home

Reviewed by Robert

Steve Early, Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009)

Only Steve Early, writing about the recent succession to the Presidency of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), could have written:

[T]he process of replacing [Andy] Stern has been about as transparent as the College of Cardinals’ method of picking a new pope in Rome. Instead of watching for color-coded smoke signals from the Vatican, a waiting labor movement has been deciphering messages, from one side or the other, as they get posted on the Internet.

After 28 years as an organizer and strategist for the Communications Workers of America, embedded with organized labor, as he puts it, Steve Early is “redeployed” as the journalist, writer and intellectual he has always been. Emphasis on writer and intellectual. These essays on labor history, strategy and union politics are polished and graceful reviews of dozens of books over the last eleven years. The pleasures of Early as a writer stem in part from his never having had to face the anonymous edge-effacing, blandness-generating torture chamber of academic so-called peer review – his opinions have edges and his humor has a delightful snarkiness. Watch out professors: his distaste for academic “sideline coaching” comes through quite pointedly. The paradox is of course the fact that Early is an omnivorous reader of all things labor, including obscure history tomes from academic presses.

The resulting essays are a remarkable feat of writing and editing. From 38 published pieces Early has stitched together a totally coherent tour d’horizon of recent scholarship and commentary on labor history, reflections on the movements of the 1960s, case studies of strikes and organizing campaigns, and at the back end an almost up-to-date look at the current civil wars in the labor movement. For an overview of scholarship and current issues facing the labor movement, the virtue of this book as a starting point is not only that it is an accessible and fun read, but that it has a consistent point of view which is both noble and revealing as a perspective on labor studies.

Put simply, Early examines labor movements and unions from the perspective of worker self-governance and union democracy. Identifying with what one SEIU staffer dismissively referred to as that “Labor Notes crowd,” Early shows little use for top-down labor “generalissimos” or staff-driven (as distinct from member-driven) organizing campaigns. An Early passage about double-dipping high-six-figure pay for aging union leaders has enough acid to take the paint right off a Town Car. (See, his style is contagious.)

Early is a master of the form of the literary review – he discusses things that interest him using the books under review to help him make his point.

The first group of essays addresses 20th-century labor activists or organizations that, Early notes, formed the historical backdrop for the “new” leftists of the 60s and 70s who entered the labor movement. A review of writings by and about labor journalists Eva Valesh and Mary Heaton Vorse gives Early a podium from which he mourns the loss of labor journalism, leaving a gap not filled by what he calls the “house organs” and “vanity press” of the unions’ own publications. By bringing us – in some detail – the story of these early 20th-century writers on labor affairs, Early reminds us of the political complexity of events now iconic among the slim ranks of labor-oriented intellectuals. The cleavage between the socialist-minded workers in the 1909 “Revolt of the Twenty Thousand” shirtwaist workers and their upper-class supporters was a (downward) turning point in the career of Valesh. Early’s discussion of Vorse’s writing about the Lawrence “Bread and Roses” strike reminds us of the lack of support the mainstream unions gave to the immigrant workers there in 1912.

While Early has strong (and strongly negative) perspectives on Andy Stern’s “Purple Army” he is not sectarian in his treatment of …sectarians – though he can’t resist the telling descriptor of some former members of the 60s-70s New Communist Movements as “recovering sectarians.” His look back on movement history, as his look forward to union strategy, is firmly oriented to building “durable rank-and-file” organizations in unions or industries.

Reading Early as he writes his way through the books of the last decade one realizes that the issue-polarization that visibly emerges in whatever passes for public discourse about the labor movement is at best the description of an iceberg from above the waterline, or at worst the perception of a fork in the road when one is confronted by a multiple-choice quiz.

In 1995, when John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO President in the confederation’s first contested election ever, the turn in the road was described as one between organizing and political action on one side, and contract-servicing unions on the other. Even then there was at least one other tendency in both camps of union types: the old “Labor Notes crowd” of union democrats who believe workers should run their own unions, and that movement-building begins with informed members.

But the AFL-CIO is not one big union: it is a confederacy with almost no power over its 56 affiliates. By 2005 Sweeney’s own SEIU, now headed by Andy Stern, and five other unions, including UNITE-HERE headed by Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, left the AFL-CIO to form Change to Win (CTW). The dichotomy was once again posed as investing in organizing v. an inability to move the clumsy federation. CTW argued that more money should be spent on organizing and less on politics – poignantly reflecting the disaster of the 1994 Congressional elections. That turned out to be merely rhetorical. Change to Win constituents did not have great organizing successes (outside of the public sector where the rules of the game are quite different than in the private sector) and though the AFL-CIO continued to invest in electoral politics, Stern’s SEIU outspent all non-party committees in the 2008 election cycle – $27 million on “independent” expenditures for Obama. For context, the next largest non-party contributor was the National Rifle Association at $17 million. The internal function that Stern spent the big bucks on was combating internal dissent and external competition among neighboring unions.

In the period before the split from the AFL-CIO, an influential working paper was circulated in and around SEIU by Stephen Lerner. This paper and subsequent articles argued that higher density (proportion of union workers in an industry/region) yields higher wages for all workers – like a drafting effect in auto or bike racing. Lerner also argued that this density can best be raised by fewer, larger unions with a minimum of competition, raiding, and duplication of functions between them. In a review of a book (by Vanessa Tait) critical of SEIU’s failure to empower low-wage members, Early notes Lerner’s contention that:

“The union's increased ‘market share’ has helped raise the living standards of many thousands of new members among the working poor.” For many activists and academics, this record of success ends any debate about the best way for other unions to grow. Some observers do question whether the SEIU "organizing model" is readily transferable, however. They note that SEIU has, until now, had the singular advantage of operating mainly in the public sector, among smaller private firms, or within health care and home care entities that rely on public funding – a ready-made environment for union political leverage, lobbying and deal-making. IBM, Toyota, Overnite, MCI, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, or even partially unionized General Electric operate in an entirely different league – as unions trying to organize them are reminded every day.

Against such adversaries, no amount of clever corporate campaigning, Justice for Janitors pageantry, or even craven political maneuvering – such as SEIU's embrace of industry-backed "tort reform" that would restrict lawsuits against elder-abuse in California nursing homes – is likely to secure organizing rights or recognition anytime soon. In contrast, at the "for-profit" nursing homes that SEIU is now partnering with – to the dismay of California patient advocates – the union's new "alliance" with management may indeed boost its "market share."

The union density through union consolidation strategy had led SEIU to the creation of sector-wide or region-wide mega locals. For grassroots campaigners like Early a “local” of over 100,000 workers is not a school for democracy – it is the infrastructure of a bureaucratic behemoth.

Early had been feeding me his reviews by e-mail over the last few years, but it is only now, seeing them together in a flowing narrative that one realizes how contorted the labor scene has become. Having taken the largest unions out of the AFL-CIO, CTW’s one-time advocates of concentration and efficiency set about competing with their AFL-CIO counterparts. For example, SEIU has gone after public sector workers much to the chagrin of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Stern could not tolerate the dissent of one of his own local Presidents, Sal Rosselli of the California United Health Workers–West (a local of about 150,000 workers), who was a critic of his high-handed ways and soft contracts. Stern then put the UHW local in receivership. Rosselli, buoyed by the feisty support of local leaders and a passionate staff, formed a competing healthcare union in California and Stern – up until his retirement in 2010 – spent millions in a so far unsuccessful attempt to kill it in the courts and on decertification elections in California.

In the meantime the merger between the old garment unions (UNITE) and the hotel workers’ union (HERE) fell apart. Stern enticed Bruce Raynor of UNITE to come into SEIU, and John Wilhelm of HERE and Raynor/SEIU are engaged in one of the most bitter struggles in recent labor history.1

Early is on top of all of this, and his clarity as a teacher is exceeded only by his clever turn of phrase and humor.

But praise is not enough, nor is grassroots local union democracy the universal solution to labor’s woes. While Early is an exemplary internationalist and led his region of the Communications Workers of America in genuine solidarity with Latin American unionists, this book is not about the fundamental globalization of capital and the race to the bottom in global labor standards – the whip hand that lashes labor.

The specter that haunts the labor movement is global capitalism.

Industries where labor was strongest – auto, steel, and yes, garments – are the ones most globalized, where low-wage and exploited labor has been mobilized to compete with high-wage, high-benefit labor. The surviving unions in these sectors are but pale skeletal reflections of their former powerful presence. Weakened by this and by the steady erosion of labor law protections, and the political desertion of Democratic Presidents (Carter, Clinton, Obama), only in public sectors (e.g., teaching) has the labor movement increased or maintained density. This weakness makes global trade policy a plaything of neoliberal shades of difference, but it also means that the larger labor movement can’t prosecute its domestic agenda. The service sector unions do not have enough private sector penetration to carry the ball themselves. Moreover, many service sector jobs are themselves exportable (remember that call for computer support one night and where your help came from?).

Global capitalism will not be successfully confronted by a bureaucratic labor movement which fails to inspire and mobilize its members. But internal union democracy can’t do the job itself.

A century ago workers were bereft of support from government and law, and they were subject to a regional race to the bottom, as employers threatened any advance in working conditions by moving or threatening to move to locations where law or unions were weaker. The move across the Hudson (cf. famous New Yorker cartoon, cover, looking West) was used to try to corral garment workers into submission.

The Progressive movement of middle-class reformers took up some of the key policy issues that workers then needed as a scaffold for full enfranchisement. These reformers had sometimes adversarial, sometimes collaborative relations to socialists, but they had a social agenda that called for the inclusion of the working class into the civic and political life of the republic. Most, if not all of the Progressives understood that working-class issues were central to the nation’s moral and economic success. “The Social Question” of working-class inclusion was very much central to Jane Addams, and to Louis Brandeis and Florence Kelley. When a factory with Kelley’s National Consumer League’s anti-sweatshop “White Label” was struck by unionists seeking better wages, a process began which eventually caused them to withdraw the white label: “Our position is obviously untenable as friends of labor,” claimed the NCL, “if we persist in pushing our label as a rival to the label of the American Federation of Labor against the protests of union officials.” Kelley’s avatars among the reform-minded today have little or no understanding of or sympathy with unions.

What is continuous between the older Progressive movement and today’s middle-class reform mentality is somewhat less attractive: it is sympathy for the victim. Compassion trumps justice; helping the poor trumps creating or saving jobs. Starving Africans trump preserving labor standards in the US garment industry.

In one (curiously) small passage Early discusses the seed of a solution. Jobs with Justice (JwJ), of which he is a prime supporter/founder, fosters solidarity among local unions regionally, and coalition with community organizations as well. Faith-based groups are regularly part of JwJ functions and call-outs. JwJ reaches out to individual supporters among the intelligentsia for help, e.g., in testimony on workers’ rights issues. Writ larger and more ambitiously JwJ could broaden the coalition of activists who know and understand labor issues.

This book of essays will give readers a Contemporary Labor Movement 101 background. If only most texts were as well written or half as funny. (A line I can't resist reporting: about Change to Win [the breakaway led by SEIU and Andy Stern] Early coyly writes: “some call it Change to Spin”). The next installment is in process. Early is finishing a book on “The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers Movement or Death Throes of The Old?" Start with Embedded…, then get “Civil Wars…” Then go to work.

Robert Ross Sociology Department, Clark University Author, Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and abuse in the new sweatshops (2004) rjsross@clarku.edu

Note 1. As this article was going to press a lawsuit between UNITE HERE (Wilhelm) and Workers United-SEIU (Raynor) was announced – dividing assets in dispute.