“Embedded With Organized Labor,” by Steve Early, 2009
This is the first book on labor reviewed on these pages. This is not an accident. Like a bad marriage, or a war, looking back on a long string of defeats or miseries is not something anyone relishes. I spent the mid-70s to the early-90s mostly as a union ‘rank-and-filer’ in Chicago and Minneapolis, so this is not an abstract story for me. The labor movement has been beaten senseless. It has puked on its shirt before the whole nation time after time. Even the singing of innocuous songs like “Solidarity Forever” now grates. Because ‘solidarity’ is almost, actually, never. Labor clichés, like Marxist cliché’s or anarchist clichés, need to be banned for awhile. We need to go back to … facts. Ruthless facts.
Steve Early’s book is actually a book of book reviews, although the sections seem somewhat disjointed. He has read almost every recent book concerned with the labor movement. This volume is invaluable as a readers’ guide for labor activists and anyone else who understands that without labor, there will be very little change. It is appreciated that he only dwells briefly on the classics of American Labor history. Our infatuation with the 30s and the “Knights Of Labor” etc. blinds us to our own recent history and the present configuration of American and world capital. Early does not read as a zombie, but as someone who has definite ideas about what is needed for labor to come back from the dead. He has been there too.
Early’s reviews go from general, high-profile books down to academic volumes concerned with the twists and turns of Sweeny and the “Change to Win” coalition. Barbara Erenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed’ comes in for review as one of the former. Early compares it to George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London," and Jack London’s “The Abyss” - quite high praise. Early reviews “Revolution in the Air” by Max Elbaum, (also reviewed in these pages, below) pointing out its bizarre Maoist infatuations, and reaffirms that Elbaum does not really cover Maoist labor activity. Early seems to be a class-conscious labor activist, not really wedded to any one Marxist strand, close to the CLR James view of the importance of actual working-class practice. (CLR James is reviewed, below.) He also seems to be a sympathizer of the International Socialists, based on their work in TDU and Labor Notes, but he is not dominated by any one ‘line.’
After a short section on historical labor literature, Early scans Linda Chavez’ anti-labor books, probably as his version of ‘fair and balanced.’ Chavez once worked for Albert Shanker and the AFT – a cold-war, uber-white-collar union leadership. In a way, the teachers’ unions replaced the AFL building trades as the unions of ‘privileged’ labor. Chavez is their bastard child. Her account follows the right-wing reign of Meany-Kirkland and its domination by staffers from Social Democrats USA. She spends much time showing her fondness for neo-conservatives, and red-baiting the Democratic Socialists of America around John Sweeney, a closet member. As a former ‘labor’ leader, she spends most of her time attacking even the idea of labor unions.(!)
As an antidote to cold-war ‘unionism,’ Early reviews “SingleJack Solidarity” and “Punching Out,” both books concentrating on a rank-and-file unionism, and attacking the ideas coming from, for instance, the leadership of UNITE-HERE, that bigger is better. The authors are former supporters of the Workers Party of CLR James. They criticize the idea of ‘social unionism’ represented by Reuther as not much different than ‘business unionism,’ because both of them were thoroughly top-down. Early also later reviews Staughton Lynds two books on modern rank-and-file activism, “The New Rank & File” and “Personal Histories of Working-Class Organizers,” including leftists who ‘colonized’ various work sites.
Belive it or not, someone has written a book on Tony Mazzochi, called “The Man Who Hated Work.” Mazzochi was legendary as the conflicted founder of the Labor Party; head of OCAW and friend of Karen Silkwood; fighter for OSHA and environmentalism; supporter of various social causes, who helped organize “US Labor Against the War” and started working-class book clubs. Early considers Mazzochi to be a unique individual in the American labor movement, combining an affinity for the left with an ability to remain connected to the rest of the labor movement.
Regarding black labor activism, Jacqueline Jones has written a descriptive book on the long history of discrimination and racism in the US labor movement, “American Labor.” “Black Freedom Fighters in Steel” covers the history of black workers influence in the steelworkers union, up to the Sadlowski campaign in the 1970s and the rust belt turn in the 80s. Another book, “Left Out’ details the influence of non-white workers in the labor movement, even quoting WEB Dubois, who points out that the CIO became a ‘major racially egalitarian force in American life.’ “Beyond the Fields” is a book covering the UFW campaigns from the 1960s to the present. It shows how the UFW, lead by Cesar Chavez, functioned as a social movement, not just a union, and owed much of its success to that. There is a chapter on the short-comings of Chavez, who towards the end got rid of any democratic life in ‘his’ union. A member of the “Change to Win” coalition, the UFW is now down to 6,000 members in 2007.
Early then takes up theoretical questions, reviewing “The Working-Class Majority” by economist Michael Zweig. Zweig directly attacks the idea that the ‘middle class’ is the majority in the United States, and that this phrase means the same thing as ‘working class.’ Zweig contends that this verbal ‘switch’ so beloved of polticians and bad journalists disappears the working class from existence - although, according to him, the working class is 62% of the labor force. The book “Striking Steel” also makes the same point, though in a more personal way, attacking the domination of the professional middle class in culture and politics, and pointing out that the exceptional period of the 50s was the high point of working-class life in the U.S. And, I might add, never to be repeated. Early also covers the ILA dock-workers campaign of the ‘Charleston 5’ in the book, “On the Global Waterfront.” The remnants of the Labor Party in South Carolina were deeply involved in this campaign.
In two sections, Early reviews a number of books, both laudatory and critical, on the Sweeney “New Voice” leadership of the AFL-CIO, and the politics behind the recent split of the “Change to Win” coalition, and their leader, technocrat Andy Stern. Both situations involved an influx of more middle-class, college-educated activists into staff positions. As someone who had zero faith that Sweeney would change anything vital, it is interesting to read about the small changes that did happen when Sweeney swept the cold warriors of the SDUSA out of Solidarity House. Early feels this event was largely based on the Ron Carey victory in the Teamsters Union election immediately prior to Sweeney’s election.
The hardest part to read is Early’s section on labor’s strike defeats. If the words “Phelps Dodge”, “P9”, “International Paper”, “AE Staley”, “Caterpillar”, “Bridgestone-Firestone,” “Decatur”, “Ray Rogers,” “Overnite”, “6.5 years”, “camos” and “Pittston” bring out a certain pain, then you know what I am talking about. The central book Early reviews is “Three Strikes” by Chicago Tribune reporter Stephen Franklin about the ‘war zone’ in central Illinois around Decatur in the early 90s. This section mentions our own home-town hero and labor academic, Peter Rachleff, and his book, “Hard-pressed in the Heartland,” about the Hormel strike, a defeated strike Minnesota labor activists were intimately connected to. 2003 saw only 14 strikes in the US, involving 129,000 people.
Early has somewhat disjointed sections on books about labor and environmentalism, prospects for future labor activism, labor law reform (including Chicagoan Tom Geoghegan’s book, “Which Side are you On?”) and in-plant strategies, international unionism, workers organizing outside unions in workers centers, immigrant labor activism, and again revisits SEIU and Andy Stern, in very illuminating pages. The section on Stern is dense, and reveals what “Change to Win” is really about – technocratic changes, top-down unionism, mergers and cooperation schemes with various managements.
Early ends his book in a most obvious, yet odd way, describing working-class literacy and book efforts in unions and out. He details the efforts and non-efforts of various union activists and internationals to promote reading about labor. Tony Mazzochi started a book club as one of his first acts of labor involvement. To focus on such a basic reality like this makes reading Early’s compendium of reviews such a pleasure.
And I bought it at MayDay Books!
Red Frog, 1/6/2010