"Save Our Unions – Dispatches from a Movement in Distress,” by Steve Early, 2013
Who would have thought we would be worried about ‘saving unions?’ Once giant presences in American society, unions have been sidelined to ostensible irrelevancy in the ‘new economy’ brought about by neo-liberalism. Their ‘friends’ in the Democratic Party treat them as unpaid doormats. Unions themselves have not grasped the extent of their plight, nor the ‘desperate’ means needed to save them. Steve Early understands, at least to a point. This book is his second on this issue, though here he lets himself speak instead of basing it mostly on reviews of pro-labor books, as he did in the 2009’s “Embedded With Organized Labor.” (also reviewed below.)
Early is a left activist and former staffer in the CWA, UMW and others. He’s been a long-time supporter of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (“TDU”), Labor Notes and various rank-and-file caucus movements in the UAW, the UMW and other unions. His prior book was a somewhat sad tour of the defeats endured by labor in the 1980s and beyond. In this, he concentrates on present events, which actually are not quite so grim. He presents definite evidence that the promises shown by the “Change To Win” confederation or the election of Richard Trumka as head of the AFL-CIO have not born fruit. Trumka led the Pittston Coal strike and was in the insurgent UMW movement that removed the corrupt class-collaborationist Tony Boyle, so the disappointment is especially keen. “Change to Win” foundered on the top-down autocratic style of Andy Stern of the SEIU.
He notes that it was the struggle of TDU in the Teamsters and the victory of Ron Carey which propelled John Sweeney to the head of the AFL-CIO, in the first contested presidential election in that formation's history. Sweeney himself however, a social-democrat in “Democratic Socialists of America” (“DSA”), did nothing to halt the decay of the labor federation.
Early makes several points worth emphasizing. He understands that health care issues, which are key issues in most individual labor and contract fights, cannot be limited to individual bargaining by one union against one company anymore. It needs to be a social fight across the whole country. Same goes for retirement benefits. It has shown up even in the issue of crippling labor laws or a “Department of Labor” that is really a department to discipline labor. OSHA boards are toothless, safety boards that deal with chemicals or environmental hazards are weak and missing-in-action, and the NLRB process is almost broken. The concept of ‘pseudo-regulation’ comes to mind. (Mentioned in the book, “Foodopoly,” reviewed below.)
Early reviews the seemingly complex situation in California and Nevada regarding SEIU and its jurisdictional fights with the California Nurses Association (“CNA”) and the National Union of Health Workers (“NUHW”). The key here, according to Early, is that the SEIU operates at Kaiser Permanente as a class-collaborationist force, agreeing to sub-standard contracts and participating with Kaiser in ‘cooperation’ schemes at work. One of the most notable is the attempt to make an individual’s health a guide to how much to charge them in contracts for health-care. I.E. Kaiser wants to monetize ill-health, obesity, smoking and other conditions. SEIU puts into receivership any locals that opposed their strategies, which created the conflict in the first place. As a CWA insider, Early tracks the struggles by the land-line Verizon workers and their attempt to unionize the non-union Verizon Wireless sector. In the process he covers the large 45,000 member Verizon Land-line strike in 2011.
Early touches on various non-traditional forms of unionizing, like geographic organizing, workers centers, minority unions and rank-and-file caucuses. He focuses on the labor ‘gerontocracy’ at the top of many national unions, where the ranks have very few young people, and the leaders are in their 60s, 70s and even 80s. Early highlights the roles of thousands of left-colonizers or labor ‘salts’ that went into the factories in the 1970s, based on socialist principles, at the urging of their various socialist organizations. I was one of those people, and appreciate his pointing this out. He is fuzzy on ‘who’ these organizations were, which hints he’s still afraid to mention socialism in the labor movement.
Early ends with the struggle for a ‘single-payer’ health system in Vermont, and the prominent role played by the Vermont Progressive Party (“VPP”) in that struggle. The VPP is an independent electoral/activist front to the left of the Vermont Democrats. Vermont might be the first state that, like Canada’s Saskatchewan in 1944, enacts single payer. However, this attempt has been complicated by the passing of the neo-liberal ACA, which undermines a single payer approach, and is preventing a quicker passage of single payer in Vermont. The pressure of the VPP and most unions in Vermont has made even the Democratic governor a supporter of enacting single payer. At least for now.
The development of Occupy, and its relation to the labor movement; the strikes at Wal-Mart, its warehouses and in the fast-food industry; the massive and successful Chicago Teachers strike, the movement for a $15 minimum wage, and the looming Trans-Pacific Partnership play a small role in this book. He oddly gives somewhat short-shrift to Joe Burn’s book, “Reviving the Strike,” (reviewed below) and instead quietly advocates various in-plant strategies when striking is too difficult to succeed.
His last chapter is titled, “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win.” This phrase is a cliché from Mao Tse Tung that, while somewhat true, avoids some hard issues that Early does not tackle, or expand on. Single payer is making headway in Vermont because an independent electoral formation backed by unions, the VPP, is pushing it. This should make Early think that perhaps we need an independent union-backed electoral party - nationwide! This in most countries is called a labor party – two words Early stays away from. The CNA, which he praises, was part of the Mazzocchi-inspired “Labor Party” in the late 1990s, as were most progressive unions, regional bodies and locals in the U.S.
His skittishness towards the term ‘socialism’ regarding ‘colonizers’ and even his compadres in Labor Notes also shows that the alternative political movement labor needs – socialism - is still too ‘outre’ for this left staffer. Yet you cannot fight neo-liberalism without a long term oppositional outlook, and without it, labor will not advance. Keeping it a secret does no one any good. This has also been the lesson of history, in this country and elsewhere. We’ve elected ‘social democrats’ to the presidency of the AFL-CIO (Sweeney), elected ‘rank-and file’ caucus leaders and strike leaders to the presidency (Trumka) and the unions are still not making much headway. So what is next? The fact that some unions, including SEIU, endorsed socialist candidates in Socialist Alternative in Seattle and Minneapolis might mean the facade is cracking.
And I bought it at May Day Books!