A Response to Steve Early More Thoughts on the Worker-Student Alliance
When Kim Moody called me a "veteran labor activist" in the 1980s, I protested then that I was still a young Turk. When my Cornell colleague and labor historian Jefferson Cowie started teaching a course titled "Labor in the 70s" a couple of years ago, I complained, "That's not history, Jeff, it's current events." But when my contemporary Steve Early writes an account of his 1970s entry into the union movement that makes into Labor History, I guess the game is up. We are veterans, though not yet old-timers, please.
Early's vignette about his Miners for Democracy experience sets the stage for an essay faulting some unions' rush to hire new university graduates as organizers and researchers. He says that student recruitment "perpetuates the technocratic myth that deploying more professional staff is the key" to union success. "Any strategy for rebuilding union strength that relies so heavily on an infusion of paid help is deeply flawed," he contends. Early contrasts this "staffing up" with the Communication Workers of America's membership-based organizing network using up-from-the-ranks union leaders and activists.
Most of Early's essay is right on, if that 60s phrase is still apposite. He gives a correct caution about the dangers of too much reliance on university-trained staffers compared with indigenous staffers and volunteer-member organizers. He warns that fast-tracking recruits from the AFL-CIO's organizing institute and union summer programs into leadership posts can turn unions into technocratic, top-down organizations disconnected from a membership base.
My comments here reflect 10 degrees of difference. While I mostly agree with him, I think Early takes a valid critique a step too far with jibes about red carpet treatment, Mormon missionaries, the best and the brightest, mobile organizers, self-sacrificing souls, and the like, suggesting that any reliance on graduates is a mistake, and only indigenous staffers should build the labor movement. His only exception, it appears, is for graduates going into workplaces where Teamsters for a Democratic Union-style dissident groups take on their national union leadership, replicating the "colonizing" of the late 1960s worker-student alliance. As Early says, students' entry into trade union work then was mostly "in opposition to the labor establishment of that era." I take him to argue that students now aspiring to trade union work should follow the same dissident path rather than seek union staff positions.
Early is right that a university education by itself, even one concentrated on labor studies or labor law, is not the best preparation for real-world trade union work. In my first campaign as a United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) organizer in 1973, I was passing out leaflets from a public sidewalk at 6:30 a.m. to workers entering a wire extrusion plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I had my law degree in one pocket and a copy of the Constitution in the other. The plant manager chased me away with a Doberman pinscher straining on a leash and gnashing at my ankles. "You can't do this," I said. "I have a constitutional right to be here."
"Fuck you and your constitutional rights, too," he said, giving the dog more slack to lunge at me.
Young, university-trained union staffers need seasoning, but they bring important skills that rank and filers don't always have: fast and effective writing, research and computer abilities, knowledge of economics and legalities, and the like. The sheer matter of time for evening and weekend work over long periods should not be discounted, either.
This does not mean that these are more important skills, or higher-order skills, than the ones that indigenous staffers or volunteer-member organizers bring to a drive-familiarity with the company or the industry and with the specific demands of the jobs and the psychology of the workplace; an ability to convey personally what the union has accomplished for them; how a grievance procedure works; how the union functions democratically; the ability to blunt employer charges about union "outsiders," etc.
Nor is there a bright line between these two skill sets and the people who hold them. Many indigenous union staffers and rank-and-file volunteers also went to college. And many university grads have ample workplace experience. Some unions require "salting" as a prelude to staff work. Sometimes students aspiring to union staff jobs figure out for themselves that going to work in a shop, office, care center, warehouse, construction site, or other workplace is good preparation for going on staff.
I take Early to argue first that unions should not hire former students as staffers, and further, that if they do, those staffers should never cross the line to an elected leadership track. If they do, their elite background will inevitable feed an "I'm smart, I know best" top-down leadership style that depreciates the role of indigenous union members.
It depends. University graduates who become elected labor leaders can just as well infuse a bottom-up, democratic spirit in their unions. Indigenous, up-from the-ranks leaders can be autocrats. What counts is a healthy dose of modesty that puts the union and the members first, not personal advancement or aggrandizement. This does not mean that union leaders should be shy. Leadership usually requires a strong personality and a measure of charisma. Will they be used for self-promotion or for union advancement, and does the leader know the difference?
I was lucky to watch Vinnie Sirabella and John Wilhelm work in the Yale strikes and organizing campaigns of the 1970s. Sirabella was a trade union classic, a high-school dropout and a bartender who taught himself psychology, politics, and economics. He helped build vibrant, democratic local Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) unions around southern New England in the midst of an otherwise moribund, and in some cities corrupt, international union. Wilhelm was a 1960s Yale graduate who became Sirabella's mentee and led the historic clerical and technical workers' organizing drive at Yale. Wilhelm then brought the militancy, energy, and democracy taught by Sirabella to make Las Vegas, of all places, the strongest union town in the United States.
The insider-outsider combination epitomized by Sirabella and Wilhelm, and replicated in many of the most successful union-organizing campaigns around the country, is a model for the labor movement, not something to be scorned because former students are involved in key roles. Many of my top students at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations want careers in the labor movement. The labor movement should have the advantages of precisely their "commitment, zeal, dedication and intelligence" that Early mocks in the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and HERE recruitment pitches.
HERE members in Los Angeles certainly appreciate the work that Kurt Petersen, a 1992 Yale law school graduate, has done in his ten years in the trenches with them. Like him, young people going on staff with HERE work their butts off to build the union. The union is right to welcome them and nurture them. University graduates' move into trade union work has a leavening effect for the labor movement as a whole. Many students entering the labor movement will go on to careers in academia, business, politics, and other social movements. That's normal. People change and move on. One hopes that their labor experience will not be so disillusioning that they fail to bring understanding of and sympathy for trade unions' goals to the rest of their lives' work.
Just the fact that unions are reaching out to campuses through Union Summer programs and anti sweatshop movements creates consciousness among new generations of students that the labor movement is alive and active, even if most of them never consider working for a union. It helps sustain a union-friendlier environment in the wider society. If the labor movement does not open its doors to students eager to join it, unions risk worsening their image as an out-of-mainstream sect, not an integral part of American life.
Early arches an eyebrow, too, at unions' recruitment of new cadres of researchers to back up organizing, bargaining, and corporate campaigns. But union research jobs clearly require skills that university-trained and Internet savvy young people bring to the labor movement. Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University and Tom Juravich at the University of Massachusetts are funneling dozens of young researchers into the labor movement. We should welcome them, not discourage them because they don't come from the rank and file or did not spend years in a shop with a dissident TDU caucus.
Holding a university degree does not inevitably mean that new union staffers bring an elitist attitude to their work. And coming up from the ranks is no guarantee of a continued rank-and-file attitude. Unfortunately, the reverse is often true. A healthy mix of outsiders and insiders is the best way to staff a union. The UE's long history of balancing staff recruitment and leadership development between idealistic university graduates and workplace-hardened indigenous leaders is a good model. Compared with the hostile reception to Early's trade union work thirty years ago that he recounts in his essay, I got at least a warm welcome, if not the red carpet treatment (the UE does not do red carpets for new staff ).
When I went on staff in 1973, the UE's organizing director was Hugh Harley. He was legendary in the union for sleeping in his VW bug to save money while he led and won organizing drives throughout the New England machine tool industry in the 1950s and 1960s. Harley's new organizing helped keep the UE alive while it suffered massive membership losses from red-baiting raids by Walter Reuther's United Automobile Workers and James Carey's International Union of Electrical Workers. Only later did I learn that Harley was a graduate of Dartmouth's Amos Tuck School of Business Administration who worked for the International Labor Organization in Geneva before plunging into organizing for the UE in the 1940s.
James Carey had been the UE's first president in 1936 when he was just twenty-five. In terms of Steve Early's analysis, Carey was the indigenous rank and filer who rose to union leadership, the way it's supposed to be. Carey was the boy wonder of the labor movement, but he never grew up. Fed up with his preening, egotistical style compared with the modest Julius Emspak and James Matles, the other top national officers in UE's collective leadership model, convention delegates tossed him out in 1941.
Emspak was a skilled craftsman at General Electric's main plant in Schenectady, New York, with a master's degree from Brown University. Matles could have gotten a PhD in any field he chose, but he chose trade union work in the 1930s in the thriving manufacturing sector in Brooklyn and Queens. Like those of many other UE founding leaders, their politics and trade union philosophies took shape in heat-seeking communist and socialist movements of the 1930s. They were "Reds" in the 1940s and 1950s, the ultimate outsider intellectuals whether or not they had university education (some did, some didn't). Yet by dint of honesty, courage, and commitment, they built, then saved, a left-wing union in the teeth of the cold war. They did it by going to the rank and file and working with indigenous UE local leaders who wanted to keep a democratic union.
The UE is a special case, the only independent union that survived the CIO's cold war purge of left-wing affiliates. Actually, sometimes the UE's background was an asset. In 1974 I was assigned to work with forty Spanish-speaking workers at the one-hundred-employee Continental Aluminum factory in North Adams, Massachusetts. Belying its grandiose name, the plant was just another low-tech extrusion shop making aluminum ski poles. Somehow a community of Hondurans had made their way from Central America to the Berkshires long before the massive immigration we see now took place.
About a week before the election, we knew the company's hired antiunion consultant would start a redbaiting attack on the UE. We had a standard preemptive line that I explained to the Honduran workers. "Now, the plant manager is going to tell you that the UE is a communist union that got kicked out of the CIO in 1949. It's pura porquería. The UE left the CIO to preserve our union's democracy. Besides, it's all ancient history. I was hardly born when all this happened." The workers were quiet for a moment. Then Rodrigo, the key organizing committee member, spoke up. "Look, compañero, we're all communists. We had to leave Honduras because of the political repression. It's OK with us if it's a communist union."
My moment of silence masked consternation. "Well, it's kind of a communist union," I finally managed. "I mean it's not anticommunist. Chuta, we're open to everybody-communist, socialist, capitalist, whatever people believe." We won the election 60-40, with the Hondurans voting as a bloc in favor of the union, and got a good contract that held up for several years until competition from a ski pole shop in Central America put the plant under.
Before discussing the problem of the egotistical insider who moves to union leadership, I want to first say more about Hugh Harley's leadership cohort that followed the union's founders. My own mentor in Massachusetts, the best anyone could have had, was Doug Perry. He was a Bates College graduate who joined the UE staff in the 1950s. Perry's organizing and bargaining style put listening ahead of talking. When he spoke up it was to make suggestions, not to dictate answers. I learned as much from Frank Rosen, who did graduate studies in physics at the University of Chicago and was the UE's Midwest vice president in the 1970s and 1980s.
People like Harley, Perry, and Rosen held a socialist analysis of society, economics, and trade unionism. They were always balanced in UE leadership and internal union affairs by non- (or at least less) ideological leaders who followed the traditional union path, from getting a job to becoming a steward, then a committee member, then a local union president, before moving on to staff jobs and regional or national leadership.
Saying that UE's indigenous leaders were less ideologically formed does not mean they were less smart or skilled. They brought different, complementary smarts and skills to the union's work that generated a healthy steadiness in the leadership and life of the union. Perhaps the greatest genius of Matles and his cohort and of Harley and his cohort was to recognize the importance of this balance and to nurture it with a distinctive UE leadership style marked by modesty. Their operative pronoun was "we," and their operative noun was "the members"- not "I" and "my members."
In contrast, I saw several indigenous UE local leaders who aspired to regional and national office derail on ego trips. They were smart, savvy, and oratorically gifted, and they had proved their courage leading long strikes against tough employers. But it was all about them-my local, my committee, "I got my people a good contract," and the like. Even those smart enough not to talk that way got smelled out by UE leaders and activists devoted to the union's modest, low-key ethos, from old-timers who remembered James Carey's bombast to new members organized by Harley, Perry, and others in the UE style. Rank and filers who kept rising to UE leadership, like current president John Hovis, a former Westinghouse machinist, did so by adhering to the union's anti-cult of personality culture. Another UE feature that should serve as a model for bringing former students into effective union staff work is the integration of organizing and servicing assignments. Steve Early is right that the "parachute drop" model of union organizing is inherently flawed. Workers' sense of community with each other and confidence in the staffers they meet are critical for organizing success, and the same relationships carry over into bargaining.
Assigning organizers like commando squads for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election campaigns fails to treat organizing and bargaining as a single campaign requiring sustained committee-building and mobilization skills. UE organizers are service reps, too. They organize nonunion locations, but they also negotiate contracts, train leadership, and develop community-based support networks. The union brings in outside organizers for a final push in the late stage of a campaign, but the lead organizers usually stay on to negotiate a contract and build the union's workplace infrastructure.
Contrast this with the Teamsters' misuse of Vicki Saporta's skills in the late 1970s. Another talented Cornell grad like Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE, Saporta blitzed North Carolina with a string of NLRB election wins in big manufacturing plants around the state. But after each win, the Teamsters' sent Saporta to the next target. Consolidating the victories and negotiating contracts fell to decent but unimaginative leaders of a truck drivers' Teamster local. The union was soon decertified in every plant. In contrast, Raynor stayed in the South for two decades, patiently building the union at JP Stevens, Cannon Mills, and other longtime organizing targets, before moving on to national leadership.
CWA's emphasis on rank-and-file members' involvement in organizing and bargaining campaigns is an important model for union progress. Early correctly notes the extraordinary scope and efforts of CWA's rank-and-file organizing committee of US Airways's 10,000 ticket agents, one of the labor movement's biggest organizing victories of recent years. But shared credit should also go to Rick Braswell, a university-trained staffer who had earlier spent many years as a UE organizer. Braswell was CWA's key strategist who built the organizing committee network and coordinated the campaign.
CWA's "membership-based approach" was conceived and implemented by a combination of up-from-the-ranks and university-trained national CWA leaders and staffers-including Steve Early, whose behind-the-scenes role is a model of how former student staffers should operate. Without fanfare, Early has helped organize thousands of telecommunications workers into the CWA in the past twenty years (more university-trained union activists should emulate Steve's public face, too-his prolific and incisive writing about the labor movement).
In any union, when we look closely at what is touted as a purely indigenous rank-and-file initiative, we usually find in the background key roles played by university- trained strategists. This is natural, and there's nothing wrong with it. Most rank-and-file workers and indigenous union leaders are glad to have help from highly educated, skilled, trade union professionals to help them fight the bosses' lawyers and consultants. This receptivity on the part of union members is what creates opportunities for idealistic students to aspire to trade union work. It should not be forsaken for a purist notion of anti-elitist union staff recruitment.
Again, none of this means that university-trained staffers' analysis and strategy are a higher or more valuable form of advocacy, compared with the experience and skills of rank-and-file members and leaders. They are different, complementary skills, equally critical for trade union progress. Along with Early, I would place rank and filers' experience and skills first. The heart of the UE, those who really saved and rebuilt the union, was not the left-wing intellectual staffers and leaders. It was the thousands of indigenous local union officers and shop stewards and members who knew a strong, independent, democratic union when they saw one, and fought to keep it.
Steve Early ends his essay with a recommendation I totally endorse: all union staffers should read Bob Bussel's recent biography of Powers Hapgood, a Harvard grad who became a coal miner and mine workers' union staffer, to appreciate the tension between idealism and real life in an always-flawed labor movement. But Hap good's tortured experience does not reflect an iron law of college-educated trade union staffers' fate. Today's labor movement is not the United Mine Workers of the 1920s, or of Tony Boyle's Mineworkers of the 1960s, any more than today's students are those of Hapgood's time or Early's and my New Left generation.
Throughout his life, Bussel concludes, Hapgood was a "passionate searcher, unwilling to . . .surrender his visionary dreams." That's not a bad epitaph. The flaws in our labor movement and obstacles to union growth temper idealism over time, but the best labor veterans, like Steve Early, manage to keep it. We should welcome a new generation of activists to the struggle.