Book Review: Embedded with Organized Labor
by Steve Early, Monthly Review Press, $17.95, 288 pages.
Journalists—even the muckraking labor kind—love to have big, fat, juicy stories fall straight into their lazy laps.
I can testify from my years at the editorial desk of Labor Notes that reality rarely obliges—with a few notable exceptions.
Roughly every couple weeks, I would find nestled in my staff mailbox what one labor educator dubbed a “Steve-Early-o-gram”: a plain brown packet jammed with tens, sometimes hundreds, of pages of goodies ranging from analysis of what was happening to union work in the telecom industry to the latest obscure dirt on the shenanigans of top-ranking union officials.
Fortunately, access to that wealth of information, analysis, history, and yes, some flat-out enjoyable Yankee snark recently became available to a wider audience. Early's Embedded with Organized Labor is quite simply a Steve-Early-o-gram for the whole labor movement.
The 288-page book is a collection of essays and articles from Early's many contributions to the labor press in recent years. And unlike the slog one may find with many books about unions out these days, it's both eye-opening and fun to read.
For the handful of Labor Notes readers living under rocks, Early has played a visible and active decades-long role in the union democracy side of the labor movement.
Maturing from a wide-eyed college radical of the ’60s, he found himself in the coalfields fighting the good fight for Miners for Democracy. After a stint running the Mineworkers' national publication, he went on to be a national organizer for the Ralph Nader-created Teamster reform group, the Professional Drivers Council (PROD), and helped lead that group into a merger that created Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
Though he went on to have a high-ranking staff role in Communications Workers District 1 until his “redeployment” last year (the ever-active Early loathes the word “retirement”), he never lost his passionate advocacy for troublemaking rank-and-file members.
IGNORING THE FIRST RULE
With an equal passion Early skewers the high priests of U.S. unionism. One nagging factor in labor's crisis has been its internal culture of silence. Difficult issues are often sidestepped, finessed, or ignored altogether. Writing of his days running the Mineworkers Journal Early tells of his early brush with the first rule of business unionism: “Thou shall not criticize another union.”
Early bangs on this rule with a prose sledgehammer.
Embedded aims its fire at both obvious old-school dinosaur targets as well as more controversial contemporary ones. Early attacks the shameful involvement of the pre-Sweeney AFL-CIO in CIA schemes as well as union strategies progressives considered less politically acceptable to knock a few short years ago.
From AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's palace revolt in the mid-1990s to the 2005 AFL-CIO split and the creation of the new federation Change to Win, he charts the quick rise and fall of the “reform from above” camp in U.S. unions.
While some labor educators were still writing “sacred narratives” about the progressive nature of unions such as the Service Employees (SEIU), Early was quick to catch on to what is problematic about the rising stars of that trend; many previously published essays on the subject make up the climactic last part of the book.
A critical (and lengthy) piece titled “Reutherism Redux” lays out flatly the dividing line: “From the standpoint of creating real rank-and-file power, SEIU's top-down, technocratic, transformation-by-trusteeship strategy is deeply flawed.” As important, he outlines the historical parallels between SEIU's bid for dominance and the abortive Walter Reuther-led Alliance for Labor Action in the late ’60s. Like CTW, the Alliance attempted to revitalize labor, but did so without throwing out the most limiting elements of the post-war bargaining system.
Interestingly, the “air of arrogance” or institutional hubris Early points to in this section has seemed to crack under its own sheer weight in the last year.
PERMANENT RANK AND FILER
But for Early, it's not all about the failings of bureaucratic leaders. It’s also about bolstering the notion of an exemplary figure found in union trenches: the thinking, fighting worker-activist.
Beating on the press's overemphasis on shining biographies of union tops, Early points to the need to tell the stories of “the permanent rank and filer”—activists who stay rooted in shop floor environs for years. He points to people like Kay Eisenhower, a 25-year veteran of SEIU who “repeatedly spurned opportunities to join the union staff or even run for higher-level elected office because [she] believed in rising, as Debs said, ‘with the ranks, rather than from them.’” In several essays, he details how a generation of radicals made the leap themselves into the union ranks and how a number of them were transformed by the experience.
He gives nods to these quiet heroes who have struggled with finding the “right balance between an exclusive focus on grievances, contract negotiations, or union democracy and efforts to engage workers around issues related to societal transformation.”
WORKING CLASS INTELLECTUAL
Early also praises that rare breed called the “working class intellectual.” He points back a few decades to shop floor writers and thinkers such as Marty Glaberman, a Detroit auto worker, and Stan Weir, a West Coast longshoreman. He details the lives of the old breeds of labor activist-journalists in the more distant past as models for those striving to be “participatory labor journalists.”
And while acknowledging the post-millennial problem of waning reading among union members—and the public in general—he points to steps labor could take to reverse the slide. Indeed, one of the most interesting sections of the book is the afterword, in which Early calls on unions to pump greater resources into redeveloping a vibrant labor press—and to deploy those resources in more worker-friendly media formats.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE
A quick review cannot do justice to the range of the book. Beyond banging on the top and highlighting the bottom, Early spins out useful pieces on a range of subjects. Whether it's a discussion on culture and unions; the role of the organized left in labor (or lack thereof more recently); the state of strikes or labor legislation; biographies of the few U.S. labor leaders who got it right, like Tony Mazzochi; or the viability of new alternative organizations like worker centers, there are solid pieces for any Labor Notes reader to mull over.
Chris Kutalik edits a newsletter for UNITE HERE Local 251.
Pick up a copy of Embedded with Organized Labor at the Labor Notes Store.