A Detroit mural memorializes major events in the labor movement. (Photo: The Detroit News)
"Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home"
by Steve Early
Monthly Review Press, (June 2009)
US labor unions have been and remain in trouble. Hardly a day goes by without new evidence of this. Steve Early was a "participatory" scribe in unions over the past three decades. In "Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home," he strives to help readers make sense of the roads (not) taken by American unions.
His book arrives at a fateful time for the nation's labor force. Workers in and out of unions are on their heels amid the most severe crisis of capitalism since the 1930's. Job losses and pay cuts rule the roost, a trend that began in the private sector. With the deepening recession and fiscal crises of the states and their local governments, wage cuts and layoffs are reaching the public sector. In such trying times for so many, what can a self-defined embedded labor journalist bring to the table? In brief, the answer is a historical context and a critical intellect. Early provides a readable mix of both in six sections, an introduction, epilogue and afterword.
The actions of working people from the previous century informed him and other activists of the 1960's and 1970's. Early begins with looks at some of those trailblazing s/heroes. Take the so-called "factory girls" of Lawrence, Massachusetts, fighting for "bread and roses too" in 1912. Their push for a better quality of life with livable wages resurfaced at a New York City hospital and service workers union in the late 1970's. An essay of Early's, in part on labor activist and author Moe Foner, at the center of this urban union's production of films, musicals and writing courses, is instructive.
Early's race, class and gender articles spotlight these linked oppressions for laboring Americans. He is not afraid of critiquing patriarchy and white supremacy. Silence may be golden sometimes, but it is not an option for Early on such matters. As he notes, citing historian Jacqueline Jones, "the idea that white workers have everything to lose if non-white workers are allowed to make any gains" has weakened the class interests of all who labor for a living.
Early also explores viewpoints of labor activists and historians concerning the "New Voice" AFL-CIO presidency of John Sweeny, who began his term in 1995. Early evaluates differing takes on the significance of this reform from above, a kind of "palace coup." When the rank-and-file are on the margins in reenergizing organized labor, unions' vitality as a social movement suffers. Unions' declining power has worsened the living conditions of the nation's working people, not to be confused with organized labor. Meanwhile, the fraction of the non-union US work force has grown, with the past two years being exceptions that prove this rule.
Private-sector employees' rights to organize have fared poorly since Early began his decades-long career with the Communications Workers of America. This on-the-job experience helps him to critically assess the history of federal labor law. That critique serves as a backdrop to millions of Americans' high hopes under President Obama and a Democratic-controlled Congress for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. The EFCA, facing the fury of corporate America, would ease the big barriers for private-sector workers to join unions and negotiate first-year contracts. This is a must-read section for those seeking to understand present workplace conditions in light of past legal efforts to improve Americans' working lives.
Oh, and capitalism? It has been a global system from the start. Its built-in drive to grow-or-die is a process that means many things. One is that unions must organize locally, nationally and globally. The alternative is to perish. Early's essays challenge conventional thinking on related trends, from US deindustrialization to Mexican immigration. Along the way, he pulls back the veil on the AFL-CIO's coziness with the US government's policy to undermine independent unions abroad. The term AFL-CIA describes the labor organization leadership's choices to be on the side of oppression.
Early nears the book's end with thoughtful and thought-provoking reviews of books about the Service Employees International Union and its 2005 departure from the AFL-CIO with the Change To Win coalition of unions. He explains the whys and wherefores of the flaws in the SEIU/CTW bureaucracy. Briefly, it has been working at cross-purposes to the interests of the rank-and-file. However, this is contested terrain. For instance, Early writes on the SEIU takeover of a large California health care local this January. As political debate over the EFCA enters a crucial stage, this SEIU battle rages on. Tens of thousands of SEIU workers in the state are choosing to jump ship to the new National Union of Healthcare Workers.
In the final pages, Early turns to union-building, with a special focus on readers and writers. How to bring the two together more frequently? Digital media are part of the answer. But don't throw out what has worked before. "It's long past time for progressives in labor to find new methods of encouraging rank-and-file reading or to revive some of the old-fashioned ones." Exactly.