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Book Review: 'Embedded with Organized Labor'

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Book Review: 'Embedded with Organized Labor'
By Howard Kling

Since his first job as a staff reporter for the United Mine Workers Journal in the 1970s, Steve Early has written about the pressing issues facing organized labor, often to the delight of rank and file activists - and sometimes to the dismay of a labor leader or two.

As he moved on to a variety of posts within the Communication Workers of America's largest region, Boston-based District One, he continued his passion for the written word, penning no fewer than 300 articles and book reviews in the intervening years.

Embedded with Organized Labor, a new book from Monthly Review Press, brings together a fine collection of Early's writing and provides, in one place, the insightful views of a guy who spent more than 30 years doing the daily work of a union organizer, rep, strike strategist and educator.

Crack the book and you'll quickly discover that Early's favorite genre has been the book review. Year after year he seized on the d├ębut of a new labor book to wind out a critique for publications like The Nation, CounterPunch, The Progressive, WorkingUSA, New Labor Forum, and the New York Times. In so doing he certainly promoted a rich collection of labor-oriented books to a variety of audiences and perhaps helped make the subject of worker's power something to read about. But in the best traditions of the review genre, he also used the subject of each book to explore the contemporary challenges of the day, creating a dialog between the chosen book and life on the ground.

Early is an astute critic and a wicked partisan of rank-and-file democracy and bottom-up strategies for revitalizing labor. Whether exploring labor's history or its role in a globalized economy, Early's writing is anchored in the idea that "you can't 'remake,' 'rebuild' or 'reorganize' unions in any society without workers and what goes on in their workplaces being central to the project."

This puts him at odds with many of the recent re-invention projects of organized labor. Though his tone is seldom acid and is generally tempered by a healthy respect for the toughness of the job, the failure of labor to trust "rank and file workers to organize and bargain for themselves" echoes throughout all six sections of Early's book.

So, while appreciating the promise of Sweeney's transformation of the AFL-CIO in the mid-'90s, for instance, he finds disappointment in the eventual folly of what he calls 'technocratic solutions to labor's problems,' that leave rank and file workers on the sidelines except for some occasional pageantry. He reserves his most pointed critique of this trend for SEIU's highly centralized, 'staffed up,' 'density without democracy' approach, placing himself in the thick of the current battle over the 'new labor metaphysic.' Books like Poor Workers' Union, Singlejack Solidarity and Punching Out, help Early challenge the new mega-merged, staff driven models of 'progressive' unionism.

But Early also finds plenty of inspiration in the histories, biographies and issue pieces he explores in these pages, which often capture the energy and activism of ordinary workers percolating up to bring about real change. We are reminded, in fact, that the election of the Sweeney slate was made possible by "thousands of union activists who pushed and shoved and argued against stagnation," and huge rank and file movements for reform in the United Mine Workers, the United Steelworkers and the Teamsters. Indeed most advances made by labor were either inspired by workers on the line or made real by their daily hard work. This is as true of the struggle against racial discrimination in the steel industry examined by Ruth Needleman's book, Black Freedom Fighters in Steel, as it is of the important shifts in U.S. labor's position on immigration, globalization and international solidarity explored by David Bacon.

In fight after fight, Early finds plenty of evidence of bottom-up creativity. Sometimes this happens on the level of a local union and sometimes it happens outside the institutions of organized labor altogether.

In the case of the successful defense of the ILA Charleston 5, the "creative, wide-ranging effort to invest 1422's fight with national and international significance," came not from the top but from the local itself. As for immigrant workers who "toil under terrible conditions in low-wage labor markets," worker centers and organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee have filled a void left by traditional unions, and have had success building alternate models of worker organization and power that involve rank and file workers. Yet, in his review of related books by Janice Fine and Jennifer Gordon, Early ends with the cautionary note that worker centers have also learned that "striking the right balance between 'servicing' and 'organizing' is no easier for them than for the unions."

One gets the sense that Early is searching for that right balance in other areas as well. Despite his commitment to worker activism, he also questions the wisdom of approaches that put all their eggs in the one basket of rank-and-file initiative. Early is neither always critical of labor leaders nor does he embrace the ideal of the "permanent rank and filer," and concentrating only on "horizontal networks" as the only locus of real power as put forth by Staunton and Alice Lynd. Somewhere in these issues of balance lives a recognition that labor, and within that the left-wing of labor, has not discovered an effective theory of leadership.

In the end, though, Early's search for balance comes back to his own autobiography. His first entry in Part One announces the demarcations of authenticity he and many other '60s' activists have had to grapple with as they entered the world of labor and left their student identities behind. Early recounts meeting an unemployed miner in the '70s while working for the UMW Journal. "As we shook hands, he looked me in the eye and said, knowingly, 'Ah, pencil hands.' Our host had the hands of an experienced coal digger." That demarcation had more dimensions than a pair of hands. If there is any lament in these pages, it is around the question of what happened to '60s left-radicals entering the labor movement with grand hopes of transforming U.S. society into a much more just place. Who were we? Who are we? And why, for the most part, did things go so badly?

To try to answer that question, Early turns to history. There he find a book about the gone-awry plans of alphabet soup '60s groups whose efforts are a case study in how not to transform society or the labor movement. But he also finds the question more universal.

While reviewing The Man Who Hated Work, a biography of famed OCAW leader Tony Mazzocchi, he discovers the same theme: "how can a trade unionist with strong anti capitalist views - usually not shared by the workers he or she represents - make his or her politics relevant to workplace struggles?"

So far, the answers are not always forthcoming or comforting. Many from the '60s wound up being consumed by the day to day compromises and left behind any real commitment to systemic change. Others remain estranged from effective action. Whole unions like the United Electrical Workers (UE) were red-baited nearly out of existence for their collective attempt to combine community unionism, social transformation and workplace struggles. They remain a case study in what might have been.

And lurking darkly in the shadows of the question is the life of Powers Hapgood, a capable writer, CIO organizer, New Deal activist and Socialist Party member whose life is captured in a biography by Bob Bussel. He was "someone who never stopped trying to reconcile the demands of his own conscience with the sometimes conflicting . . . day-to-day pressures of trade union work." Sadly, Hapgood was red-bated out of the CIO in 1948 and died of a heart attack a year later at 49 years old.

For anyone still "struggling to reconcile loyalties to democratic socialist ideals and trade unionism," writes Early, Hapgood's story offers "no simple answers or solutions." He then adds with a possible twinge of amusement, "it does suggest the need to find a middle way between selling out and dying so badly."

But despite hard questions and sometimes elusive answers, Early remains an optimist. For him, if there is any answer whatsoever it is a belief in the capacity of the rank-and-file, average, regular worker, to manage his or her own affairs, to engage in collective action, and to create, someday - somewhere, the next upsurge in labor.

It's a good read.

Howard Kling is director of the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service. Steve Early's book, Embedded with Organized Labor, is published by Monthly Review Press.

This Viewpoint can be found on Workday Minnesota.

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