BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Labor Struggles In and Out Of Unions

Steve Early’s insightful writing on employment struggles in a time of political retreat for most American workers captivates. In Save Our Unions: Dispatches from A Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013), he shares riveting descriptions of workplace struggles.

Early’s approach to labor journalism is simple. He questions the deeds and words of the power class, in and out of unions.

His focus on internal union democracy is a recurring theme in the book’s seven sections. From health care to media, he goes where mainstream press coverage fears to tread.

In this way, Early educates readers on the whys and wherefores of the decline of organized labor as a political force. His narrative opens with reporting on union reform campaigns from 1972 to the 1990s.

Why did members of the United Mine Workers and International Brotherhood of Teamsters clash with company bosses and union leadership?

What worked and what failed? What lessons can we learn from then for now? 

These are no academic questions. Early is no armchair writer, though he documents his work for readers seeking to get down in the weeds with more details.

Early’s is a pro-labor union view. Bias-free journalists are a fiction.

Reporters choose slants and sources. These two approaches do not appear magically.

Early’s vision of getting the labor story right is to demand accountability and transparency from its appointed and elected leaders.

He is at the top of his game taking on the hierarchy of the Service Employees International Union as its labor-management accords with health-care giant Kaiser Permanente bids to neuter the rank-and-file by opposing strikes, for instance.

Early challenges, with fact and evidence, SEIU’s top-down approach. He highlights an alternative unionism, chronicling the rise of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and its on-again-off-again relationship with the California Nurses Association.

Against the backdrop of such health-care conflicts, Early connects legal and organizational hurdles to workers walking off the job to improve their employment conditions, as fast food and retail employees have done recently. What emerges is complex, as SEIU is the major funder of dissident fast food workers seeking a union and $15.00 an hour wage, a pay rate near half of the union’s 2 million membership lacks, Early writes. 

Amid a relentless onslaught of contract givebacks and takeaways, Early looks at organizing tactics to empower workers. His canvas in part ranges from bike messengers in the San Francisco Bay Area and hotel workers in Pasadena, Calif., to Industrial Workers of the World activists at Starbuck’s outlets in New York City.

Typically, such workplace news appears in corporate business reporting. This trend is a symptom of the crisis in journalism.

Reporter job losses are the new normal. This is an attack on the public’s right to know about power relations in the workplace, the special focus of Early’s efforts.

Information is part of what constitutes class power. Who the producers are matters in part for reasons of political consciousness

Early’s coverage on strategic cross-border union cooperation in the telecom industry is instructive. He shows how investment capital is global, and organized labor must rise to the challenge.

The author’s critical reporting of what did and did not work, and why, with T-Mobile workers, enlightens. The class interventionist role of the state looms large.

Far from withering away, the power of the state is central to class dynamics for workers, organized or not.

Early integrates this dynamic into his reporting, fleshing out the politics of labor union economics well, such as the use of member dues against their interests, with offenders from the ranks of the AFL-CIO’s “gerontocracy,” drawing six-figure salaries well past standard retirement age.

Early’s canvas features a diverse array of working people, from United Kingdom autoworkers, to immigrant rights activists, a century past and in 2006.

For the so-called millennial generation (born between 1982-2000), such history relates to their bitter employment plights in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

First, though, one must grasp the past. This fact remains, despite or because of social media’s growing presence in US culture. 

In Early’s “Telecom Labor Trouble” section, he discusses the relentless campaign to de-unionize organized workers. A major villain is Verizon Wireless, which refers to at-will employees as “associates,” borrowing Walmart’s term for its union-free workforce.

Early advocates lowering the Medicare-eligibility age to birth as a policy to replace the current multi-insurer nightmare of rising prices and falling coverage. Early considers Vermonters’ bid to reform health care by removing for-profit insurers, a crucial state struggle to watch as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act rolls out. 

Early’s new book is a must-read for working people.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email 

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2014

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