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Embedded with Organized Labor: An Interview with Steve Early


Embedded with Organized LaborSteve Early is a 25-year veteran of the labor movement, journalist, and author of the new book Embedded with Organized Labor (Monthly Review Press, 2009).  His is a voice for a more militant rank-and-file democratic form of trade unionism which attempts to challenge the bosses by re-energizing a mostly dormant labor movement.

Kristin Schall: Having spent such a long time inside the labor movement, you must have seen a lot of changes occur both organizationally and in rank-and-file attitudes.  What are some of the biggest changes you have seen and how have these changes affected the role of labor organizers?

Steve Early: One of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the years is the erosion of workplace militancy — hopefully, a reversible trend!  Thirty-five years ago, rank-and-file anger and frustration over discriminatory firings or other employer contract violations, and related grievance-handling delays, led to frequent “wildcat strikes” by industrial union members and others.  These were unauthorized work stoppages, which occurred without official union backing or sanction, during the life of a collective bargaining agreement and in violation of its customary “no-strike” clause.  Among miners, the mid-1970s wildcat strike trend even included a series of walkouts over being able to strike without risk of the fines, injunctions, and employer damage suits that inevitably followed wild-catting!  This led to a wide-ranging debate in left labor circles about the need for more “open-ended” grievance procedures that would permit legal walk-outs over contract violations during the life of a contract.

Today, the backlog of grievances or other accumulated workplace problems is no smaller in most unions now than it was then — and the pace of grievance resolution probably just as glacial.  Yet who today in labor is arguing, as many did in 1970s, that the way to settle more individual or group grievances quickly and effectively is to get out from under the legal straitjacket of binding arbitration and “no strike” clauses?  In an era when striking — even at contract expiration — has become increasingly rare, perhaps only the United Electrical Workers (UE) continues to call, officially, for preserving the right-to-strike over unresolved mid-term contract disputes.  (Both the UE and IUE-CWA do retain the ability to strike during the life of the contract at one major employer, General Electric — a right that was last exercised, jointly and nationally, in 2003, when 18,000 GE workers walked out for two days over contested medical plan changes.)

The closest thing we’ve seen to that kind of 1970s strike spontaneity and “self-activity” was the massive turnout of immigrant workers, many of whom were not even in unions, at escalating week-day marches and rallies in the spring of 2006.  By May 1, 2006, these job “stay-aways” were affecting many non-union employers and constituted the largest political strike in this country in more than a century.

But generally today, even strikes at the end of a contract have become a statistical blip on the radar screen of private-sector labor relations.  Every year, more than 20,000 union contracts are negotiated.  Yet, since 1992, walkouts by 1,000 workers or more have averaged less than 40 annually.  In 2008, there were just 15, down from 20 in 2006 and 21 in 2007.

In contrast, at the peak of labor’s post-World War II strike wave in 1952, there were 470 major strikes, affecting nearly three million workers nationwide.  And, even thirty-five years ago, there were still 424 such job actions just in 1974 alone.

Today, hardly anyone strikes for union recognition either (although New York University teaching assistants did conduct a lengthy work stoppage in 2005-6 to regain recognition after it was withdrawn in the wake of a NLRB ruling that stripped private-sector graduate student employees of NLRA protection).  Most unions who are able to organize new members via representation elections or card checks then try very hard to avoid having to strike for a first contract because of the current difficulty of doing so, in a bargaining unit where support for the union may not be strong enough and the threat of decertification, before getting a first contract, is still lurking.

The challenge for organizers in this environment is pretty clear, as I point out in Embedded.  As strike activity continues to decline in the U.S., the pool of workers with actual firsthand strike experience, as leaders or participants, shrinks as well.  That’s why organizers need to analyze the strike victories and defeats that have occurred recently — and apply their lessons so past battles can become the basis for future success, rather than just add to a reoccurring pattern of failure.  Maintaining “strike capacity” is no less important than shifting greater resources into organizing new members — and just as essential to union revitalization and growth.  Unfortunately, developing creative new ways to walk out and win, developing new rank-and-file leadership in the process, has not been a big part of recent debates about “changing to win.”

KS: It seems that historically creating a vibrant union culture has been a vital part of establishing strong unions.  Presently, it seems most unions are lacking when it comes to cultural projects, worker education, and other forms of organizing outside of contract related issues.  This may seem like a kind of chicken and egg question, but, In your opinion, how important are these forms of organizing strategies and do you think the loss of these programs has helped create the decline in unionization or is the lack of these programs a result of the decline?

SE: I think cultural programs should definitely be part of education about past, present, and future labor struggles.  Certainly in the past, a labor-oriented arts movement did go hand-in-hand with the organizational revival of unions.  In the 1930s, for example, when the far more extensive federal “stimulus program” of that era — the Works Progress Administration — provided employment for out-of-work writers and artists, one controversial but helpful result was popular, political theatre productions like The Cradle Will Rock (the making of which was the subject of a very good Tim Robbins movie just a few years ago).

53 DaysOne small-scale contemporary example of this kind of labor theatre is a recent collaboration between the Labor and Community Studies program at City College of San Francisco, CCSF’s Theatre Arts Department, and a large group of hotel workers and union representatives from UNITE HERE Local 2.  The students interviewed key rank-and-filers who participated in a 2004-6 contract campaign involving major hotel chains that was part of a nationwide struggle for organizing rights and common expiration dates.  The idea was that “an oral history theater production” would celebrate the diversity and solidarity of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual workforce that pulled together to win this fight, which culminated in a 53-day lockout and citywide picketing.  It would also help members prepare for 2009 bargaining with the same employers this fall.

The resulting labor play, called 53 Days, was performed before labor and community audiences and a very enthusiastic crowd of local hotel workers in June; in July, it was presented, on a smaller scale, as part of San Francisco’s month-long “Labor Fest,” an annual event that draws on the city’s rich labor history and continuing interest in labor-related film, art, theatre, and music.

The way workers’ stories and voices are presented in 53 Days provides a great model for similar creative collaborations elsewhere.

The only union that’s done this kind of thing on more than an ad hoc basis in the past is District 1199, the New York City hospital workers union that is now part of an SEIU-affiliated regional entity, known as United Healthcare Workers-East.  As I describe in Embedded, 1199’s Bread and Roses cultural program was launched years ago with both union and outside funding.  It has tried to institutionalize and provide ongoing support for labor theatre, art, and music — produced by both members and professionals.  Reflecting its old left cultural roots, Bread and Roses keeps alive the idea that work and workers are suitable subjects for poster art, murals, photography, music, and dramatic performances of all types.  It has a pretty impressive track record and is really worthy of emulation, on whatever smaller scale possible, by other unions.

The argument against this, of course, is who has the time?  The money?  Or other resources to be putting on plays when unions and their members are under such attack?  But hotel workers Local 2 in San Francisco is a pretty busy union too, with no shortage of management enemies — so they could easily have brushed off the CCSF labor studies and theatre department folks.  Instead, they grasped the importance of help from such allies and found a way to incorporate their helpful work into the union’s own ongoing program of membership education and mobilization.

KS: The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) seems to have been taken off the table by the Obama administration.  Do you see a possibility of the bill being brought back into consideration and if it is passed what effect do you think it will have on the labor movement?

SE: It’s more accurate to say that EFCA, overall, has been “put on the back burner” while labor’s putative allies, the Democrats in Congress and White House, make a hash of health care reform.  But that current muddle does not bode well for the Senate Democrats ever taking a strong stand — in the face of strong business opposition and lack of “bi-partisan support” — in favor of legislation that’s just as controversial, if not more so.  Behind the scenes, a process of watering down labor law reform has begun and what appears to have been “taken off the table,” although not officially, is card check — EFCA’s provision for requiring employers to recognize new union bargaining units based on a majority of workers signing union authorization cards.

It’s also been reported, by some labor officials, that the proposed new civil penalties for employer unfair labor practices have been scaled back or eliminated, and the language for first-contract arbitration modified to meet various objections (a compromise that’s still not going to satisfy business foes).  That would leave a bill requiring quicker National Labor Relations Board elections and not much else — hardly, the kind of new, more “level playing field” that was the original goal of labor’s grassroots campaign for EFCA.

See, also, “Kennedy’s Sins Against Labor” (CounterPunch, 28-30 August 2009).

Worse yet, until the Democrats are willing to get rid of the Senate rule requiring a super-majority (60 votes) to pass a bill like EFCA, a minority of Republicans can still hold things up pretty easily — because aging, ill, or near-dead Democrats (Kennedy, Byrd, et al.) can’t even be counted on to show up and provide that magical quorum of 60, to defeat a filibuster.

The short-term effect of this impasse — or, at some point, passage of a greatly watered-down measure — is that private-sector unions will be forced to return to the strategy of “bargaining to organize,” if they are strong enough to do so.  This means pressuring employers — whether hotel chains, cleaning contractors, or telecoms — to agree to more favorable ground rules (like “card check” and “neutrality”) that bypass the NLRB and permit workers to organize under EFCA-like conditions, with less management interference.  Hopefully, the membership education and mobilization that has gone on around EFCA in some unions has also strengthened rank-and-file support for the organizing-oriented contract fights and “leverage campaigns” that will still be necessary.  Because it sure doesn’t look like any great legal relief or protection from employer union-busting is coming our way from Capitol Hill, anytime soon.

KS: Throughout his campaign, Barack Obama promised to make labor issues a major concern of his administration, but so far in his presidency labor seems to be put aside as a focus.  Do you think the lack of attention to labor issues by the Obama administration particularly and the Democratic Party as a whole, despite the fact that labor is a major supporter of Democrats, is indicative of a larger problem with union political strategy over all?  I.e., is it still in labor’s best interest to support Democrats or should unions consider other political strategies?

SE: The Obama Administration — and its inside-the-beltway labor boosters — would dispute that description of their track record so far.  They would argue that, despite current uncertainties about the outcome of health care and labor law reform, labor issues have gotten a lot more attention and favorable treatment already as a result of more “union-friendly” people being named to top positions in the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board.

In any Democratic national administration, this is always true, however.  Organized labor has more “access” and input when its “friends” control Congress and the White House.  More union jobs are likely to be created or protected due to new federal spending, like that authorized, on a far larger scale than usual, in the still-trickling down “economic stimulus” and recovery package approved by Congress last winter.  Some of the worst damage inflicted by the Republicans — through agency understaffing and lack enforcement in the areas of occupational health and safety, pension regulation, or fair labor standards — will get undone to some degree by the new administration.  But all of this then just becomes part of the mainstream labor argument for business as usual in politics — supporting, every four years, what some on the left describe as “lesser evilism,” rather than finding a way to work, at some level, for more fundamental change.

Interestingly enough, a few labor officials already seem to be getting restive about the limited results of this approach so far, this time around.  A headline in the Las Vegas Sun just the other day declared, “Unions Want Their Money’s Worth From Politicians” — and the gist of the story was that they weren’t getting it after heavily bankrolling Obama and the Democrats last fall.  At least one union, the Sheet Metal Workers not normally associated with gestures of labor independence in politics — has suspended all of its own campaign contributions to candidates for federal office as a protest against “pro-business” Democrats reneging on promises they made about health care or EFCA when they were running for office.  It is urging other AFL-CIO affiliates to do the same, to send a message to “centrist Democrats” guilty of such back-sliding.

At the rank-and-file level, there may well be some questioning of “what was all that work for?” in political campaigns last year, if the pay-off for union members and their families continues to be so meager.  But how that translates into new union approaches to political action is another question.  The last major effort to create an alternative in this area — Tony Mazzocchi’s Labor Party — as discussed in my book achieved quite a bit of momentum and then receded from view.  It’s definitely time to start pushing that boulder back up the hill again because it’s under Democratic administrations that the most labor discontent with our two-party system usually sets in.

KS: What role, if any, do you see the organized left playing in increasing union density, working internally to democratize existing unions, providing solidarity, etc.?

SE: Our current and likely continuing economic difficulties provide all kinds of openings and opportunities for labor leftists to have an impact on efforts to rally the unemployed, organize the unorganized, and/or raise hell within existing unions not responding very well to the myriad challenges of this period.  One of the most durable and reliable national networks of left-leaning activists engaged in activity on all three of those fronts is still associated with the 30-year old Detroit-based labor newsletter and education project, Labor Notes.  Labor Notes acts as a unique clearinghouse for information and ideas about what works and what doesn’t in unions.  It just sponsored a series of very successful “Troublemakers’ Schools” in cities around the country, with very large attendance, and a focus on new organizing, internal union reform activity, and building solidarity among workers, across union lines and internationally.

More than 1,100 of its supporters — of all political stripes — will be coming to Dearborn for a national conference next April.  At these educational meetings, held every two years, all kinds of labor strategies and tactics are debated and discussed.  For anyone just getting involved in the labor movement, thinking about getting more involved, or just needing to get their batteries recharged, Labor Notes is the best place you can go for inspiration and the opportunity to meet fellow labor and community activists from around the country and the world.

All the major union reform groups attend, and in April, I’m sure, there will be a lot of folks from the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the new union in California, that is challenging SEIU among hospital, nursing home, and long-term care workers.  There will also be lots of people from workers centers and immigrant rights groups.  To find out more about registration and the program, as it is developed, go to Labor Notes.

Steve Early’s Embedded with Organized Labor is available through Monthly Review Press.  This interview was first published in The Socialist Webzine: <> on 26 August 2009.

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