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Labor Debates Its Dilemma: Democracy or Power? A Review of Embedded with Organized Labor

Bennett Baumer Oct 8, 2009

Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home
By Steve Early
Monthly Review Press

Veteran union activist Steve Early’s collection of essays, Embedded with Organized Labor, offers a comprehensive look at the past and current state of the U.S. labor movement. Central to the book is organized labor’s division over the use of different organizing philosophies. Some unions, such as the California Nurses Association, support “union democracy,” while others, like Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), think it’s best to organize the unorganized by consolidating resources to run industry-wide campaigns.

Early, an attorney and labor journalist who worked as a labor organizer with the Communication Workers of America for almost 30 years, spends most of the book fiercely defending union democracy, the need for a worker-run and bottom- up movement.

Early argues convincingly for local unions run by workers who coordinate cultural and political activities that benefit the working class and examines union-run cultural programs such as theater and art exhibits, as well as triumphant, and more often losing, labor strikes.

While he reserves fire for the SEIU’s organizing model, Early lauds the “Bread and Roses” program that the giant New Yorkbased 1199 SEIU local has inspired for decades.

The book is at its best when it dissects union militancy, including three simultaneous high-profile strikes in the mid-90s in Illinois. Those ended as losses, and signaled the further weakening of the labor movement.

Early also uncovers long-forgotten labor activists like Powers Hapgood, who was instrumental in the development of industrial unionism. It seeks to organize all workers in the same industry in the same union, regardless of their specific skill or trade. Early disparages a long list of business union types — crusty, Cold War AFL leaders like Lane Kirkland and George Meany are favorite targets. Criticism of business unionism – the philosophy that unions should restrict membership, bargain contracts and service members with no organizing and political agenda (or worse, a reactionary agenda) — is a litmus test for Early’s generation of labor activists.

Early at times becomes snarky — settling old scores and critiquing other labor books. He skewers leftist labor activist Bill Fletcher’s Solidarity Divided as “sketchy and incomplete” and faults the book for not mentioning the Communication Workers of America and Early’s beloved Labor Notes, where Early is a member of the magazine’s policy committee.

Labor Notes, and to an extent Early, favor union democracy as an alternative to the “organize the unorganized” approach by the SEIU. Early relentlessly criticizes the SEIU’s model of staffing union campaigns and merging smaller union locals into geographically sprawling unions.

Early also lambastes the SEIU’s tendency to place college-educated organizers instead of rank-and-file union members as presidents of locals and to centralize decision-making and resources in order to wage immense, often successful, union campaigns, like “Justice for Janitors.” For Early, the SEIU model is essentially top-down business unionism repackaged. A union should be a worker-run institution, for better or worse.

Early, to his credit, does not idealize the working class; the labor movement has its share of folly. But the flip side is how, with limited resources, can the best worker-run local union defeat globalized corporations that have vast resources with which to destroy unions?

Early offers only limited praise of SEIU’s impressive growth — it has doubled its membership over 10 years to more than two million members, while most other unions have lost members. Can’t we strike a balance between union democracy and organizing the unorganized? That should be Early’s next book.