Labor at War or in the Tank?

Against the Current, No. 145, March/April 2010

Paul Buhle

Embedded With Organized Labor:
Journalistic Reflections on the Class War At Home
By Steve Early
New York: Monthly Review Press, 266 pages, $17.95 paperback.

STEVE EARLY IS one of a small handful of extraordinarily keen-eyed observers who see things from within the shrinking world of U.S. organized labor — and who hold nothing back from readers.

In his multiple functions in the Communications Workers of America, Early faced an often unfriendly administration of hawkish union president Morton Bahr and an ugly institutional past going back to the CWA’s Virginia encampment of the early 1960s, shared with the CIA’s pet American Institute for Free Labor Development operation until AIFLD morphed into the Meany Center in Silver Springs.

Early took part in every major labor reform movement and plenty of smaller lost causes, and reported the results in The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, even the Wall Street Journal among many other outlets, covering the ups and (mostly) downs of labor’s darkest era in generations. And he almost never lost his sense of humor, which is really saying something.

This volume is a look backward of sorts, now that he has retired from the CWA and taken the time to hang out with old acquaintances, ask more questions, and contemplate the big picture. It’s often not a pretty sight that Early sees, but he offers a perspective that we badly need to grapple with.

Here and there, he is a little testy. A good example would be Early’s extended thumping of the New Communist Movement that arose from the collapse of SDS and the mistaken expectations simultaneously for the Chinese government and the U.S. strike upsurge of the early 1970s.

True, the organizations of New Communists soon made a mess of themselves and created more disillusionment than hope among most of their own members. But like all American radical movements, the NCM consisted mostly of people who moved in and out of it fairly quickly.

Testifying from my adopted home of blue-collar Rhode Island, former NCMers are found in the radical pulpit, street organizations, labor studies and other venues.

Their stay in and around blue-collar life has lasted nearly 40 years now. By contrast, their brief stay in the NCM was just one more experience (which, I wish to note as reviewer, I definitely did not share or appreciate any more than does Early) in lives of idealistic marginality at the heart of the Empire.

Looking at the AFL-CIO

The testiness continues as Early comments on a variety of other labor historians, sociologists and critics at large on the Left. If he gives ample credit to worker-writers like Stan Weir and Martin Glaberman, who left the workplace to write about the changing struggle, he gives too little credit to Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin for their recent “insider” volume, Solidarity Divided.

This contrast is easily explained: labor commentators from the middle-1990s onward have been inclined toward too much hope in the new team around John Sweeney taking over from the corrupt and incompetent Kirkland-Shaker leadership, propped up by the loyal support of Mort Bahr among others, and expectations too great placed in the Change to Win coalition breaking with the AFL-CIO.

Seen through the rear view mirror of disappointment, Early’s criticism looks acute, if in some respects overdrawn thanks to the absence of realistic alternatives. He could have noted, less generously, that my own history of the labor bureaucracy, Taking Care of Business, was largely guilty of the same mistaken optimism. Now, of course, we all know better. Yet we might still not agree on important details.

Early is best in turning his guns on the Right. Here, he has a wonderful chapter on Linda Chavez, Albert Shanker’s protégé who bragged that she had turned the house-organ American Teacher into a proud neoconservative publication as she pursued Shanker’s own goals in labor and global events…and then made a parallel career move into the Ronald Reagan’s cabinet.

The “Big Labor” bosses Chavez assailed in her exceedingly dull memoir might have captured effectively the AFT’s own bosses, Shanker and his successors, with salaries and compensation at more than a half-million per year, and plenty of loot for lower-down functionaries. Not to mention their craving for a renewed invade-and-occupy military agenda in U.S. foreign policy, an AFT lobbying favorite carried over from the good old days of the Cold War. And not to mention the attempt to sabotage the Obama campaign in favor of the avowedly hawkish Hillary Clinton, until the nomination fell to Obama and they changed tunes (now, presumably, they are comfortably in synch with imperial bloodletting again).

Early tosses his kindest kudos in personal stories of rank-and-file efforts, like the tale of a Boston group that went to South Carolina in 2001 to investigate the case of the “Charleston 5,” longshoremen under arrest on politically motivated felony   charges and looking at long prison terms.

African-American unionists along the East Coast built solidarity within the long-corrupt International Longshoremen’s Association. Activists in the Longshoremen’s union of the West Coast (ILWU) took the decisive move and the state essentially dropped the charges. It was a victory for real solidarity.

Contradictions of Andy Stern

Early’s harshest blows seem to be saved for the end, aimed not at the long and nasty history of labor’s imperial conservatism in the Gompers/Meany/Kirkland tradition, but rather at the phenomenon of the SEIU, its leader Andy Stern, and the disappointments rife in the mixture of raiding and other assorted unpleasantness as the HERE/UNITE merger of several years ago came apart.

Subsequent developments, the struggle of the National Union of Health Workers among others, would seem to vindicate many of his main points. And yet the matter remains more complex than Early and many other commentators argue, in my view.

If we follow the history of SEIU and others on labor’s leftward side leading the charge against the business union globalism of the AFL-CIO leadership during the Contra Wars and assorted U.S. rampages during the 1980s, also for gay/lesbian rights and People With Aids contractual provisions, we see a contradictory pattern. Whether Stern himself was deeply sympathetic toward these extremely important efforts, I don’t know; but they were unlikely to have happened without his support.

Without those battles, fought out for more than a decade, it’s likely that the Palace Revolution of 1995, forcibly retiring many of the worst officials in organized labor’s long history, would never have happened. Put more baldly (as I tried to make the case in Taking Care of Business): The CIA’s buddies would still be in charge.

The high-handedness and the brutally destructive raiding policies of Stern among others, indifferent to labor education or even real involvement by new members, then, appears to me rather more like the behavior of John  L. Lewis than of, say, Sam Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland or Albert Shanker.

Some other observers like ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the traditional textile union) retirees, with motives differing greatly from Early, have made great sport of lashing out at Change to Win for reasons easily recognizable. They liked things a great deal better before 1995, and have been desperate since then to get whatever remains of organized labor (that is, the movement that their favorites did so much to ruin with a mixture of power-hunger and incompetence) back in the hands of global hardliners.  Or more simply, back in the hands of those who provided reliable payoffs.

That Stern’s bitterest critics have suspicious motives does not, of course, disprove the charges against him and the SEIU leadership, now joined in alliance with Bruce Raynor, another of the erstwhile young, progressive and effective leaders hated by labor’s conservatives for a very long time. (The unwillingness of HERE leaders to agree to an early and amiable divorce with UNITE, sparing us the current bloodletting, would be another point that needs to be answered.) But it does suggest that we need to take a step back and look at the longer history of labor’s internal conflicts and its relation to the broader society.

Raiders of the House of Labor

Membership raiding, a central point in today’s controversy, goes back to the 19th century and competition among various national as well as local unions for the same constituency. The AFL’s record of stealing members by breaking the strikes of the Knights of Labor, the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance and most of all, the Industrial Workers of the World, was unsurpassed until the AFL and CIO set to against each other, and then most spectacularly, new cold war unions sprang up and, with the help of the redbaiting congressional House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), the FBI, the yellow press and corporate thugs, drove the expelled leftwing unions into virtual nonexistence.

At the local level, the building trades that produced George Meany had practiced raiding from each other all along; it was a game for dues, premised on real and supposed skills intended only to be passed from one white, male relative to another. Like so much else in certain strata of organized labor, it strongly resembled a racket. Later, the price would be paid by labor at large when “union bosses” of perpetual Republican imagination seemed actually to resemble the distant and hugely overpaid hierarchy of labor officialdom around Meany and Kirkland.

Where this leaves us now is, of course, with a paucity of anything like solidarity, let alone a strategy for a repowered, reorganized, 21st-century labor movement. Recent reports suggest that literal bankruptcy is haunting any number of the international unions as well as the AFL-CIO at large, a situation made only worse by infighting.

This is a bleak irony, indeed, following so much enthusiasm for the election of Obama. All the more important, then, are Early’s closing sections, talking at length about how information and insight can be brought to rank-and-file working people within the unions and outside. I have only one last complaint: he doesn’t mention comics!

ATC 145, March-April 2010