Life Support for Labor?

Against the Current, No. 174, January/February 2015

Meredith Schafer

Save Our Unions
Dispatches from a Movement in Distress
By Steve Early
New York, Monthly Review Press, 2013, 344 pages, $19.95 paperback.

THE DEBATE OVER how to save the labor movement suffers from a serious deficit of books written by organizers. Rarely do we get an entire book by someone who has been organizing for four decades, and is still actively engaged with union members, staff and leaders. Steve Early’s Save Our Unions doesn’t suffer from the luxury of being a memoir, but it is chock full of rich first-hand experience, as well as research, interviews, book reviews and labor history, followed by 26 pages of meticulous endnotes.

Save Our Unions begins with stories of union reform battles beginning in the late 1960s, including the United Mine Workers upset election of 1972, the formation of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and the PATCO air traffic controller strike that altered the legal environment for strikes in this country and was also an enormous missed opportunity for industrial action by several unions.

The intersection of internal union power struggles and battles against concessions on the shop floor and at the bargaining table is sharply laid out in smart and witty prose. More broadly, the book chronicles the ways in which the onset of neoliberalism in the United States during this period has impacted workers and unions, and transformed what it takes to fight the boss.

The book makes for an excellent study group tool for anyone interested in the labor movement. Readers new to labor activism will get important context in the early chapters — context that makes the more recent struggles within healthcare workplaces and healthcare unions tackled at the end of the book more interesting.

Early chronicles a diverse array of unions and industries, and his writing style tends to focus less on elaborate theories and assessments, and more on letting the facts and firsthand personal narratives lay bare the many strategic lessons these campaigns offer.

Democracy and Comprehensive Campaigns

The most in-depth description of the challenges facing labor unions are found in the chapters on telecom organizing, shaped by the author’s experience and expertise over decades of organizing with Communication Workers of America (CWA). Early gives a fairly comprehensive history of the union and industry over the last 30 years — from deregulation, automation, the shift of business to wireless, and the resulting fragmentation and de-unionization.

The detailed discussion of strikes, internal elections, and union busting are framed with some devastating figures:

• In 1983 there were 700,000 workers unionized at AT&T, 500,000 of whom were represented by CWA.

• By 2009-10, there were 120,000 unionized at AT&T.

• Over the last decade, CWA’s telecom membership has declined by 50%.

• The Verizon workforce was majority unionized during the 1989 strike that fought off company demands to shift healthcare costs onto workers.

• In 2011, the unionized workers at Verizon were 30% of the total workforce, rendering strikes, however militant, less impactful on the company.

• The 2009-10, bargaining at AT&T was split into five simultaneous bargaining tables. As a result, fights were waged regionally and locally, suffering poor coordination. This lead to many takebacks that then weakened the union as it was going into contract negotiations in 2011 with Verizon, a far more anti-union employer.

Early’s introduction to the chapter is an attempt at a sweeping reconciliation of the past militancy with present weaknesses:

“The main union defenses of the past have included systematic membership education and mobilization based on high-functioning steward networks, aggressive contract campaigns, community-labor coalition building, IBEW-CWA unity, ‘bargaining to organize,’ and open-ended strikes. These fortifications may not hold unless there is continual reassessment of what works and what doesn’t, followed by better organizational adaptation to an ever-changing industrial battlefield. When national or local union hierarchies fail to provide the coordination and institutional support necessary for new or old forms of resistance, more union reform initiatives of the sort described in this section will be necessary, if not always sufficient, whether they succeed initially or not.” (179)

The chapter goes on to critique the national leadership’s missteps in bargaining and organizing, and describes efforts at union reform through internal elections. It offers hope in the stories of militant swaths of rank and filers’ self-organization at the local level. But this passage also implies that the problem within CWA (and other unions) may not be solved primarily through reforming various local leaderships.

The inability to adapt to “an ever-changing industrial battlefield” is also a serious structural problem that gets to the heart of the tension between democratic functioning and strategic campaigning. The balkanization of bargaining tables is not easily overcome by making sure each and every local has the best most militant leaders willing to work together at all times.

This case study on telecom is an excellent basis for digging into the difficult question: how can we build more militant democratic national unions, while also trying to create leverage over large employers that are no longer regional, but multinational and mostly non-union? Following the concessionary contract of 2009 at AT&T, the 2013 CWA convention voted to create new telecom councils “for better coordination of future negotiations.”

These bodies will be empowered “to designate national issues that cross bargaining unit lines at the same company” and encourage a more united stand by the various CWA board members and elected regional bargaining committees that deal with common employers like AT&T. According to an official post-convention report, “This change recognizes the frustration that members, locals, and bargaining committees experience when employers refuse to bargaining at a national table,” a characterization that shifts the onus of responsibility from the union’s own organizational functioning to management’s predictable stance on the matter. (189)

While the union leadership’s clearly superficial “recognition” of “frustration” will probably have little impact on decision making at the bargaining tables, the book does not offer a proposal for how to make the tables united, how to coordinate tactics and messages nationally, and more broadly how the union should deal with its structural problems in all of its industries.

Reform and its Limits

Perhaps Early sees union reform efforts — both local and national — as the primary solution to leadership’s inadequate abilities to run a more unified campaign. These reform efforts certainly have an impact on local negotiations, and sometimes can influence things nationally by creating debate at conventions.

But the events of the last few decades detailed here are proof that there is more to this issue than having militant leaders, or more skilled leaders. Perhaps the problem is not only who is in charge — which is bound to fluctuate in a democratic union — but how the union structures its campaigns and divisions, and empowers staff and leaders to carry out the will of the members.

 Are there not elected or appointed divisional leaders with a mandate to implement strategies in all of telecom, or at least all of one employer? Are these leaders not decision makers when it comes to coordinating comprehensive campaigns? How do you advocate for this kind of coordination when the immediate goal of reformers is to reform each local? And does advocating against concessions really translate into advocating for better coordination, or just certain tactics, like strikes?

As Early knows well (see the epilogue), this issue is one at the heart of the debate that led SEIU-UHW [the SEIU’s health worker local – ed.] to challenge SEIU president Andy Stern’s leadership throughout 2008. National negotiations over neutrality agreements with employers (which were closed-door) were undermining the local’s ability to protect members and bargain to organize from a position of power.

SEIU is much more centralized and undemocratic on a national level than CWA. Yet in part because of this more efficient and centralized structure, it was able to accomplish many more organizing gains over the same period in which CWA has seen steep declines.

Of course, a significant portion of those gains were not accomplished through worker organizing or building power so much as by offering concessions and political support to politicians and bosses. And at some point the goings-on at the top became too perverse: rather than coordinating campaigns that could empower locals to work together and take on big employers, the SEIU did the opposite — it sold workers out.

When the members of one of the largest healthcare unions in the country rebelled, the international dismantled one of its most successful locals, and protected corrupt cronies at others. At that point the northern California strategic master contract campaign at multiple employers in long-term care became a direct threat to the national leadership’s ability to cut deals by giving up all kinds of rights, governing both workers and patients, in exchange for an easy way to get more dues-paying members without having to engage them in any struggle to improve standards of care.

The same tension exists in other unions devoting significant resources to organizing, bargaining to organize, and strategic campaigns. There are plenty of good practices when it comes to making workers the face of campaigns, but often little power in the hands of committees or rank and file leaders, combined with highly centralized decision-making that does not develop future capacity through distributed leadership structures.

This means that many short-term successes may not translate into longterm power for union workers, and that there is a very weak level of development of future leaders (who can’t develop if they aren’t making decisions or working to implement plans they had a hand in crafting), even in unions with high visibility strategic campaigns led by righteous activists. The bench is not deep, even when there is constant mobilization.

We Need More Organizers

Most of the book describes campaigns that end in defeat, often on a grand scale. Early makes sure to point out the victories along the way, and the valued contributions of those willing to risk their lives and livelihoods to build better unions. Early allows the experience of activists on the “front lines” to shape these stories. This is no doubt the organizer playing the writer, and it gives the book credibility and substance, even when very complex topics are covered in the author’s fast-paced style.

The section of the book on “external” organizing focuses on the experience of young activists who became “salts,” and includes the stories of four activists in long-term organizing drives by different unions (ILWU, UNITE HERE and CWA) that played out over the course of several years.

Far more veterans of recent campus activism have embraced the challenge of organizing the unorganized on the new frontiers of the service sector. There, some national unions have been eager to train and deploy underground organizers — now more commonly known as “salts,” rather than as “colonizers,” with its Old Left connotation of having political agenda broader than just union building.

It’s also a sign of the times that employment in the service sector, retail, and hospitality industries may be easier to obtain without concealing, via a falsified job application, your educational background as a four-year degree holder. (101)

The chapter gives an overview of the bike messenger campaign in San Francisco in the late 1990s, non-union and union hotel organizing, and worker center organizing in restaurants.

The next chapter begins with salting at retail T-Mobile cell phone stores, and leads into a longer profile of that campaign. Peter Olney, the Director of Organizing at the ILWU at the time, is quoted in the beginning of the chapter at length on the labor movement’s need for a salting program:

“Nothing can replace this experience in teaching young organizers, largely from a non-working class background, what the working class is about and how to talk and especially listen to workers. Salting needs to become fashionable again for young people politically committed to reinvigorating the labor movement.” (102)

Early is right to point out that, with the economic crisis, it is no longer necessary to hide your college degree to get some of these low-paid jobs. But Olney is appropriately explicit in saying that salting provides a necessary experience for those who come from non-working class backgrounds, and who need to spend some time learning through doing rather than theorizing.

As a strategy for bottom-up revival and organizing to scale, however, salting presents some of the same problems as when staff are mainly recruited from non-working class backgrounds. I finished reading the chapter wishing there had been some discussion about finding and developing young activists who do come from working-class families.

The book would be stronger with a discussion by veterans like Early and Olney of the pitfalls of the previous generation’s “colonizing” experience. It is critical that labor veterans today discuss how promoting salting as a kind of rite-of-passage does little to stop replicating the mostly male, white and privileged profile of who works for and leads many unions, even progressive ones.

This is not to say salting is not a worthy and valuable endeavor, but as a union revival strategy, it lacks an anti-racist component, and is problematic in terms of class politics of many organizers, who often see the work as charity work. This has led to inadequate leadership models, and generally a greater devotion by staff and inside activists to specific organizations, rather than a broader political and movement orientation.

Who Will Organize?

My experience with many young people of color who volunteer as students with unions, or are new to union staff, is that salting is not an option they would ever consider. Some have actually tried and experienced racist hiring practices in certain “front of the house” service jobs. But most reject it, in part, because of the financial and social implications.

Young working-class people who are the first generation in their family to go to college also tend to leave college with the most amount of debt. If their parents are immigrants or worked as factory or service workers to enable them to go to college, they already have a tremendous amount of exposure to the working class. If they see themselves as economic providers to parents — and many working-class youth do — it is unlikely they will feel free to pass up other opportunities for salting.

In any case, even if they haven’t been exposed to explicitly left politics, they often need less help figuring out how to communicate with workers or members of oppressed groups, having experienced first hand some forms of institutional oppression. This makes political development much less abstract and less easily coopted by labor bureaucrats.

The question of how to develop more skilled organizers and build more militant unions is urgent, and I expected more nuts and bolts on the topic from the book. Certainly the book as a whole provides some terrific material for young radicals to understand the struggle we face in reviving labor unions. But the labor movement needs to do more to attract and accommodate young people who do not come from privileged backgrounds, many of whom have been radicalized by broader social conditions such as mass deportations, privatization, and unmanageable student debt.

Unions shouldn’t just agressively market themselves to women and people of color through internship/staff programs (or volunteers or salts), but actively change how they recruit, compensate, and train young activists to build upon their experience in working-class communities.

Although women and people of color now make up the majority in many union workplaces and new organizing sectors, most unions have a serious deficit of nonwhite and female staff and leaders. Many end up working for nonprofits instead.

It’s not just a diversity problem, but a political and strategic problem. The learning curve among privileged folks trying to communicate with and develop/radicalize workers is much steeper than with people who share in certain forms of oppression and grew up under similar circumstances as those they are recruiting into unions.

This isn’t an argument for recruiting all organizers out of the membership, but rather for engaging and enabling a different, and significant, layer of young people into the labor movement.

Save Our Unions generally isn’t peddling a new-fangled framework for how to renew our labor unions, and in fact is brazenly devoted to essential concepts like strikes, work to rule, solidarity, and direct action, even while taking the time to critique various formations like the New Unity Partnership and healthcare reform schemes.

Early certainly doesn’t pull any punches in criticizing those running the show in labor unions today. The book is a sharp assessment of how solidarity, democracy and militancy have worked, and where efforts have fallen tragically short.

The collection of campaigns recounted here offers a valuable basis for debate on strategy and tactics, corporate cross-border campaigns, and bottom-up struggles shaped by the voices of the activists and local leaders who have tried to build power for union members in a variety of ways while the ground has shifted beneath them.

January/February 2015, ATC 174