Save Our Unions, Dispatches from a Movement in Distress by Steve Early
Reviewed by Ed Grystar
Monthly Review Press. Paperback ISBN: 978-1-58367-427-7. Cloth ISBN: 978-1-58367-428-4344 pages
December 2013. Price: $19.95

There is something wrong in the House of Labor and Steve Early knows it. In this recent book he chronicles some of the internal and external reasons for labor’s continued slide, and he provides a window on the need for a new direction.

Employers and their allies in the political arena are correctly described as having a veritable 24/7 campaign on all fronts to strangle, weaken and destroy organized labor. Early documents the muted, ineffective and business-as-usual response by labor’s top leadership to this decades-long class war.

Corruption, complacency, and business unionism are all symbolic of the ills that permeate labor today and he documents numerous examples to highlight these problems.

He says that “putting real movement back into the labor movement requires an upsurge from below”, yet given that one of the most uplifting periods in US labor history was around the organization of the CIO, there is not much that is mentioned about these tumultuous times. Do any of the organizing /political tactics and strategy during that period have any relevance to today’s struggles?

Also, the book is muted on the disastrous impact still felt today by the undemocratic purges of the “Left-led” unions from the CIO.

There is very little on the need to debate and discuss the tens of millions of dollars that AFL-CIO unions spend on their wholly ineffective political program of “reward your friends and punish your enemies.” Also given little critical discussion is labors reliance on the Democratic Party, which he says treats labor as a “special interest” and sets the stage for “endless political disappointment.”

In an understatement, he says that the “two-party system serves up less than a wide range of ideological choices” and acknowledges the fact that the absence of viable third party alternatives is a problem at all political levels. How labor is negatively affected by these systemic political defects and how it should tackle these problems going forward is not developed.

Early’s advocacy of more union democracy and fairer elections can address complacency and union corruption, but labor’s problems go much deeper. Nor can union mergers or just the election of “younger” and “sexier” leaders bring the necessary life to a movement without a vision or popular program of struggle against an all-sided corporate class war.

Labor needs a new agenda and a new direction based on a program of struggle that challenges the corporate “bottom line” orientation. Without such a program, the interests of working people will inevitably be compromised.

A look back at some of the major industries in the USA that have been decimated by this profit drive show that many had a significant percentage of the workforce that was unionized. Yet most of them were attacked and fell without any mass struggle or political consequences.

In my home area of Western Pennsylvania, instead of educating and agitating against corporate greed and mobilizing its sizable base of support to save jobs in the steel industry, the steel union railed against foreign workers while it promoted labor / management cooperation.

Rather than publically fight for massive jobs program that would utilize steel to rebuild the infrastructure, the union instead supported the industry’s hypocritical campaign against “imports.” What resulted was confusion and disorientation among the workers. All the while as is today, multinational corporations and banks shutter plants and invest in locations where profits are higher. The end result is lost jobs and communities that are decimated and polluted.

Today, decades later, one of the few remaining local steel plants of USX recently appealed its tax assessment which will gut necessary revenue for local schools and towns. The local solicitor for the Clairton School District calls the reassessments, “laughable” and refers to them as “a throwback to the Gilded Age where these corporate entities did what they wanted to do.”

President Obama recently visited this tax-evading plant while in the Pittsburgh area and talked about his hollow campaign to “fight inequality.” He had the support of the union and local elected officials. No one who spoke at this public relations event addressed the need to fight ‘inequality” by taxing corporations and the wealthy, or the many decent jobs that could be created and steel used if there were New Deal-type programs to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

Most recently at Boeing in Seattle, the rank and file had to face off attacks on their long-won gains not only by a highly profitable corporation, but also the top leadership of their union, the IAM, which unilaterally set up a second vote to force a concessions filled contract down the members throats.

Joining in this despicable display were the media and a slew of elected Democratic politicians from Seattle and the state of Washington. The California Congressional Democrats showed their “solidarity” by sending a letter to Boeing saying they would do their best to insure that the company’s terms would be accepted by California workers if Boeing would leave Washington!

These failed strategies of labor-management cooperation and subservience to the Democrats can and must be challenged on all fronts if labor is to grow. How? Early mentions a possibility, but only at arm’s length: the idea of a ‘militant minority” organizing inside and outside the working class. Not paid staffers who are having a “fling” or “affair” with labor, but conscious and courageous activists, like the “militant minority” of a generation ago that built the CIO.

Conscious activists that will work and struggle against the bankrupt business union mentality that permeates the ranks of labor and exposes it as a failed dead end strategy. For without waging this “bottom up” fight for an independent progressive program that has rank and file mobilization in the work place, the neighborhoods and in the political arena, labor will go nowhere.

Labor needs to be a popular champion for all of the working class. Labors answer to Warren Buffet’s smug remarks that “his class was winning the class war” is class struggle trade unionism. It’s the only option.

In the books documentation of the health care debate around Obamacare a few years ago one gets the impression that the bill was written without labors knowledge or that they were simply observers on the sidelines. The fact remains that during this debate, these same leaders were well aware of what was being proposed but did not have the political courage or vision to expose the ACA for what is was and what it is, a gift to the “for profit” health care industry.

Instead of educating their own members and mobilizing the significant support in the general public on the wasteful “for profit” healthcare industry, these leaders sat quietly as the insurance industry and cowardly politicians from both parties excluded Medicare for All from the debate. They deluded themselves that they had a “seat at the table” when instead they were cast aside and reduced to foot soldiers and showmen for the insurance industry which wrote the bill right before their eyes.    

Again on healthcare, Early says unions need to “get back to the basics of fighting for fundamental change” and describes the current situation as a “dangerous muddle.”   He advocates “resisting healthcare at the bargaining table by linking it to political education.” The top union leadership that just cavalierly and flippantly discarded a Medicare for All Solution in favor of the monstrosity of Obamacare is now going to “get back to basics fighting for fundamental change”?

Or, what kind of “political education” will be forthcoming from union leaders that just spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying for and continuing to support Obamacare? Or what about the over 85 Congressional supporters of HR 676, Improved Medicare for All who completely collapsed and betrayed any pretense of support for single payer? Now there’s a real need for political education.

Just as the ongoing Medicare for All battle, the current struggles around Social Security, taxing the rich, rebuilding infrastructure, a jobs program and raising the minimum wage have significant popular support in the ranks of labor and the general public, yet they too have no organized mass political expression in either major political party.

Relying on Democrats and the current Obama administration to fight for labor is a losing strategy that is taking labor and all working people nowhere but down. But unfortunately it continues to be the main focus of the top echelons of almost all of organized labor. Only by consciously mobilizing the growing anger and frustration now brewing in the ranks of labor and among the working class can labor change the terms of the debate, build strength inside its own organizations and draw new adherents to the movement.

Further discussion, organizing, and debate, inside and outside of labor’s ranks, are necessary to build alternative forms that promote and begin to organize a new labor agenda. A bottom up movement of “militant minority” rank and file leaders with a vision of “struggle” needs to be developed nationwide because changing the direction of labors current train to nowhere is more important than who’s the conductor.

Ed Grystar has over 40 years experience in the labor, political, peace and health care movements. He has worked as a steelworker, teacher and for a number of labor organizations. He served as President of Butler County, Pennsylvania,  United Labor Council for 15 years.

February 11, 2014