Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress

Reviewed by Peter

Steve Early, Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013)

Over the last forty years the American labor movement has suffered some bitter defeats. From the PATCO (air traffic controllers) strike in 1981 to the recent passage of so-called “right to work” legislation in states previously known as union strongholds, the union movement has been slowly strangled. Until just a few years ago, it was the vibrancy of public sector unions which bolstered American labor by steadily adding to its numbers. With the attack on state employees and the shrinkage of state and local governments following the economic crash of 2008, it has been difficult to find reasons to be optimistic about the fate of the US labor movement.

Steve Early’s important book is a report from the frontlines of American unions’ struggle to survive. Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972 and served as an international representative for the Communication Workers of America for twenty-seven years. He has written numerous books about US labor and has been a persistent critic from inside the union movement. Early’s reputation precedes him, and he pulls no punches in this book or in his previous books on labor. Despite the bleak circumstances confronting American labor, he is able to see glimmers of a new labor movement arising.

What used to be called “big labor” is no longer very big in the US. In fact, it can almost said to be on life support. The American labor movement in the past had always responded to dwindling numbers by doing more of what they had been doing all along and waiting for a labor-friendly Democratic president to help reverse their fortunes. In the present era it has been proven that neither strategy can revive the union movement. Faced with this crisis brought on by the Great Recession, and hampered by an ossified bureaucracy that has only reluctantly instituted any reforms, the American labor movement was totally unprepared for the recent political attack on unions. In addition, labor has received little assistance from the Obama administration, which quickly abandoned any talk of labor law reform.

Early’s book is a useful recounting of the strategies and tactics used by the US labor movement in the past and an overview of the struggles of nurses, telecom workers, government workers, fast food workers, and retail workers in the present. He does a particularly good job of examining battles within the healthcare industry, among telecom workers, and by insurgents in various local unions. He also adds a comparative focus by briefly exploring the experiences of British, German, and Canadian workers in these industries.

Saving Our Unions makes a compelling case that things must change internally in the American union movement. Although the unions have been buffeted by forces in the larger society, especially in the areas of technology, globalization, and corporate control of elections and politics, the decline of US unions cannot simply be blamed on such external factors. Many of the case studies in this book show how utterly unprepared the labor movement was to understand the nature of the crisis and its connection to the larger political economy. American unions tended to gravitate toward non-confrontational approaches in the hope that labor/management cooperation would stem the tide running against them. What they found instead is that businesses were going for broke and had no intention of cooperating. Smelling blood in the water, corporations wanted to finally ravage the labor movement.

The author’s exploration of how the crisis played out in the healthcare and telecom industries highlights the choices facing American unions. As someone inside the movement, Early had access to the internal struggles within labor and the strategic discussions that took place. His insider status is both a strength and weakness of this volume. Certainly the author’s track record as a critic permitted him to see through some of the prevarications of labor officialdom, and his sympathy for the rank and file helps to provide a broader, bottom-up view of the issues at hand. He also rightly criticizes some of the academic work that has been done on the American labor movement, as not being focused on the reality on the ground or as being overly optimistic about prospects for revival based on only a few cases.

However, the author’s long experience in labor also tends to produce a confidence that any sign of struggle within the labor movement, any insurgent movement within a local union, or any attempt to overthrow an entrenched union leadership may foreshadow a progressive reorganization of American labor. But the problems facing labor are now so deep that, as Early admits, even a leadership change does not necessarily produce meaningful reform. Moreover, in the present era there is no clear path to labor’s revival because the crisis is so fundamental and systemic.

One of the reasons Early does not see a definitive way out of the crisis is that his analysis is not broad enough. Instead it focuses on particular sectors of the American economy in which he has in-depth knowledge. This is understandable, but he does not connect the project of saving unions in the US to a larger understanding of the changing dynamics of capitalism. For this part of the argument, he might have consulted the left academic literature on the structural crisis of capital and its impact on various institutional spheres.

While Early’s focus on labor struggles provides important insights into different problems facing unions, his case study approach begs the question of how the American labor movement got into this mess. This is where the author could have made an even greater contribution, by stepping back from the reporting of specific union battles and reserving at least part of the volume to the larger context in which labor is enmeshed. This would inevitably have led to a discussion of internal and external factors which have influenced the labor movement’s direction and its connection to the political economy.

When business launched an all-out attack on American labor from the mid-1970s on, not only was labor unprepared to fight back, it no longer knew how to fight back. Nor was it inclined to take an aggressive approach. The long-term effects of running labor organizations in a business-union mode had stripped them of their ties to activist leaders and rank and file union members and, consequently, of their capacity to fight back. American unions were also crippled by their knee-jerk allegiance to US foreign policy, their rampant anti-communism, their anti-intellectualism, and their insensitivity to people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and immigrants in the larger workforce and in their union locals.

All these weaknesses can be attributed to the labor movement’s having adopted business unionism from the 1950s on, abandoning social unionism and purging radical unionists from their midst. As the composition of the workforce changed and the necessity of organizing the working poor became apparent, organized labor was left without a response. Trapped by the limits of business unionism, it lost its economic and political footing. To fully comprehend this predicament, one must take into account the sweep of social and political forces that have put labor on the defensive since the mid-20th century.

Early justifiably admires C. Wright Mills and his 1948 book, The New Men of Power. Mills was one of the first to see how the combination of social forces present in the US after World War II and the status anxieties which they produced would ultimately inhibit any progressive impulses on the part of the labor leadership. Unfortunately for the labor movement, the leadership of many of the key unions believed that they had been incorporated into American capitalism and would always have a seat at the bargaining table. When circumstances changed and corporate leaders began their one-sided class war (mid-1970s to the present), labor was caught by surprise and by then was structurally and ideologically incapable of representing a more diverse working class. The chickens had come home to roost, and the consequences were devastating for the American worker.

Early’s book suggests that out of current struggles a different kind of labor movement is in the process of formation. As Gramsci reminded us, it is important to have an optimistic spirit and a pessimistic intellect. Save Our Unions reflects this kind of optimism tempered by skepticism about whether the US labor movement can ever return to its past glory.

Reviewed by Peter Seybold Department of Sociology Indiana University/Purdue University – Indianapolis (IUPUI)