American Labor in the Global Slump: Interview with Steve Early

by Andrew Sernatinger and Tessa Echeverria on April 30, 2014

The global slump that began in 2008 has commonly been defined as a financial crisis. For many, the market crash was seen as something fictitious, a way of handing over trillions of dollars of public money, slashing social benefits and funding of basic welfare state programs.

But as capital reorganizes and ceases new opportunities, there has also been a wholesale assault on labor. In a previous interview, we spoke to Charlie Post about the concept of the precariat, where he argued that the form of flexiblized labor isn’t categorically new, but the consequences of unemployment have become much more severe with neoliberalism. Post has also written on the subject of lean production, which even now has been accelerated and extended into the public sector.

Here we explore the big picture of what is happening to US workers, the assault by employers and the activities of unions, both at levels of the top brass and the rank and file. For this topic, we interviewed Steve Early, a labor activist and reputed journalist. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home (2009), The Civil Wars in US Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? (2011), and most recently Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress (2013).

Andrew Sernatinger: I thought we could start by just having you talk a little bit about yourself. How did you come to be an activist and a labor journalist?

Steve Early: I’ve been involved in labor activity for over forty years now. After graduating from college I went to law school in Washington D.C. and got involved in assisting the tail end of a very important reform movement in the United Mine Workers (UMW), and had the great privilege of working for several years as a headquarters staff member of the UMW, including working on its journal and national union newspaper.

Most of the last thirty-five years that I’ve been involved in labor activity was either as a national staff member or now again rank and file member of the Communication Workers of America (CWA)—I worked on contract negotiations and strikes, organizing involving CWA members in the northeast for many years and now I’m a member of the CWA-affiliated newspaper guild in northern California, based here in San Francisco.

Tessa Echeverria: I was hoping you could talk a little about how you came into socialism, and how that influenced your union activism—or maybe how union activism brought you into the socialist left.

 SE: I was radicalized by the experience of campaigning against the Vietnam War. Over time as a college student, like many other New Leftists of that era forty-five years ago, I realized the limitations of only organizing on campus. We thought that getting involved in the labor movement would be a better way long term of securing employment and a different sort of potential movement base. This was not a singular brainstorm! There were thousands of former activists in the antiwar movement, women’s movement, civil rights and black power movement who migrated to workplaces, union halls and national union headquarters. People, while their individual political affiliations might have been different, shared a general view that working class organizing was really the key to transforming the politics of the US and hopefully someday fundamentally changing its economic and social structures.

AS: Let me tail off that real quick with one other question. It seems like the labor movement has a different significance in the United States than maybe it does in other countries because of the difficulty of creating electoral parties. Do you feel like that has any relevance in your union work?

 SE: The lack of an immediate socialist or communist or syndicalist tradition certainly forced the generation of New Leftists in the 60’s and 70’s to reinvent organizational forms for their activism. Certainly people looked back to the 1930’s and the great industrial union upsurge of that period as one source of inspiration and models for politically inspired activism in the labor movement.

I’d say the biggest change between the 1970’s and today is that in the ‘70s you still had much higher levels of union density: you had unions like the Steelworkers, Mineworkers, Autoworkers and Teamsters that were much bigger and stronger and had more social heft. A lot of people really didn’t see the challenge then as organizing the unorganized so much as revitalizing those sections of the labor movement that had been more militant, more democratic and activist in the 1930’s but forty years later had become bureaucratized and dysfunctional in many ways. People went in, often as rank and file workers and union members, to try and shape things up, bring about bottom up change in their local unions and in some cases national union election campaigns like the Steelworkers and Mineworkers and other unions.

AS: It’s interesting because as you were talking about the 70’s I was thinking about the legacy New Left activism has left on events today, which is kind of a sub-narrative you refer back to in your writing. The last book you wrote, The Civil Wars in US Labor, focused on that period of the early 2000’s when the Change to Win (CTW) unions broke off of the AFL-CIO with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), arguing that they could organize the unorganized and pick up the slack. Could you recreate some of what you were describing in that book?

 SE: The Civil Wars in US Labor was really about the implosion of what was often identified as the progressive wing of labor in the years 2008-2011. As I described in the book, there were a series of very costly, divisive and bitter inter- and intra-union conflicts, largely swirling around the SEIU but also touching the Puerto Rican Teachers, California Nurses, and SEIU’s cofounder of the CTW in 2005/6 UNITE-HERE, the hotel workers’ union.

I was interested in this topic because the leaders of those unions, both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, were all veterans of 60’s and 70’s political activism. They started out in the 1970’s pretty much on the same page politically, yet by five or six years ago had developed among them and within their organizations some pretty serious political differences about organizing strategy, union structure, the role of democracy, membership participation in the labor movement, and the degree to which unions should be partnering with management as a survival strategy in this period where their ranks continue to dwindle. Their clout is much less evident in bargaining and political action today and there’s a wholesale assault on public sector unions in particular at the moment.

TE: Bringing this up to your current book, Save Our Unions, I was wondering if you could talk about the conception labor had going into the Obama years and having a “progressive government” with the promises of affordable healthcare among other things. From there, what actually happened and how have major unions responded to the reality of Obama’s administration?

 SE: Well, clearly there was an all out mobilization of remaining union members, and they are not insubstantial in number: 15-16 million nationwide. In 2008 there were very high hopes for Obama’s first term after eight grim years of Republican rule. Labor hoped that there would be significant progress in strengthening rights in the private sector, through the labor law reform legislation then known as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

Many hoped that labor law reform at the national level, another high priority of the Obama administration, would relieve some of the pressure that both private and public sector unions faced then and unfortunately continue to face at the bargaining table. This is in the context of management continually seeking healthcare cost reduction and other forms of benefit givebacks.

But the Obama administration, like all Democratic Party-related administrations, has been a series of disappointments. EFCA was never seriously pushed by the White House or Democrats in Congress when they had the ability to move it in the first two years of Obama’s administration. “Obamacare” as its called has fallen short in many ways and has in fact produced a kind of boomerang on some of the unions that most actively supported it. It’s a tragedy really, because once again labor is being forced to mobilize most of the time for defensive purposes to block initiatives by its so-called friends in the White House.

The latest example is the nationwide labor-community mobilization against Congressional approval of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the latest free trade deal pushed by the Democrats and their corporate backers, which would have a terrible impact on labor here and many of the countries involved from the Pacific Rim. It’s an uphill fight right now to block the administration’s attempt to seek fast track approval for yet another job killing free trade deal. It’s an irony and a tragedy that when labor puts all its eggs in the basket of the Democratic Party: the lesser evil approach does produce some gains in terms of access and influence and appointments, but overall the broad outlines of public policy at the federal level remain on the same bipartisan track as they did during the Bush Administration—this free trade controversy is probably the best example of that.

TE: I wanted to ask you about the partnership between unions and immigration reform that we’ve seen in the last few years. What do you think that has done for the union movement? Is that partnership becoming stronger, and does that have an effect on organized labor’s relationship to politicians in the White House and in Congress?

 SE: The labor movement’s stance on immigration is definitely one of the areas where there has been some political improvement from twenty or thirty years ago. The unions that are attempting to organize and rebuild in the service sector, hospitality, retail and construction, where there are large numbers of immigrant workers, have belatedly realized that if they’re going to gain their support in workplace campaigns they’re going to have to position themselves as legislative political defenders of immigrants’ rights. Most unions have done that: they backed the tremendous political strike activity of immigrant workers in their own organizations in 2006 when we had a series of escalating protests in March and April, culminating on May 1st 2006 when hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers, many of them not union members, took to the streets to protest what at that time was a very draconian anti-immigrant piece of legislation pushed by Republicans in the House.

So the coalition between labor and immigrants’ rights organizations and immigrant workers themselves is one of the bright spots in the contemporary labor movement. There have obviously been some policy differences about questions related to guest workers and what form legalization should take, but the fact that you have for the most part the labor movement as a staunch ally of the 12 million undocumented workers is really quite a change from the situation twenty five years ago.

TE: The AFL-CIO convention was this last summer (2013). There were discussions there about adopting a strategy of broadening their focus and not necessarily working on increasing union membership but doing community outreach and building organizational alliances to grow their influence as a new strategy. I know you wrote some pieces responding to this initiative—maybe you could elaborate on what you think about this strategy and where this will get them?

 SE: On a positive side, the AFL-CIO convention last fall in Los Angeles was a wonderful showcasing of these ties that the current leadership of the AFL-CIO is trying to expand with environmental organizations, student groups, immigrant-oriented workers’ centers. A lot of those groups were invited to come to the convention, participate, make presentations to the delegates, to be part of the broader informal discussion about new directions for labor and organization.

My main concern about the focus of the convention was not to object to the greater inclusiveness that was long overdue, but rather a tendency to neglect some fundamental problems related to fighting concessions, reforming union structures and winning strikes. There was very little attention dedicated to those important areas of union revitalization. In the months since the convention you can see how much business as usual continues in bitter anti-concession battles like the recent series of membership votes on Boeing regarding giving up benefits for the workers there: it was in effect job blackmail by the employer, Democratic Party officials and even their own national union leadership.

I thought that there was just a lot missing from the agenda missing last fall that is still very relevant to the day-to-day problems of millions of members at the base of the labor movement who need community allies, need to be part of more vibrant community-labor coalitions, and will benefit from expanding the concept of union membership. But they need to know that their unions are with them in these contract fights that are not getting any easier.

AS: As a corollary to this discussion, in the space where unions haven’t really pushed through on the issues that you’re discussing, these semi-spontaneous movements have popped up that you’ve done some reporting and commentary on. I’m thinking of nearly the whole year of 2011: the Wisconsin Uprising, Occupy, and later the challenge that was given by the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU). I was wondering if you could talk a little about that as a counterpoint to the top brass politics of a lot of these unions. Does this represent an alternate possibility?

 SE: Both the Wisconsin public employee uprising and Occupy later the same year really was a vindication of the belief that some of us have that real change has to have a change of spontaneity and certainly has to come from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. As you yourself pointed out Andrew in your contribution to the Monthly Review collection Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, the public employee unions didn’t anticipate the response of students, rank and file workers and people in community organizations who took over the state capitol in Madison in response to Governor Walker’s attempt to strip public employees of their bargaining rights.

Similarly, the inspiration for Occupy, with its brilliant framing of the class divide in this country and highlighting of economic inequality and abuses of corporate power, didn’t come off the drawing boards of the best and the brightest in union headquarters in Washington DC! It was a much more grassroots, laterally networked movement and one that many union officials found themselves running quite fast to catch up with.

I think that at the rank and file level, and I saw this in many different cities in 2011, the kind of interaction between union members and occupiers was very productive. Union members got to see the power of direct action, underutilized by their own unions and in some cases they got to see a more democratic form of discussion and decision-making. I think it really proved inspirational to union members in many parts of the countries the way the Occupy movement took off, and hopefully people will be applying some of those lessons in their own future union reform efforts. Obviously it’s very difficult to sustain both upsurges, but I think the legacies of both are very much alive in current efforts to revive the labor movement at the local and national level.

AS: This may be more of a speculation question, but I work on a radio program here in Madison called Labor Radio. We do some local stories and some national stories, but given some of the movement energy that I’ve seen it’s always very surprising that many union officials don’t seem to reflect this fighting spirit. Amidst all of these concessionary drives and attacks by employers, they remain very committed to this insider-bargaining perspective. I was wondering if you could talk about why you think that is? There are obviously a lot of benefits to going with business as usual, but it seems to make people lose their confidence in organized labor.

SE: I was a union official for twenty-seven years and worked with a lot of local branches of the CWA in the northeast. Unions are supposed to be membership organizations, and even when their practices are somewhat flawed they are certainly more democratic than corporations and many other organizations that people have a connection to in this society. One of the concerns of many people who are elected union officials is that if you empower the rank and file, share information and develop rank and file leadership, you are encouraging your own opposition in the next round of union elections. That’s one concern.

The best leaders understand that their role is to clone themselves—to create many leaders in their locals, thousands of them throughout their national unions. The challenges organized labor faces today obviously cannot be fended off by traditional inside political wheeling and dealing through lawyers, lobbyists, or alliances with politicians. Its gonna take far greater membership mobilization than we see at the moment—there are some inspiring signs of it. It’ll take the kinds of coalitions with the community, which we saw for example with the CTU strike in 2012.

That was not spontaneous! People had been building for that strike for many months and before that they spent four or five years working to transform their big city affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) by running reform candidates, taking over the local and using the resources you have when you’re in union office to really transform the organization top to bottom.

TE: Off of talking about upsurges and what they mean for unions, I was wondering what you think about some of these “loose networks” of low-wage workers that have come out? Particularly, what do you think about the “Fight for 15” (FF15) strikes of fast food workers or other smaller scale actions where low wage workers are connecting outside of unions?

SE: Certainly the work of OUR Walmart, the so-called non-majority union formation at Walmart that’s been backed heavily (a lot of financial support) by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), is one very good model of redefining union membership so it’s not just restricted to collective bargaining units–people not just covered by union contracts or what the law says a bargaining unit should be.

In the years where the UFCW tried to organize in a traditional fashion at Walmart in individual stores, sometimes seeking just to represent workers in only one department of a store, both in the US and in Canada this was a failure. This is a company deeply committed to maintaining a 100% union-free environment.

In the last few years, the UFCW began shifting its strategy to creating a grassroots network of worker activists, most of who are a minority in their workplaces. Nevertheless these workers came together, engaged in collective action, increasingly high profile, including short duration strikes, rallies, marches, and shareholder meeting demonstrations—that long term is the only approach that is really gonna work at a company like Walmart.

The fast food activity, also inspiring, presents a major challenge in how the SEIU, or any other organization aiding these efforts, builds more durable organization. OUR Walmart has been sustained: workers identify with it, they belong to something, and they meet together locally. So far the FF15 has been organized around the action, which is great, but sustaining some long-term organization that workers themselves have some influence over in a high turnover/low-wage workforce really takes some staying power. We’ll have to see if the major financial backer of the FF15, SEIU, is going to be committed to that for the long haul, or, as has often been the case with SEIU, they’ll suffer from a little ‘organizational attention deficit disorder’ and charge off in a different direction leaving some of their worker-supporters in the lurch.

AS: In my own investigation of the Fight for 15, it seems like SEIU has prioritized some cities (Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, New York) and decided that the smaller cities were not really something they cared about; a lot of people seemed to get left behind. So to me, the question here is how real is the FF15 and how much is just a public relations thing?

SE: There’s a big PR element to it—that’s not necessarily bad. The campaign has clearly succeeded in creating some much needed pressure for local, state or federal minimum wage increases that would benefit workers in the sector and other low-wage workers.

It really depends, as a number of activists have concluded, on how many people get involved at the local level. Maybe they get jobs in the industry so they can organize from the inside and try to build from the bottom-up. That way it’s not entirely dependent on the millions of dollars that have been spent on it by SEIU, workers’ centers they’ve funded, or the full-time staff who have done, in many places, a very good job of mobilizing a workforce for one day strikes. This is in an industry that has long been written off as unorganizable, save for in the more isolated incidences where the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) have done some very impressive work in Starbucks and a few other fast food outlets.

AS: Shifting onto a different topic, one of the things you end your new book,Save Our Unions, on is talking about labor’s electoral strategy and how the labor movement needs to start thinking of itself as being in a more independent position. I was wondering if you could give some of your thoughts on some of these initiatives such as the Richmond Progressive Alliance, the Vermont Workers’ Center’s political organizing and the news that the Chicago Teachers’ Union is going to be engaging in their own independent electoralism as well.

SE: Yeah, I think we have another opening of the sort that we had during the Clinton years. In the 1990’s you had a Democrat in the White House and Democrats with a lot of clout in Washington. They’re failing to enact labor law reform, they’re not really pushing the kind of health care reform that would take the issue of medical insurance off the bargaining table, and they’re pushing these job killing free trade deals. In response to that in the ‘90s, there was the first attempt to build a nationwide network of Labor Party supporters. I think we’re seeing a revival of that movement under different banners.

Very encouraging work in Seattle that led to the election of Kshama Sawant to city council, the first time that a socialist has been elected to a municipal government position in a century! In Vermont, as I mentioned in Save Our Unions, the Vermont Progressive Party now has representation in both houses of the state legislature; it has activists serving in city council positions in Burlington; municipal governments all over the state are really utilizing the space created over the last thirty five years by the state’s independent socialist Bernie Sanders to woo unions in both the private and public sector away from the Democratic Party of Vermont. Out in Ohio, we just had a very exciting development: two-dozen union activists in Lorraine won seats on the city council. It was an independent labor initiative that grew directly out of a situation where the Democratic mayor and Democratic council members abandoned labor on the question of ensuring that city contracts be given only to unionized contractors and that there be minimum quotas in the hiring and employment of minority workers.

We can denounce Democrats up and down all day long, but the real challenge in our particular system of electoral politics is how do you create viable, probably at first just state and local, third party formations that have some chance of success, that are not just symbolic, minor educational campaigns. Union members have a lot at stake in politics: their activists in labor-based political action tend to be pragmatic and they want to be part of an effort that has a chance at winning. The Richmond Progressive Alliance here in California is another example of an effort backed by some unions, not by others, where we’ve tried to link labor and environmental issues, support workers’ rights and as a result of very good work by the RPA we have a Green mayor, a progressive city council majority that has undertaken a number of important initiatives related to immigration, environmental protection, and economic development that creates good jobs for people in this largely non-white community.

TE: I was wondering if you could take a second to explain the importance of organized labor for people who aren’t in unions. What have unions done for workers and people struggling in workplaces that aren’t organized, and why is it important that unions continue to grow and exist?

SE: It really does require a kind of history lesson. Labor history isn’t part of the public school curriculum, sadly, and most people have forgotten the role that union bargaining and political action, however flawed it may be, has played over the last hundred and fifty years in this country to raise workplace standards and secure protections for everyone.

It starts more than a century ago with the movement for child labor restrictions and workers’ compensation laws that provided benefits at the state level for injured workers. In the 1930’s came the first system of unemployment insurance and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which created the forty-hour work week and the legal requirement of overtime. These were all a product of labor movement mobilization and lobbying.

In the 1960’s and 70’s there was the expansion of retirement security through improvements in the social security system, which was a labor initiative. Medicare and Medicaid are publicly funded, which is health insurance that now covers 80-90 million people. The Pension Reform Act came in 1974 and soon after the Occupational Health and Safety Act; these protections benefit every worker, not just ones carrying a union card. All the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s and later, protection against employment discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability or national origin were labor backed. The Family and Medical Leave Act gave right to time off to take care of a sick kid or deal with a parent with medical problems, or your own medical problems. Local living wage and paid sick day campaigns today are more likely to affect and improve the employment condition of workers who don’t have a union contract than those who have these things as negotiated benefits. Even “Obamacare”, as flawed as it is, has expanded affordable coverage in a very dysfunctional way to millions of people through Medicaid expansion and even the insurance market reforms.

A lot of these things would never have been enacted without a labor movement lobbying for them. Even union bargaining, though its greatly weakened, still produces a median pay of about $200 a week above those who don’t have union representation. There are lots of reasons that people benefit from having a labor movement, they’d be worse off without it and they’d be better off with a collective voice at work and the right to bargain for paid benefits and conditions.

TE: Off of that, I’m wondering what your advice or comments would be for people who are in workplaces that don’t have unions or there isn’t a foreseeable struggle to have a union in their industry, like restaurants or whatnot. We talked earlier about some of these loose networks rising up in places where it’s very hard to have a traditional union structure: what is their place in the union movement?

SE: Right, because you definitely need a voice in some form. Even with all of those state and federal employment statutes that I ticked off, it’s very difficult for people in nonunion workplaces to stand up, insist on those rights and demand that their employers pay the minimum wage, pay overtime, live up to the requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act and so forth. Without a union organization to stand up for a worker expressing those rights, it’s a very different power dynamic in the workplace.

In those workplaces where people don’t have a union in place or the immediate prospect of getting one, the best advice I can give is get in touch with your local workers’ centers. These are community-based labor advocacy organizations that exist throughout the country. Many of them are designed for serving immigrant workers, but not all. We have a very active group here in San Francisco called Young Workers United, which has been a voice for improving the conditions of young restaurant workers at chains like the Cheesecake Factory. These organizations are not in a position to bargain collectively, but they can certainly help people to get information about their workplace rights and how to enforce them; they can give advice about collective activity that workers have the right to on the job even if they don’t have formal union representation.

What you’re seeing in fast food at OUR Walmart and other places is workers exercising those rights to engage in collective activity without the framework of collective bargaining or union representation. It’s better to have representation, but the fact that you don’t is not the end of the story, and the workers’ center movement has really played a critical role for those who do not have union representation, which is about 90% of the workforce.

AS: I thought we could end by talking about labor journalism. In a lot of your books, you take time to name out great journalists, publications and resources that you think is important that people get some exposure to. Maybe you’d like to talk about your own journalism and other stuff that people should keep an eye out for.

SE: One publication that I would highly recommend is Labor Notes, which is a newsletter, an activist network and a labor education program. Labor Notes has been around for thirty-five years now and every month it publishes articles, reports, commentaries, and “news you can use” from labor activists all around the country about strikes, boycotts and community-labor coalitions. It’s a great source of news and information that is sometimes sadly missing from both union publications and official mainstream press.

In terms of journalism, there’s really been a great flourishing of online writing about labor. I acknowledge that some of the younger voices in the field, even left publications that have been around for a longer time, like the Nation, In These Times, Dissent, now have web editions that are increasingly outlets for people reporting on the workplace movements of the day, whether its OUR WalMart, the Fight for Fifteen or immigrants’ rights. People who are interested in writing more about their own workplace experiences should check out these outlets, including Working In These Times, which I’ve contributed to.

It’s hard to get paid for this kind of writing, but we’re definitely getting the message out about movement building activity. Given the fact that the traditional labor beat in most daily newspapers has shrunk to just about nothing, it’s really important that people use these alternative media outlets, both hardcopy publications and online, to report on what’s going on and to help build a better labor movement.

The audio of this interview was posted originally at Black Sheep Radio. Tessa Echeverria is a queer socialist and media maker. Andrew Sernatinger is a writer, labor reporter and independent socialist. You can contact them at blacksheepradiopod AT gmail DOT com.

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