Sociologist Jake Rosenfeld sets out the clear context of union decline in the United States and what that decline means for the society as a whole (see interview on page 6). He’s like a building inspector describing the key weaknesses in an aging building where unions are a failing structural element. In sharp contrast, Steve Early’s “Save Our Unions” is about repairing that structural element, with examples from what’s been happening in the labor movement itself for the past 40 years.
An organizer for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) for 27 years and a labor journalist since then, Early shares with Rosenfeld an understanding of the difficulty unions have in the present political environment — but he does not see the labor movement as an integrative part of a larger system, but rather a means to transform the system.
Early describes the struggle between companies and unions as a battlefield, full of tactical maneuvers, short-term losses and victories, and hopefully (on the union side) long-term strategies. Early takes the value of unions for granted but criticizes them for not doing enough to advocate for the good of the whole. Like Rosenfeld, he sees the entire working class, or 99 percent, as beneficiaries of union successes; he also asserts that consciously advocating for the good of everyone is a strategic decision unions need to make more consistently, as a way of getting the unorganized on their side.
Early assumes that corporate leadership will be instinctively anti-union if it’s allowed to be. At one point he notes that even “union-friendly” European companies like Verizon turn out to be anti-union when they arrive in America. At the same time, he sees only too clearly the mistakes made by union leadership that weaken the labor movement, particularly the conservative tendency for various international unions to be led by a gerontocracy. He highlights a tendency for unions to cut contract deals with companies, deals that hurt workers but preserves union membership. He also points out an unwillingness by unions to allow rank-and-file members to democratically control their own organizations.
If you want statistics to use in convincing the unconvinced that unions have a vital role to play in creating a decent society in the United States, you’ll want to read Rosenfeld. But if you want to understand what unions might be able to do to pull themselves out of their slump, Early is more enlightening. As he puts it: “The best starting point for broader labor revitalization is not pie-in-the-sky blueprints that have little connection to current reality. Rather, it’s the actual worker organizing and strike activity that defies recent labor-relations trends and demonstrates, by example, that another way is possible.”
Early focuses on a number of events in recent labor history: internal union reform campaigns, the Change to Win split in the AFL-CIO, sending organizers to work in targeted workplaces, cross-Atlantic solidarity and the diverse strategies for health care reform. He also explores politics in Vermont, where a strong union environment combined with a strong third-party movement has given us a look at what politics could be like with a stronger labor movement.
One difficulty with the book is that “Save Our Unions” is a compilation of articles Early has published in the labor press over the past 10 years, although it’s not formatted that way. There’s inevitable repetition of background explanations. Incomplete descriptions of recent organizing drives and inter-union competition are updated with awkward epilogues. Events that happened a few years ago are still, confusingly, in the present tense. There’s also the inherent problem of any insider compilation of articles — it’s hard to keep track of the chronologies and the actors.
Early’s book is not likely to convince somebody that unions are necessary; it’s written for those who know that. Rosenfeld’s may convince them, but it doesn’t hold out much hope for what can be done. There’s a gap between the two that needs to be filled: something that would convince progressives in particular and working people in general that union struggles need to be supported, both for the short-time good of society and for its long-term transformation.