Save Our Unions: A review

It was the summer of 1969. I was living in San Francisco. I had just gotten a job with Pacific Bell, the West Coast telephone company.

One afternoon, I was performing some routine maintenance when a shop steward walked up to me and said, “Put down your tools; we’re walking out.”

I looked up, saw other workers heading for the exit, and dutifully followed.

We gathered across the street from Pacific Bell building and milled around for a while.

Finally, someone (I can’t remember who) told us that the company had disciplined two stewards for union activity and that the walkout was called to protect them. We were told to go home and report back to work the next morning. If the issue was resolved, we’d work; if not, we’d stay out.

The next morning, I showed up and resumed working. The disciplined stewards were also back on the job.

My wildcat strike experience wasn’t unique. There had been another one at another Bay Area Pacific Bell work site within the last year.

African-American auto workers in Detroit and sanitation workers in Memphis had conducted wildcat strikes to fight racism, and other workers in other cities had walked off the job to protest speed up, safety problems, management harassment, and other grievances.

In 1970, more than 200,000 postal workers walked of the job defying their union leadership and President Nixon who both told them to return to work.

Over the next ten years, wildcat strikes took place among auto workers, municipal employees, miners, truck drivers, food processing workers, and workers in other industries.

During the 1970s, workers’ real wages continued to rise, more got access to health care and pension benefits, and more won a voice on the job through union membership. (The peak year of union membership in the US was 1979 when 21 million workers were union members.)

But those victories would not last.

Capital during most of the 1970s had been on the defensive, but by the end of the decade, it was beginning to revamp, restructure, and reorganize. It also recommitted itself to the class struggle.

It didn’t take long for capital to counterattack, and by 1981, it was labor that was on the defensive.

Steve Early in his newest book Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress  published by Monthly Review Press surveys and analyzes the damage done to the US labor movement by capital’s resurgence.

Early’s book, a collection of loosely organized essays, focuses most of its attention on more recent developments, but he begins with some history and context including appropriately enough the 1981 strike by PATCO, the US air traffic controllers’ union.

The strike, a crushing defeat for labor, wasn’t really a fair fight. Capital acted decisively and in concert; labor was tentative and splintered.

Before the strike, President Reagan, serving as capital’s surrogate, marshalled support among key players like the Air Transport Association, the air carriers’ trade association, which despite concerns that business would suffer, backed the President when he fired the striking controllers.

Labor responded timidly. Leaders paid lip service to solidarity but told members to cross PATCO picket lines and keep working.

Reagan’s victory, writes Early, “strengthened the hand of airline management in its own future showdowns with ALPA (the pilots union), IAM, the Flight Attendants, and other unions.”  The same could be said of capital in general.

The defeat of PATCO was a watershed moment for the working class. During the three decades that followed wages stagnated, benefits eroded, and millions of good paying jobs migrated to low-wage regions in the US and abroad. Union membership declined and union power waned.

Early says that unions were unable to resist capital’s onslaught for a number of reasons:

  • A sclerotic union leadership, more interested in preserving privilege than fighting capital, clung to the idea that a union’s role is to work with management to prevent labor unrest; capital on the other hand embraced class war.
  • Unions isolated themselves from the broader public. One example was labor’s position on health care, which until 2010 had been to concern itself only with protecting employer-based health plans. Early argues that unions for the last 30 years should have been fighting for health care for all and points to the success of telephone workers in the 1980s who protected their health care benefits by publicly supporting the idea that health care is a right not a privilege.
  • Unions paid too little attention to internal organizing, i.e., educating and mobilizing their own membership; when unions conducted education campaigns, the campaigns focused on a narrow political narrative that gave uncritical support to the Democratic party.
  • Union leaders allowed and in many cases encouraged union democracy to wither.

Early argues that labor’s revitalization will depend on a re-energized grassroots movement that unites non-union, low-wage workers like those who have been striking for a living wage and forward thinking rank-and-file workers engaged in day-to-day “shop floor organizing.”

As Early acknowledges, this work won’t be easy, and some of his dispatches describe missteps like those of Ron Carey and Arnold Miller.

Miller was a leader of Miners for Democracy, Carey of Teamsters for Democracy.

Both won elections that ousted entrenched and imperious union regimes.

Both were unable to sustain their victories.

Miller was ruined by incompetence.

Carey was more successful. He led a winning strike against UPS but was outmaneuvered by remnants of the union’s old order and forced from office.

Early’s dispatches, however, aren’t just about missteps. Some describes some promising new developments.

At T-Mobile, the nation’s fourth largest wireless service provider that has fiercely resisted unionization, CWA helped workers build an organization called T-Mobile United, or simply TU. While not recognized by the company, TU acts like a union and has won some victories.

UNITE-HERE has recruited and trained people to be salts–pro-union people who go to work at non-union hospitality businesses to help workers at these businesses organize. Early describes the successes and setbacks experienced by three of these young salts as well as some insights they learned while working.

Early’s dispatches tell the good, the bad, and the ugly of labor’s fight for survival, but they also describe a new era of capitalism that makes worker collective action harder.

Service jobs now dominate the economy, and these jobs are difficult to organize through traditional means. How do you organize Starbucks workers as some have tried when the company’s ubiquitous coffee shops that employ a handful of people are scattered widely across a city?

(Union-backed worker centers for low wage workers that Early mentions may be one answer.)

Even old industries are new. Take for instance telecommunications. When the regulated and highly unionized telephone monopoly was broken up and deregulated, it became more difficult to coordinate bargaining and strikes.

On top of that, their landline business is dwindling and being replace by wireless services, where most of the jobs are non-union.

While much has changed, other things have remained constant. It’s still possible for an energized, motivated, and organized group of workers to stand up to their bosses and win,

That’s why, if I were Early’s editor, I would have encouraged him to spend more time examining the work of the Chicago Teachers Union.

At the beginning of the book, he devotes a paragraph to CTU’s successful strike and an end note refers the reader to other works about the strike.

One hundred fifty pages later, Early mentions the strike again but only to criticize a concession that the union made to preserve its health care benefit. (The union agreed to a dubious wellness program pushed by the city as a way of reducing health care costs.)

Despite that concession, the contract won by CTU’s nine-day strike was a solid victory for public school employees specifically and public education in general. Other unions, especially public service unions, could learn from CTU’s success.

While CTU’s success is instructive, so is the recent defeat of UAW’s organizing campaign at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant.

UAW relied heavily on a hands-across-the-ocean outreach effort to Volkswagen management in Germany to win the campaign.

Considering UAW’s lack of success organizing southern auto workers by traditional means and Volkswagen’s accepting attitude toward unions, this approach may not have been a bad idea.

But it didn’t work.

Now it’s time to consider some new approaches to union building, and while Save Our Unions spends a lot of time analyzing labor’s problems over the last thirty years, it also describes some new approaches that more people should know about.