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Reply to Khalil Hassan

Steve Early is on the national staff of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

Khalil Hassan’s contribution to your July/August 2000 issue (“The Future of the Labor Left”) attempts to categorize leftwing union activists based on their past or present relationship to “the labor bureaucracy.”

He identifies me, by name, with a political tendency amusingly described as “the grousing element.” We grousers are accused of kneejerk “oppositionism” and “criticism of whatever initiatives come from labor’s leadership” at the new AFL-CIO. We are also allegedly prone to “see hidden agendas and dangers for workers or argue that nothing of substance has happened at all” since the election of John Sweeney and his “New Voice” slate in 1995.

Our final sin—shared with several other tendencies—is that we’re long on theory and short on practice and have “not examined and organized around the inner dynamics of the U.S. trade union movement itself.”

Speaking only for myself, not other grousers, I’d like to point out that my modest contribution to critical thought about the direction of the labor movement is rooted in a considerable amount of “practice”—more than twenty-five years of active duty as a union organizer and representative. Hassan has either not read or has misread the many articles and reviews that I’ve done over the past five years for Labor Notes, the Nation, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, WorkingUSA, New Labor Forum, and other publications. All of these pieces addressed questions related to union revitalization in a manner considerably more nuanced than mere grousing.

Rather than “just say[ing] ‘no’ to the labor bureaucracy”—whatever that means—I’ve emphasized in some detail the need for member-based organizing rather than staff-dominated union-building; the importance of maintaining Jobs with Justice coalitions as independent, grassroots vehicles for creating “social justice unionism” outside official AFL structures; and the need for crossborder union alliances rooted in the rank and file, not just mediated through the officialdom.

In his contribution to the same issue, Michael Yates (a better reader perhaps?) quoted approvingly from one such essay—a book chapter on innovative international work involving members of the Communications Workers of America, on whose national staff I serve.

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