Rebuilding the Labor Movement
29 November 2013
by Greg King (Independent)
Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress by Steve Early, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013
At the beginning of 2013, American workers were reeling from body blows — in Michigan among other places. How does that state transmogrify from being the heart of the labor movement to a “right-to-work (for less)” locale, taking its place alongside the Deep South? This anti-worker plague swept through surrounding states. Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, in that order, took away workers’ right to negotiate their conditions, even though this tack was defeated by a vote of the public in Ohio in November 2011. Indiana enacted a right-to-work law affecting private sector employees. A year after the Ohio vote, workers in Michigan were defeated on two referenda concerning government workers’ ability to negotiate. At that stage, what happened in the latter state shouldn’t have shocked anyone.
The Great Recession of 2008 and counting hit working people very hard — loss of jobs, benefits, value in their homes and retirement investments — all these things headed downward. Workers’ share of national income fell dramatically while corporate profits and wealthy people’s incomes rose. This was partly due to the finance sector’s tanking of the economy and partly due to bipartisan attacks on wages and benefits.
The left’s recipe for turning things around is far more easily said than done. Most on the left in labor say unions should do more thorough political education of members, democratize their structures and practice, hold ‘direct actions’ in the workplace, organize the many now outside unions, especially immigrants, build international alliances of workers, and participate in citywide and neighborhood organizations, distancing themselves, at least somewhat, from the Democrats.
Lots of reform-oriented workers have tried for years to democratize their unions, Both in the private sector and in government, labor’s opponents have been on a near-constant attack. Steve Early spent years working with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Along with many others, he held back the otherwise precipitous drop in members and clout. He and they have not been able to stop it, however…