Does Steve Early’s ‘Save Our Unions’ Have a Message for Chattanooga?
MONDAY, FEB 24, 2014, 6:56 PM
BY BRUCE VAIL
The defeat of a union organizing election at the Volkswagen auto plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. this month has stimulated intense national scrutiny of the United Auto Workers (UAW). As labor’s friends and enemies debate over the places UAW leadership fell short in the campaign, journalist Steve Early’s new book, Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press) seems especially relevant. Though Early’s work doesn’t analyze the Volkswagen campaign itself—and makes only passing references to the UAW—the declining power of the country’s leading labor organizations is a consistent theme in his reporting.
The book is first and foremost a journalistic enterprise, bringing together news articles and related material that Early produced for a long list of labor-friendly publications, including In These Times. Labor reporting is a second career for Early, who spent 27 years as a Boston-based staffer for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and he brings to his work a real depth of understanding about how unions work in practice. This is his third book since retiring from CWA in 2007—Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home was published in 2009, followed by The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor in 2011—and the three volumes together present a well-researched and crisp account of Big Labor’s troubles in the modern era.
Early is especially well known for his reporting in recent years on the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), particularly the efforts by some of the union’s California branches to break away and establish the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). And Save Our Unions contains plenty of material on NUHW’s post-schism campaigns to recruit new members out of SEIU’s ranks, as well as the continuing SEIU-NUHW clashes that have ensued. Early’s sympathy with NUHW is plainly stated and supported by a stinging critique of SEIU’s leadership. He depicts senior SEIU officials as divorced from the workplace concerns of most members, overly accommodating to the financial goals of large employers, and ham-handed in their dealings with union rank and file. Ultimately, his narrative is that of the NUHW as a scrappy underdog struggling against an entrenched and largely unresponsive SEIU bureaucracy…