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Save Our Unions

Save Our Unions

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Save Our Unions
    Book Description:

    Save Our Unions: Dispatches From A Movement in Distress brings together recent essays and reporting by labor journalist Steve Early. The author illuminates the challenges facing U.S. workers, whether theyre trying to democratize their union, win a strike, defend past contract gains, or bargain with management for the first time. Drawing on forty years of personal experience, Early writes about cross-border union campaigning, labor strategies for organizing and health care reform, and political initiatives that might lessen worker dependence on the Democratic Party. Save Our Unions contains vivid portraits of rank-and-file heroes and heroines, both well-known and unsung. It takes readers to union conventions and funerals, strikes and picket-lines, celebrations of labors past and struggles to insure that unions still have a future in the 21st century. The books insight, analysis and advocacy make this an important contribution to the project of labor revitalization and reform.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-430-7
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-8)
    (pp. 9-22)

    In the winter of 2013, when this collection was being assembled, the U.S. labor movement had just been coldcocked—in Michigan of all places. How does a big midwestern industrial state go from being a bastion of blue-collar unionism to another notch in the belt of the National Right to Work Committee, right next to Oklahoma, Texas, and Alabama?

    Well, the road back to open-shop conditions in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers (UAW) was paved by earlier labor setbacks in neighboring states. First Indiana, then Wisconsin and Ohio, stripped public workers of their bargaining rights (although the Republican...

  4. Part I: Rebels with a Cause

    • [PART I: Introduction]
      (pp. 23-24)

      The essays in this section have an initial focus on the historic reform movement victories that propelled rank-and-file militants and local union officers into top leadership positions in the United Mine Workers (UMW) in 1972 and the Teamsters twenty years later. I was fortunate to be a close observer of both developments and their aftermath as a national staffer of the UMW in the mid-1970s, a longtime supporter of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), and a member of Ron Carey’s Teamster headquarters “transition team” after Carey was elected International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) president with TDU support.

      In the...

      (pp. 24-36)

      I was welcomed into the labor movement, four decades ago, while watching retired coal miners, stoop-shouldered and short of breath, trudge through a gauntlet of union goons on their way into an American Legion hall in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it became a formative experience.

      Throughout the coalfields in December 1972 members of the United Mine Workers (UMW) were participating in balloting for national leaders of their union held under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The federal government was involved because the incumbent UMW president, W. A. (Tony) Boyle, had stolen the...

      (pp. 36-44)

      In the 1970s, thousands of recently radicalized Sixties activists decided to “colonize” industrial workplaces under the tutelage of various left-wing groups. They found no tougher nut to crack than military contractors. Not only could the working conditions be as oppressive and dehumanizing as those in any steel mill, auto plant, or coal mine but, as former Raytheon worker Jean Alonso reveals in her memoir,The Patriots: An Inside Look at Life in a Defense Plant, assembly-line agitators in this sector also had to confront militarism, misguided patriotism, and more than the usual amount of blue-collar machismo.

      Alonso’s book and Dana...

      (pp. 45-49)

      In his first book,Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor, Cornell professor Jefferson Cowie used a single compelling case study to illustrate the decline of domestic manufacturing and the rise of overseas outsourcing.14Cowie follows RCA’s shift of home appliance production from Camden, New Jersey, to plants in Bloomington, Indiana, and Memphis, Tennessee, and then down to Mexico. Not long afterCapital Moveswas published, I arranged for Cowie to speak to a group of shop stewards, including some from manufacturing locals, who were attending a union training program in Ithaca. They were captivated by his account of...

      (pp. 49-55)

      Behind every good man, one finds a good woman, or so we’re told. In the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), circa 2011, this traditional supportive relationship was reversed—at least in Sandy Pope’s pathbreaking campaign for the union presidency. At the Teamsters’ nominating convention, held in the Nevada desert playground most favored by union meeting planners, it was a small band of good men (plus a handful of their union sisters) who rallied successfully behind this very unusual woman. As a result of their organizing efforts, Pope—the candidate backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)—made it into...

      (pp. 56-61)

      The rise and fall of union reformers is a familiar story in American labor. It’s commonplace enough to make some labor observers rather cynical about the project of union democracy and reform. The day-to-day demands of full-time elected office, combined with heavy pressure to conform to the norms of business unionism, has pushed more than a few rank-and-file heroes down the primrose path, sooner or later. After some opposition candidates get elected, their “Si se puede!” campaign rhetoric has been known to give way to a litany of excuses about why “we can’t” empower members, fight the boss, or rebuild...

    • 6 LIVE BAIT & AMMO
      (pp. 61-64)

      The tradition of radical pamphleteering in North America is as old as Thomas Paine and his distinguished predecessors in the struggle for democratic rights in a world dominated by monarchs and theocrats. More than a few modern-day purveyors of “common sense” have penned their denunciations of the powers-that-be in rank-and-file newsletters, the shop floor alternative to official labor publications. Their critique of the workplace status quo has been no less welcome than the writings of Paine, a corset-maker by trade, who dared to challenge royal authority in England and its rebellious colonies in the late 1700s.

      During his three decades...

  5. Part II: Striking Back or Striking Out

    • [PART II: Introduction]
      (pp. 65-66)

      The decline of conventional strike activity since the mass firing and defeat of air traffic controllers in 1981 is one major sign of U.S. labor’s current weakness. Later in the 1980s, in Britain, the labor movement suffered a similar setback when the Thatcher government won a lengthy struggle with the National Union of Mineworkers. This part of the book examines the legal and organizational context for the erosion of workers’ right to strike and what it would take to revive the strike weapon.

      As noted in the Introduction and later in this book, more work stoppages in the United States...

      (pp. 66-69)

      One hundred years ago, thousands of angry textile workers abandoned their looms and poured into the frigid streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Like Occupy Wall Street in our own Gilded Age, their unexpected protest in January 1912 cast a dramatic spotlight on the problem of social and economic inequality. In all of American labor history, there are few better examples of the synergy between radical activism and indigenous militancy.

      The work stoppage now celebrated as the “Bread and Roses Strike” was triggered, ironically, by a Progressive-era reform that backfired.⁴ Well-meaning state legislators had just reduced the maximum allowable working hours for...

      (pp. 69-73)

      In 1968, the world was transfixed by global student unrest. Less attention was paid to factory uprisings that overlapped with campus protests in places like France. In one small corner of the Ford Motor Company’s huge production complex in Dagenham, England, several hundred women did their part in the “year of revolt.” Toiling in their own sex-segregated department, the only females in a plant of 55,000 had walked out many times in the past over strike issues dear to their male coworkers. Now, it was their turn to shut down sewing machines, stop production of seat covers, and picket Ford...

      (pp. 73-84)

      In the summer of 2011, labor unrest on both coasts provided a sharp rebuttal to the widely held view that the strike is dead (and buried) in the United States. Even as veterans of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) gathered in Florida to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of their historic defeat, a new generation of strikers was taking on big private-sector employers like Verizon and Kaiser Permanente. In August 2011, 45,000 Verizon workers walked out from Maine to Virginia in the first stage of a protracted struggle against contract concessions. One month later, they were joined by 20,000...

      (pp. 84-90)

      The continuing contraction of the newspaper trade and related job insecurity among print journalists is of understandable interest to individual and institutional survivors in the field. In mid-2012, theNew York Timesreported that a much-respected regional paper, theTimes-Picayunein New Orleans, was trying to stay afloat by publishing less than once a day.13Six other newspapers, in the United States and Canada, had previously announced plans to reduce their print schedule and rely on Web editions the rest of the time.

      As theNew York Timesaccount noted, “The decision to reduce print papers is usually accompanied by...

      (pp. 90-98)

      Although their histories are quite different, the British Labour Party and our U.S. Democrats have one thing in common: both like to avoid too much public cuddling with workers—particularly, any sector of the organized working class whose militant struggles with management might force them to reveal which side they’re really on.

      In the United States, the Democratic Party’s long-standing treatment of labor as just another “special interest” has set the stage for endless political disappointment. In the United Kingdom, distancing yourself from the traditional culture of unionism is harder, but not impossible for a center-left politician to do, as...

  6. Part III: Organizing for the Long Haul

    • [PART III: Introduction]
      (pp. 99-100)

      This section ofSave Our Unionsconsiders the challenge of union organizing in the United States. During the four decades that I’ve been involved in labor activity, union density—the percentage of the workforce with bargaining rights—has steadily declined to an ever more perilous level. In 1983, forty-two states had at least 10 percent of their private sector workforce covered by union contracts. Today, that’s down to just eight states as overall union membership has dropped to 6.6 percent in private industry.

      As a national staff member for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), I participated in many attempts...

      (pp. 100-122)

      In the 1970s, as in the 1930s, left-wing activists who wanted to become working-class organizers mainly headed for auto assembly lines, trucking company loading docks, coal mines, shipyards, or steel mills. In all those gritty blue-collar venues, rank-and-file militancy was on the rise and the prospects for labor “radicalization” looked good.¹ Three or four decades later, young American radicals similarly inclined to “industrialize” often found themselves in very different workplace circumstances. The real action was no longer in America’s traditional proletariat; it was among the “precariat,” the millions of native-born and immigrant workers who lacked collective bargaining rights, fringe benefit...

      (pp. 122-140)

      When telecom technician Werner Schonau first came to Nashville, it wasn’t for a fun-filled vacation, inspired by any Teutonic affection for country music. Instead, Schonau, an elected member of the works council at Deutsche Telekom (DT) in Neunkirchen, was part of a fact-finding mission in 2012 that included twelve other German workers, union leaders, and parliamentarians. In Nashville, this foreign delegation, organized by Germany’s largest union,ver.di, bypassed the Grand Old Opry and went directly to the customer service center operated by T-Mobile, the nationwide wireless carrier wholly owned by DT. In a pattern that was repeated at other stops...

  7. Part IV: Labor’s Health Care Muddle

    • [PART IV: Introduction]
      (pp. 141-144)

      Like many labor negotiators, I looked to health care reform for legislative relief from endless haggling with management over the costly details of employee medical plans. My own union and others greeted passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with much cheering, despite its failure to remove insurance benefits from the bargaining table, as a Medicare-for-All/single-payer system would do.¹

      In 2010, union members were told, correctly, that President Obama’s plan would expand Medicaid access for millions of lower-income Americans and make private insurance coverage more consumer-friendly for everyone else. Organized labor also expected the new law to aid union functioning...

      (pp. 144-151)

      When 3,000 General Electric factory workers rallied outside GE’s Lynn, Massachusetts, plant in mid-2003, one question preoccupied the crowd: Would there be another strike over health care? Five months earlier, these same workers, members of Local 201 of the International Union of Electronic Workers-Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA), walked out as part of a company-wide protest against higher medical copayments. In 2002, GE made $15 billion in profits, while its health care expenses increased less than the national average. Nevertheless, company negotiators insisted that 25,000 unionized employees pay more for their doctor visits, hospital stays, emergency room care, and prescription...

      (pp. 151-155)

      When Massachusetts labor activists supported health care reform in their state legislature in 2006 and then in Congress four years later, they hoped there would be less cost shifting. Unfortunately, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) has the same bipartisan flaws as the Massachusetts plan enacted when Republican Mitt Romney was governor. Neither Obamacare nor its Bay State inspiration, Romneycare, do much to restrain medical cost inflation. And both legislative schemes leave most union members with existing coverage no better off at the bargaining table.

      The ACA and its Bay State predecessor do benefit private insurers, whose role remains costly,...

      (pp. 155-161)

      One of the cruel ironies of America’s health care system is how poorly it covers caregivers themselves—particularly those who toil, without professional status, in hospitals, nursing homes, and home health care. More than 2.5 million people now work in this last field. Home health aides (or personal care attendants, as they are sometimes called) are mainly low-income, often non-white, female, and, in some states, foreign-born. Their contingent labor is largely invisible as well as undervalued. Even with union representation, the work pays little more than the minimum wage and lacks significant benefits. Already the second-fastest-growing occupation in the country,...

      (pp. 161-168)

      In California, the Kaiser name has long been linked to innovations in work organization, personnel practices, and health care delivery. During the Second World War, industrialist Henry Kaiser built America’s largest shipyard, virtually overnight, in the city of Richmond facing San Francisco Bay. That now famous facility turned out scores of “Liberty” ships, using new production techniques, female welders—as in “Rosie the Riveter”—and African Americans who had also been previously excluded from such higher-paying blue-collar jobs. Kaiser’s wartime experimentation with a pioneering group health plan, tied to hospitals in Richmond and Oakland, paved the way for prepaid medical...

      (pp. 168-176)

      When it comes to health-related “sin taxes,” don’t ask for consistency from Corporate America. Whenever there’s a public policy initiative that would add a few cents to the cost of surgary drinks to discourage overconsumption and reduce the risk of obesity, PepsiCo spends millions of dollars making sure it’s defeated.40Yet, like a growing number of U.S. companies, this giant purveyor of junk food has no problem using far greater financial penalties in its own health care plan to encourage weight loss, lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, or smoking cessation.

      Despite protests by the Teamsters union, hundreds of PepsiCo...

  8. Part V. Telecom Labor Troubles

    • [PART V. Introduction]
      (pp. 177-179)

      This section draws on my personal experience assisting strikes, organizing, contract negotiations, and, more recently, union reform campaigns in the telecom industry. One common thread here is the steady de-unionization of Verizon, the second-largest firm in the industry, and the scene of many past labor struggles that ended more happily than the strike and contract campaign of 2011–12.

      The first big telephone walkout that I witnessed during my three decades with the Communications Workers of America was a three-week national strike on a scale unimaginable today (but, hopefully, not forever). It occurred in 1983 when the three unions then...

      (pp. 179-183)

      In December 1989 the large Dorchester, Massachusetts, clan of Jerry “Judgie” Leary was, like many other telephone worker families in the Northeast, not exactly flush with cash for Christmas presents. Jerry and 60,000 other members of the Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Communications Workers (CWA) had just spent four grueling, impoverishing months on the picket line battling NYNEX, the regional telecom giant now known nationally as Verizon.

      Participants in that strike still bitterly recall first-time-ever visits to food banks, the company’s cutoff of job-based medical benefits, and the dismissal, suspension, or arrest of hundreds of union activists in New York...

    • 20 SAVE OUR UNION, 2011
      (pp. 183-189)

      Arriving right after the Teamsters left town, local union delegates from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) came to Las Vegas in July 2011 to pick their own national officers and executive board members for another four years. In CWA, unlike the Teamsters, only these 1,100 voters, rather than the entire membership of 500,000, gets to choose the union’s top leadership. Yet compared to the razzing—and, in the past, roughing up—that Teamster dissidents could expect, the culture of CWA conventions is relatively civil, democratic, and respectful of minority viewpoints.

      If you’re a local union officer running for national...

      (pp. 190-194)

      The culture of “no contract, no work” is almost extinct in the United States, where strike activity has reached an all-time low. Among telephone workers in the Northeast, at Verizon (VZ) and AT&T, this union tradition remains strong, based on successful walkouts by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in 1983, 1986, 1989, 1998, 2000, and 2004. In the longest of their joint struggles, 60,000 CWA and IBEW members struck for four months against health care cost shifting at NYNEX, the New York and New England company that later became Verizon.15Only...

      (pp. 195-202)

      The two unions on strike at Verizon in August 2011 made it clear, from the outset, that their members might return to work without a final contract settlement if management was willing to “get serious” in bargaining. Back to work on this unusual basis after a two-week walkout, the 45,000 former strikers would do well to remember the words of Verizon’s Marc Reed when picket lines were withdrawn. Said Reed: “We remain committed to our objectives.”

      The company’s vice president for human resources wasn’t just referring to Verizon’s current giveback demands. They’ll still be on the table, even if winnowed...

      (pp. 202-210)

      My first contact with union reformers in New York City was nearly thirty-five years ago. They were critics of internal corruption but, like many rank-and-file dissidents before and since, tended to be prophets without honor in their own local. Teamsters Local 282 was at the time one of the most mobbed-up affiliates of a national union notorious for its organized crime ties. The Gambino family’s overseer of the local was Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, later credited with assisting nineteen murders. My Teamster friends, who drove trucks full of cement to building sites around the city, displayed enormous, almost reckless,...

  9. Part VI. Is There a Leader in the House?

    • [PART VI. Introduction]
      (pp. 211-213)

      C. Wright Mills’sThe New Men of Powermay have been the last hurrah of left scholarship, or of any kind, for that matter, on the subject of U.S. union leadership as “a social and political type.” In his classic study of what was then still a predominantly male occupation, Mills saw trade unions, with all their flaws, as key progressive organizations and the only ones capable “of stopping the main drift toward war and [economic] slump.”¹ He was critical of the union bureaucratization he saw already developing within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Yet his 1948 book reflects...

      (pp. 213-218)

      One of the great mysteries of organized labor four decades ago,for neophytes first encountering its then-dominant culture of blue-collar machismo, was how anyone known as Wimpy (or “Wimp” for short) could become president of an AFL-CIO union. In the militant 1970s, a moniker like that was not helpful in a shop steward election, much less any more ambitious bid for higher union office. Patrick Halley’s new authorized biography of William Winpisinger (titledWimpy, of course) shows how this former leader of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) leader transcended his anomalous nickname during a colorful and unusual forty-one-year career. By...

      (pp. 218-224)

      Every winter, like the southern migration of Canadian geese and others of their species, members of the AFL-CIO executive council head to Florida. Their preferred venue these days is Orlando, amid festive theme parks and lush golf courses. For a long time, Miami and its environs was the destination of choice. In the era of AFL-CIO president George Meany, that meant hanging out near Miami every February, in full view of the mainstream media. There were so many embarrassing poolside scenes, captured in stories datelined Bal Harbour, that this swank beach-front village became, over time, an indelible symbol of the...

      (pp. 224-230)

      June 2012 was a bad month for public workers from the West Coast to the Midwest. Voters in San Diego and San Jose approved retirement benefit cuts for their city employees, which led major newspapers to proclaim that more “pension reform” of this type is on the way, despite worker and retiree resistance to it. In Wisconsin, labor and its allies failed to oust Republican governor Scott Walker who stripped the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and other workers of their ability to negotiate about pensions and other benefits.

      Within AFSCME, the rollback of past collective...

      (pp. 230-235)

      Most six-year-olds like to have a big birthday bash, with lots of games, presents, balloons, sugary cake, and as much noise as possible. Change to Win, the new kid on labor’s block born in 2005, has opted for a quieter approach, much in contrast with the celebratory and self-aggrandizing scene at its festive founding convention in St. Louis six years ago. On that occasion, CTW founders like Tom Woodruff, now its executive director, talked about spending $750 million a year on new organizing drives similar to those launched by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s. Then UNITE...

      (pp. 235-246)

      Few modern unions have done more outside hiring than the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), America’s second-largest labor organization. Beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing unabated today, SEIU and its local affiliates have employed thousands of non-members as organizers, servicing reps, researchers, education specialists, PR people, and staffers of other kinds. Though most unions hire and promote largely from within the ranks of their working members, SEIU has always cast its net wider.

      The union has welcomed energetic refugees from other unions, promising young student activists, former community organizers, ex-environmentalists, Democratic Party campaign operatives, and political exiles from abroad. One...

  10. Part VII. Two, Three, Many Vermonts!

    • [PART VII. Introduction]
      (pp. 247-248)

      This section pays tribute to the Green Mountain State, a small oasis in the desert of U.S. politics whose social democratic tendencies in the modern era have been variously attributed to a post-1960s influx of “flatlanders” and its proximity to Canada. However, for those who believe that geography is destiny, let’s keep in mind that all nine U.S. political subdivisions, to the west and east of Vermont—Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, and Maine—have quite different red or blue state identities, notwithstanding their coexistence with Canada along the same long international border.


      (pp. 248-254)

      Vermont has always been a good place to get away from it all in August. But in the late summer of 2009 many Democrats in Congress returned home from Washington to find the Tea Party waiting for them. My vacation newspaper,The Burlington Free Press, explained what was brewing locally in a front-page story headlined: “Health Care Fight Comes to Vt.” The state’s leading media outlet reported that “listening sessions” on health care reform had already “erupted into red-faced shouting matches nationwide” because of an emerging right-wing backlash against President Obama’s yet-to-be-enacted plan. Taking note of this trend, Vermont Senator...

      (pp. 255-259)

      Because of its series of progressive mayors, a city council known to embrace controversial causes, and a general vibe of being on the cutting edge of left politics for the last thirty years, Vermont’s largest city is sometimes called, by fans and detractors alike, the “People’s Republic of Burlington.”

      Like all labels based on political stereotypes, this one can be misleading. After all, no city is an island, certainly not in the United States. And even when a municipality is located in a state nationally known for its own progressive leanings, that doesn’t always tell the whole story about everyone...

      (pp. 259-263)

      After years of political frustration, Earl Mongeon had to see it to believe it. Often when he finishes his twelve-hour night shift at IBM in Essex Junction, Mongeon heads home for breakfast and a few hours of brush clearing on his 60-acre lot in Westford. In mid-January 2011, the fifty-five-year-old microprocessor assembler and labor activist hopped into his car and drove in the opposite direction, to Montpelier. There, at the state Capitol, Mongeon joined other supporters of single-payer health care at a press conference jointly convened by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, Congressman Peter Welch, and Governor Peter...

      (pp. 264-270)

      In 2012, millions of Americans found themselves caught, per usual, between a Republican rock and a Democratic hard place. Our two-party system serves up less than a wide range of ideological choices, even in a good year. The absence of viable third-party alternatives isn’t just a longstanding national problem. In too many state and local elections, only major party candidates have the funding, organization, and media visibility to be competitive. As a result, minor parties have had relatively little electoral success since the heyday of the Socialist Party a century ago, when hundreds of its candidates won municipal office and...

      (pp. 270-278)

      Imagine the perfect storm for real health care reform, at the state level. Prodded by a strong grassroots movement and a progressive third party—both of which took many years to build—the new Democratic governor and Democrat-dominated legislature of America’s most left-leaning state votes to make every citizen eligible for publicly funded universal health care.

      Under this new system, private medical insurance would no longer be needed by those who are self-employed, working for a small or large business, or lacking any job at all. Over time, something akin to the “Medicare-for-all” plans administered by each Canadian province would...

    (pp. 279-307)

    Thanks to McCarthyism and the Cold War, the old U.S. labor tradition of marching and rallying on May Day lay dormant for many decades.¹ It was gradually revived in the new millennium as a day of mass protest on behalf of undocumented workers. On May 1, 2013, immigration reform of some type was finally under active consideration by Congress. So labor and community defenders of the foreign-born organized events around the country to demand equal rights at work and a clear path to citizenship for those laboring without papers. Outside the Ronald V. Dellums Building in downtown Oakland, a boisterous...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 308-334)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 335-343)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 344-344)