Sunday, April 11, 2010

Union stories

If you aren't inside it, the culture of organized labor in the United States is pretty foreign to most of us. It's a different, insular world. That has always seemed odd to me, as a progressive person who has worked in jobs that could have benefited from unions (residential remodeling), is grateful that her partner gets us both health insurance thanks to her union, and has worked alongside and for unions on numerous community mobilization projects. Most of the labor movement just isn't much like the world that most folks, even most union members, live in.

It's a culture littered with arcane bureaucratic restraints that management has succeeded building into "labor law," full of the politics of petty chieftains who sometimes act as dictators, and, sometimes, a mythic view of who the working class is (white and male) that simply isn't true.

Of course it is also the culture of the movement that won us the weekend, whatever health, safety, and fair wage standards still exist, and of some of the better insurance plans still offered by employers. We'd be lost without labor; but must of us feel lost in the presence of actually existing labor.

Steve Early is an insider (Communications Workers organizer and labor strategist) who has written an survey of the better literature of the modern labor movement in Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home. He's made choices:

...everything in this collection was written by someone who remained a full time 'union practitioner.' If there's criticism of other unions or the behavior of fellow trade unionists in the book -- and there's plenty of that in some sections -- it's never in the form of potshots from the sidelines or 'Monday morning quarterbacking' from an ivory tower.

Themes that struck me (you might focus on others; this is a bit of grab-bag):
  • the sad story of the decline of Local 1199 subsequent to the departure of its charismatic founder and autocratic patriarch who had pioneered a unionism that combined well with civil rights movement activism -- but completely flunked creating a viable structure for succession;
  • a discussion of whether contemporary unions still have "strike capacity" at all in the current environment where management can replace strikers pretty much at will; perhaps the strike is a dead tactic?;
  • and a frank attempt, not at all neutral, to outline the harm Early sees SEIU's Andy Stern doing to labor by adopting the shibboleths of management in a struggle for union "density" without union values.
This is an easy read and a very accessible introduction its multiple subjects.

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