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Steve Early, Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home.

Steve Early, Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home (New York: Monthly Review Press 2009)

IF IT SEEMS ODD to read a review of book reviews, bear with me; or, more accurately, bear with author Steve Early, who has organized and written on behalf of the North American labour movement for the past 35 years.

Early is a participatory journalist of the first rank: an individual with deep first-hand knowledge of the workers' movement, and a thoughtful chronicler of people, ideas, and events. The 38 book review essays that comprise Embedded With Organized Labor represent Early's continuing search for ways to build a movement that is truly run by and for workers, but that also commands the resources and organizational heft required to credibly challenge capital. Reviewing books about the workers' movement allows Early to weigh in on vital debates and events, and to pose intriguing questions of his own.

Early is a graceful writer with a generous spirit. He is careful to acknowledge the strengths of people and positions he opposes and to confront in very frank terms the shortcomings of those he supports. He is able to argue passionately for principles (rank-and-file democracy, in particular) without letting readers forget that in messy real-world struggles, success frequently hinges on the support of powerful, well-resourced organizations. For example, when Early reviews an edited collection of tank-and-file activist Martin Glaberman's writings, Punching Out (2002), as well as an edited collection of activist Stan Weir's works, Single-jack Solidarity (2004), he halls the books as a "welcome antidote" to the technocratic, top-down style of union reform so in vogue today. Glaberman and Weir (both deceased) advocated anarcho-syndicalist-style workers' councils during the 1930s through the 1960s, and Early contends the two would have dismissed today's union reformers as "union centralizers trying to consolidate power in their own hands." But when Alice Lynd and her husband Staughton Lynd (editor of Punching Out) propose their own similar strategy of decentralized, bottom-up union reform in their The New Rank and File (2000), Early takes quite a different tack. It is one thing to admire historic efforts to combat business unionism. It is quite another thing to suggest practical strategies for today, and Early takes the Lynds to task. He praises their book for reminding readers that union officialdom did not wake up one day progressive and enlightened, and somehow chose John Sweeney to head the AFL-CIO. As the Lynds show, Sweeney's election and other promising changes in U.S. labour resulted from decades of difficult grassroots organizing by radicals and progressives in neighbourhoods and work sites, large and small. But Early argues that the Lynds err badly in proposing a strategy for union reform based almost entirely on building horizontal networks among the union rank and file. This strategy, he says, writes off "all bids for organizational power above the local union (or even steward) level." Had rank-and-file Teamsters adopted that strategy, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union would never have elected Ron Cary, who delivered the 1.4 million rotes that put Sweeney in office. "Where is the roadmap for large-scale movement building?" Early asks.

Early chides leftist critics who insist that union reform movements must "challenge the fundamentals of capitalism." Valuable political spaces have opened up for debate and rank-and-file activity because of Sweeney's election and related changes in the top ranks of labour--changes brought about through mass campaigns that did not articulate an anti-capitalist message. But Early also faults an official history of the U.E. for failing to acknowledge the role communists played (and continue to play) in that union and in the larger labour movement. Early recognizes that the root problems facing workers and unions flow from the "multiplying crises of capitalism," and he cites case after case of labour radicals who, fearing rejection and persecution, buried themselves and their quest for a just social order in the mundane chores of running a union. Reviewing a biography of Off Chemical and Auto Workers' Union leader Ton), Mazzocchi, Early poses a question that continues to haunt labour leftists: "How can a trade unionist with strong anti-capitalist views-usually not shared by the workers he or she represents--make his or her politics relevant to workplace struggles in the absence of a mass-based left-wing party?"

Early has little patience for pat answers and does not offer any, and he rarely takes cheap shots even at fat inviting targets. One unfortunate exception is his treatment of the New Communist Movement of early 1970s. Thousands of radicalized youth abandoned the college campuses to start new lives in the factories, mines, mills, and unions in hopes of building a mass-based revolutionary movement. In his review of Max Elbaum's Revolution in the Air (2002), Early recounts the many blunders and misadventures of these young, idealistic leftists. But how could things have gone differently? Early knows his history, and understands how completely communist and socialist organizations were crushed during 1940s and 1950s. The left's organic connections to the working class, its institutional memory, and precious lessons learned all had to be rebuilt and relearned by a new generation of young, inexperienced radicals. It is inconceivable that such a process could unfold without people falling into dogmatism, sectarianism, adventurism and all the other blunders characteristic of a newborn radical movement. It is a simple matter to identify and deride those mistakes and here, at least, Early can not seem to resist.

My other major disappointment with Early's book was his failure to address labour movement media. Perhaps this omission jumped out at me because labour media is my life's work and passion. But Early is a labour writer, and his book is subtitled Journalistic Reflections on the Class War. So it seems odd for him to write so extensively about the importance of building rank-and-file organizations between and across unions and among the unorganized without discussing the central role of labour media in making those things happen. Early complains about the "pallid institutional propaganda" dished out by most unions today and he lauds Mary Heaton Vorse, the writers at Labor Notes, and other activists, past and present, for wielding "a rebel pen." He even closes his book with an essay about how to build a larger market among workers and other readers for books about labour. But he never explores how the workers themselves can develop and utilize media on their own behalf.

Even so, I was able to add hall a dozen books to my reading list on labour communications by reading Embedded With Organized Labor. The range of Early's interests and the sweep of ideas expressed in his book are that broad and deep. Whatever your specific interests in labour may be, Early provides a valuable communications lesson: he shows how to argue a case with intelligence, grace, good will, and gentle humour.


Trinity Washington University
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Author:Bates, Matthew C.
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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