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News :: Labor
Embedded with Organized Labor: An Interview with Steve Early
26 Aug 2009
Steve Early is a 25-year veteran of the labor movement, journalist and author of the new book Embedded With Organized Labor (Monthly Review Press, 2009). His is a voice for a more militant rank-and-file democratic form of trade unionism which attempts to challenge the bosses by re-energizing a mostly dormant labor movement.
Kristin Schall: Having spent such a long time inside the labor movement, you must have seen a lot of changes occur both organizationally and in rank-and-file attitudes. What are some of the biggest changes you have a seen and how have these changes effected the role of labor organizers?

Steve Early: One of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the years is the erosion of workplace militancy—hopefully, a reversible trend! Thirty-five years ago, rank-and-file anger and frustration over discriminatory firings or other employer contract violations, and related grievance-handling delays, led to frequent “wildcat strikes” by industrial union members and others. These were unauthorized work stoppages, which occurred without official union backing or sanction, during the life of a collective bargaining agreement and in violation of its customary “no-strike” clause. Among miners, the mid-1970s wildcat strike trend even included a series of walkouts over being able to strike without risk of the fines, injunctions, and employer damage suits that inevitably followed wild-catting! This led to a wide-ranging debate in left labor circles about the need for more “open-ended” grievance procedures that would permit legal walk-outs over contract violations during the life of a contract.[1]

Today, the backlog of grievances or other accumulated workplace problems is no smaller in most unions now than it was then--and the pace of grievance resolution probably just as glacial. Yet who today in labor is arguing, as many did in 1970s, that the way to settle more individual or group grievances quickly and effectively is to get out from under the legal straitjacket of binding arbitration and “no strike” clauses? In an era when striking—even at contract expiration—has become increasingly rare, perhaps only the United Electrical Workers (UE) continues to call, officially, for preserving the right-to-strike over unresolved mid-term contract disputes. (Both the UE and IUE-CWA do retain the ability to strike during the life of the contract at one major employer, General Electric—a right that was last exercised, jointly and nationally in 2003, when 18,000 GE workers walked out for two days over contested medical plan changes.)

The closest thing we’ve seen to that kind of 1970s strike spontaneity and “self-activity” was the massive turn-out of immigrant workers, many of whom were not even in unions, at escalating week-day marches and rallies in the spring of 2006. By May 1, 2006, these job “stay-a-ways” were affecting many non-union employers and constituted the largest political strike in this country in more than a century.

But generally today, even strikes at the end of a contract have become a statistical blip on the radar screen of private sector labor relations. Every year, more than 20,000 union contracts are negotiated. Yet, since 1992, walk-outs by 1,000 workers or more have averaged less than 40 annually. In 2008, there were just 15, down from 20 in 2006 and 21 in 2007.

Steve Early is a voice for a more militant rank-and-file democratic form of trade unionism which attempts to challenge the bosses by re-energizing a mostly dormant labor movement.

In contrast, at the peak of labor's post-World War II strike wave in 1952, there were 470 major strikes, affecting nearly three million workers nationwide. And, even thirty-five years ago, there were still 424 such job actions just in 1974 alone.

Today, hardly anyone strikes for union recognition either (although New York University teaching assistants did conduct a lengthy work stoppage in 2005-6 to regain recognition after it was withdrawn in the wake of a NLRB ruling that stripped private sector graduate student employees of NLRA protection.) Most unions who are able to organize new members via representation elections or card checks then try very hard to avoid having to strike for a first contract because of the current difficulty of doing so, in a bargaining unit where support for the union may not be strong enough and the threat of decertification, before getting a first contract, is still lurking.

The challenge for organizers in this environment is pretty clear, as I point out in Embedded. As strike activity continues to decline in the U.S., the pool of workers with actual first-hand strike experience, as leaders or participants, shrinks as well. That's why organizers need to analyze the strike victories and defeats that have occurred recently—and apply their lessons so past battles can become the basis for future success, rather than just add to a reoccurring pattern of failure. Maintaining "strike capacity" is no less important than shifting greater resources into organizing new members--and just as essential to union revitalization and growth. Unfortunately, developing creative new ways to walk out and win, developing new rank-and-file leadership in the process, has not been a big part of recent debates about "changing to win."

Read the rest of this interview on the Socialist Webzine
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