Longtime Union Organizer Says Machinists' Reform Push Is A Hopeful Sign For Labor

May 2, 2014

Many machinists in Washington state are still bitter over a contract extension vote with Boeing that they say their top union leaders pushed for. That’s fueled an effort to oust the top leaders of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Author and long-time union organizer Steve Early says that kind of reform push is an encouraging sign for labor, and one that harkens back to previous efforts to democratize large unions, including in the United Mine Workers in the 1970s and the Teamsters in the 1990s.

Early describes previous reform efforts, and outlines a range of ways to revitalize the labor movement in his new book, "Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress." He’ll read from his book on Monday, May 5, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

He says in all of the big efforts to democratize unions in the past, the unifying theme was giving workers more control.

`Movement From Below’

“In every case, you had a situation where the top national leaders of the labor organization had, over time, gotten out of touch with the rank-and-file and people organized a movement from below to reform and democratize their union, make it a more effective vehicle for organizing and bargaining and strike activity, when necessary,” Early said in an interview.

But it’s not an easy task for rank-and-file workers to mount a campaign for top office, especially in the largest unions.

“Running for national union office is kind of like running for president of the United States. It’s a very big challenge,” Early said. “You have to have an organization, you have to have fundraising, you have to have a way of reaching tens of thousands of people in those unions that do permit direct election of the top leadership.”

Early spent 27 years as an organizer and international union representative for the Communications Workers of America. He was involved in organizing, contract negotiations and strikes at major telecom companies including NYNEX, AT&T and Verizon.

In his book, he outlines some nontraditional ways to jumpstart the labor movement, including so-called non-majority unions. The example he gives is TU, a network of employees at T-Mobile who organize and fight for better treatment of workers even though the company has successfully quashed efforts by workers to unionize on a broad scale.

T-Mobile

The National Labor Relations Board recently consolidated various worker complaints against T-Mobile into one case. Some workers have alleged they were disciplined or fired for trying to unionize, and others say T-Mobile’s employee manual and confidentiality agreement have prevented them from discussing wages with coworkers.

The company says the consolidation does not indicate evidence of wrongdoing and that T-Mobile looks forward to presenting the evidence before an administrative law judge.

Early says TU has been assisted by the CWA as well as a German union that represents workers employed by T-Mobile’s German parent company, Deutsche Telekom. And even though TU doesn’t have formal collective bargaining rights, Early says it’s made a difference for workers.

“Over the last few years, they’ve had quite an impact on T-Mobile behavior, particularly in the area of winning benefits for people who have been laid off,” Early said.

He says it’s unfortunate that German companies such as Deutsche Telekom don’t practice the same kind of labor relations in the U.S. as they do in Europe, where workers enjoy stronger protections and collective bargaining rights.

'When In Rome’

“Many of them figure, when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” Early said. “When they get on that low road, one of the ways that unions like the CWA or the [United Automobile Workers] try to get them to behave better is to enlist as allies the German unions that have greater influence with them back home, and that’s what’s happened at T-Mobile.”

Early says even though his book is a dispatch from “a movement in distress,” he’s still optimistic about worker organizing.

He says the labor movement has gone through other cycles in the past where commentators wrote it off as “dead and gone,” including in the 1920s.

“Just a few years later, aided obviously by the Great Depression, you had a huge upsurge of industrial worker organizing,” Early said. “A whole new wing of the labor movement formed with the industrial unions and a whole regeneration of the American labor movement project.

“Now I’m not saying the rebound is going to unfold in exactly the same form again, but when you look at the history of American labor, it’s never been a matter of incremental growth, but always unexpected spurts, followed by periods of decline and then a cycle of renewal,” he said.