Steve Early on Labor Reporting: ‘Unions Can Be Thin-Skinned About Criticism’

Mike Elk

Labor journalist and long-time Communications Workers of America staffer Steve Early. (Monthly Review Press)

Since the 1970s, Steve Ear­ly has pro­duced more than 300 pieces of labor jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions as var­ied as the New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Labor­No­tes and In These Times. Through­out his career, Ear­ly has cov­ered sto­ries of dys­func­tion and cor­rup­tion with­in unions that many labor reporters are afraid to touch out of fear of upset­ting high-lev­el union sources.

At time when the labor beat was dis­ap­pear­ing from main­stream pub­li­ca­tions, Early’s writ­ing formed a valu­able body of work that inspired many young writ­ers — myself includ­ed — to stick with the pro­fes­sion through its highs and lows.

Ear­ly sat down with me to dis­cuss his new book, Save Our Unions: Dis­patch­es From a Move­ment in Dis­tress, out this spring from Month­ly Review Press.

Steve, though you’ve writ­ten for decades, you also worked as a union orga­niz­er with the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA) for 27 years. Dur­ing that over­lap, you’d some­times pub­lish your work under a pseu­do­nym — why is that?

Well, as you know Mike, Amer­i­can unions can be a lit­tle thin-skinned about crit­i­cism. Some­times, when I would be writ­ing what were always essen­tial­ly pro-labor, pro-work­er pieces, I would find fault with oth­er unions or the AFL-CIO. I’d address things that they were doing that they shouldn’t be doing or things they weren’t doing that they should’ve been doing.

In response, some­times offi­cials of those oth­er orga­ni­za­tions would con­tact CWA and com­plain, which would lead to my employ­er threat­en­ing me with dis­ci­pli­nary action. Dur­ing peri­ods when the heat was on, so to speak, I resort­ed to that well-known tech­nique for stay­ing employed — and in some coun­tries, stay­ing alive: I’d use a pen name.

What were the pseu­do­nyms you used? And in which pub­li­ca­tions did you use them?

Well, some of the pieces I did for The Nation about the Team­sters in the 1980s and ear­ly 90s were under pen names, as were a few for The Globe and some oth­er left and labor pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Labor Notes. I tend­ed to draw inspi­ra­tion from some of my own per­son­al labor heroes and hero­ines, using some vari­a­tion of the names James Con­nol­ly and Jim Larkin — both of whom were famous Irish labor lead­ers — and Far­rel Dobbs, who was a leader in the Team­sters Min­neapo­lis Gen­er­al Strike in 1934. So the names were rec­og­niz­able, though the author, for­tu­nate­ly, was not always.

You know, I heard a sto­ry once that Morty Bahr, the for­mer pres­i­dent of CWA, said that he would have fired you if you weren’t such a good orga­niz­er. Do you think crit­ics make good orga­niz­ers because they’re will­ing to hon­est­ly eval­u­ate them­selves and their institutions?

Well, I mean, a union is hir­ing an orga­niz­er to orga­nize, not to be a crit­ic of the labor move­ment. So it’s no sur­prise that if a col­league of Broth­er Bahr’s from any oth­er union called up with a com­plaint that a CWA staff mem­ber was writ­ing some­thing con­tro­ver­sial, he was under exec­u­tive pres­sure to respond. 

My par­tic­u­lar form of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry labor jour­nal­ism was some­thing that I think I was able to pur­sue to a far greater degree than I would have been able to on the pay­roll of just about any oth­er union. Even though there were some con­flicts along the way, I think oth­er unions would’ve clamped down much more harsh­ly and imposed a strict ban on my speak­ing or writ­ing under my own name, on my own time.

We know that the cul­ture of unions varies quite a bit, and that some are more open to inter­nal dis­cus­sion. In my view, that should come from the mem­bers them­selves: the elect­ed local lead­ers, union con­ven­tion del­e­gates and activists. That’s where we need to have pro-and-con debate about tac­tics, strat­e­gy and the direc­tion of the unions. I mean it’s great for jour­nal­ists, labor aca­d­e­mics and oth­er peo­ple on the Left to write and talk about these things, but the real movers and shak­ers in any strug­gle to trans­form the labor move­ment are the work­ing members. 

What do you see as the biggest chal­lenge jour­nal­ists face when try­ing to write about how dys­func­tion­al some of these orga­ni­za­tions real­ly are?

Well, I don’t think union dys­func­tion is always the main sto­ry. I mean, we have to keep the many exter­nal attacks in per­spec­tive, too. How­ev­er, there’s an unfor­tu­nate syn­er­gy some­times between poor inter­nal union func­tion­ing and its abil­i­ty to defend work­ers’ inter­ests from employ­ers, right-wing politi­cians, or so-called labor allies in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty who have been known, in recent years, to turn on their union sup­port­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly in fields like pub­lic education.

I think that some peo­ple today, espe­cial­ly some labor aca­d­e­mics, think that demand­ing union reforms is passé, or that it’s a lux­u­ry that labor can’t afford. They say, Today, we’re in a defen­sive pos­ture, a strug­gle for sur­vival, we have to cir­cle the wag­ons, and every­one has to basi­cal­ly zip it and fol­low orders.”

Well, that’s not what’s hap­pen­ing around the coun­try. Take, for exam­ple, local affil­i­ates of the Amer­i­can Con­fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers or the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion. In big-city or even statewide affil­i­ates of these nation­al unions, the teach­ers are in revolt against the fail­ings of elect­ed union lead­ers who sought to accom­mo­date the cor­po­rate-backed reform­ers try­ing to destroy their unions and under­mine pub­lic edu­ca­tion. From Mass­a­chu­setts to Los Ange­les, with Chica­go in between lead­ing the way, teacher union reform­ers are get­ting elect­ed, tak­ing over locals, and steer­ing their orga­ni­za­tions in a dif­fer­ent direction.

What do you see as the big sto­ries right now hap­pen­ing in orga­nized labor? What do you think isn’t being cov­ered in the main­stream media?

One of the big sto­ries is the attack on pub­lic school teach­ers I just men­tioned. I mean, with the com­bined mem­ber­ship of the AFT and the NEA, there are 3 mil­lion union mem­bers who are on the front lines of the attack on all of orga­nized labor. Their jobs, their con­tracts, and their past bar­gain­ing gains are inex­tri­ca­bly tied up with a hope­ful­ly suc­cess­ful defense of pub­lic edu­ca­tion in this country. 

In response, the Chica­go teach­ers have shown a tremen­dous poten­tial for doing out­reach in the com­mu­ni­ty and enlist­ing allies — stu­dents, par­ents and any­one in any com­mu­ni­ty who wants to see pub­lic edu­ca­tion improved in this coun­try. That improve­ment isn’t gonna hap­pen through pri­va­ti­za­tion, char­ter schools and stan­dard­ized testing.

So I think in that are­na in par­tic­u­lar, the lessons of past union democ­ra­cy strug­gles in the Team­sters, the Steel­work­ers and the Mine Work­ers are still quite relevant.

Do you think orga­nized labor might fear broad­er cov­er­age from inde­pen­dent writers?

Again, there’s this belief that when your wing’s under attack, you can’t per­mit any kind of dis­sent, dis­cus­sion or dis­agree­ment that you think could weak­en rather than strength­en the ranks of labor.

Look at unions’ own offi­cial pub­li­ca­tions. They’re gen­er­al­ly par­ty-line organs; many of them don’t pub­lish let­ters to the edi­tor; they often don’t have pro-and-con exchanges about con­tro­ver­sial issues. Most union papers don’t even have elec­tion bat­tle pages, in which oppo­si­tion can­di­dates could present their cam­paign plat­form on an equal foot­ing with the incumbents.

So in a lot of ways, union pub­li­ca­tions, when they still exist, are not that inter­est­ing. They’re not that wide­ly read, and they don’t have a lot of cred­i­bil­i­ty, even among the mem­bers whose dues mon­ey pays for their pub­li­ca­tion and distribution.

I think we could restore the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the labor press by open­ing it up a lit­tle bit to oth­er voic­es and points of view. Then, I think you would once again have more mem­bers eager to read their own union newspaper’s ver­sions of events, and they’d be more recep­tive to some of those messages.

Do you feel unions could do some­thing to boost labor cov­er­age in gen­er­al?

The tra­di­tion­al labor beat has con­tract­ed. You’re lucky if main­stream news­pa­pers have some­body on the busi­ness assigned to cov­er labor rela­tions issues; now and then, there are a very few spe­cial­ists. And so there’s a tremen­dous void to be filled. To a cer­tain extent, the younger labor writ­ers who pri­mar­i­ly work for web-based pub­li­ca­tions these days are fill­ing that void, but unions are not doing what they should to sup­port inde­pen­dent labor inves­tiga­tive writ­ing and reporting.

In every major elec­tion cycle, unions spend hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars on polit­i­cal can­di­dates — many of whom are unde­serv­ing. If a frac­tion of that mon­ey were put into projects like Work­ing In These Times, Work­ers Inde­pen­dent News, or oth­er pro-labor media out­lets, and into devel­op­ing new ones, labor’s mes­sages would be com­mu­ni­cat­ed a hell of a lot more effec­tive­ly than they are today through press releas­es and oth­er com­mu­ni­ca­tions ini­tia­tives made by the unions them­selves. They need to cul­ti­vate and sup­port a broad­er lay­er of pro-labor writ­ers who want to see the move­ment grow, not con­tin­ue to decline. 

Ear­ly will be appear­ing at Bus­boys and Poets at 14 & V in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. on June 2 for a dis­cus­sion of his book.

Full dis­clo­sure: The CWA is a spon­sor of In These Times. Spon­sors have no role in edi­to­r­i­al con­tent. In addi­tion, the In These Times staff, includ­ing this author, are mem­bers of the News­pa­per Guild — CWA.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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