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Union Organising ‘Against the Grain’


Thanks to the Organising Academy and my experience with the Communication Workers Union, I am obsessed by the extent to which unions have adopted the organising agenda – not just in this country but abroad.

I recently came across a website called “Against the Grain – A Programme about Politics, Society and Ideas” at  This is an online radio programme. It’s produced for Pacifica.  Pacifica is a network of Centre – Left radio stations in the United States. Their most famous production is the amazing “Democracy Now!”  More about this in later blogs. 

Anyway here’s what caught my attention.  On Against the Grain, I listened to an interview with Steve Early.  He’s a Union Organiser and journalist who worked for 27 years as an international representative and organiser for the Communication Workers of America. 

His writings are collected in a book called “Embedded with Organised Labor”.  He’s also got a book out this autumn called “Civil Wars in US Labor” which describes the bitter conflict currently raging in California between the main healthcare workers union in America – SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and a new and very dynamic breakaway union NUHW (National Union of Health Workers). 

This is discussed in the programme.  Many people are totally mystified why a conflict such as this between unions should be happening at this time of crisis.  Steve Early characterises the conflict between these two unions in terms of differences in underlying strategy and policy related to organising and bargaining.  He talks about 2 different and competing visions of unionism – one more bottom up, the other more top down, one more driven by elected rank and file leaders, the other more influenced by the role of full time staff and appointed officials.  He talks about worker involvement, worker participation and the accountability of union leaders to union members at a time of unprecedented attack. But it is the issue of active organizing versus mere recruitment for dues which is the central issue.

The programme isn’t just about the conflict between SEIU and NUHW. Although that is something we should all know about. The programme also discusses:

  • How trade unionism has faired at other times of economic crisis – Early talks about the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  • What trade unionists can do to protect public sector workers who are under attack at this time.
  • Promising directions in organising around non-unionised workers in the private sector.
  • The overlap between environmental concerns and occupational health and safety concerns for workers (referring to workers affected by the recent BP oil disaster)
  • Why the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is so important to Americans and why hopes for it have been dashed.
  • How trade unions can help workers that are non-unionised and how non-unionised workers should organise themselves at a time of real austerity for workers in general.  Early talks about ‘Workers Centres’ funded by trade unions.

You can listen to the Steve Early interview by going to

Or go to  and search for Steve Early – the program is called Labor Pains, broadcast 23rd June 2010.

There is an earlier interview with Steve Early and one with Cal Winslow which are also still up on the site. I shall be listening to them this week, I hope.

You can listen to Against the Grain on-site or download to keep.

Tracey Bent, Year 12 TUC Academy Trainee, sponsored by CWU

© Trades Union Congress 2007