New Orleans Steve Early is a organizer, lawyer, journalist, and without question longtime labor activist in the best, classic sense of the word, which also means he can be a royal pain in the butt to bosses and colleagues alike, a tireless advocate, and one-man jihadist on something he feels strongly about like SEIU and Andy Stern. Over the last couple of years though I’ve found him to be a very decent and generous guy, so though we don’t see eye to eye on many things, I’ve come to respect and admire his relentless pursuits even when quixotic and somewhat inexplicable to me. I joked opening a panel the other day named after his most recent book, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? that I thought sometimes he invited me to such events because I was the only person with a connection to SEIU who would talk to him, which of course isn’t true, since he’s a magnet for any dissident or unhappy former SEIU soul.
The panel itself was fascinating. The room was packed and Early was committed to letting everyone have their say, and largely let them do so evenhandedly and without argument. It was how I would have imagined a session on some kind of group organizational therapy. The assembled folks who were long time and dedicated labor educators meeting in New Orleans with the United Association of Labor Educators were universally clear on only one thing: they did not like conflict! They differed sometimes on whether it was a good or bad thing, but there was high consensus that they felt torn between sides, too often forced to choose when they just wanted to serve the labor movement, and frustrated that they could not find either safe space for their own programs or common ground between the combatants. They had chosen the bridge between unions and the academy looking to walk on higher ground and have a good vantage point and all of a sudden they felt way too close to the action.