Labor Notes impressions

Sheila Cohen reports on her visit to the US Labor Notes conference

Reporting on a Labor Notes conference is as much a matter of trying to convey the incredible atmosphere at these events as it is recording the factual details of attandance, speeches, workshop lead-offs etc – or certainly resolutions, which the conference, as a primarily educational and discussion-based gathering, doesn’t encourage.


So how do we start? Labor Notes is a monthly newsletter plus organising/educational rank and file trade union project which has been holding biennial conferences since 1981. I have been lucky enough to attend these since 1991, with the 2008 convention my eighth – and, according to many of the “veterans” on the Labor Notes policy committee, one of the best if not the very best ever.


Skipping for the moment over the infamous “fracas” with the SEIU which has been setting the websites and blogs buzzing, let me set down my “Labor Notes impressions” before they disappear among the everyday organising headaches of trying to do, well, the same thing over here.


Friday 11th April

The conference actually began at 10.00 am on Friday, but as always the first major event was the main session at 7.30 pm, by which time most of the 1,000 or so delegates had gathered. Entitled “Democracy is Power” this plenary session consisted of welcoming speeches from the chair of a local (Detroit) welfare rights organization and from a Labor Notes full timer, followed by contributions from workers involved in a number of struggles.


One of the most significant of these was the Freightliner Five dispute, in which five leaders of UAW local Freightliner Truck in North Carolina were sacked for leading a one-day strike over stalled negotiations. Freightliner is owned by Chrysler. As a publicity leaflet puts it:


“In this ‘right to work’ state, [the Freightliner Five] were the lead organizers in winning a union by fighting for the members, challenging management, and making the fight against racism part of the union struggle. This kind of leadership is what’s needed to build the union movement in the South.


Winning justice for the Freightliner Five will help the labor movement move forward in the drive to organize the South. But if the Freightliner Five lose their jobs, labor’s ‘Southern Strategy’ takes a hit.”


Many British trade union activists will be aware that the South is the thorn in the side of the American labour movement – so this argument makes sense. But, as always, the workers themselves put their case even more eloquently. As their speaker told us:

“We were clear on what our membership wanted, and they did not want concessions ['give-backs' to the employer in the form of lower wages etc - a feature of US negotiations since the 1980s].


We went out and we shut ‘em down. We had a line one end of the plant to another.


There was solidarity on that line, true solidarity on that line, brothers and sisters standing together…at some point the workers of America and the workers of the world have got to draw that line.


The time is to draw the line. Form that line now. It’s time to hit the street…”


the speaker concluded to the routine roaring, standing ovation.   


A hard act to follow, but he was followed by a speaker from the dissident SEIU local United Healthcare West, which has parted company with the leadership of the increasingly bureaucratised Service Employees due to a series of jaw-dropping assaults on members’ rights. After a hesistant start attempting to describe the union’s increasing embrace of employer-union partnership, his lively supporters yelled “Say it like it is!” from the floor, and the speaker got into his stride:


“Everything comes through struggle. We’re not making these deals with them [the employer]. The SEIU is trying to take the voice away from the people. We are the workers, we are the people, we are the ones who are putting the tyres on [ie doing the work] and we are the ones who should have a voice in the union.


We put them in office and we can put them out. Our platform for change – it’s simple: Let the people who do the work have a say in the

destiny of the union.


Maybe they [union leadership] do know best but you know what – they should bring it back to the members so we can vote for it.


This is serious. This is history. We’re gonna have to all stand up and  support each other. One day when we look back we’re gonna be glad we done this. It’s so simple…Bring it back to the people so we can vote. If we made a deal with the boss we would make nothing.


“You need to go to,” he ended rather more prosaically – but do that and you’ll find the gory details of what this struggle for basic trade union democracy and worker independence from “partnership” is all about. 


Saturday April 12

The Saturday morning plenary was less immediately intoxicating (apart from “Socialist Saint” Baldemar Valasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, who brought the conference the nearest it gets to a revivalist rally) but certainly informative, in particular via Anita Chan of the Contemporary China Center, who gave us some insights into workplace organising in that worldwide sweatshop. Speaking of how one factory churning out Wal-Mart products was unionised, she described the workplace leader involved as “…just an ordinary worker in one of the stores [depots]” – which says it all, really.


The next event for me was co-leading a workshop on lessons of labour history with Les Leopold, the author of a book on Tony Mazzochi, OCAW[1] and Labor Party leader. Possibly not many British trade unionists will have heard of this extraordinary figure, whose ability to persuade a fundamentally conservative group of oil and atomic workers to support a radical programme of environmental activism and eventually a US Labor Party holds crucial lessons for us all.


Since I’m currently reading (and intending to review) The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor, I’ll let you in on the secret at a later date. My own contribution was to speak on my book Ramparts of Resistance: Why Workers Lost their Power, and How to Get It Back, which covers both US and UK trade unionism from the 1968-74 “upsurge” period to today, looking at the historical, strategic and political lessons.


After a lunch break, when I erroneously did not attend the American Axle picket (see below), I learned a host of practical tips on organising in a workshop on Shop Floor Tactics, led by activists in the Teamsters and Service Employees (SEIU) unions. Yes – paradoxically in the light of its current onslaught on membership democracy – it was the SEIU which piloted the “organising model” in the 1990s with their famous “Justice for Janitors” campaign (replicated in T&G/Unite’s rather less gripping “Justice for Cleaners”) and many of their organisers remain faithful to a member-led version of organising.


The workshop accordingly started with an amusing vignette in which a member tries to engage the attention of her steward with a problem – steward response: “You should have come to the meeting last night.” On second go-round – “Got a problem.” “What is it?” – it turns out that the member’s problem, compulsory overtime, was what had stopped her from getting to the meeting in the first place. Lessons obvious? Not really, because the “blame the members” syndrome is only too endemic in labour movements American and elsewhere.


The emphasis of the workshop leaders, quite rightly, was on “one-on-one” communication, being an “active listener” (to members), “turning your collar around” (putting yourself in their place) – all about going to the members instead of expecting them to come to the union.


As one speaker put it, “There’s a lot of things I’m passionate about, but others couldn’t give a **** [about them].” He urged us to check whether “your sense of reality” matches what’s really going on – “You won’t motivate people unless you reach out, you won’t reach them unless you listen.” A few lessons there for the left.


The workshop presented a number of highly useful organising techniques: increasing membership involvement by getting a lot of people to do a little bit each, establishing a member-to-member information network, identifying “movers and shakers” (potential activists) and building from that base, going from A to B rather than A to Z with demands and membership actions.


A further speaker suggested a number of techniques including rating workers as “1s” (pro-union), “2s” (in the middle) and “3s” (anti), getting the “1″s together and asking each to talk to a “2″, bringing “1″s to grievance hearings with the steward to encourage them to become stewards themselves, starting with small victories over issues like “dress codes”, holding informal meetings on “TGIF” (Thank God It’s Friday) afternoons (bit of a culture gap there maybe). 


Unfortunately the reality, as reported by workshop participants, was as always more complicated and more discouraging. The first speaker from the floor complained that the problem she faced was “complacency in my union. People will complain, and not go to union meetings.” Clearly, the speakers’ lesson had not sunk in. More seriously, a wonderful activist from the General Motors Buick City plant in Flint, Michigan, veteran of the Buick City strikes of 1994 and 1998 which shut down GM plants throughout America (partly through the contradictory effects of the “just-in-time” system[2]), reported that his plant was closing down, in the midst of a torrent of unresolved grievances over health and safety.


Finally, a high school teacher spoke of the “tremendous unevenness” of activism and consciousness among AFT (American Federation of Teachers) members; recently, when one teacher had come under attack, his colleagues in the same department had refused to take action on his behalf for fear of victimisation. Members from another department had supported him, but had vowed not to do so again. The workshop leaders’ urgings to “choose the right issue” were difficult to fully sustain in the face of a real-life example of how the “wrong” issue can come out and hit you.       

The concrete organising tips were highly useful and need to be registered and passed on [3]. Sometimes I felt that the manically positive, “cheerleading” schtick of the workshop leaders was more about organising techniques than dissecting bleak reality. But maybe that’s just being a Brit.


In any event, one workshop participant’s conclusion can’t be challenged: “It’s all about power. That’s what it’s all about.”


Saturday afternoon was devoted to union meetings in which workers from the same unions gathered and discussed cross-industry issues. Perhaps, as a part-time college teacher, I should have attended “Campus Workers” – which I remembered from my last Labor Notes conference as peopled not with middle-aged “professors” like myself but with young Black and Latina women from the college cafeterias – but given that my fellow-Brit delegate is a Ford worker, I found myself amongs a mainly UAW (United Auto Workers) crowd. 


Here the discussion was to me a tad disappointing, remembering as I do more energetic and strategically fruitful meetings of the dissident “New Directions” group in the UAW during my years in America. The discussion was often unfocussed, with a few seriously over-long contributions and a typical lefty intervention on Mumia Al-Jamal – which, however appalling a case of racist injustice and brutality, is not, it has to be said, an issue central to autoworker organising.


Given all this, the highlight was a rousing speech by a glowing young African-American woman from American Axle, the Detroit auto parts plant on strike against concessions. Beginning her speech “Before I was a troublemaker, I was an axle maker”, she described company attempts to intimidate the workers with threatened plant closure if they refused to accept concessions, but pointed out, “We know they’re gonna do it anyway [close plants down and cut wages] so we have got nothing to lose.”


A more grounded statement of Marx and Engels’ classic appeal to the working class could hardly be asked for. The speaker’s wide grin, revealing a set of appealingly gappy teeth, was prompted by the workers’ excitement at the Labor Notes “invasion” of their picket line that day, with the crowd so dense around the plant her son had complained he couldn’t park his car (she looked barely old enough to have a child, let alone a car-driving one). Pertinently, her main question was “how we stop the bureaucracy”, viz that of the UAW which has consistently and for decades colluded in “joint” company-union ventures.

The next speaker, Jerry Tucker, was the one to address that question. Bumping up against that bureacracy himself in the 1980s, he was a founder-member of New Directions and is now involved in the Center for Labor Revival. Tucker’s answer to the American Axle worker’s question was brief and to the point: “The UAW is a one-party state.” Even in New Directions’ “largest moment” they had never achieved a big enough base inside the union “because people got enough out of the UAW” in terms of (relatively) good wages. Today, however, “the union has split away their protection from the rank and file.” Members were expressing significant dissent in the workplace. Tucker cited a close vote over the recent Chrysler contract, with an unprecedented number voting “no”. As he put it, those who had voted in favour must now be experiencing what US consumer experts term the “morning-after” syndrome which follows splurging on some useless product.


Other worker-contributors provided the usual gems of straight-from-the-shopfloor narrative: “We were in Korea and we had a strike and that was how we built a union” from a South Korean carworker; opposition to “kissy-face shit” (ie teamworking) from a Canadian Auto Workers member, etc. So although it wasn’t the best auto workers’ meeting I’ve attended, even a not-so-good Labor Notes gathering tends to be better than most meetings I’ve attended. And my British fellow-delegate certainly thought it was good.


Saturday Night

OK, the banquet and the “fracas”. Any remotely computer-literate union activist in Britain will probably have read about the brouhaha which attended the traditional Saturday night Labor Notes “banquet”, ie a modestly OK dinner served up in a very large hall. In case you haven’t (for example if, like me, you’re allergic to websites), let me cite the “bare facts, as free from interpretation as we can make them” spelled out retrospectively by the Labor Notes policy committee: 


“Six busloads of SEIU staffers [full-timers] and members came through the side door of the hotel last night just before the banquet, chanting about ‘union busting’ and waving noisemakers. It seemed to be a couple of hundred people. When asked not all of them seemed to be up on what the issues were, and some people had brought children who one of our people moved away from the crowd.


They tried to march into the banquet hall but were prevented from doing so by about 20 conference participants who linked arms in front of the doors. A number of participants were thrown to the ground or hit by the protestors and sustained minor injuries. The police made a rather tardy appearance, and the invaders left, chanting ‘We’ll be back!’”


The internal conflict within SEIU reflected in this “invasion” and in the existence of dissident groups such as HealthcareWest and SMART (not sure what it stands for, but SEIU Members organising independently of the leadership, for sure) – not to mention the “bodyguards” who incongruously accompanied delegates from the California Nurses’ Association, another SEIU enemy – in a sense represents everything Labor Notes is about. From spearheading energetic “organising” in the membership-mobilising sense in the 1990s (though its methods were always top-down) the SEIU has morphed into a monstrously bureaucratic institution with power concentrated in the leadership, “locals” (union branches) stretching across more than one state of the US of A, a fondness for “partnership” with profit-hungry corporate bodies like Kaiser Healthcare, and most recently and grotesquely, the substitution of a call centre for workplace representation – members with grievances can dial 1-800, because there sure ain’t going to be a warm body down the hospital corridor to help them. 


The SEIU leadership isn’t too happy about criticism of this approach – hence the invasion, in a bizarre echo of 1970s Teamster “goon” tactics against their internal opponents. Enough said, as far as I’m concerned. If you want to know more, look at the website[s].


A much more important aspect of the conference was expressed by a speaker at the banquet who announced, “This conference changes people’s lives.” Not mine, perhaps, because I’ve been inspired and informed by Labor Notes conferences for almost twenty years. But for the overwhelmingly rank and file participants, a large proportion of them new faces, the perspective offered by Labor Notes – one of unity, of solidarity, and of an undeviating commitment to the interests of workers and workplace trade unionism – offers the life-changing revelation that there are ideas that relate to their everyday experience, and committed activists out there who can stand with them in building a grass-roots perspective – from the ground up.


So, although there’s much more to say, I’ll conclude with two speeches in the last session on Sunday afternoon which in different ways summed up what is so crucial about that perspective. The first speaker, a rank and file leader from the Canadian Autoworkers’ Union, told her audience, “We found that we could fight back, and that fighting back made a huge difference in the lives of our members…

Solidarity is a renewable resource.”


The next speaker, an activist from Teamsters for a Democratic Union[4], had important lessons on rank and file membership involvement and mobilisation. Describing a typical current dispute, he argued, “That was the issue we had to take up, because that was what mattered to [the members]. Doing that kind of issue that’s most important to workers is what carries us forward. These are the victories that get workers in motion and that carry you forward.


We need universal healthcare but that might start by getting better overtime. It’s about doing what’s important for the workers but having a vision beyond that [my emphasis].


All sorts of things in society make you crazy and it’s important to have people behind you. If you’re the best fighters for the people’s interest, nobody cares about the red-baiting [accusations of "communism" etc, more common in the US].


People do care about health care, they care about overtime, they care about all of it.


We owe everything we have right now to the people before us who fought so hard to bring us what we have.


What’s our strategy? It’s the same as it’s always been – find the militant fighters and bring them forward…


The lesson of Labor Notes and everything else is that the power comes from the people, comes from the workers.”


This, in a few words, is the Labor Notes perspective. In other words, you don’t bring the most important people, those who actually have class power – workers in the workplace – around to a broader, more “political” class perspective, by preaching at them. You do it by identifying with the issues that they care about and mobilise around – because, for material reasons and their class position, they have to.


You recognise the fact that people do care about “political” issues, but don’t feel they can do anything about them – then often, in a workplace context, act because they have no choice. And that’s what builds the organisation, the activists and the wider politicisation. In other words, you do it from the ground up, not the top down. That’s the “moral” of a Labor Notes conference – and one we can take to heart in labour movements everywhere.          

[1] Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ International Union

[2] See Ramparts Chapters 5 and 6.

[3] See Labor Notes’ excellent Troublemakers’ Handbooks 1 and 2 (

[4] A rank and-file reform caucus dating from the 1970s which played a historic part in uprooting the “mob” leadership of the union. For a fuller discussion of US union rank and file caucuses see Ramparts Chapters 7 and 9.

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