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Working In These Times

Friday, Mar 26, 2010, 8:34 am

Building Bridges, Opening Doors: Labor Education Conference Charts Movement’s Future

BY Kari Lydersen

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Teamster steward and poet Rich Egeland, with a vest paying tribute to legendary labor leaders and struggles that resulted in lives lost.   Kari Lydersen

SAN DIEGO—Rich Egeland is an activist Teamster (and former Steelworker) working 12-hour night shifts driving a gas tanker to fuel trucks in the Chicago area. He is also a poet, pursuing a master's degree in creative writing and about to publish a book of poetry—with a Latin title he translates as "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down"—about mostly true hard-fought union battles.

"According to Homeland Security, I'm a terrorist because I have collective bargaining rights and I have the right to carry plutonium to city hall," said Egeland with a smile at the United Association for Labor Education annual conference in San Diego this week, pointing out how national security rhetoric can undermine workers' rights.

The conference brought together labor activists and professors of working class and labor studies from around the country, featuring those who, like Egeland, take creative approaches and wear a variety of hats to help build the future of the labor movement in part through educating workers about the past.

New York nurse and National Writers Union leader Tim Sheard also invokes the hard-bitten intrigue and glory of labor struggles through creative writing -- in his case with critically acclaimed mystery novels featuring the "scrappy" union hospital custodian Lenny Moss. Sheard's yarns are also based on true stories, though the murderers' real identities are effectively cloaked.

The UALE's 2010 conference is based on the theme "Borders Walls Bridges Doors," featuring multiple sessions with Mexican organizers and an overall focus on immigration, globalization and free-trade agreements. Canadian guest worker programs, interfaith partnerships, immigration reform, green jobs and climate change are just some of the many other topics covered in highly interactive, lively sessions.

Joe Berry, of the Labor Education Department at the University of Illinois, has found some of the best organizing is done behind a literature table, piquing people's curiosity and solidarity with offerings including the Troublemaker's Handbook, self-guided labor history maps, books on contemporary struggles and the children's book "Click Clack Moo" about organizing cows.

One panel conducted a "post-mortem" on labor educators' and academics' role in the campaign to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which has been essentailly tabled by Congress since last summer pending passage of healthcare reform.

"You get to the stage you feel there's almost no one out there who can be persuaded by rational arguments, and nonetheless it has to be done," said John Logan of San Francisco State University, an expert on the lucrative "union avoidance" industry.  

Marquita Walker, a labor professor at IUPUI in Indianapolis, gave a sneak preview of her research on the ground-level implementation of the "rapid response" and job-training resources mandated by the WARN Act in the case of mass layoffs. Studying a paper cup factory in Missouri and then a GE refrigerator factory in Indiana, Walker found that workers are largely unaware of the resources that are available to them, and only 13 percent at the GE factory took advantage of such programs.

She noted the "one-stop shop centers" for social services, job training and the like, which may once have been a convenient innovation, have now become a depressing disaster, woefully understaffed with lines snaking out the door. Next she will turn her focus to UAW members laid off at a Navistar auto parts plant in Indianapolis.

Jocelyn Graf, a teacher who lives part-time in Korea, spoke about the Korean labor movement and massive protests against U.S. beef imports and the proposed Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement -- movements which provoked state repression not seen since the brutal struggles against the dictatorship in decades past.

Graf noted that Koreans are particularly concerned that a free trade agreement -- now on the back burner likely thanks to intense opposition -- would gut their traditional farming lifestyles and diets, and that local rice markets would be swamped with cheap, inferior U.S. rice akin to the situation with U.S. corn dumped in Mexico after the North American Free Trade Agreement. She noted that Internet and cell-phone activism is a powerful force in Korea, where anonymous "netizens" wreak havoc online for both conservative and progressive causes.

Discussion during a panel about the Korean movement and the prospects of a new trade bill in the U.S. questioned the role of nationalism in labor movements around the world. The theme of the conference was largely that cross-border solidarity and organizing and an international vision of labor is the only real way to fight for workers' rights in today's global economy.

Just one example would be the Korean-owned Russell Athletic apparel factory in Honduras. When workers organized, the company shut down and laid off 1,200 people. But the U.S. group United Students Against Sweatshops organized a boycott of Russell apparel by universities, and last fall the company signed an historic workers rights agreement and reopened the factory.

"How do we actually talk about things in a way that wins things for workers in the U.S. and around the world?" asked Berry. "That's our whole point in being here."

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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