Labor Notes Conference Gathers Over 2,000 ‘Troublemaker’ Workers and Organizers in Chicago

David Moberg April 8, 2016

Teachers from the rank-and-file caucus of New York City's teachers union, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators. (Labor Notes / Facebook)

Every two years since 1981, the Detroit- and Brook­lyn-based month­ly newslet­ter Labor Notes has ral­lied union mem­bers and wannabe mem­bers, as well as some union staff and elect­ed lead­ers, to join in a long week­end of shar­ing sto­ries, strate­gies and wis­dom gained in their work­place skirmishes. 

They are the sort of peo­ple that boss­es every­where — and a few union offi­cials — might call trou­ble­mak­ers,” and they have adopt­ed the moniker as a badge of hon­or (includ­ing hold­ing trou­ble­mak­er schools” and pro­duc­ing tac­ti­cal hand­books for do-it-your­self organizers). 

Last week­end, around 2,200 labor activists, from diverse age groups, indus­tries, per­son­al expe­ri­ences and nations (about 150 vis­i­tors from 22 coun­tries), gath­ered in Chica­go for a packed line-up of work­shops and ple­nary ses­sions in the largest of these conferences. 

Some work­shops focused on learn­ing skills (such as how to fig­ure out the cost of a con­tract to employ­ers) or tac­tics (includ­ing such oldie-but good­ie actions as salt­ing,” that is, get­ting pro-union work­ers hired at busi­ness­es that are orga­niz­ing tar­gets). Con­fer­ence pan­els also dis­cussed strate­gies for par­tic­u­lar employ­ers or indus­tries, such as the auto indus­try or postal ser­vice, and how to make the best use of dif­fer­ent kinds of strikes and resis­tance inside the work­place, such as work­ing to rule,” which effec­tive­ly slows down production. 

Oth­er dis­cus­sions exam­ined the promis­es and per­ils of unions form­ing broad­er alliances or incor­po­rat­ing social goals in their bar­gain­ing and oth­er cam­paigns (such as teacher union­ists oppos­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion or high-stakes test­ing). Oth­er pan­els exam­ined glob­al labor devel­op­ments and socio-eco­nom­ic changes shap­ing the world of work and new chal­lenges for orga­nized labor, such as cli­mate change.

There were oppor­tu­ni­ties to gain ener­gy, inspi­ra­tion and a tin­gle of sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er strug­gles in even more dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances than one’s own. Fiery speak­ers took the stage on behalf of ill-paid ($612-hour day), fright­en­ing­ly abused indige­nous work­ers from the south­ern part of Mex­i­co, who have migrat­ed to work in Baja Cal­i­for­nia, Cal­i­for­nia and Wash­ing­ton state, pick­ing straw­ber­ries that are even­tu­al­ly sold under the Driscoll label. And one of the trou­ble­mak­er awards went to hunger strik­ers from the com­mu­ni­ty and teach­ers’ union who went on a hunger strike to pre­vent the clos­ing of their neigh­bor­hood-based Dyett High School. 

Although the Labor Notes con­fer­ences rarely dis­cuss union polit­i­cal strate­gies, this year more than 100 con­fer­ence-goers attend­ed each of two meet­ings dis­cussing the Labor for Bernie” orga­niz­ing that is inde­pen­dent of the offi­cial Bernie Sanders for pres­i­dent cam­paign. The Sanders can­di­da­cy has gen­er­at­ed hope and ener­gy among many union­ists, even though many more unions have offi­cial­ly endorsed his Demo­c­ra­t­ic rival, for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Clin­ton. Labor for Bernie tries to max­i­mize grass-roots sup­port from union mem­bers, regard­less of the offi­cial posi­tion of their unions, and to block moves that would increase union sup­port for Clinton. 

For exam­ple, the elec­tri­cal work­ers union (IBEW, or Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers) has remained neu­tral, large­ly as a result of pro-Bernie advo­ca­cy by Carl Shaf­fer, a for­mer inter­na­tion­al union rep­re­sen­ta­tive who returned to his local union in Indi­ana to seek elect­ed office. In turn, IBEW’s neu­tral­i­ty, accord­ing to some labor move­ment polit­i­cal orga­niz­ers, played a sig­nif­i­cant role in block­ing an endorse­ment of Clin­ton by the AFL-CIO exec­u­tive coun­cil ear­li­er this year.

Sanders stirred enthu­si­asm not only because of his long­time ardent sup­port for unions but also because most of the peo­ple in atten­dance would prob­a­bly call them­selves social­ists” or demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists,” as Sanders does (and rough­ly 40 per­cent of vot­ers under 30 years old). Like him, they were most­ly not the doc­tri­naire ide­o­logues who reject a social­ist can­di­date run­ning in one of the two bosses’s” par­ties, rather than in some wisp of an orga­ni­za­tion that calls itself a labor par­ty.” (How­ev­er, the idea of form­ing a labor par­ty drew sig­nif­i­cant sup­port in Labor Notes cir­cles until the lat­est effort died a few years ago.) 

Indeed, many in the group of young workers/​intellectuals who start­ed Labor Notes came from the Inter­na­tion­al Social­ists, one of the many left splin­ter groups that iden­ti­fied with the lega­cy of Leon Trot­sky. More than many con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous small left group mem­bers, IS mem­bers were ground­ed in sig­nif­i­cant work with­in unions (includ­ing build­ing one of the more suc­cess­ful union reform groups, Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union), com­par­a­tive­ly open to col­lab­o­rat­ing with oth­ers, and both thought­ful and realistic. 

Their rel­a­tive open­ness made Labor Notes and its gath­er­ings a com­mon ground for inde­pen­dent-mind­ed left­ists and work­ers seek­ing to be bet­ter trou­ble­mak­ers for a boss that was already mak­ing trou­ble for them. Although often shunned or attacked by some union lead­ers (such as dur­ing the 2008 meet­ing when Michi­gan Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union [SEIU] brought bus­loads of mem­bers to break up the con­fer­ence awards ban­quet), oth­er union lead­ers have worked with them, includ­ing the late Tony Maz­zoc­chi; the imme­di­ate past pres­i­dent of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers, Lar­ry Cohen; and Amal­ga­mat­ed Tran­sit Union pres­i­dent Lar­ry Hanley. 

Mark Bren­ner, the cur­rent direc­tor of Labor Notes, is both a real­ist and an enthu­si­ast regard­ing the prospects for unions. 

We’ve been on the los­ing end of the class strug­gle all my life,” the youth­ful-look­ing Bren­ner told the Labor Notes crowd, rue­ful­ly not­ing the spread of right-to-work laws. Our labor move­ment can’t keep going the way it’s going. We’ve got to talk about pow­er.” Yet, he says, I’m more opti­mistic than I’ve ever been, since a long-time sub­scriber to Labor Notes is run­ning for president.”

Lat­er, as we chat­ted in the hall­way, Bren­ner expound­ed: What I think is that a cou­ple of things are con­verg­ing. The insti­tu­tion­al labor move­ment rec­og­nizes their mis­placed con­fi­dence in both Change To Win’ and win­ning the Employ­ee Free Choice Act, whether the plans came from [for­mer SEIU and Change to Win leader Andy] Stern or [for­mer AFL-CIO pres­i­dent John] Sweeney. These grand plans were flawed part­ly because they were hatched in head­quar­ters,” he says, not involv­ing mem­bers in their design and execution. 

By con­trast, he puts hope not only in mem­bers who are edu­cat­ed and mobi­lized but also in the rise of new lead­ers at var­i­ous lev­els in sev­er­al unions, from the Team­sters and com­mu­ni­ca­tions work­ers to teach­ers’ and nurs­es’ unions. Many more peo­ple have been com­ing to their schools, and he is espe­cial­ly pleased that peo­ple who have been com­ing to Labor Notes are run­ning for office and tak­ing over unions,” such as many lead­ers in the Chica­go Teach­ers Union. 

Our focus,” Bren­ner con­tin­ues, is that we want to build pow­er­ful move­ments” where lead­ers of unions must answer to the members.

Labor Notes has always strong­ly advo­cat­ed union democ­ra­cy, rank-and-file direct action and more pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship of unions. But Bren­ner says the goal of Labor Notes is trans­form­ing the labor move­ment, not elect­ing top officers. 

If I could, I would spend all of my time with stew­ards and local offi­cers,” he says. It’s hard to trans­form the labor move­ment from an elect­ed posi­tion.” But it’s also hard to change it when elect­ed lead­ers are hostile.

The goals Labor Notes sets for itself are admirable and nec­es­sary for the labor move­ment. But they are inter­re­lat­ed in ways that often gen­er­ate ten­sions that are dif­fi­cult to resolve (and Labor Notes does not always acknowl­edge). For exam­ple, some­times mem­bers are less pro­gres­sive than lead­ers, who may in some cas­es want to edu­cate the mem­bers to be more assertive and mil­i­tant (even if the oppo­site sit­u­a­tion is more common). 

And even though con­di­tions for elec­tions in unions often offer less than lab­o­ra­to­ry-per­fect democ­ra­cy, union mem­bers some­times do elect con­ser­v­a­tive lead­ers or are reluc­tant to take direct actions against employ­ers. Also, unions are both insti­tu­tions and move­ments, or at least ide­al­ly part of both the labor move­ment and pro­gres­sive social and polit­i­cal move­ments. But ten­sions eas­i­ly arise among dif­fer­ent needs that reflect these var­ied roles of unions. 

Like­wise, union staff are often pulled between oblig­a­tions to the union’s pres­i­dent and to its mem­bers, and with­in all orga­ni­za­tions there are dif­fer­ent degrees of 

access to infor­ma­tion. For exam­ple, Bill Park­er, a Labor Notes stal­wart and for­mer Chrysler union local pres­i­dent, described how union staff had much more access to cru­cial infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sions between man­age­ment and union offi­cials than the local elect­ed offi­cials on the bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee that he chaired dur­ing nation­al con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. That imbal­ance, he said, helped to make it pos­si­ble for a two-tier wage agree­ment to be includ­ed in a con­tract even though he and the bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee opposed the two-tier arrange­ment (which will final­ly be phased out under the cur­rent contract). 

The his­to­ry of unions sug­gests that orga­niz­ers with the demo­c­ra­t­ic ambi­tions of Labor Notes often per­se­vere for long peri­ods with lit­tle progress, then surge for­wards episod­i­cal­ly. But that’s not very help­ful as a guide to what to do in the inter­im. It’s much like the answer Kim Moody, one of the founder of Labor Notes who decamped to Eng­land to teach labor his­to­ry, gave to the ques­tion posed for his work­shop about how gen­er­al strikes can be start­ed: When they start, they start,” he says.

Since he last vis­it­ed the Unit­ed States two years ago, he thinks that the dif­fer­ence is rec­og­niz­able, more a feel­ing of des­per­a­tion, polar­iza­tion.” He takes heart from the sup­port for Sen. Bernie Sanders, even the appar­ent lack of vot­er dis­com­fort with his defin­ing him­self as a social­ist, and is appalled at the rise of Don­ald Trump. 

Trump is almost as much a fas­cist as we’ve seen here, with­out the fun­ny uni­forms,” he says. The guy’s a thug.” Amer­i­ca is begin­ning to look more like some Euro­pean coun­tries with polit­i­cal clash­es between an anti-immi­grant right and pop­ulist left move­ments, like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, he sug­gests. And Bernie is America’s coun­ter­part to the new Labour Par­ty leader in the Unit­ed King­dom, Jere­my Cor­byn. Yet much more is hap­pen­ing in a sub­ter­ranean” form in labor and oth­er movements.

This is the time to do things like [that sub­ter­ranean orga­niz­ing],” he says. We are not on the verge of a major move to the left, but things are chang­ing, and unions have a role to play in it. … We have to deal with race up front. It’s a prob­lem for U.S. labor because of deep-seat­ed racism in Amer­i­can soci­ety as a whole.”

Like the High­lander Folk School (now Research and Edu­ca­tion Cen­ter), found­ed in the South by Myles Hor­ton in 1932, or the Brook­wood Labor Col­lege, found­ed in 1921 in New York state under the lead­er­ship of A. J. Muste, Labor Notes and its con­fer­ences are part of a small, almost sub­ter­ranean effort to edu­cate work­ers to cre­ate a mil­i­tant and demo­c­ra­t­ic union­ism. The labor move­ment can only ben­e­fit from its work and, one can hope, from oth­ers tak­ing up the same cause.

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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