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Talking Shop

Union reformers huddle at Labor Notes conference.

Steve Early

DETROIT – While many union militants from Canada and the northeastern United States spent the third weekend in April on the march in Quebec, nearly 1,000 gathered instead at Detroit’s Cobo Hall for an international conference sponsored by Labor Notes.

Not surprisingly, everyone honored is—in the words of their awards certificate—'a troublemaker'

Launched 22 years ago as an alternative to the vapid mainstream union press, Labor Notes has evolved into a unique vehicle for grassroots networking among left-wing activists, union democracy advocates and rank-and-file workers. The publication’s 11th biennial meeting showcased causes ranging from anti-sweatshop organizing and nurses’ strikes against mandatory overtime to Teamsters reform and the defense of South Carolina dock workers, who face felony riot charges after a bloody clash with state police. 

A major topic of the conference was how to build durable community-labor alliances so that unions can function more effectively on behalf of their own members and the broader working class. No conference participant symbolized this community-based unionism better than Ken Riley, president of International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina. Riley’s local is a progressive, predominantly African-American union that embraces campaigns like the fight against South Carolina’s flying of the Confederate flag over the state capitol. ILA members have some of the best-paying jobs for minority workers anywhere in the state, which boasts the lowest level of unionization (3.8 percent) in America. Our problems began when we started getting involved in state politics,” Riley explains. We were trying to be socially responsible to those around us. We can’t sit here and say, We got ours, forget about everybody else.’ We wanted to change what’s going on in South Carolina.” 

The union’s activism ran smack up against the state’s conservative political establishment, its powerful Chamber of Commerce and vengeful law enforcement agencies. ILA picketing of a nonunion stevedoring company triggered a police crackdown in Charleston’s port last year. A specially assembled task force of 600 cops attacked Riley and his co-workers, leaving nine in jail and more than a dozen injured. 

In the aftermath of this picketline battle, the scab company involved in the brawl filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the ILA, Riley, another local officer and 27 rank-and-file members of Local 1422. South Carolina’s politically ambitious Republican Attorney General Charlie Condon jumped in as well, with a grand jury indictment of five of the workers. They now face up to five years in prison if convicted on felony riot charges. 

The case of the Charleston 5 is rapidly becoming a cause célèbre. As Riley reported to the conference in Detroit, support for his local is growing among the black community, the AFL-CIO and organized labor overseas. If South Carolina proceeds with its criminal case against the ILA pickets, Riley says, dockworkers around the world have pledged to shut down their ports on the first day of the trial.” This coordinated day of action” has been endorsed by all the longshore unions in Europe, plus the West Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which is donating $100,000 to Local 1422’s defense. 

Supporting such cross-border alliances – particularly those initiated through unofficial channels – was a key goal of the conference. Along with the large North American contingent, participants included trade unionists from France, England, Germany, Japan, Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina and Colombia. Many came to Detroit in search of rank-and-file allies within common multinational employers like Lucent, Daimler-Chrysler or Delphi (a recent spin-off of General Motors), or to discuss strategies for resisting worldwide threats like privatization. Out of their meetings came at least one new coalition – the International Bayer Workers Network – which now links union members from three nations at plants operated by the German pharmaceutical firm. 

Building international solidarity over issues related to globalization and free trade requires more than demo- hopping,” says Kim Moody, director of the Labor Education and Research Project, which publishes Labor Notes. Ninety percent of that work is local or national, ongoing and on-the-ground – like a fight for union jobs on the docks of Charleston, a general strike in Argentina, or maquiladora organizing in Mexico. We try to help with the other 10 percent – sharing information, generating publicity and making the organizational connections that can lead to concrete pressure on governments or employers.”

Similar rank-and-file networking can also help build workers’ power within individual unions or industries. At the conference, there was the usual large turnout by truck drivers, flight attendants, and warehouse and food processing workers who belong to Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). They caucused with Tom Leedham, the Teamsters local officer from Portland, Oregon who ran against James Hoffa for the union’s presidency in 1998. Leedham is gearing up, with TDU help, for a rematch this fall. 

Union activists in a recently victorious reform movement within Transport Workers Local 100 also reported on efforts to transform their 36,000-member New York subway workers’ union. Meanwhile, registered nurses from several AFL-CIO affiliates, the American Nurses Association (ANA) and state organizations that have broken away from the ANA found common ground in their discussion of recent strikes against forced overtime at hospitals in Massachusetts and Michigan (see Overtime Out,” February 19). 

The conference ended with an awards dinner that broke with the usual conventions of union fundraising banquets. In labor’s mainstream, such events tend to be lavish and focused on self-congratulatory toasts to the top officialdom. Sometimes, even management gets invited. At Labor Notes, the fare is as basic as the group’s bare-bones budget and no bosses are welcome. Not surprisingly, everyone honored is – in the words of their awards certificate – a troublemaker.” 

Among this year’s winners were Riley of the ILA, a Steelworker plant-closing activist from Indiana named Trudy Manderfield, and an Auto Worker from Kentucky, Billy Robinson, whose local is engaged in a controversial three-year-old lockout. Also recognized were Margarita Rincon and Maria Orozco, two courageous young women fired and beaten for challenging a company union at Duro Bag, an American firm operating in Rio Bravo, Mexico. After a tour of the Midwest, the two will continue their agitation among the 1.3 million maquiladora workers who lack both independent unions and effective legal protection of their right to organize. 

It’s face-to-face contacts like these that enable union members here to understand what’s really happening to workers in other countries,” says Dan LaBotz, author of Labor Notes’ Troublemaker’s Handbook. The global can become local almost anywhere if we create more opportunities for people to share experiences, learn from each other and work together against common enemies.”

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Steve Early worked for 27 years as an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author of several books, including Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City (Beacon Press). 

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