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.”

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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