Labor Notes Conference

Notes on the Labor Notes conference.

by 
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
 Ray Broomhill, Visiting Professor  || Email  : rbroomhi@oregon.uoregon.edu
 Labor Education & Research Center  || Phone  : +1 503 3465054 (work)
 University of Oregon,1675 Agate St,|| Phone  : +1 503 6893483 (home)
 Eugene, OREGON, USA 97403          || Fax    : +1 503 3462790
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As you probably know, Labor Notes is an organisation based in Detroit which
since 1979 has been working to rebuild and mobilise militancy in the US
labour movement.  They are primarily known to us for their monthly
newsletter which provides news, economic analysis and specialises in giving
examples of effective union tactics and strategies.  However, Labor Notes
is much more than that.  They have become the centre for a network of
activists in a range of unions who are trying to reform their unions and to
form a democratic, militant and internationally oriented US union movement.
 They provide hands-on assistance to progressive organisers and union
leaderships.  For example, they work with progressives to form a caucus in
their local.  They put progressives from one local branch of a union in
touch with others around the country.  They assist in the planning of union
campaigns and opposing management incorporation programs.  One of their
many publications in these areas is called A TROUBLEMAKERS HANDBOOK: HOW TO
FIGHT BACK WHERE YOU WORK- AND WIN.   I am bringing a copy of this home
with me!  They manage to do all this with a staff of just eight people
(this includes their admin. staff).

The Labor Notes conference was a huge affair.  Over 1,000 people attended. 
It was located in a large upmarket hotel in Detroit - the Hyatt Regency. 
This conference has been held every 2 years for the past decade and has
been growing steadily in size and status within the union movement.  There
were about 50 visitors from overseas and another 100 from Canada (who were
a little unsure about whether they had foreign status or not!)  The opening
session was held in an enormous hall and each of the (non-Canadian) foreign
visitors was named and asked to stand.  Most were from Mexico and South
America but a few were from S.E.Asia.

The first session was a presentation by Bernie Sanders, the only existing
independent US Congress member and a pro-union activist from Vermont.  He
gave an excellent speech about the impact of TNCs on the US economy, the
impact of economic rationalism and the need to create a trickle-up!
strategy for the US.  He is working towards introducing legislation into
Congress to establish a bill of rights for workers.  This was followed by a
panel of 3rd world speakers on international labour solidarity.  One of the
themes of the conference was solidarity for opposition to NAFTA - a really
big issue facing both US and South American unions at the moment.

We were very pleased to meet up with Nancy Jackson from Canada who had been
at Labour Studies in Adelaide last year.  We spent quite a bit of time with
her over the weekend and hope to be able to keep in contact with her.  
Shes a great person.  I also met Professor Carla Lipsig-Mumme the head of
an outfit at York University in Canada called the Centre for Research on
Work and Society.  Carla has spent a fair bit of time at the Labour Studies
unit in Economics at Melbourne University.  She was quite surprised to hear
of our existence and is quite keen to establish links.  Her Centre is
basically a research centre for a loose collection of academics from
different areas interested in labour issues.  (Nobody that Ive met actually
seems to approximate the combination of teaching and research on labour
studies that we have developed!).  They have a working paper series which
they would be willing to exchange for the Briefing - also a newsletter.

I attended a workshop on Saturday on union-friendly computer skills (I
thought that if Pat found out about it and I hadnt attended I would have
been in deep shit!)  It was interesting but pretty basic stuff about the
sort of hardware and software that unions should buy.  Little evidence of
much activity in the area of labour research although when I raised this
quite a few people expressed interest in the idea of international contacts
etc.  One point of interest - though you probably know about it, Pat - is
that LaborNet seems to be well on the way to establishing a viable network
to US unions and researchers and the guy who ran this session thought that
the organisers would be very interested in making an Australian link.
(labornet@igc.apc.org).

I also attended another session called a labor educators caucus.  Quite a
few people had pointed me to this and indicated it would provide good
contacts.  Actually this session was a little disappointing.  People had
suggested that this would be a major get-together of labour teachers but
the people seemed fairly unconnected.  It felt as though the most prominent
labor studies people had not come to the conference (I know some were in
Australia!)  The issues discussed were fairly fragmented and basic eg
debating the difference between training and education.  Most present were
actually engaged in training - often job skills training.  The overall mood
was obviously fairly negative.  Many Labor Studies programs are under
threat.  The second largest US program (at Ohio) closed down completely 2
years ago.  One of the other threats is a tendency for labour studies
subjects to be replaced by industrial relations courses and to be drawn
into joint training formats.  There was a strong commitment to opposing
this tendency but a recognition that it was a powerful force.  I asked
whether anyone was engaged in the sort of broader political economy of work
and union issues which we do.  The only person who spoke about their
involvement in a broader approach was Helen Lee who works with Dan Leahy
(Evatt Foundation Conference in 1991) at LERC, Evergren State College,
Washington (state).  

I came across a new journal which is about to be published which will be of
interest to us.  It is called GLOBAL LABOR: A MAGAZINE OF INTERNATIONAL
NEWS AND ANALYSIS.  There are editors in the US and London.  The US contact
is Kurt Stand, PO Box 33363 Washington DC 20033.

On Saturday evening there was a banquet for the entire conference - over
1,000 people seated in a banquet hall at round tables of 10.  Quite a
crowd!  The most amazing process took place.  Labor Notes sought to use the
evening to raise funds for its research and political activities. 
Envelopes had been placed on each table and people were invited to make
written pledges of donations.  This seemed very familiar to an ex-Catholic
boy!  Even more amazing, people were invited to go to one of the mikes and
express their views about Labor Notes and make a public pledge.  To my
astonishment they were lined up ten deep at the mikes for about an hour. 
Person after person make short speeches and often moving declarations about
what Labor Notes had meant to them and their union.  Obviously Labor Notes
has been a very powerful and important rallying force for the Left and for
the rebuilding of the union movement in the US.  Most speakers pledged at
least $100 either from their union or from their own pocket (some $250). 
Over $20,000 was pledged that night.

The main speaker at the banquet was Juan Gonzales, a New York journalist
and newspaper union activist.  Gonzales is a respected reporter for the New
York Herald but his speech was very militant.  He is a bit of a
rabble-rouser and had the masses applauding wildly for his attacks on US
imperialism, NAFTA, US multinationals, the media etc etc.  It seemed very
hard to believe, given my preconceptions, that an audience in the US, even
a progressive union audience, would be so receptive to such a Left
analysis.  He was particularly strong on anti-racism and the need for
solidarity with South and Central American workers and immigrant workers in
the US.

On the Sunday the most interesting session I attended was a seminar on the
new Teamsters.  One year ago the reform group within the old Teamsters
(known as the Teamsters for a Democratic Union - TDU) took power in union
election - to the astonishment of nearly everyone.  The TDU operated
effectively as a union within a union and mobilised huge rank and file
support  across the country to win the first democratic elections held
within the Teamsters.  The Teamsters had of course become an increasingly
corrupt union - much more so since the death of Hoffa apparently.  We heard
stories of what the new leadership found when they took office.  The head
of the NY local for example had a $300,000 salary, an exclusive apartment
overlooking Central Park, a private limosine and a 24 hour round the clock
chauffeur available.  He dined at the very best New York restaurants and
his bills always went direct to the union.  When the TDU took power they
immediately sold off the unions fleet of limosines and private jets and
realised over $24 million!  Of course the whole process by which the TDU
won power is very contoversial because it became possible only as a result
of FBI intervention to oust the old leadership.  The method it used to do
this was to force the leadership to hold democratic elections - and the TDU
benefitted from this.  Some people remain highly suspicious that the FBI
would be responsible for installing a left leadership in a major US union
without having an ulterior motive.  This remains problematic.  The TDU
themselves say they owe nothing to the FBI.  However, clearly they still
face a massive uphill struggle since they may have captured the national
leadership but the local branches remain corrupt and conservative. 
Nevertheless, the example of the Teamsters seems to be providing a great
deal of hope and inspiration to reformers within other unions.  For example
there is the New Directions movement within the United Auto Workers.  

The concluding session was on the theme of Labors political future.  I felt
a little ambivalent about this because the major push is currently for the
formation of a US Labor Party!  This idea was spelt out in great detail by
Elaine Bernard who is head of the Harvard Trade Union program.  There are
several groups formed with the goal of establishing a new political party
eg Labor Party Advocates, the New Party (primarily in New York) and the
Campaign for a New Tomorrow.  This push is being supported in particular by
the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union.  The President, Robert Wages,
spoke during this session.  He gave a very radical speech about MNCs, class
struggle and the need for political Left strategies.  He was particularly
ferocious in his attacks on Clinton and the Democratic Party.

The conference concluded really nicely when a black woman, Elise Bryant, a
teacher in the Labor Studies program at the University of Michigan, led the
1,000 people present in singing Solidarity Forever - quite a moving
experience!

Afterwards I spoke briefly with Jane Slaughter about her view of the
conference.  She commented that this had been the most militant Left of the
Labor Notes conferences held so far.  The presence of so many progressive
unionists was very impresive.  Not only were they militant but they seemed
totally comfortable and committed to a whole spectrum of Left positions ie
anti-imperialist, anti-US multinationals, anti-racist, a class analysis,
strong support for gay and lesbians (a big issue of course at the moment
with the one million protestors in Washington).  All of these issues
brought loud applause throughout the conference.  Jane Slaughter and Nancy
Jackson both warned that we shouldnt see all this as in any way typical of
the whole US labour scene.  These unionists represented at Labor Notes are
very much a minority within the whole US labour movement - or what is left
of it.  Their views are, of course, far far removed from the positions
taken by the AFL/CIO.  The AFL/CIO recently responded to a request for
support from Russian unions by telling them they wanting nothing to do with
them, and indeed would not even talk to them, because communism is the
enemy of the US people!  However, Nancy was quick to point out that ten
years ago such a gathering would have been completely unthinkable.  The
rebuilding that has certainly occurred she attributes almost entirely to
the role of the Labor Notes group which has acted as a rallying point and
catalyst for forging a Leftist coalition across unions.