OPINION: NOTES ON "LABOR NOTES"

By John Hyland, PSC Treasurer

CLARION

MAY 2001

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‘‘Can Labor Change the World?” was the theme of the Labor Notes Conference in Detroit, April 20-22.  By the end of the weekend, I was ready to give a qualified “yes.” 

Labor Notes is both a monthly publication of news, analysis, and resources of the labor movement, and a collective which serves as the hub of a national network for reform within the labor movement.  It has a perspective which emphasizes strong, democratic union activity.  It was a pleasure to participate in discussions in which the realities of class were explicitly addressed.

About 800 people participated in the conference, with a fruitful mix of blue-collar and white-collar workers.  There were three plenary sessions on “Changing Unions in a New Context,” “Fighting Back on the Job and in the Streets,” and “Fighting for Global Justice.”  There were union/sector meetings in which people met according to the kind of work they do (e.g. university workers, steel workers, building trades, nurses, postal workers) and interest meetings (e.g. Latino workers, Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras).  There were 71 workshops of extraordinary range (including High Tech Organizing, Reform Caucuses, Labor for Mumia, Using Popular Education to Build Multi-ethnic and Multi-racial Coalitions).  There was also a noon march and sit-down demonstration in support of the protests in Quebec City against anti-worker and inhuman global trade policies.

I was a panelist in 2 workshops:  Reform Caucuses Taking Power, and Public Sector Union Activism in New York City.  The experiences of other unionists expanded my own thinking, and the workshops advanced PSC networking locally and nationally.  PSC members Mike Frank and Manny Ness also were panelists in workshops on contract campaigns and organizing high tech workers. 

The highlight of the conference, for me, was a workshop that I attended on workplace actions.  Three panelists —Jerry Tucker from the UAW, Tim Schermerhorn from the TWU, and Pam Galpern from CWA Local 1101, presented their experiences in auto plants, the NYC transit system, and the Verizon contract struggle.  The examples they gave made it clear that on-the-job actions have been effective in the past and therefore can be in the future.  You have to prepare carefully, start small and build toward larger, system-wide actions, communicate the stakes to the “clients” of the services provided, explain the risks and build confidence for taking risks.  You have to realize that not everyone will participate and figure out what is the critical mass to make it work.

This was not a “breakthrough” conference of new visions, insights and strategy, but a setting in which to think and exchange seriously on the potential of the labor movement.  It stimulated reflections on the importance of workplace actions in revitalizing labor unions.  To exercise our collective power where we work has been the bedrock of union strength.  It is a necessary component in any labor strategy, complementary to legal and electoral approaches. 

This year’s Labor Notes conference strengthened my grasp of the importance and possibilities of solidarity across and throughout the labor movement, and furthered my views of how workplace issues are organically interwoven with racial and community issues.  The grand question of “Can Labor Change the World?” will be answered by the day-to-day struggles of workers everywhere.