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
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.
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
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.
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.
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