Labor Advocate Online

A Unique Worker Gathering
1200 Meet In Detroit To Discuss ‘Rank-and-File Recovery

by Bill Onasch

Labor Notes conferences are in sharp contrast to typical union national conventions. There are no motions to be voted upon, no officers to be elected. Kissing up to the event organizers will not get you a shot at a cushy, six-figure appointment–indeed they will hit you up for money and unpaid labor.

But the biggest culture shock for those unionists attending their first LN conference is always its democratic character. All working class points of view are welcome, even encouraged, in the dozens of workshops and interest group meetings that comprise the bulk of conference proceedings. This atmosphere is further enhanced by the presence of many literature, art, and solidarity tables outside the main hall. It is a far cry from the tightly scripted and deadly dull conclaves that are the hallmark of all but a handful of U.S. unions.

While there are no formal action plans to be debated and voted–and so often ignored–the three days of discussion is not idle chit-chat. It is mainly about what people have done, or hope to do. What worked, what failed, and what the jury has yet to decide. We speculate about what to expect in the short term and sometimes offer thoughts about the long haul. Not all contributions are of equal importance but collectively they add up to a pretty faithful picture of the current state of the working class.

This year’s conference, held April 23-25 at the Hyatt Hotel in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, was the biggest ever in their nearly three decades history–over 1200 participants. They represented twenty countries. While I saw many familiar old faces from the Eighties there were lots of young folks too. And the number of women, as well as people of color, in attendance has improved dramatically over the years.

Most were rank-and-filers, or shop stewards, but there were also a substantial number of union staffers and even some national union officers as well. It was a pole of attraction for all those ready to fight back, or at least seriously considering doing so.

The major reason for the new attendance record was undoubtedly the crisis–or crises–working people confront today. These self-proclaimed “troublemakers” tended to be less vulnerable to the illusions promoted by most mainstream labor leaders that our newly empowered “friends” in Washington will see that we’re taken care of. While much of the labor and social movements have been quiescent those attracted to LN have aggressively pursued openings for action.

Part of what mobilized these folks to come to Detroit to share their experiences and learn from others was the series of Troublemaker Schools organized last year by LN in New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, and Raleigh, in response to the economic crisis.

Kansas City Conference—Mary Erio

The New Crises, New Agendas Conference, sponsored by this website in Kansas City in April, 2009, also partnered up with these schools. Out of that, a monthly KC Labor Notes discussion group was formed, several of whom attended the Detroit conference.

The Character Of Labor Notes
Since its founding in 1979, Labor Notes, and the schools and conferences they have offered, have centered on three major arenas of the class struggle:

• Shop floor struggles in the workplace
• Strike solidarity
• Internal union democracy

Their efforts have contributed to numerous important victories in each of these categories over the years and these themes were again dominant at this year’s gathering. Striking miners from Canada, Colombia, Mexico, and the USA were given prominent attention. So was the National Union of Healthcare Workers, undemocratically driven out of SEIU. The UE workers who occupied Republic Windows were honored for their inspirational battle. Many spent a lunch break in support of local embattled restaurant workers. And virtually the entire conference rallied in the lobby of the conference Hyatt Hotel–a union house–in support of the Hyatt 100 workers treated so despicably by that company in Boston.

Rally in support of Hyatt 100—© Labor Notes

Additional Broader Questions
Such activities are essential and no body has done a better job with them than Labor Notes. But clearly there are other issues that greatly impact the working class that cannot be adequately dealt with through collective bargaining with employers.

The LN leadership has been justifiably cautious about adding other issues which could be contentious among the following they have earned based on these bread-and-butter questions. Troublemakers can’t be captured; new perspectives are possible only if the base willingly goes along.

But caution didn’t lead to a lethargic “stay the course.” For example,

LN has been supportive of US Labor Against the War since that group was launched in 2003. Again this year there were several workshops dedicated to labor and the war, including a representative of the General Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq. There was also a workshop on Labor and Palestine.

LN has done a great job in taking on one of the most divisive issues within the U.S. working class–immigration. By correctly focusing on working class solidarity and human rights, they have prepared many workers to resist racism and xenophobia promoted by the bosses to divide and conquer. This year there were workshops on Labor and Immigration Reform and How To Represent Immigrant Workers; a presentation on the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s class action suit against the Border Patrol; and an Immigrant Workers Strategy Meeting.

• The single biggest obstacle in collective bargaining in the U.S. for decades has been health care. LN’s long relationship with the California Nurses Association, now part of National Nurses United, as well as with the NUHW, facilitated taking a positive stand on Canadian-style single-payer health care reform. This continues even after passage of the phony “reform” by Congress. There were workshops on Bargaining in the New Health Insurance Landscape, as well as two related to the single-payer movement--continuing on in Labor Campaign for Single-Payer.

In these areas I would give the recent conference an “A+.”
Mark Brenner Speaking In Kansas City

The pages of Labor Notes, along with the Troublemaker Schools, in the last eighteen months leading up to the conference were full of insightful analysis of the economic side of the Great Recession. Much of this was the product of LN Director Mark Brenner, who is a trained economist as well as a first class organizer and agitator. I’ve seen no one on the contemporary scene who does a better job of translating economic jargon in to language workers can understand. Unfortunately, in Detroit this aspect didn't get the attention it deserved, in my opinion.

Also disappointing was the downgrading of overarching environmental issues. At the 2008 Conference there were two workshops on environmental issues including one that discussed the need for a working class environmental movement. Early last year, when the future of the Big Three automakers was much in doubt, there were articles in LN, and reports about the Auto Workers Caravan, that raised the possibility of creating a public sector out of closed plants, converting them to “green” production.

But this year there was only one workshop, Labor Going Green. It featured six presentations on topics ranging from home weatherization jobs to massive construction of nuclear power plants. Climate change was mentioned only by the advocate for more nukes.

With the exception of the brother cheering on more nukes, I can’t say that I disagreed with any of the presenters. Each of their projects were of interest. But, because of the format, discussion was skewed, and very little could be said about the bigger picture–which was not a topic of presentation.

Overall the Conference was quite educational and inspiring. Labor Notes, and its current of supporters–and I count myself among their number–is the best hope on the national scene for mobilizing a “rank-and-file recovery.”

May 5, 2010

About the Author
The webmaster of the website is a paid-up member of UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union. During the 70-80s, while employed at Litton Microwave’s Minneapolis operations, he was elected to various positions in UE Local 1139, including Shop Chairman and Local President. In 1980 he took a union leave from the plant to work on a successful UE organizing drive at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When Litton began shutting down its four Minneapolis plants Onasch was selected to be a worker representative in a Dislocated Worker Project administered by Minneapolis Community College—where he became a member of the Minnesota Education Association. Returning to his home town of Kansas City in 1989, he soon began a 14-year stint as a Metro bus driver. During that time he published a rank and file newsletter, Transit Truth, chaired a union Community Outreach Committee that organized public protests against cuts in transit service, helped organize a privatized spin-off at Johnson County Transit, and served a term as Vice-President of ATU Local 1287. He has also been involved in US Labor Against the War and the Labor Party since those organizations were launched.

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