Week In Review
A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
April 15, 2008
Rebuilding Labor’s Power
This week’s column is devoted entirely to the conference in suburban Detroit organized by Labor Notes this past weekend. I won’t have space to do it justice, and will write more later about various aspects, but I want to share my enthusiasm as soon as possible. By now most of you have heard of a scandalous physical attack on the gathering mobilized by the leadership of SEIU. I’ll deal with that at the end. First I want to put the conference in a proper perspective.
My biggest criticisms of past Labor Notes conferences had been their relatively narrow focus on their signature “troublemaker” approach to workplace and internal union struggles. Without abandoning these important questions great strides forward were taken at this gathering toward engaging bigger picture issues essential to a genuine rebuilding of labor’s power.
In my view, the nearly 1100 labor activists assembled in Dearborn represented the biggest, most informative, and most inspiring labor movement event since the 1996 founding convention of the Labor Party. Unlike corporate oriented conferences, and union conventions, nearly all the participants were there on their own dime and didn’t see this as a career advancement opportunity. It was a welcome antidote to the defeatism prevailing in the leadership of mainstream unions. While most of organized labor is diverted in to hustling votes for the bosses’ chosen candidates for office, the conference program helped refocus activists on the real issues in class struggle today and facilitated serious discussion about questions of strategy and tactics.
I was also pleased to see that, unlike many progressive labor movement gatherings, most of the participants did not look like me–a good thing on so many levels. The age, race, and gender demographics were much closer to the diversity of the working class than you typically find at most movement events. The young guard leadership that has taken the torch from the LN founders are to be commended for this rejuvenation and expansion.
There was also a big international component with registrants coming from Argentina, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, El Salvador, France, Germany, Iraq, Ireland, Mexico, Palestine, Peru, Sri Lanka, Venezuela, and Vietnam. Among those helping out on this global perspective, including providing essential translation services, were our old friends at the UE.
This international flavor of course had links to the struggles of immigrant workers in the United States. The conference was dedicated to Santiago Rafael Cruz, an organizer for the U.S. based Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Mexico, murdered by boss thugs. FLOC has a unique contract with growers in North Carolina that provides for a union hiring hall in Mexico to begin ensuring the rights of Mexican “guest” workers before they begin their journey to the fields in NC. FLOC president Baldemar Velásquez was a speaker at a plenary devoted to “Organizing Across Borders,” and there were eight workshops dealing with various facets of immigrant rights issues in the USA. Members of the March 10 Coalition in Chicago got a good response to their call for reviving May Day mobilizations.
Internationalism also played a role in the two workshop presentations by US Labor Against the War. Another old friend, remembered by many in Kansas City from his visit in 2004, Amjad Al-Jawhary, North American representative of the Iraq Freedom Congress, was on hand to talk about the accomplishments of the IFC and the Iraqi trade union movement. USLAW also showed its excellent new video on the “The Real Price of the Occupation,” and promoted the upcoming National Assembly to End the Iraq War and Occupation, scheduled in Cleveland June 28-29.
From Global to Local
But local struggles were not neglected either. At lunch time on Saturday three bus loads of conference goers joined the picket line at a nearby American Axle plant. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a seat on a bus but by all reports both the strikers and supporters were greatly moved by the experience.
Rail workers from seven different unions chose the conference venue to formally launch Railroad Workers United to build cross-craft solidarity among feuding rival unions.
Introducing Green to the Mix
There were over 100 workshops and special interest meetings. Obviously I couldn’t attend more than a small fraction of them. There were many agonizing choices to be made. I had to skip the USLAW workshop on the war in order to give a presentation to the Labor and Environmental Coalitions workshop, scheduled at the same time. Though the meeting was modest in size–perhaps 25 counting the panel–it marked the first environmental workshop ever at a Labor Notes conference. The other presenters and facilitators–Les Leopold from the Labor Institute; Jennifer Krill, Rainforest Action Network; Mark Dudzic, Labor Party; Simone Sagovac, Labor Notes Policy Committee; and Gail Francis, Center On Wisconsin Strategy–did an excellent job introducing complex challenges within our rigid time constraints. Hopefully, this workshop can spin off new efforts to incorporate the all important environmental crisis in to the program of rebuilding labor’s power.
I spent a part of the weekend staffing a table selling The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor, Les Leopold’s excellent biography of Tony Mazzocchi. The author was present, signing copies as well as giving presentations in three different workshops, and profits from sales were donated to the Labor Party. I had many interesting discussions with folks dropping by that table. Some knew of Tony’s remarkable service to the labor movement while other newcomers had never heard of him. Included among the table visitors were a number of our readers on the e-mail list and it was good to finally meet them in person.
My disgusting habit of smoking had an upside in conversations with fellow addicts in our designated outdoor area. There I got to talk at length with some of the Freightliner Five. I noticed one fellow smoker was from Baltimore so I asked him if he was an Oriole’s fan. After a little laugh he explained he had been part of a successful campaign to win a living wage for the day labor cleaners at Camden Yards (baseball park.) A smoker wearing a Chicago Teamsters local union jacket turned out to be not only a union activist but a supporter of the March 10 Coalition’s call for May Day actions.
For some reason I didn’t find many healthcare workers in the smoking section but there were plenty present. Not only significant numbers of CNA/NNOC nurses from around the country but also a couple of dozen or so from SEIU’s California United Health Care Workers West. Regular readers know of the tensions between CNA and SEIU and also that the leadership of the 100,000 member UHCW local has mounted a challenge to the Stern leadership.
Lately tensions have escalated in to disturbing actions. Chairman Andy is moving to put the California local into receivership just prior to the international’s convention in Puerto Rico. CNA leaders have been harassed in their homes by SEIU hooligans shouting they are “union busters.”
These battles found their way in to the conference. Because of these troubles on the home front both SEIU dissident Sal Rosselli and CNA executive director Rose Ann DeMoro canceled their speaking appearances in Dearborn. Stern supporters attended workshops featuring speakers from their rivals and attempted to shout them down. But they saved their most outrageous action for the Saturday night banquet.
Stern Crosses the Line
The first sign of trouble I saw, as I was finishing my salad, was the frantic signal from the waiter captain to the waitpersons to stop serving and go to the kitchen. The prudence of this surprising action soon became apparent. A woman rushed up to the vacant podium and started denouncing CNA “union busters.” She was promptly removed but then we could hear great commotion outside the doors to the Grand Ballroom.
At least two bus loads–some say more–of SEIU staffers were determined to invade the banquet and take it over. Some wore masks. Many wielded anti-CNA picket signs. Dianne Feeley, a retired UAW officer from an Axle local now on strike, who I have known for more years than either of us would care to admit, was injured in the scuffling as the good guys and gals kept the barbarians out of the hall. Eventually, after hotel security called the cops, the thugs retreated shouting “we’ll be back.”
Perhaps not coincidently, the windows of Ellis Boal’s car were also smashed about the same time. Boal, a labor attorney currently advising the Freightliner Five, has earned the wrath of many union bureaucrats as well as bosses. It’s hard to believe his car damage was a random act of vandalism.
Andy Stern was not present. But nothing on this scale in SEIU gets done without his approval, if not suggestion. Violent intimidation is, of course, not unknown in the American labor movement. Usually this has been the result of mob infiltration in the unions, sometimes even using murder as a way of settling disputes, as we have seen in the past in the Teamsters, ILA, and Mine Workers.
SEIU is not mobbed up. Stern is a one-time campus radical who discovered that being a union bureaucrat could be a rewarding career. Setting the pace in degeneration of the bureaucracy he has already borrowed some time honored practices of gangster unions such as sweetheart contracts and raiding legitimate unions on strike. Now he has taken a tentative step in using the union staff to physically attack challengers within his union and rival unions--and not very concerned about any collateral damage.
The entire labor movement should denounce this reintroduction of gangster methods and take whatever steps are needed to stop it cold now.
Once again I’ve pushed my space limit. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we’ll resume our Daily Labor News Digest Updates.
That’s all for this week.
KC Labor Home
National Assembly To End the Iraq War
Cleveland June 28-29