Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
May 10, 2006

Home Again
I arrived back Monday evening after a few days on the road to attend the Labor Notes Conference in Detroit. Because I refused to pay Hyatt ten bucks a day for Internet access, I first spent a couple of hours cleaning out my e-mail boxes—647 deletes, about twenty that required some attention. Then I started getting together items for the Daily Labor News Digest, resuming posting yesterday.

The conference, a regular affair held every two years, was interesting, as usual. I didn’t hear any official attendance figures but my guess would be about 700. A sizeable number were international visitors with eighteen countries represented.

Most of the time was allocated to workshops, often twenty or so running concurrently. These were primarily focused on practical questions in workplace and community organizing "from below."

There were two major plenary sessions where everyone assembled. One featured a panel on Power On the Job, that included Tom Leedham, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 206, and a candidate challenging Hoffa for IBT president; Alejandro Sosa, president of UE Local 1110; Julie Washington, vice-president United Teachers-Los Angeles.

The keynote address was given by Nancy Wohlforth. Like many in the movement Nancy wears a number of hats—secretary-treasurer of the Office and Professional Employees International Union; co-president, Pride At Work; co-convener, US Labor Against the War; as well as sitting on the AFL-CIO executive council. She gave an excellent concise overview of the current state of the labor movement. Among the hopeful signs noted in her remarks were the upsurge of the immigrant worker rights movement, the successes of USLAW, and the Labor Party’s South Carolina campaign.

USLAW arranged for two Iraqis to attend the conference and speak at a workshop—Amjad Al-Jawhary, the North American representative of the Federation of Worker Councils and Unions in Iraq, based in Toronto; and Samir Adil, president of the Iraq Freedom Congress. The IFC brings together unions, women’s, and student groups in fighting against foreign occupation and sectarianism nurtured by the occupation.

They reported that despite the repression, the collapse of economic infrastructure, and the sectarian strife, both the unions and the IFC have recruited thousands of members since they toured the U.S. a year ago. They recounted some important victories such as the agreement by the mayor of Baghdad not to enforce the Saddam-era prohibition of unions in the public sector—a law that was kept in place by the U.S. occupiers.

All in all, the conference was useful in dealing with tactics for workplace struggles that are of such great importance in workers’ day to day lives. The organizers also deserve commendation for promoting international solidarity, including reaching out to immigrant workers in the U.S.

Its major weakness, in my opinion, was in the area of political strategy. The best led job actions are not able to deal with such crucial issues as health care, secure pensions, off-shoring, corporate bankruptcy scams, repressive labor laws, and a host of others. But these political questions, which should be center stage, were given scant attention, mostly relegated to two low profile workshops.

One of these dealt with holding major party politicians "accountable," a field likely to be low yield. The other was labeled Labor and Independent Politics. This was a panel of speakers from the Greens, Working Families Party, and the Labor Party.

The Greens, while standing for many good "core values," are not, and do not claim to be, a working class party. There is little in their platform that tries to connect up with struggles of the labor movement. The panel speaker focused on how Greens elected to local office in Wisconsin unsuccessfully tried to raise the minimum wage.

The Working Families Party, in existence in New York since 1998 and now reaching out in a few other states, does claim to be a working class formation. They in fact boast that more than sixty unions and community groups are affiliated with their New York operation. But they pursue a strategy possible in only a handful of states, variously known as "open ballot," "fusion," and "cross-endorsement." This means candidates can appear on the ballot on more than one party line.

While perhaps running a few candidates of their own for minor offices the WFP focuses on garnering votes for Democrats on their line in the hope that this will enhance their lobbying clout and patronage rewards. It is not a new strategy but a pale re-run of the American Labor Party, founded by New York unions in the 1930s, and a Cold War split from the ALP known as the Liberal Party. The WFP program is restricted to platitudes that liberal Democrats can feel comfortable with.

The Labor Party got a few minutes in this panel to speak about efforts to gain ballot status in South Carolina. I will write more about this promising development soon.

I spent a lot of time staffing the Labor Party literature table at the conference. About half of the conference attendees stopped by the table at some point and picked up literature. For some it was their first encounter with LP. Dozens signed a mailing list and a few joined the party on the spot.

That’s all for this late and limited column this week.

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