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A rent-a-mob of rowdy, punch-throwing demonstrators burst into Labor Notes’ biennial labor conference in Dearborn, Michigan, last Saturday night. When it was over, the local cops had been called in, one demonstrator had collapsed and died and SIEU’s chieftain Andy Stern had etched himself another benchmark for intolerance.
When the buses chartered by affiliates of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Michigan and Ohio first pulled up at the banquet hall entrance to the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn, more than 1,000 trade unionists were already inside the building. They had just spent a long but stimulating day debating strategies for “Rebuilding Labor’s Power” at an international conference sponsored by Labor Notes, a Detroit-based magazine that promotes union militancy and rank-and-file solidarity.
For a modest registration fee, any worker has been able to attend these left-leaning Labor Notes conferences, held every two years since 1981.
Participants this year got to choose from a hundred trade union training sessions, “interest group” meetings, and cross-border informational exchanges. In a display of free speech and internal democracy increasingly rare in the U.S. labor movement, no one is shouted down or ruled out of order as long as they agree to respect the (sometimes sectarian and often differing) political opinions of other conference goers.
At Labor Notes’ telecom worker meetings that I’ve helped organize or chair for years, it’s not been unusual to find, in the same room, local union shop stewards and members — long regarded as “dissidents” within their own locals –participating, on an equal basis, with national union representatives of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) or leaders of large locals who’ve frequently disagreed with CWA headquarters on any number of issues.
Many Labor Notes supporters at this year’s event were, in fact, veteran U.S. or Canadian local leaders or staffers sent to Dearborn at union expense because it’s such a singular learning experience. Others were newcomers, sponsored by embattled labor organizations or workers’ rights groups in China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Colombia, Iraq, Mexico, and fourteen other nations where the forces of repression usually wear a military uniform. As in the past, most rank-and-file participants paid their own way to attend the conference. For some of these workers, that meant losing a day’s pay last Friday, just the kind of personal financial sacrifice and volunteerism that’s become increasingly rare in American union life.
Too often, shop-floor “troublemakers” like these-whether they come from North America or abroad–command little respect within their own unions. Frequently, they are regarded as political pariahs. So one of the emotional highlights of every Labor Notes conference is a big awards dinner that recognizes labor’s unsung heroes. At these low-cost, rubber-chicken “banquets,” the hat is also passed to raise money for Labor Notes itself — like the $35,000 in checks, cash, and pledges collected last Saturday night. And then, conference-goers get to hear from a series of “Troublemaker Award” winners, such as my conference roommate this year, an Italian-American ironworker from NYC whose frantic digging at the World Trade Center site in September, 2001 left him with bad lungs and a fierce commitment to occupational health and safety; several African-American women on strike since February against 50 per cent pay cuts at a nearby UAW-represented American Axle Plant; some Black and Latino day laborers from Baltimore who led a “living wage” campaign to aid their fellow stadium cleaners at Camden Yards; and three New York City cabbies who belong to the multi-ethnic Taxi Workers Alliance and led last Fall’s strike by 10,000 yellow cab drivers.
Just before all of these brave folks took the stage in the Hyatt’s banquet hall, jammed to capacity with nearly 900 people–the SEIU’s unregistered conference visitors got off their buses and began to “picket” outside the hotel. They were transported to Dearborn-by their local union handlers, not to participate in any of the free-wheeling Labor Notes debates, but rather to protest one additional banquet speaker-the scheduled keynoter–California Nurses Association (CNA) director Rose Ann DeMoro. Due to CNA “security concerns,” DeMoro was, by early on Saturday, already an announced “no-show” at the dinner. (She did end up sending her greetings and thanks to Labor Notes, via a short video that was played at the banquet.) As a vocal new addition to the AFL-CIO executive council, DeMoro was originally invited last Fall to speak about CNA’s exemplary work on behalf of single-payer health insurance and California’s first-in-the-nation nurse-patient staffing ratios. She was also asked to explain why CNA is so critical of labor-management “partnership” schemes in health care-a longtime target of Labor Notes itself.
Since that invitation, however, organizers and RN supporters of CNA’s National Nurses Organizing Committee (MMOC) have clashed bitterly with SEIU in non-union hospitals run by the Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP) of Ohio. After several years of “corporate campaigning,” SEIU persuaded CHP hospital management to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a representation election in February involving 8,000 of its employees-a step usually taken by unions themselves. Only SEIU was scheduled to be on the ballot but with no apparent showing of union authorization cards (the usual indication of worker support for unionization or any particular union), RN organizers working for CNA strongly objected to this deal-calling it a formula for “company unionism.”
They proceeded to visit CHP hospitals to talk to nurses about joining CNA instead. In response to this competitive union intervention, CHP asked the NLRB to cancel what was supposed to have been a quick and quiet vote, involving the union that management apparently viewed as being more partnership-minded.
This, of course, infuriated SEIU District 1199-which covers Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, not to mention its parent organization in Washington, which is headed by President Andy Stern, founder of the Change To Win (CTW) coalition. Over the last month, Stern and his large army of purple-jacketed staffers have unleashed a heavily-funded nationwide jihad against CNA, complete with fatwahs against anybody who still consorts with this “union-busting” outfit. Among the possible collateral damage targets of Stern’s counter-offensive are AFL-CIO central labor councils around the country; there, he has directed SEIU local unions still affiliated with CLCs (under “solidarity charters” created after the 2005 AFL-CTW split) to stop paying dues until AFL-CIO President John Sweeney imposes sanctions on the CNA, one of his newest national affiliates. (Sweeney has pointed out, in response, that an established internal procedure for settling such disputes would have been available to SEIU, if Stern hadn’t led SEIU and six other unions out of the federation three years ago to form CTW.)
The picketing of speakers like DeMoro, due to late-breaking or long-running controversies, is not unprecedented at Labor Notes. In 1989, the United Auto Workers (UAW) leadership-conveniently based in nearby Detroit-had its knickers in a twist over national executive board member Jerry Tucker’s presumptively traitorous declaration that the UAW needed “new directions.” In retaliation for his encouragement of an internal reform movement under that label, Solidarity House-as UAW headquarters is called-put a crowd of retirees and union payrollers (fueled with free sandwiches and beer) on busses and sent them to Labor Notes with printed signs denouncing Tucker.
So a mild “informational picketing” re-play of that display two decades ago was about all that most people (including this longtime LN conference-goer) expected from any irate, but similarly misguided–“rent-a-mob” mobilized for this year by SEIU. Unfortunately, the 200 to 300 SEIU members and staffers sent to Dearborn Saturday night were deployed (unbeknownst to most rank-and-filers among them) with a different protest plan in mind. (After all, when the target is “union-busters,” why just picket peacefully outside?) With inside help from one of the handful of SEIU reps who had registered for the conference and participated freely (if sometimes obnoxiously) in its discussions, the group outside the hotel was soon charging through the doors. Their vanguard headed for the packed ballroom, where the objective was clearly to march, chant, seize the mike, and create big trouble right in the middle of Labor Notes’ “Troublemaker” awards presentation.
Several leaders of the pack wore purple bandanas to conceal their faces; others started pushing, shoving, and throwing punches when their path was blocked by the linked arms of a hastily assembled but experienced group of Labor Notes marshals (among them, veterans of many past encounters with far more formidable Teamster goon squads). Casualties suffered on the LN side included a retired auto worker and longtime socialist activist Diane Feeley. Diane (who once studied to be a Catholic nun) ended up with a bloodied head and a wound requiring stitches. Earlier in the day, her “union-busting” activities had included taking two busloads of conference attendees to the nearby UAW picketline at American Axle, where she once worked herself. On the SEIU side, the skirmish may have exacted a more serious toll. After the cops arrived and the repelled purple invaders were boarding their busses to leave the hotel, this reporter and other witnesses saw a heavy-set African-American protestor, who had collapsed on the ground, being moved onto a stretcher by police and EMTs. On Sunday, SEIU’s Michigan local briefly posted an obit for one of its home care worker members-David Smith. Before this message was taken down, it informed Smith’s co-workers (in rather chilling fashion) that “he passed awayduring a rally to give healthcare workers the right to organize in Ohio.”
How much better might it have been if Smith’s union had paid for him and others on the busses to register and attend the Labor Notes conference, rather than just try to disrupt it? At one well-attended session earlier on Saturday that I chaired, “top-down” organizing rights deals — including the SEIU-CHP arrangement in Ohio — were, in fact, discussed and often heatedly debated. A crowd that included SEIU District 1199ers (part of a delegation of Stern loyalists who actually registered for the conference), nurses from the NNOC, SEIU and Teamster dissidents, UNITE-HERE and CWA organizers spent several hours trying to assess the appropriateness of negotiated trade offs between “organizing rights” and “contract standards” in a number of industries. The panel had been provocatively titled, “Neutrality Agreements and Organizing Deals: Salvation or Sell-Out?” After it, most people probably left concluding that the reality of organizing rights agreements lies somewhere in between. As one SEIU observer-from the dissident United Healthcare Workers (UHW)–reported: “Many participants, who can fairly be described as members of the labor left and generally suspicious of top union leaders, were actually very sympathetic to the SEIU’s grievance against CNA surrounding the events in Ohio.” But by “bum-rushing” the banquet instead of participating in the conference, Stern’s “purple army”-Ohio/Michigan division, quickly dissipated any residual sympathy it might have had regarding this issue and many others–in Dearborn and elsewhere.
STEVE EARLY has been writing for Labor Notes or helping with its conference workshops for three decades. During most of that time, he also served as international union representative and organizer for the Communications Workers of America. He is not now and never has been a “union-buster.” He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com