Reading about an event you didn’t attend isn’t always fun. After all, now it’s over, and you missed it. And unless you were there and could feel the passion, why would you care who attended and what was said?
That’s the challenge of reporting on the 2022 Labor Notes Conference that convened last weekend in Chicago. Yes, there were thousands of rank-and-file union members, and a growing cadre of not-yet-union workers from across the country. Yes, great speakers too: Senator Bernie Sanders, newly elected Teamsters President Sean O’Brien, and Stacy Davis Gates, president-elect of the Chicago Teachers Union
But the real question is what from the conference will be of lasting importance to the labor activists—and beyond that—to the progressive movement as a whole?
To answer that question, you’ve got to understand the role that Labor Notes has played over the last 40 years in “putting the movement back in the labor movement.” What started out in the late 1970s as a monthly magazine, soon began publishing books and holding national conferences. In the 2000s, it started holding local Troublemakers Schools organized by activists in their own cities. Labor Notes is an invaluable network that connects workers from different unions, worker centers, industries, communities, and countries to strengthen the movement from the bottom up.
Speaking at the Saturday banquet dinner, Jesse Sharkey, the current president of the militant Chicago Teachers Union, summed it up well, “Labor Notes is where we trained our activists, it’s where we recruited key staffers, and where we soaked up new skills, insights, and approaches.” And he pointed out that the magazine and biannual conferences is what has connected him and hundreds of others to the radical traditions of industrial unionism.
Labor Notes has been that sustaining connection for me. By the time I was a young radical organizer in the late ’70s and early ’80s, many of the left-leaning labor activists were long gone: expelled during the McCarthy period. Back then, I wasn’t exactly embraced by union leadership; in fact most were downright hostile. Subscribing to Labor Notes was a lifeline of practical organizing tips and inspiration that exposed me to other like-minded labor activists and created a community of fellow travelers.
That’s probably why I’ve attended every Labor Notes conference, except one, since its first meeting over 40 years ago.
There are two important reform currents in the labor movement. They aren’t at all contradictory, but activists tend to fall in one group or another. One side—call it the “rank and file strategy”—holds that to build a revived movement, we need to energize the rank and file and elect new, militant leaders. The other tendency says, change will more likely come from organizing the millions of unorganized workers into new or existing unions.
Labor Notes’ origins are rooted in the rank-and-file strategy. Our early conferences were largely a confab of pale, stale, and male dissident members from the auto, steel, coal, and trucking industries.
These meetings provided opportunities to build internal reform caucuses and share our experiences with others seeking to change their unions. The most successful example being Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the reform caucus that was started in the 1970s to fight corruption and build rank-and-file power. After 20 plus years of complacent national leadership under James P. Hoffa, in 2021 TDU formed a coalition to oust his chosen successor and elect Sean O’Brien.
Over the years, as the economy and the labor movement changed, Labor Notes evolved, especially since the 2008 Great Recession. Without abandoning the existing rank and file, Labor Notes is now a significant resource for the uprising of new and nontraditional worker organizing. And our conferences have blossomed into what one member called “Labor’s Coachella,” a festival of over 200 workshops, panels, and meet-ups where thousands of activists—young and old—share their lessons of building a more democratic, militant, and inclusive labor movement. It’s hard to convey the excitement generated by having hundreds of Starbucks, Amazon, and other workers who are self-organizing and leading the formation of new unions.
And it’s a huge credit the magazine’s staff and volunteer policy committee that they have been able to transcend Labor Notes’ origins and keep pace with this “movement moment.”
This year I attended with my 32-year-old daughter Marlie, a food justice organizer. It was her first Labor Notes conference. When I caught up with her at the end of the first day, she marveled at the racial, gender, and age diversity of the participants. She was also impressed with how many workshops were relevant to her work outside of the labor movement.
At the beginning of the conference, we held a special meeting of rank-and-file organizers from the new Amazon Labor Union; the Bessemer, Alabama workers organizing with RWDSU; Teamster organizers; and members of a national grassroots network, Amazonians United. The meeting included Amazon workers from Poland and Germany as well as representatives from many of the workers centers and nonprofit advocacy organizations that are supporting the organizing at Amazon. Each of these groups have different strategies and philosophies toward building worker power at Amazon. Labor Notes was in the unique position to help us to get everyone into one room for the first time to share our experiences and begin creating a supportive community of organizers.
Similar meetings of Starbucks workers, as well as workers in health care, education, auto, postal, media, building trades, railroad, trucking, and telecom industries also took place at the conference.
Throughout the weekend there was an emphasis on developing smart contract campaigns and powerful strike strategies. There were dozens of workshops on member-to-member communications, overcoming apathy, strike readiness, and techniques to identify employer vulnerabilities. And at every turn, there were celebrations of the many recent successful strikes including those at Nabisco, John Deere, St. Vincent Hospital, and the Minneapolis Public Schools.
A workshop I co-facilitated, Get Strike Ready, was packed with Teamsters preparing for their national contract campaign and negotiations with UPS next year. They have high expectations for the next contract, spurred on by a rousing speech from International President O’Brien the previous evening.
In addition to Starbucks and Amazon workers meetings, the conference also hosted meetings of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the United Caucuses of Rank-and-file Educators, and the Great Labor Arts Exchange (an annual gathering of musicians and artists). At the banquet dinner, Labor Notes gave its annual Troublemakers Awards to TDU, the UAW reform caucus Unite All Workers for Democracy, the gig-worker network Los Deliveristas, the social movement artist Ricardo Levins Morales, and the late author and labor strategist Mike Parker.
Over the last four decades of Labor Notes conferences, the idea that achieving labor’s objectives might also be tied to a political struggle for socialism has gone from a whisper to a shout. Judging by the number of Bernie T-shirts that attendees were wearing, there are plenty of activists who were energized by the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns and are now active, like me, at some level inside the Democratic Party. Yet on the cusp of the 2022 mid-terms, it was surprising that there were no workshops addressing the political challenges of getting out the labor vote, dealing with corporate Democrats, or contending for power within the Democratic Party. It’s a blind spot that should be addressed in the future.
Without a doubt, the sharing of lessons and the networking between activists will bear fruit in the labor struggles and strikes that will unfold over the years to come. I’m already looking forward to our next meeting in 2024, confident that our numbers will increase, and that our experience in the class struggle will be deeper and more strategic. It’s a historic moment for workers and their unions, so bosses beware: A new labor movement is rising, and we’re building momentum for far more than a raise. We won’t settle for anything less than “a future we can believe in.”
This piece first appeared in The Nation.