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Talking union at Labor Notes

By Lee Sustar | September 19, 2003 | Page 11

ABOUT 800 people turned out for the Labor Notes conference near Detroit September 12-14. Sponsored by the monthly publication of the same name, the Labor Notes conference attracted rank-and-file activists from a range of unions and featured labor leaders and activists from Latin America and Europe. Also on hand were union staff, several local union officers, labor educators, community workers' center groups, college students, veteran left-wing activists and socialists.

The keynote speaker was Bill Fletcher Jr., president of the lobbyist group TransAfrica and former assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Fletcher pointed out that the strength of the left--including the Communist and Socialist parties and Trotskyist organizations--were key to the upsurge of the 1930s that led to the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

A related theme was sounded by author Dan Clawson, author of the new book, The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements. In a well-attended workshop on "Labor History: Lessons for Today," Clawson argued that unions won't be rebuilt through today's union strategies of small incremental growth, but through explosive upturns in struggle such as those of the 1930s.

The challenges facing labor today were clear from the fact that many of the mainstays of Labor Notes conferences of the past--members of reform groups in unions in the steel, auto and freight industries--were fewer in number. This was a reflection of a generational transition in the working class, the heavy toll of plant closings and layoffs, the relentless pressure on rank-and-file dissidents from the union bureaucracy and the small number of strikes in recent years.

Among the largest contingents from blue-collar unions were about a dozen members International Longshoremen's Association, including ILA Local 1422 President Ken Riley from Charleston, S.C., and a carload of strikers from the Tyson meatpacking plant in Jefferson, Wis.

The conference did reflect the activism in recent years in white-collar and service unions, particularly in education and health care as well as student-labor solidarity work. One of the main sessions included Martha Ahmed, a rank-and-file activist of the successful union drive at the Fletcher Allen hospital in Burlington, Vt., and Karen Joseph, a staff member of the New Jersey Education Association local that defied a judge's injunction to go on strike in 2001 despite the jailing of 230 teachers.

Smaller workshops included union and industry sector meetings and nuts-and-bolts sessions on such issues as organizing, running local contract campaigns and more. Several of these sessions included lively discussions--including a debate on the proposed contract settlement at Verizon, which Communications Workers of America staff organizer Steve Early called a "defensive victory" despite the numerous concessions contained in the deal, which was negotiated after the union ordered members to work a month past a contract deadline.

Special guests from unions in such countries as Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, France, Germany, Nigeria, Spain and Sri Lanka provided inspiring accounts of their struggles and discussed concrete ways to build international labor solidarity.

A crucial issue facing the labor movement--the 2004 elections--was discussed during the second-to-last session on the closing day. All three panelists--South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna DeWitt, Labor Party organizer Mike Dudzic and Jim Jontz of Americans for Democratic Action--argued for support for any Democratic candidate against George W. Bush. In the debate that followed, members of the Green Party, the ISO and other socialists in the audience argued against voting for the "lesser evil" and called for organizing independent political action instead. In the closing speech of the conference, the ILA's Kenneth Riley called for reducing--but not eliminating--labor's spending to elect politicians in order to put more resources into building a "people's movement."

A highlight of the conference was a lively discussion on antiwar organizing in the unions led by Gene Bruskin of U.S. Labor Against the War, with more than 60 people turning out for a special early-morning "interest group" meeting to build the Labor Assembly for Peace set for October 25 in Chicago. This and other discussions showed that Labor Notes can continue to play a role in organizing important debates in the labor movement and helping to organize the left in the unions.

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