By Gerard Di Trolio and Andrew Stevens
With a record number of participants, 2016 Labor Notes conference in Chicago started off with a bang. Day one of the conference launched amidst demonstrations across the city, as the members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) staged events at schools, prisons, universities, and fast food outlets demanding economic and social justice for American workers. Teachers and activists converged on City Hall later than afternoon, beginning a 28,000-strong march after powerful speeches by former CTU president, Karen Lewis, Jesse Jackson, and a handful of rank-and-file activists.
But this event wasn’t just about the crisis facing Chicago’s education system and the plight of CTU members. April 1 marked a convergence of struggles from #blacklivesmatter to the Fight for $15 campaign, just as the city demands major concessions from teachers. Educators there are also attempting to curb the expansion of standardized testing and demanding that the Board of Education reduce class sizes and increase funds for schools. The Illinois government has also failed to assemble a budget, leaving the secondary and post-secondary publicly-funded education system in a state of austerity-driven uncertainty. Readers should refer to The Chicago Teacher’s Strike: A Reader for a background on what led to the April 1 strike since 2012. This event provided a powerful launch to a U.S. conference that brings together labor activists from around the United States, Mexico, Canada, and Europe every two years.
Over the course of three days, a hundred workshops and meetings dotted the Labor Notes event. Thousands were in attendance. The main evening plenary showcased the struggle of Mexican and U.S. farmworkers who struggle to achieve even the minimum wage in an effort to achieve dignity in the field. These workers are even so bold as to call for a boycott of retail chain, Fresco, a major purchaser of the fruit these worker toil to produce. One went so far as to ask consumers to stop purchasing strawberries altogether, as the retailer has started to re-brand fruit in response to the boycott.
In a session on “lean” production, longshore workers and members of the ILWU facilitated a discussion on how changes to labour processes impact health and safety in the workplace. There, representatives from unions representing physicians, nurses, skilled construction trades, and educators shared their experiences with OHS regimes in Canada and the United States. What workers hold in common is a world in which employers demand enhanced productivity from fewer full-time, well-paid employees. A Chicago Transportation Union (CTU) electricians addressed how a macho culture emerges as a response to work speedup and safety hazards, where a “suck-it-up” attitudes compensates for an erosion of OHS standards and regulations. Americans, meanwhile, have little faith in established safety committees, which they see as dominated by managers and poorly enforced by a weakened OSHA. Longshore workers made clear that only through militancy and work refusals will owners take OHS seriously.
Labor and the Black Lives Matter Movement
The “panel offered critical reflections on how organized labor must position itself on contemporary civil rights and anti-racist struggles. Here, panelists and participants addressed the need for new leadership within the union movement, workplaces and marginalized communities are seen as important vectors of resistance. For some, unions are afraid or unwilling to confront these issues, despite lip service being paid to Black Lives Matter by senior officials with the AFL-CIO and other prominent unions. The panel discussion and Q&A session can be listened to below.
Q&A Part 1:
Q&A Part 2:
The Fight for $15 Crosses Industries and Borders
Facilitated by Sophia Zaman, this panel featured Roxanne Dubois of Unifor, Socialist Alternative Seattle Council Member Kshama Sawant, Lennox James of Teamsters Local 804 of New York City and Long Island, Jenny Burt and Tom Collette of LIUNA Local 483 of Portland, Oregon. The theme of the presentation was how the Fight for $15 inspired real concrete victories. The most interesting information was given by Council Member Sawant who explained how her and Seattle activists managed to keep the pressure on city council to pass a $15 minimum wage despite pressure from local business and a Democratic Party establishment that wanted to compromise.
Panel discussion part 1:
Panel discussion part 2:
Labor Struggles in Palestine
Saturday’s Labor Struggles in Palestine panel was well attended and shed light on a number of pressing issues about Palestinian workers in the Occupied Territories and Israel. Manawel Abdel-Al of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions discussed how there are many different tiers of Palestinian workers living in the West Bank who find work in Israel. Some have work permits, others must enter Israel to work illegally. It is these workers without permits who are the most marginalized and precarious workers in Palestine.
The second speaker was Yoav Tamir of the independent union WAC-MAAN (Workers’ Advice Centre). Tamir discussed how his union was a joint Arab and Jewish one, based in Israel and committed to combating discrimination against Arab workers in Israel. Though WAC-MAAN is small, it seeks to be an alternative to the Histadrut which though it has a small minority of Arab members, was a vital part of the Zionist colonization of historic Palestine.
The final day of the conference wrapped up with a Canadian session organized by Unifor’s Roxanne Dubois and Brynne Sinclair-Waters from CUPE 1281. There, participants discussed the challenges labour activists and unions face north of the border and the need for greater rank-and-file activism. There were in depth discussions among the breakout groups about building diverse alliances and political strategy to name a few. Labor Notes 2016 was a fitting venue for this discussion. Several participants concluded that now is the time for a Canadian response to LN, namely a venue for union members to chart a course independent of the union leadership. Answering this call Rankandfile.ca hopes to convene just such an event in the summer of 2017.
Labor Notes Conference 2016 was an exhilarating event. Between Friday’s protests and the wide array of panel topics, it feels as if labor and the left in the United States is on the move. Not surprisingly, Bernie Sanders was a hot topic of discussion with many conference goers sporting Bernie shirts and pins. It will be interesting to see where all of these movements are in two years time at the next conference. One can never be sure, but it seems like these movements have staying power.
If the conference has a fault, it’s that there are so many interesting panels going on at any given time, making it difficult to see everything one wants to. Nevertheless, it’s highly recommended for trade union activists to try to make it out to one if they can. You won’t regret it.
And one more thing – shout out to New York City MTA workers from TWU Local 100. They sure know how to party!