20 Years of Labor Notes

Just over 20 years ago America was in the midst of a big change. During the second half of the 1970s, "stagflation" hit the U.S. economy, the employers got aggressive, and politics veered to the right. The bitter 110-day strike by the United Mine Workers and the concessions made during the Chrysler bailout marked the change.

As the new decade opened, organized labor saw its membership drop for the first time in decades. Then Reagan ascended to the White House and the new era was under way with the crushing of the air traffic controllers' union as its symbol.

It was 1979, in the midst of this stormy change, that Labor Notes began publication. We had little idea that the decline of the unions would be so severe, that industries that were an early focus in Labor Notes would shrink, or that there would be a fundamental shift in the country’s politics.

In some ways our early issues sound familiar. The front page headline of number 1 read, "Teamster Dissidents Doing Well in Local Union Elections." Others were from another era, like the headline on issue number 2 about Wage Guidelines, or number 3, "Steel Workers Reform Movement Gains in Local Union Elections."

The theme of union democracy was there from the start, but we soon expanded to other issues. Some of our early publications like "Stopping Sexual Harassment", by Elissa Clarke were unique at the time and did well. Others, like one on wage guidelines, didn’t.

The first Labor Notes conference was held in April 1981 in downtown Detroit in the midst of a full-blown recession. It attracted about 400 people. The keynote speaker was Tony Mazzocchi, who called for a labor party in the U.S. (Tony is the guiding spirit behind the fledgling Labor Party that was founded in 1996.)


As the concessions cascade gathered force, Labor Notes began to provide the information and arguments union activists needed to fight back. Hundreds of these activists came to Detroit for the 1982 conference, appropriately called "Organizing Against Concessions." When concessions were still fairly new, some argued that they only affected troubled industries, others that they would go away with economic recovery. We argued that it was a question of power. The most difficult argument to counter, however, was that concessions would save jobs.

In 1983, we published "Concessions and How To Beat Them", by Jane Slaughter, to arm the resistance. The book showed, among other things, that concessions were not saving jobs in most cases. At that time, auto workers organized Locals Against Concessions. Clerical workers at Yale University waged a successful strike.

In Austin, Minnesota, members of UFCW Local P-9 began a struggle against concessions that mobilized thousands. Labor Notes helped carry the P-9 message across the country, as P-9’s road warriors of the 1980s hit the highways. The P-9 fight brought a lot of people together across union lines, but it wasn’t enough to beat a company determined to cut costs and an international union willing to go along.


In the 1980s concessions often took a new form as employers introduced "quality circles," followed by "team concept" and a score more "employee involvement" and "worker participation" programs. The argument from many within the labor movement was that we would get more workplace power in exchange for the concessions these programs embodied. Going against the tide, Labor Notes argued that workers and unions would lose power under these schemes.

"Inside the Circle: a Union Guide to QWL", by Mike Parker, was the first handbook to expose the fraud of labor-management cooperation. In 1988, Mike collaborated with Jane Slaughter on a second handbook, "Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept". This was updated in 1994 as "Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering". Thousands of these books spread across the labor movement.

In 1991, Labor Notes began a series of nine "Team Concept," later called "Lean Workplace" schools that trained hundreds of activists in how to fight against and within these cost-cutting, speed-up management schemes.

By the 1990s, Labor Notes was reaching thousands of rank and file unionists each month. Our readership and coverage had expanded from its original blue collar base into service and public sector unions. Our biennial conferences now attracted over 1,000 activists. A few of the speakers at recent conferences were high level union officials like Bob Wages of the OCAW, Bob Clark of the UE, and Baldemar Velasquez of FLOC, but the rank and file character of these gatherings was still dominant. Our staff expanded and our circulation grew to about 11,000.

What made the project and its publications successful was the rank and file sea on which it floated--the many union activists who kept the project informed, worked on its events, and gave its handbooks, conferences, and schools their grounding in day-to-day struggles across the labor movement.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

The 1991, "A Troublemakers Handbook", by Dan La Botz, brought together the experiences, ideas, and innovative strategies of the era--from the early inside strategy at Moog Automotive to the occupation of Pittston’s coal preparation plant. "Troublemakers" talked about member-based organizing, unionizing immigrant workers, and member mobilizing long before the new AFL-CIO adopted those themes.

Of course, not all our publishing efforts were so successful. An updated "Stopping Sexual Harassment " in 1992 faced too much competition this time, as did "Unions and Free Trade". We learned that we do best when we do what others are not doing. A 1995 pamphlet on working time entitled "Time Out: The Case for a Shorter Work Week"also takes up a lot of shelf space despite (or because of) its unique topic.


In the last decade or so, thousands of union activists began to cross two kinds of frontiers: the international borders with Canada and Mexico, and the frontier to a new unionism. While we had done international work for some time, Labor Notes began a systematic cross-border program in cooperation with the Transnationals Information Exchange in 1990. Labor Notes, in cooperation with other organizations in all three countries, organized meetings, tours, and face-to-face encounters between workers in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, particularly in the auto and telecommunications industries. The latest tour was last year when three Mexican maquiladora workers toured the Midwest U.S. and central Canada.

Another frontier was crossed when rank and file Teamsters breached the bastions of union corruption and conservatism in 1991. The reform coalition, backed by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and headed by Ron Carey, began a transformation in union culture that produced the 1997 UPS strike. The depth of this transformation can be measured by the fact that in 1998, even after a disastrous setback and two years of chaos, over 140,000 rank and file Teamsters voted for the TDU-backed reform slate headed by Tom Leedham.

The experience of TDU and the Teamster reform movement has lit a beacon for reform movements across the country. Labor Notes, the magazine, is spreading the word to the rest of the labor movement. As one TDUer put it a few years ago, "Labor Notes is the Convoy [TDU’s newspaper] for the whole labor movement." Labor Notes, the educational project, is helping to train and arm reform activists. Labor Notes materials were there in the two-year fight against team concept at UPS that preceded the 1997 strike.

There was plenty of bad news as well in the 1990s. The long, hard struggles at A.E. Staley and the Detroit Newspaper Agency turned the Midwest into a war zone. A new wave of road warriors spread out across the country. Labor Notes helped put together support events and got the word out to thousands. In the end, though, indecisive leadership helped lead to defeat.

As with P-9, however, the movements of support for these and other struggles helped to build a growing current of union activists who saw the need for deep change in the unions. Labor Notes helped these activists find one another and learn each other’s stories.


Too many such tales of unresponsive leadership and/or a deactivated membership underlined the importance of union democracy. So in the last year Labor Notes shifted its educational emphasis from team concept and lean production to the fight for union democracy.

The shift isn’t completely new or total, of course. We’ve always focused on union democracy. Drawing on the experience of TDU and other successful reform movements, the Labor Notes approach also emphasizes the centrality of rank and file struggles against the employers. Typically these will be workplace issues or those around contracts, not just union elections. This approach was that of the first Labor Notes union democracy school in March 1998 and of the April 23-25 Labor Notes conference, "Democracy is Power," as well as of the training schools of the same name that follow in the Fall. "Democracy Is Power" is also the title of the new Labor Notes’ handbook on union democracy by Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle.

Today, Labor Notes is part of a broad and growing trend of union activists that is working to change the labor movement. This current seeks a unionism of the members and by the members--but for all working people. It is a unionism that builds democratically in the workplace, but reaches out to other unions, communities, and workers in other nations. The current that advocates this kind of "social movement unionism" is based primarily in the rank and file and among local level activists and officers. It’s a current that didn’t exist 20 years ago, and Labor Notes is proud to have helped build it over the years.

To be sure, in a movement of millions, this current is still small. And looking back over 20 years we are aware that movements rise and fall, people come and go, and history throws a curve ball every now and then.

Nevertheless, as the new century approaches we see some signs of a change potentially as important as that of 20 years ago, but more hopeful for working people.

We see a labor movement that is struggling with itself to change. We see new reform efforts across the labor movement, mostly still small and local, but gaining ground. We see a big shift in public opinion that now overwhelmingly supports strikes like those at UPS, GM, US West, and Southern New England Telephone. More people seem to be sick of the political right and of pro-business politics in general. We now have the beginnings of the Labor Party Tony Mazzocchi called for in 1981, as well as the growing rank and file current of which Labor Notes is a part.

These are the building blocks for a more effective labor movement in the Twenty-first century. Labor Notes will be there doing our best to help put them in place.

Kim Moody is the one of the founders of Labor Notes and currently serves as its director.