Eleventh Labor Notes Conference Reflects Struggle And Change Across The Country & Around The World

Hundreds of chanting demonstrators marched through the streets of downtown Detroit at mid-day April 21 to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas being negotiated and protested in Quebec City.

The demonstration in solidarity with events in Quebec and in cooperation with similar groups in Windsor, Ontario was part of the eleventh biennial Labor Notes conference. Co-sponsored by Labor Notes, Jobs with Justice, the Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit, the Alliance for Democracy, and other local organizations, the demonstration helped set the tone and provide the energy for the weekend conference.

The nearly 1,000 labor activists who came to Detroit also came to tackle long term problems and solutions. The conference title hurled the challenge: "Can Labor Change the World?" Answering mostly in the affirmative, one speaker after another pointed to new constituencies and the new movements and coalitions taking shape in the context of changing national and international economic and political conditions.

The conference itself represented much that was new in the large numbers of young people and Latino and immigrant workers who attended.


The conference-goers also reflected most of the major recent labor struggles and union reform movements. Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422, represented the "Charleston Five" longshore workers facing felony riot charges for picketing a company that was trying to operate nonunion.

Billy Robinson, president of UAW Local 2036, told of that union's fight against wheel maker Accuride's Kentucky plant and the fight to regain strike benefits from their International Union. Steve Early of CWA District 1 described how last year's strike at Verizon was won and drew lessons for others.

Another answer to the question, Can labor change the world?, was presented by workers' organizations that were transforming themselves to meet the challenges of a changing workplace and world.

Nurses from several states told of how they were building new organizations, as in St. Louis, or turning their old associations into real unions. Telling of the strike of Massachusetts nurses against forced overtime, Sandy Ellis said, "No more will nurses swallow their medicine no matter how bad it tastes. The revolution is on."

A large delegation from the Civil Service Employees Association, representing New York State employees, had a similar story of transformation. Another big group from the Coalition of University Employees at the University of California described how they had built a union without a bureaucracy.

Tom Leedham, reform candidate for president of the Teamsters union addressed the problem of union decline when he promised "to hire a thousand organizers directly from the ranks of Teamster members" if he wins this year's election.



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Throughout the conference, members of Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City's transit system related the long grassroots struggle of their New Directions caucus in changing that union. Speaking of their transition from opposition to office, Local 100's new president, Roger Toussaint, remarked, "There's a statute of limitations on being able to point to the guys above you."

Reflecting the generational change in the workforce, young workers told how they had organized 400 workers at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon into Local 5 of the ILWU. "When we try to convince new people to join our union, what we're really trying to do is build a sense of community on the job," a Local 5 activist told the conference's opening session.

Another change was evident at the conference in the large number of Latino and immigrant workers who participated-well over 100 this year. There was a series of meetings of the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty for Undocumented Workers, founded at the 1997 Labor Notes conference.


Whether dealing with workplace problems, building new alliances with environmentalists, or constructing cross-border networks, the heart of Labor Notes conferences is always the workshops and meetings by union, sector, or interest. In these smaller meetings people deal with the nuts and bolts of day-to-day work. This year was no exception and the evaluations by participants ran high.

Representatives of organizations like the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment and the North Carolina Black-Latino Alliance showed how new types of alliances were being built by unions and other groups. Questions like workplace surveillance, leading workplace actions, fighting for union democracy, and building cross-border solidarity were addressed in more than 60 workshops.

Labor Notes conferences are also a place to organize. At least two new international groups were formed at this year's conference. Workers from the U.S., Germany, Brazil, and elsewhere who work for the chemical giant Bayer set up an international network. A meeting of Delphi workers from the U.S. and Britain decided to hold a world-wide conference in England next January. DaimlerChrysler workers from the U.S., Germany, and Brazil also met.

Indeed, the international character of the conference was bolstered by participants from Mexico, Canada, France, Brazil, Germany, Colombia, Britain, Argentina, and El Salvador.

One of the most inspiring speakers of the weekend was Jose Ramirez of the Colombian Oil Workers Union who described the desperate fight of trade unionists for survival and warned of the dangers of U.S. military intervention in Colombia.

The closing panel included eyewitness accounts of events the previous day in Quebec by Christophe Aguiton of France, and of Argentina's three recent general strikes against globally-imposed austerity programs by Buenos Aires-based labor educator Daniel Ximenz.

Overall, the conference armed the participants with new tactical ideas, useful contacts, organizing tips, and a better understanding of the world labor so desperately needs to change.