Social Forum Will Bring Together Activists from Many Movements

When 40,000 union members joined thousands of other protesters at the 1999 Battle of Seattle to march against the WTO, it looked like activists from many different movements for social justice were finally getting together. The slogan “Teamsters and Turtles” was coined to indicate that activists opposing environmental destruction, NAFTA and other unfair trade agreements, increasing inequality, and human rights violations were uniting.

Steelworkers and Teamsters were two of the prominent unions in Seattle that day, and the Longshore workers union shut down every West Coast port in a day of solidarity.

In 2001, a similar coming together of different movements took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil—this time for an inaugural event of 12,000 people from dozens of countries. That “World Social Forum” and regional forums have been replicated dozens of times since then, and the first U.S. Social Forum took place in Atlanta in 2007.

Detroit will host the second U.S. Social Forum June 22-26, and organizers are expecting at least 10,000 activists for a large-scale, grassroots opportunity to discuss issues and formulate actions.

Environmental justice, community sustainability, participatory democracy, alternative education, human rights, peace, climate change, health care for all, indigenous peoples’ rights, and labor rights are among the many issues to be discussed in hundreds of workshops. “Organizing a Labor Movement for the 21st Century” is one of 14 “tracks” of workshops.

The Social Forum is organized by participants, with an emphasis on workable solutions, not simply resolutions.

Too often labor is painted—even by well-meaning activists in other movements—as part of the problem rather than the solution. Labor activists working to change this image have been involved in the Social Forum movement from its start, in Brazil, and in the U.S.

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In Brazil, those forces came together with the Workers Party, which ran the municipal government in the host city of Porto Alegre. In 2007 in Atlanta, the national labor action group Jobs with Justice played a big role, and labor organized workshops and a well-attended labor plenary. Atlanta-area unions, especially the central labor council and AFSCME, worked with the city on logistics.

This year Jobs with Justice is again helping to organize the USSF. In Detroit, Southeast Michigan JWJ, AFSCME, Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, and other unions are building participation. Labor Notes is one of many groups that will host workshops.

Across the country, local planning groups have held “People’s Movement Assemblies” to prepare for the Forum. The assembly in Detroit asked that the Forum take action against local targets: DTE, the utility company whose cut-offs led to 14 deaths this winter; the trash incinerator that pollutes Detroit’s air; Andiamo, a restaurant known for cheating its workers; and Chase Bank, one of the biggest foreclosers in Michigan. The Forums are known for their colorful actions and marches.

Union and worker center members working on the Forum view it as an opportunity to get members rubbing shoulders with other social movements. They are aware that labor has been most successful when it embraced its allies and worked with them for change that benefits everyone.

Reg McGhee is a member of Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice and UAW Local 1981. For more information, see US Social Forum.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #374, May 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.