A Month of Troublemaking

Participants at the Detroit Troublemakers School shared ideas during a Secrets of a Successful Organizer workshop. Photo: Jim West, jimwestphoto.com

Labor Notes has been busy across the country, organizing four big Troublemakers Schools already this spring, with more to come. These schools are unique opportunities for workplace activists from various unions and sectors to build organizing skills and swap strategies.

Two hundred hospital workers, school staffers, farmworkers, and baristas packed the Plumbers Local 267 hall in Ithaca, New York, on March 23 for our first Troublemakers School of the year.

Electrical Workers (UE) Local 506 President Scott Slawson kicked off the day with a report from Erie, Pennsylvania, where 1,700 workers who make locomotive engines struck for nine days and beat back—for now—their employer’s efforts to impose two-tier wages and mandatory overtime and hire hundreds of temps.

The strike ended with a 90-day interim agreement, but Slawson said he has warned the company that the union needs a long-term contract soon: “We’re either going to be done by Memorial Day weekend, or we’re going to be out.”

A week later the Detroit Troublemakers School drew 100 electricians, bus drivers, teachers, and others for workshops on beating apathy, assertive grievance handling, and contract campaigns. In “Turning an Issue into a Campaign,” teachers from Dearborn sketched out an impressive escalating campaign against over-testing.

A closing plenary on the Green New Deal featured Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib alongside General Motors workers from Detroit and Oshawa, Canada.

Rep. Tlaib is the second sitting member of Congress to address a Labor Notes event. Bernie Sanders was the first, speaking about his proposed “Workers’ Bill of Rights” at our 1993 conference.


April 6 was a double-header, with Troublemakers Schools drawing 400 people in Berkeley, California, and 200 in Portland, Oregon.

Plenary sessions in the Bay Area featured recent strikers from Marriott hotels, Los Angeles and Oakland schools, and University of California campuses, plus a member of the newly formed union at the Anchor Steam Beer brewery. Activists packed workshops on bargaining table tactics and building solidarity with immigrant workers.

“How to March on the Boss” was a big hit, as usual. Participants planned and carried out a mock march on a bully boss who had taken away their parking stipend. For a worksheet on organizing your own march, visit bit.ly/marchontheboss.



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

In Portland, the featured speaker was Arlene Inouye, a leader in United Teachers Los Angeles, who described the organizing that lay behind January’s strike. To prepare their co-workers for what tactics to expect from the school district as strike plans heated up, activists popularized the acronym “FUD”—fear, uncertainty, doubt.

Workshops taught how to plan a winning contract campaign, unionize your workplace, and bargain for the common good. Teachers from around Oregon used the day to strategize for a statewide walkout in May.

Troublemakers from the Pacific Northwest crossed state and even national borders to attend, including carpenters from Seattle and public employees from Vancouver, B.C. We got the message—look for Troublemakers Schools in those cities later this year!

Thanks to all the volunteers who helped make these events a success and to all the unions that contributed funds to get members there.


Up next we’ve got the West Virginia Troublemakers School in Beckley on May 18, the Massachusetts Troublemakers School in Worcester on June 1, and the Dallas Troublemakers School on July 20. Register at labornotes.org/events, and help us spread the word.

Besides those mentioned above, Labor Notes also has events brewing this year in Atlanta, Birmingham, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. We’re collaborating with the International Labor Rights Forum on a summer conference in Taiwan, building off networks developed at Labor Notes Conferences.

If you’re interested in organizing an event in your area, bringing Labor Notes to your union, or borrowing the curriculum for one of the workshops described here, email training[at]labornotes[dot]org.

And we hope to see many of you a year from now at the granddaddy of them all, the Labor Notes Conference in Chicago, April 17-19, 2020!

Parts of this report were taken from Danielle Aubert and Michelle Emfinger’s article, “Troublemakers Go to School in Detroit”.

Dan DiMaggio is assistant editor of Labor Notes.dan@labornotes.org