by Guy Miller
“The beating heart of the labor movement.” That’s how the moderator of the Friday evening April 6th plenary session of the 2018 Labor Notes (LN) Conference introduced six West Virginia school teachers. The teachers were fresh from a historic victory in their unauthorized – and unexpected – strike. The same could be said about the conference itself: it represented the beating heart of American labor. The record 3,200 activists who attended the three-day Chicago conference were living, fighting proof of that
History of Labor Notes
Labor Notes was founded in 1979, just as the attack on the American working class was about to shift into high gear. The three founders – Jane Slaughter, Kim Moody and Jim West – were members of the International Socialists(1), one of several American groups tracing their roots back to Trotskyist origins. Slaughter, Moody and West realized that just creating a “front group” for the IS would result in a dead-end for their project, so they sought from the beginning to create an organization that would support and encourage rank-and-file activity in the trade union movement.
1979 was the year that Paul Volcker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, set the Fed’s interest rate to a record high, bringing on what is often called the Volcker Recession. The double dip recession that ensued saw the loss of over a half a million manufacturing jobs, at the same time bringing the number of strikes to a screeching halt. This was under the presidency of (Democrat) Jimmy Carter; things only got worse under the following (Republican) Reagan administration. In 1981 Reagan broke the national Air Traffic Controllers’ strike and smashed their union as well. Meanwhile, the leadership of the AFL-CIO – equivalent of the CTU in New Zealand – essentially sat and twiddled their collective thumbs. The long, slow Thermidor of American labor had begun.
The height of organized labor in the U.S. had been reached in 1954 when 35% of the workforce belonged to a union. The absolute number of union members, however, continued to grow, reaching 21 million in 1979. However, by 2017 the percentage of unionized workers fell to an abysmal 11.3%, with only 6.7% density in the private sector.
As the dog-days turned into decades, Labor Notes persevered. It held its first national conference in 1981 attended by 576 unionists. What started out as a newsletter called Labor Notes soon became a monthly magazine. LN saw its mission as transforming the labor movement through rank and file involvement. Its priority has never been to elect people to top union offices as an end in itself.
Labor Notes‘ current president, Mark Brenner, describes its goal as “promoting union reform as a strategy for revitalizing the labor movement, one of our biggest contributions, both theoretically, but also practically, helping generations of reformers think strategically.”
To make the practical part of this vision concrete, LN publishes books and pamphlets aimed at grassroots organizers. Such titles as, “No Contract, No Peace” and “Secrets of a Successful Organizer” give a flavor of its orientation.
In recent years LN has begun holding “Troublemaker”(2) seminars across the country. Organizers and speakers are sent out to hold day-long workshops. These how-to gatherings work with local activists, giving them advice and support.
This year’s conference
A surprising teacher upsurge began in West Virginia and soon spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona, all states ostensibly in Trumpland. Forty years of capitalist austerity have hit these states particularly hard. In all four of them teacher salaries are among the lowest in the country. Young teachers, especially, are caught in the pincers between low wages on the one hand and student debt and spiralling health insurance costs on the other. When West Virginia Governor Jim Justice offered an insulting 1% wage increase, the fuse was lit.
Teachers from all four states affected by strike fever were present at the conference. Of the six from West Virginia, only two had even heard of Labor Notes until recently. One of the six has been a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for several years.
The conference had over 200 sessions, with eleven of them devoted to teachers’ struggles. To give an idea of the breadth of the conference, I will name a cross section of session titles: “Unions and the Veterans’ Fight Against V.A. (Veterans Administration; among other things it provides healthcare to veterans) Privatization”; “Going on Offense to Defend Immigrant Members”; “Corbynism and the the Resurgence of the British Labour Movement”; “Longshore Meeting”; “Secrets of a Successful Organizer”; “The UAW at Volkswagen and Nissan: What Happened?”
To me one of the highlights of the conference is always the international participation. At the 2016 conference I had the chance to meet a fellow railroad worker from South Korea. He had been one of leaders of a major railroad strike there. I had my picture taken with him, and now it sits framed on top of my dresser.
This year there were over 200 international guests from 24 different countries. The largest contingent was from Canada, followed by 29 Japanese sisters and brothers, and 17 from the United Kingdom. Congo and Liberia were also in the house. Perhaps most impressive of all was Imad Temiza, a member of the Palestinian Postal Service Workers Union.
My wife, Linda, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees at Northeastern Illinois University co-convened a workshop for higher education workers. The overflow meeting had over 100 people from more than 30 campuses across the country, as well as Mexico and Canada. Not only did these university workers exchange experiences, an ongoing Facebook group emerged from the session. Such social media groups make sharing of information easy.
Although Labor Notes is not a political organization, in a sense politics is unavoidable at such a gathering. While many of our brothers and sisters still have – I think diminishing – delusions about the Democratic Party, the DP had no official presence this year. Two years ago Bernie Sanders supporters were very much in evidence.
The main hall outside the Grand Ballroom was filled with tables. Left groups were represented by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Solidarity, Socialist Alternative (SAlt), the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the IWW among others. I also noticed tables from Haymarket Publishing and the Illinois Labor History Society. The Single Payer was present. Folk singer Anne Feeney did a brisk business selling CDs at her table.
The hallway was festooned with banners and posters. It served as a marketplace of ideas and reflected the spirit of Labor Notes: Solidarity!
(1) The IS no longer exists. Many of its cadres are now members of Solidarity and the ISO.
(2) ‘Troublemakers’ has become the catch phrase of Labor Notes. A sling shot – the tool of that arch American troublemaker, Dennis the Menace – is the official logo of LN.