“The beating heart of the labor movement”: report on the 2018 Labor Notes conference

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.
Redline has added photos to Guy’s report; the photos are all taken from the LN facebook page.


  1. Excellent report. Gives a good feel for the conference and an optimistic sense that at least sections of the North American and international working class is growing restless and looking for a class struggle alternative to the union tops.

    • Thank you for a well crafted article, Guy. Learned a lot about Labor Notes, an important rank and file union organization whose conference growth this year shows a promising rise in resistance. So glad to know, as well. that my friend Linda’s organizing efforts were so successful at the conference. I’m sending your report Guy to my friends at CUPE 3903, graduate and teaching assistants who are are on strike at York University in Toronto. Suzanne Weiss

      • Thanks Suzanne. I recall you from an anti-imperialist conference in Melbourne some years ago. You and John were over from Canada. I am hoping we might get a piece from Linda about the university workers’ struggle in the States. There is also a significant struggle going on in Britain at present re university staff. If you’d like to write something on the strike at York, we’d be happy to run it.

        Phil F

  2. In New Zealand, there has been a small upswing in struggle this year. There is a bitter fight going on in Lyttelton, the port of Christchurch, between the rail maritime union and the Port bosses and, on a national level, there is a battle in public health, where health and hospital workers rejected the union leadership’s recommendation that they accept the bosses’ offer (including a meagre 2% pay rise). But we have no formation/s within the labour movement that are comparable with Labor Notes. A very positive development has been the Health Sector Workers Network, which is a rank-and-file cross-union formation that is very recent and has been doing excellent stuff and which hopefully will grow out of the current dispute. A local government workers’ rank-and-file network is about to start up too.

  3. I am a born and raised (until age 12) New Zealander now living in the US. Was on staff of Labor Notes (now on the board) and dual Solidarity/DSA member. How can I be in touch w Guy Miller and Phil F? Thanks for this report.

      • I was also there. I’m a DSA member who’s been aware of Labor Notes for a very long time (and more recently a subscriber) and was always sympathetic to Solidarity. It makes me very happy that so many Solidarity members are joining DSA and playing a very positive role. It’s helped with the absorption of the “Labor Notes perspective” within DSA in regards to how we relate to unions (and most of their “leaders.”)

        One thing that often surprises me is that LN doesn’t seem to have an equivalent in many other countries. Something similar existed in the 1990s in the UK but fizzled out of existence. I know some Marxist groups have workplace bulletins, but those strike me as insufficiently “broad” and incapable of attracting a mass following outside of those who already agree with said groups’ political perspectives. The existence of mass reformist workers parties (let’s be honest, they’re not even reformist anymore) doesn’t strike me as a sufficient explanation for the lack of LN-type papers.

    • Well, it takes a core of highly-motivated people to get something like LN going and then stick with it. LN came from activists within IS in the States, in line with their from-below perspective and obviously managed to tap into broader sentiments of dissatsifaction with the union hierarchy. In NZ, there are a few rank-and-file initiatives underway currently, for instance the Health Sector Workers Network and one among local government workers. The HSWN is tapping into some growing militant sentiments among workers in the health sector and hopefully this will be the case with the local government workers’ network.

      In Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, there were a number of initiatives by the CP and several of the main Trotskyist groups. The CP initiated the Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Unions, the IS had rank-and-file groups across quite a chunk of both white-collar and blue-collar sectors and the Healyites had a cross-union formation as well (whose name eludes me right now).

      These outfits had significant conferences and a serious presence across a chunk of the organised working class. Their conferences attracted forces far beyond their own membership and periphery. They disappeared with the defeats inflicted on workers by the British ruling class in the late 1970s (under Labour) and then, on a bigger scale, in the 1980s under Thatcher. And, of course, the CP itself collapsed and the IS, which had become the SWP in 1977, went into decline and lost much of its blue-collar base.

      I think one of the big political problems was an erroneous analysis of Labour – ie the notion t was some kind of ‘workers’ party. The major groups on the British left promoted illusions in Labour and Labourism and were simply not equipped to pose a *real* alternative.

      Another problem was the vast overestimation of the consciousness of the working class by much of the left. I well recall the old Militant Tendency banging on (and on and on) about how splendidly the British worming class had created defence organisations and they were so numeircally big and so organisationally powerful that they simply could not be defeated. They simply didn’t understand the *political* weakness of the British working class and the union movement, including much of the union left. Along came Thatcher and blew the house of cards over.

  4. Good report by Guy Miller. As to the applicability of the Labor Notes model to other countries like New Zealand….?

    Labor Notes springs from the somewhat unique soil of the United States, an advanced capitalist country that still doesn’t have a working class party, even thoroughly reformist ones such as exist in the Commonwealth states. As a result, in order to appeal to the most advanced sectors of the working class, LN makes the common denominator rank and file trouble-making bottom up activity. Questions like independent working class action in politics given the situation in the US would divide the potential forces that could be attracted to LN. Given that this question has been settled for better or worse in most other countries, could the Labor Notes model be replicated abroad? I’m not sure.

    The burning question in the UK for example, has turned out to be how to relate to the developments in the Labour Party. Would the questions of union democracy play the kind of role they do in the US?
    I’m interested in what other people think about this.

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