Conference-Goers Push for Labor Solidarity, Rebound From Disruption

by Chris Sturr | April 15, 2008

This from the staff of Labor Notes: a report on their annual conference, which was held this past weekend in Dearborn, Mich. D&S co-editor Amy Gluckman was in attendance.

More than 1,000 union activists and supporters met at the Labor Notes conference April 11-13 to strategize and debate how to rebuild the labor movement’s power.

Media attention has been given to the attempted disruption of the conference by several hundred staffers and members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—some of whom became violent when conference participants refused to allow the chanting protesters to enter the hotel’s banquet hall (See full story).

The fact is, however, that the business of the conference went on as planned. With the exception of a handful of earlier workshops in which speakers were shouted down by SEIU staffers, participants gathered in 110 meetings with members of their own unions and across unions, learned nuts-and-bolts tactics, debated grand strategies, networked, agreed, disagreed, and inspired each other.

A few highlights:

* About 250 participants swelled the American Axle workers’ picket line in Detroit during the Saturday lunch break. A half-dozen amazed American Axle workers, who have been on strike for seven weeks, later came to the conference to be presented with Labor Notes’ “Troublemaker” award.
* Rail workers from seven different unions founded Railroad Workers United, a cross-union solidarity caucus aiming to counter the frequent feuding and disunity among rail unions.
* Participants came from 21 countries, including Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Brazil, and China.
* Telecom workers held a special half-day meeting to strategize over upcoming contract expirations and restructuring changes in the their industry.
* A linked set of workshops on Chinese labor issues drew new participants who debated how to relate to the world’s largest workforce.
* Another set of meetings on Black workers’ issues drew African American labor activists into a unique cross-union dialogue.
* A reception for the Freightliner Five—union officers fired last year in Cleveland, North Carolina, for leading a one-day strike—drew both fellow UAW members and those concerned about organizing in the South.
* A workshop titled “Neutrality Agreements and Organizing Deals: Salvation or Sell-Out?” drew more than a hundred to debate both principles and practical results.
* The percentage of the conference made up of young people was much larger than in recent years. In the Bay Area and Portland, local support committees organized ahead of time to enable big crews of hotel workers and building trades apprentices to attend.
* “Troublemaker” awards were given to John Sferazo, an Ironworker and 9/11 responder who fought for compensation for workers disabled by their work at Ground Zero; the United Workers, a scrappy group that won a living wage for the day laborers who clean Camden Yards in Baltimore; the Taxi Workers Alliance, which organizes New York City’s immigrant cabbie workforce; and American Axle strikers.

The conference was dedicated to Santiago Rafael Cruz, an organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Mexico, who was murdered by employer-paid thugs.

Perhaps surprising, given the weakened state of the labor movement, is the fact that this was the largest Labor Notes conference since 1997, with more than 1,000 registrants. Although discussions were sober, participants still found inspiration in encountering so many others who were, as one session was titled, “troublemaking for the long haul.”

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