Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Richard Simpson

Lessons from the “Labor Notes” Conference

First Published: The New Voice, Vol. XI, No. 7, November 7, 1983.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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While high-level trade union officials fall all over each other to offer concessions and give-backs to the employers, other currents are at work in the labor movement. Over the weekend of September 30 through October 2, several hundred activists gathered in Oakland, Ca. for a conference entitled, “Saving our Jobs and Working Conditions,” put on by the Labor Education and Research Project (publishers of “Labor Notes” newsletter).

One panel discussion highlighted actual struggles against concessions and plant closings; another explored the good and bad aspects of protectionism as a way to save jobs in this country. Small-group workshops covered issues like affirmative action, health and safety, runaway shops and organizing the unorganized.

The conference was a good idea, and the organizers put in a lot of work so that West Coast union activists could get together and share experiences. We offer these comments and criticisms hoping that similar events in the future will profit from this conference’s lessons. As one conference attendee put it, “I don’t need to spend two days to have a dozen speakers tell me there is a problem. I’m ready to work on some solutions.”


The conference took on an “educational” rather than a “debate” format. People did express their views from the floor, and workshops provided more opportunity for exchange. But the time for floor debate was short, and even the workshops started out with a panel of speakers to set the tone.

In only one instance did the organizers encourage a thorough presentation of differing views in a plenary session. The panel examining the “local content” form of protectionism had two speakers who favored it and two who opposed it. But even in this case, the moderator disclaimed a “debate format,” as if debating would somehow tarnish the spirit of unity.

There was no opportunity to put forth resolutions for discussion and voting. Such a format could have made the proceedings more concrete and valuable on a number of issues that people felt strongly–and differently–about: protectionism, the need for a labor party, and the correct tactics to protect affirmative action, to name a few.

As a result, few concrete suggestions came out of the wrap-up discussion on the last day. Thorough discussion of differences should be encouraged at events of this type so that issues can be clarified and decisions made.


On a broader scale, the conference illustrated a critical political fact: the left wing’s ties among the masses are not terribly broad or deep.

Organizers specifically targetted trade union officials and the academic community; they neglected to do serious outreach to center forces within the working class. In addition, setting the conference in an expensive hotel made the cost of attending prohibitive for many workers. As a result, the majority of the participants worked for unions or came from the left. Panelists and speakers also tended to be union officials on the local level, or academicians, or “Labor Notes” staffers.

Two notable exceptions to the general tone of speeches proved how valuable news from the shop floor can be. Eric Mann spoke vividly about the “Campaign to Keep G.M. Van Nuys Open,” especially the successful strategy of building the unity between auto workers and the community. During the wrap-up on the last day, Sharon Cotrell, a rank-and-file officer in Teamsters for a Democratic Union, described how workers’ knowledge of their true interests, and their collective ability to defend those interests, grows through struggle. She was referring to the recent defeat of Jackie Presser’s sell-out rider to the National Freight Agreement.

These two presentations were the high points of the conference.


People got together in Oakland to discuss the intensification of capitalism’s attack on the working class. The conference concentrated on how to meet the attack in the short term, but there is no adequate solution as long as capitalism holds on. The end to monopoly capitalism, revolution, is the necessary solution to the crisis.

It would not have taken much to broach this subject, for what struck home was the way discussions reached a certain point, then speakers had a hard time going on without saying, “Monopoly capitalism has caused this, only ridding ourselves of monopoly capitalism will solve it.” Organizers of the West Coast Labor Notes Conference undoubtedly knew this, but fell short of calling for its discussion.

Without a long range view of the need for revolution, discussion could only lead to defensive tactics against the attack of big business. While the conference as a whole need not have been revolutionary, perhaps a panel or workshop with this focus would have given participants the chance to discuss and debate the long-term resolution of the problems facing the working class.

Discussions begun in Oakland will go on for a long time. The League for a Labor Republic supports that process.