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Labor Notes Conference, 1993

by Frank Lovell

The 1993 Labor Notes Conference was advertised as “a very special one.” And that turned out to be no ad writer’s idle boast. The conference this year was in all respects different and better than previous ones, all of which were gratifying gatherings of progressive unionists seeking to exchange experiences and understand the disheartening decline of the union movement during the past two decades.

This year’s conference was the largest ever, attended by more than 1,100 participants. The Labor Notes staff exceeded all previous efforts. From registration Friday evening to the singing of Solidarity Forever at the close of the conference on Sunday afternoon there was not a single hitch in the scheduled program of speakers panels and workshops that could be discerned by the most critical participants. The focus was on “Solidarity and Democracy,” but this time it became more specifically defined: “Labor needs its own political agenda.” And in the final session the speakers, Elaine Bernard, director of Harvard University’s trade union program, and Bob Wages, international president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union, spelled it out: U.S. workers need their own labor party based on a resurgent union movement.

Bernie Sanders, the independent congressman from Vermont, gave an opening address Friday evening on the need for “A Bill of Rights for American Workers.” He stands for tax reform, single-payer (Canadian-style) health care, military cuts, public works projects, and a shorter workweek. His talk was followed by a “main panel” of speakers on “Solidarity Beyond Borders,” led off by Baldemar Velazquez, director of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), who described cooperative efforts of farm workers on both sides of the Mexican border to win higher wages and better working conditions. He explained that his experience as an organizer, in the U.S. and Mexico, teaches that the present crop of politicians and government agencies in both countries serve the interests of the big growers and try always to thwart independent unionism. This was confirmed by several more speakers from the ranks of largely unorganized workers in Canada and Mexico. They addressed the complex problem of organizing the unorganized in the present age of multinational corporations.

Saturday usually is the main day of these three-day conferences and this one seemed to be planned as usual. The main panel, starting at 9 a.m., was called “Solidarity Out of Diversity” and featured representative labor activists from working mothers, Black Workers For Justice (BWFJ), and a Gay and Lesbian union caucus. It was a women’s event, chaired by Mary Hollens of the Labor Notes staff. The message was, “Our diversity can be our strength if our movement recognizes and respects differences of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference.”

The first set of workshops, following the opening panel, gave conference participants a chance to meet and discuss union problems of particular interest. No less than 22 such workshops were scheduled for this session, listing experienced and knowledgeable activists in all areas of labor struggle — from maquiladoras on the Mexican border to South African “democratization.” The workshop on “solidarity with South Africa,” for example, listed Bobby Marie, national organizer of COSATU-Metal Workers Union in South Africa, as a participant. Other workshops in this early session were structured to deal with the bureaucratic curse of the AFL-CIO. The one on “organizing for international union conventions” listed several leaders of opposition caucuses in different unions, including Jerry Tucker of the UAW New Directions caucus. This workshop was chaired by Susan Jennik, of the Association for Union Democracy, an organization that specializes in legal assistance and advice to opposition groups in bureaucracy-ridden unions.

Workshops and Industry Meetings

There were two more sets of such workshops, another one on Saturday afternoon and a third set on Sunday from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Nearly all of the 56 workshops were well attended. A rail worker remarked that the meeting of workers in his industry reflected a new interest in unionism resulting from the vicious assault by the companies and government, including the U.S. Congress, on jobs and working conditions in this industry. He thought the political consciousness of rail workers, especially those who consider themselves solid union supporters, is changing. Workers generally harbor illusions and hopes in the Democratic Party and what the new administration can do for them, he said, but job cuts and more railroad accidents provoke resentment and arouse determination to strike back. This has already brought some changes in elected union officials (at least some old fixtures have been voted out and there are a few new faces in top offices), and conditions may be ripe for a new union resurgence, he said.

In addition to the many workshops, time and meeting rooms were provided for 23 union and industry meetings on Saturday afternoon for workers in auto, airlines, building trades, health care, public transportation, postal service, etc.; and for labor educators, union organizers, lawyers, union caucuses, industrial conversion/jobs with peace, workers centers/cummunity-labor organizations, Haiti Solidarity, and other social and political protest groups.

In the general conference area table space and posters displayed union and movement T-shirts for sale, union literature, books about the union and radical movements, and political tracts for a union-based labor party. This all spilled over into the hotel lobby, where several radical groups hawked their newspapers and magazines. Some publishers found places to display their books and catalogs; two authors were on hand to autograph their recent books on well-known labor struggles, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement by Peter Rachleff and Collision (a history of Teamsters for a Democratic Union — TDU) by Kenneth Crowe. All this added to the militant mood and leftward political drift of the conference.

On Saturday, during the time allotted for lunch (12:30 to 2:30 p.m.), a meeting of a “People of Color Caucus” was scheduled. The speakers were Ron Daniels, of Campaign for a New Tomorrow, and Matt McCarten, leader of the formation called the New Labour Party in New Zealand. In previous years such a meeting would not have attracted much attention among a crowd of predominantly progressive unionists, preoccupied with caucus problems. But the meeting this year was well attended and widely discussed during the remainder of the conference. Some said it reflected a growing political awareness and understanding by secondary union officials, including many who were not present at this conference.

The Saturday night banquet, included in the $55 registration fee, is an occasion for conference organizers to make known their general position on the national political scene and the prospects of working class solidarity, including international alliances and union cooperation around the world. Consequently the banquet speakers are carefully chosen. Two years ago, at the 6th Labor Notes Conference, Ron Carey was featured and Juan Gonzalez also spoke. Gonzalez is a leader of the Newspaper Guild in New York City and of the strike at the Daily News in that city two years ago.

Gonzalez was the only speaker this time. His talk, “reinventing organized labor,” stressed the changing composition of the U.S. labor force, which is being reinforced by third world immigrants, many from Mexico and Central and South America. He observed that U.S. imperialism for most of this century has drained the Latin American continent of its natural resources and now at the close of the century the impoverished peoples from the southern hemisphere are invading North America in the hope of reclaiming some of the stolen wealth. After detailing the antilabor policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations and their consequences in the U.S. and elsewhere, Gonzalez hinted that it is dubious whether the present administration can make a difference as far as ending the exploitation and oppression of the working class. The clear implication was that workers in the U.S. can ensure a better life for themselves only by relying on their own organized economic and political power. This was not lost on the audience. The applause came immediately and was sustained. It seemed as if this was what many were waiting to hear.

A party (and cash bar) followed the banquet, attended by most who were registered for the conference. Few retired to their rooms. There was little drinking but a lot of lively discussion, prompted largely by the talk Gonzalez gave. He had a difficult assignment because he spoke after a long fund-raising effort. And the fact that he managed to capture and hold the attention of the audience, and to inspire them with the prospect of independent labor action following long years of quiescence, was generally remarked upon. The fundraiser was also a subject of party conversation, surprising as it seemed to many who found themselves talking about it, with opinions of approval.

The program guide for the conference (souvenir copies of which participants often take home) contained a brief notice that this time Labor Notes was calling upon its readers and supporters for contributions and sustainer pledges. For those who read the guide carefully this meant that an extraordinary effort would be made at the banquet to raise money. The effort was well planned and many prospective contributors, including some union locals, were approached in advance to pledge money and to announce at the banquet the amount of their pledges and their reasons for them, including what they expect in return. All this takes time after the food is eaten and before the guest speaker delivers the conference message. And sometimes the donors like to talk longer than expected in order to get their money’s worth. So it wasn’t surprising that the fund-raising ceremony took a little longer than necessary and would have continued further if the chairperson hadn’t called a halt. But it all turned out well and everyone was gratified, including those donors who didn’t get a chance to say their piece, when the chairperson announced that the collection had netted more than $20,000. One enthusiastic contributor proposed that the Labor Notes Conference be held annually, and this drew a round of applause.

All this speaks well for Labor Notes and for the growing progressive union movement which this magazine has helped build and upon which it must depend. Both the magazine and the movement will benefit. Only a movement that can sustain itself and its publications on the resources of the working class will grow and finally become strong enough to transform society. This is how the talk went after the banquet was over. But few were fully prepared for what was yet to come the following day.

Inside the New Teamsters

The Sunday sessions began at 9:00 a.m. with the main panel on “Inside the New Teamsters,” fully attended despite the night-before partying. The speakers were Gillian Furst, a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) ethical practices committee; Ken Paff, international organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU); Michael Savwoir, co-chair of TDU; and Diana Kilmury, co-chair of TDU and a new vice president of the IBT. They described some of what goes into a successful challenge and overthrow of an entrenched bureaucracy in a conglomerate union like the Teamsters — with 1.5 million members, thousands of them employed in industries and workplaces unrelated to trucking. And they told some of what is going on inside “the new Teamsters” since the election a year ago of Ron Carey and the full slate of 15 reform candidates to the top offices of the union.

The central idea these speakers sought to convey was that success depends on organizing, educating, and mobilizing the ranks. This requires patience. Ken Paff, in reference to the 15-year history of TDU, stressed the importance of democratic decision-making and the need of a small group (such as TDU was when it began and still is compared to the IBT as a whole) to constantly learn from its experiences and reeducate itself. He said one of the most important decisions TDU made was when it voted to endorse Ron Carey for IBT president. In retrospect it is generally accepted that Carey could not have won without TDU support. But the other side of this proposition is a question: where would TDU be today if it had failed to support Ron Carey? As matters now stand the Carey/TDU alliance holds the top offices and the Old Guard remains entrenched in many IBT locals and in the wealthy and powerful area councils. These Old Guard officials have declared war on Carey and the International union. The task now is to mobilize the ranks to complete the clean-up of the union.

Several workshops that followed addressed the questions formulated by the speakers on this panel. One such workshop was a more detailed review of “The Teamster Experience,” and here Ken Paff and Diana Kilmury, with IBT Local 490 Vice President Steve MacDonald, continued the discussion on what’s being done to complete the “revolution” in the Teamsters union.

Another Sunday workshop took up a current issue closely related to (and a necessary part of) any winning strategy to transform the labor movement: “Health Care Reform.” This continued the discussion from a Saturday workshop on the same subject. The discussion on Saturday was largely led by and directed to community activists, and seemingly was planned that way. Two questions were counterposed in the program guide: “Will Congress pass a form of ’managed competition’ that still allows insurance companies and providers to make enormous profits from health care? Or can the people’s prevailing desire for a simple, single-payer plan be turned into reality?” In the Saturday workshop health care reform activists talked about immediate and long-term action plans, including appeals for union support.

The Sunday workshop was union-oriented, led by Glen Boatman of OCAW, Allen Cholger, president of an OCAW local, Richard Balnis, a Canadian member of the public employees union there, and chaired by Rick Wadsworth of West Virginians for Health Care Rights (which in West Virginia is almost synonymous with coal miners health care). The problem here for the unions is that in order to win broad support and political influence they must champion issues like universal free health care and take the lead in the struggle to win these goals.

The final conference session began promptly at 2:30 p.m., chaired by Elise Bryant, Labor Studies Center, University of Michigan. She conducted this session with a show of professionalism rarely seen at radical forums or meetings of progressive unionists. The meeting room was filled, unlike the closing sessions of previous Labor Notes Conferences and totally different from all union conventions in recent years. Few who came to the Labor Notes Conference this year had scheduled an early departure, and some who did changed their travel plans.

Elaine Bernard was the first speaker. Many at the conference had heard her speak before at other meetings, and that may be one reason for the unusually large attendance. She is popular with that segment of the presently existing radical movement which comes from the anti-Vietnam War protests and subsequently found jobs as union organizers or became minor union officials. In 1960s jargon, “Elaine tells it like it is.” She is wise to union bureaucrats and explains in colorful contemporary language that the present gang of top union officials really are modern “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.” She says they adamantly oppose the idea of a labor party in the U.S. and cravenly support Democrats even while the Democratic Party endorses and helps enact the anti-union economic policy of big business, because this union bureaucracy has adopted the political agenda of the employers. She says the employers’ political agenda is “a conservative corporate agenda” designed to boost profits and drive down working class living standards to the poverty level. Part of the plan, she says, is to pretend that U.S. capitalism rests on a classless society in which everyone is “middle class” except the very rich, who remain unmentioned, and the very poor, who don’t count. She argues for a candid recognition, at least on the part of those who pretend to represent workers as well as those who aspire to represent them, of U.S. political reality.

Under the present two-party system working class voters have no choice in electoral politics and are repeatedly informed of this fact by their unions, their employers, and by all government agencies and public officials. So emphatically is this dogma delivered that most voters believe it. They have discovered that the Republican Party serves only the rich, and they don’t trust the Democrats because in Congress, Democrats and Republicans always join forces to enact legislation that satisfies the employers. But when election time comes the voter who refuses to vote for the Republican candidate and doesn’t like the Democrat is reminded again; “If you don’t want to waste your vote, you have no choice. So take the lesser evil and vote for the Democrat.” Bernard urged her audience to get behind the Labor Party movement and help give U.S. workers the only meaningful choice they will ever have in the polling booth. The logic of her argumentation was so clear and her delivery so persuasive that her listeners seemed completely won over and responded with a standing ovation.

After this, one wondered what Robert Wages, the international president of an important AFL-CIO union, could say. He was scheduled to be the concluding speaker. He led off with the candid announcement that he is in fact a union bureaucrat, international president of OCAW, which surprised no one. He then gave assurance that he is different from all other AFL-CIO bureaucrats because his union is the only one officially in favor of a Labor Party and the reason it calls for a Labor Party based on a resurgent union movement is because polls taken by objective pollsters have shown that the OCAW membership by a large majority favors a labor party and will support labor party candidates if given a choice. The same polls also show that members in all other unions in all sections of the country where such polls have been conducted respond overwhelmingly in favor of a Labor Party.

Wages said he became firmly convinced that a Labor Party is essential to the future of unionism when he looked at the 1992 Democratic Platform and saw that nowhere in it was there even a mention of trade unions, not once. He said, “That pretty well sums up the story.” He continued to explain, by way of contrast, what a labor party will mean for the well-being and protection of unions, and for the needs of the working class. He envisions a resurgent labor movement today as something similar to what the CIO movement was in its formative years in the 1930s, that is, a social movement which seeks to improve the conditions of life for the benefit of everyone. Before he finished he had won the enthusiastic support of the audience. One veteran unionist wrote a note that Wages had become her candidate for president in the 1994 general election.

Solidarity Forever

While enthusiasm was still high and before the applause ended the chair said a few words about the history of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the tune to which Ralph Chaplin set the words of “Solidarity Forever,” hummed a few bars, gave the pitch, and led the singing of the song. It was a fitting and moving conclusion to an altogether successful conference.

Everyone there had learned something new, and no one left without a sense of having witnessed signs of a new beginning for the U.S. labor movement. The pity is that there weren’t eleven thousand present instead of eleven hundred.

As Labor Notes staff and volunteer assistants packed up and left the hotel another small segment of organized labor moved in for the UAW Bargaining Convention. They came in chartered buses, some from the airport and others from union halls in Detroit and Solidarity House, home of the UAW bureaucracy. The contrast between those leaving and the others coming was easy to see. There was clearly a generation difference. And there was also a visible difference in mood. Those about to leave were standing in groups, still talking seriously about the meaning of their conference and what had been accomplished. The others were coming in routinely, something most of them had done several times before and become accustomed to.

Beneath surface difference was a material difference. Those who came to the Labor Notes Conference paid the registration fee out of their own pockets; most of them paid their own transportation, many traveling long distances; they paid for their rooms at the hotel, and for their meals. They came to learn, and because they hoped to make a difference in the work of the conference. The UAW delegates, by contrast, knew that everything that would be done at the convention they would soon attend had been decided in advance. They were there as part of the show, and because they were paid to come. Every delegate was on per diem wages, plus all expenses paid. That amounts to a big difference at the end of the day.

In the course of discussion among those who had attended the Labor Notes Conference and were waiting around for late flight departures, one longtime union activist remarked that everything that was said and done at the conference was good, but what had not been said there was also important. He went on to elaborate.

Despite the excellent successes of the reform movement in the Teamsters, he said, there was a danger that the reformers had waited too long in moving against the “old guard” middle layer in the union. When a year had gone by and the middle-level bureaucrats, in cahoots with the companies, were still running local unions the old way, tying up grievances, etc., some activist members had begun to feel that, despite the Carey victory, nothing much had changed. There was a danger of demoralization, demobilization, and disorientation.

Obviously a lot of work went into winning the election, and the credit for that goes to TDU, but there was a slacking off after the election victory. The illusion that winning the votes was enough had to be combated, and the TDU now needed to provide leadership in remobilizing all the forces that helped win that first stage in the battle to transform the union and go on to cleaning out the entrenched fossils in the middle levels of the union who engage in corrupt practices, line their own pockets, work with the bosses, and fail to stand up for the needs and interests of the union membership.

Even more broadly, he said, “there was an absolute need for a leadership group with a vision of how society as a whole must be changed. The problem can’t be solved just within the Teamsters, or the Electrical Workers, or any one union. It’s a problem of the social system. The struggle to transform the labor movement must be led by people who have a radical vision, a vision of the future, of a better way of organizing society. If those are to be called Communists, so be it. You can’t be Red-shy, he said, and hope to make any fundamental changes.


However we may assess the degrees of danger and difficulty, the challenges facing the left wing of the labor movement today are many. While this conference helped lay the basis for meeting those challenges, success in the struggle for a better life for the U.S. working class will finally be assured only by big changes in mass consciousness. When millions of workers realize one day that it is they, and they alone, who can change the conditions of their lives, then will come social transformation never before seen, nor hardly dreamed of. The preparatory work of this year’s Labor Notes Conference will surely hasten that day.

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