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Labor Notes 2018: Successes pose new challenges for union activists

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Three thousand trade unionists assembled in Chicago for Labor Notes’ biennial conference on 8-11 April. Many there claimed it was the biggest Labor Notes conference ever. But numbers alone cannot convey the energy, the diversity, the militancy on display.

Workers’ struggles
At Friday’s opening rally we heard, among others, from the Verizon communication workers, whose 40-day strike back in 2016 set a pattern for innovative militancy as did the recently victorious West Virginian teachers.

A Verizon striker recalled that when they got wind of where the bussed-in scabs were staying, he went on eBay and bought the “mother of all megaphones”, and together with whistles, drums and voices hounded the hotels’ residents at 4.00 in the morning… until eventually all the hotels evicted their scab clientele.

A woman teacher from West Virginia was rightly given top billing. And when she said, “It’s our labour to hire out, it’s our labour to take away,” the whole hall joined in a call and response chant. In a later workshop we found out more details of the strike as well as those in Kentucky and (yet to strike) Arizona. Oklahoma teachers were there too.

All of them said they had mobilised on Facebook and Twitter, despite the dangers this involves, including the fact that most strikes were illegal. But the benefits far outweighed the risks. These rapidly grew into mass campaigns, with 30-40,000 involved. Crucially, the activist leaders didn’t try to shut down (non-abusive) comments and threads, with people coming up with great ideas, spreading a sense that “this is our union”. They put out live videos of how to do actions and recruited workplace reps along the way.

Kentucky’s first action was simple: wear red on Friday. And it worked. Preparing for walkouts, staff made pledges and did “walk-ins”, where teachers, parents, community and students protest in front of the school until the bell sounds, then they all walk in together. 
Once they reach, say, 30,000 pledges, they announce a walkout: in West Virginia four counties to begin with, then the whole state for the nine-day strike. Kentucky walked out 30 days after their first action, so things can move fast.

The Teamsters for a Democratic Union were present and their presidential candidate, who came just 44 votes short of toppling the incumbent, spoke at the final rally. But he did not reveal his programme, that is, what a TDU-led union would do to break the power of the bureaucracy.

One of the teachers explained Labor Notes’ optimistic approach well: “The union is our support network but we are driving this bus.” The trouble is buses are very good for local disputes and journeys, but who’s driving the inter-city high-speed locomotive that finally reaches the statewide of countrywide deal? It’s true that militants have rejected deals proposed by the officials but they do not control the negotiations. A far more fundamental democratic re-organisation of the unions is needed, including a national leadership under the control of the rank and file.

This weakness in their analysis is not surprising, considering Kim Moody and his co-thinkers come from the British SWP “rank and file” tradition of the 1970s and early 1980s, when Tony Cliff was advocating a theory of spontaneity that regarded the bureaucracy as a thin crust on top of a bubbling lava of militancy.

It is plain that as well as local organising and militancy, during the high point of strikes, it is vital to build a national, cross-union, rank and file movement – that ignites all the burning discontents and unites them. We need a class war – and that’s where you need politics.

Black caucuses
Another memorable moment on Friday night was a video link address by Rev. William Barber II who, on the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, three days previously, launched a second Poor People’s campaign with 40 days of non-violent direct action, NVDA, and… voter registration. A drawing together of various movements such as Labor Notes, BLM and #MeToo would be explosive and hard to police… as MLK found out on several occasions.

Certainly, as a British visitor, I had been struck by the amount of open poverty in Chicago, on the West side and even downtown, and from accounts I heard Barber can mobilise many thousands. But the most important part of his speech, in my view, was his call for bottom-up leadership, not “helicopter leadership” and for “a fusion movement, not a coalition”.

I was able to delve deeper into conditions facing black workers in my final session of the conference, “Black workers fight for jobs”. Gentrification is pushing black families out of Chicago, 200,000 people in the last 15-20 years. Houses in formerly black areas (Chicago is the most segregated city in the US) sell for $4-500,000, so when black people are pushed out by the high cost of living, non-black families move in. The average white family in Chicago is 10 times more wealthy ($170,000) than the average black family ($17,000), with home ownership playing a crucial role.

Fifty schools have closed in West and South Chicago and the proportion of teachers who are black has halved from 40 per cent to 20 per cent in a city still one-third black. In the public sector as well as private, there is discrimination in jobs, promotion and salaries. Black caucuses in the unions are reviving as a result.

Obviously some participants, feeling frustrated and betrayed by the unions’ unwillingness to do anything to combat this fall in black workers’ rights, indeed their impoverishment, argued against any alliance with white people, at least not until they show some fight against discrimination and prejudice. On the other side, a woman waved her arm across the room and said, “How can you say that white people can’t be allies? Look around the room, there’s white people here”.

This self-limitation by separatists is potentially harmful to the movement, no matter how one can sympathise with their feelings. Alliances with the white working class, that is, not with the Democrats, can broaden and deepen the movement, while weakening the racists in the workplace and community. It also points to a common enemy, capitalism, which ultimately is the chief beneficiary from racism, dividing the working class, and deepening our exploitation.

Another elephant in the room, despite all the discussion of militant tactics for organising and winning strikes, was the role of the trade union bureaucracy. This is the caste-like layer of officials who rule the unions and who reap generous managerial sized salaries in exchange for brokering agreements. Their role in avoiding, selling short or selling out strikes, their responsibility for the catastrophic decline in union membership, especially in the private sector, was barely mentioned and even then only in passing.

Politics
The workshops explicitly dedicated to politics were few and far between. The one on Medicare for All was a tale of endless lobbying with Democrats and, by extension, Republicans; this culminated in a Bill becoming an Act, but with no change in the law!

The workshop run by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was a small affair. Another, “What is socialism?” did what it said on the tin, it introduced participants to basic socialist goals, concepts and tactics, but failed to mention the need for a party, let alone delve into the divide between revolution and reform.

Next up was a meeting on the Corbyn movement, which was well attended. Besides myself the other panel speakers were Charlotte Bence (a Unite organiser) and Phil Clarke (Brighton District Labour Party). Phil, a member of the left who eventually won control of Brighton, told a lively tale involving suspensions of individuals and a massive influx into the party. All of our speeches were well received by the 100 or so participants.

I saw evidence of an American working class becoming aware of its own oppression and opening itself up to solutions that go beyond “negotiation” and “arbitration” , becoming open to more militant actions like strikes. I saw a labour movement that was embracing community support and thinking of ways to support the victims of social oppression, many of whom are union members and their families. I saw the social justice movements realising that trade union action is a way forward in ameliorating their conditions of oppression. Our job as socialists is to continue to push for these more militant actions to connect these struggles into one overarching class struggle against the system that controls and benefits from every one of these oppressions by profiting from them, either directly or indirectly.

Red Flag’s co-thinkers in the USA, Workers Power believe that the conditions exist for a historic revival of militant mass trade unionism, indeed it may well be underway. This needs to be embedded in broad movements of all the forces really fighting Trump. These include women fighting the Republican attacks on abortion rights, immigrants, the Dreamers, etc., fighting arrest and deportation, black youth fighting police murders, mass imprisonment and disenfranchisement. Local councils of action representing militant union locals and community campaigns can massively aid one another by coordinating their struggles. But, ultimately, the big question is the need for a new working class, socialist party.

Some Conclusions
Labor Notes 2018, especially its rank and file participants, was certainly a testimony to the rich vein of working class struggles running through American society at the moment. The latest example is the 50,000 red T-shirt wearing teachers who brought Phoenix Arizona to a standstill on 27 April.

But, with such magnificent mobilisations come new tasks and responsibilities. How can we take the movement forward to a national level, how can we increase the chances of success? What are the next steps? How can we turn quantitative increments into a qualitative leap? What charter of trade union rights needs to be put on the political agenda?

Labor Notes should, in conjunction with rank and file campaigns, like the TDU or the Chicago Teachers’ Alliance, and militant locals and federations, like the teachers or the CWA, call a working, and voting, convention to form a rank and file movement.

What should such a movement be doing? Well, it would provide leadership. Not only promoting militant social unionism, organising from the bottom up, disregarding anti-union laws and holding to account union bureaucrats. Its global task would be critiquing and learning from 40 years of union decline but also of struggle against this. It should aim to create an action programme for the rebirth of the trade unions, especially in the private sector from which they have been all but excluded.

This should castigate not only the crimes of the class enemy, but those of the union bureaucracy, and fight for action to dissolve its functions into the rank and file: via the election of all officials, who should be paid the average wage of a skilled worker; all decisions in disputes and negotiations to be made by mass meetings and direct representatives of those in struggle; annual elections and the right of recall of all officials.

Labor Notes, and the various formations of the unions’ militant minority arising out of local struggles, needs to put itself at the forefront of the fight for a labor party. If we want a socialist party and not repeat the various forms of populism, which eventually run out of ideas or energy and end up back in the Democrats, then organised labour has a crucial role to play.

The conditions for building such a party and a rank and file movement in the unions are ripe, in fact overripe, that is, crucial moments, immediately after Bernie Sanders’ campaign for example, have already been let slip.

Organised revolutionaries are also urgently needed at every stage of the struggle, including the embryonic one we are at now. Workers Power US is fighting, with our international comrades in the League for the Fifth International, for these ideas in the movement. If you agree with us, get in touch.