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Event report: 2018 Labor Notes Conference

Greg Lucero

Platypus Review 109 | September 2018

I RECENTLY ATTENDED THE 2018 LABOR NOTES CONFERENCE, which is probably the largest rank-and-file union conference of organized labor in the United States. I went to find out what labor has been doing across the country and for my own interest in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, to see what struggle had broken out amongst its members. Labor Notes has a special place in my heart, not just because it has stood as a bastion for radical organizers since the 80s, but also because it represents, as I see it, the last pillar of labor in the age of Trump. So the conference seemed like a good place to begin assessing how to rebuild American unionism—which appears all but dead—from the ground up.

But my Labor Notes story actually begins about a month before. Teamsters Local 705 had received ten spots for Labor Notes open to anyone interested in going. It’s not surprising that the local leadership saw this as a good thing, seeing as they have frequently had rough spots with IBT leadership. The IBT 705 used to be run by the mob, and the mob lost control over 705. So it makes sense to have those who would virulently fight the international leadership for the best interests of 705 attend. There was heavy support for local candidates, which I mistakenly took as a quid pro quo. So I counted down the weeks to the conference with a sense of anticipation and dread.

Labor Notes represents one of the remaining institutions of workers’ power. However, labor unions haven’t done so well in the U.S., especially over the last quarter century, and it doesn’t take a genius to note that the Trump administration has targeted them for destruction. Today, unions only account for 11.1% of the workforce. In the private sector only 6.6% of workers are unionized. The number changes dramatically to 35.7% for public sector employees. Many of these public employees are unionized in one of the 22 states that don’t have right-to-work laws on the books. The current Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME will almost certainly favor business and Trump and make all public sector unions right to work. Trump picked the most recent Supreme Court justice, which means the court will likely side with his union-busting agenda. So how could anyone remain optimistic in this milieu? Well, that’s precisely what Labor Notes aimed to do.

I started to head to the conference after coming from work. It’s an interesting dichotomy. I’m dirty, sweaty, and tired. I stopped briefly at a grocery store for lunch meat and cheese, my go-to for poverty on-the-go meals. Feeling moderately satiated, I dozed on the Blue Line up to the hotel where the convention was being held. I arrived early to find the traveling Labor Notes staff quickly setting up the registration, merchandise, and book tables. I had little money and certainly not enough to blow on swag. I looked enviously at the various merchandise, but it remained decidedly out of my price range. I picked sleep as the next best option, pulled up a comfortable chair, set my alarm, and dozed again.

I woke up about an hour later and assessed the situation. The hotel had filled in slightly with various gangs of labor employees. The foyer was awash with the garish, bright union t-shirts, a few mixed button-ups, and an occasional suit. People registered and then proceeded to mill around aimlessly. I knew a few people from various parties, but I met up with some Facebook friends and a bunch of Teamsters I had met at the last Teamsters for a Democratic Union convention. We went to the overpriced restaurant and talked about the upcoming UPS contract.

I had planned my conference carefully. I didn’t need to know what a labor union was or receive steward training since it wasn’t my first day as a labor activist and I also hadn’t been elected or appointed steward. I was here to learn about filing grievances, meet other Teamsters working on the UPS contract, and get drunk. The last one remained sadly unfulfilled, as I was a man on a mission. Each day’s sessions ended with a special night of some variety before starting over again. Generally, I found myself starting fresh since the people I knew at the conference I didn’t know very well; they had membership in a different union or just different political objectives. Basically, the workshops were about fighting for better contracts, directly Teamster-related, or about oppressed nationalities; the exception was when I walked into the wrong room, where organizing to defend Veterans Affairs from further privatization was being covered. However, it didn’t distract from the overall atmosphere of the conference. Labor Notes kept its chin up, but the fact that everyone knew that unions were on their way out was palpable.

Starting here, I continued the process of taking class after class ostensibly designed to build the union and labor movement in general. The workshops were not particularly striking. I attended one on police violence in Chicago, which was interesting but had little to say besides, “You should get your union to support this.” As I mentioned, I accidentally wandered into a rather middle-of-the-road event on veterans affairs and unionism, which discussed raising the militancy of the unions involved in these affairs even though they desperately searched for help outside their unions in the communities they serve. The workshop on strike bargaining proved the most informative: one part history of organizing and another part instructive lessons drawn from that organizing. I heard about everything from protesting dinner parties to stopping shipments to a hospital, but the moment of truth came at the end when a younger Teamster’s face became momentarily thoughtful and he gazed off into the distance. The rapid-fire speech he gave during the lecture died, and he spoke slowly and deliberately: “If you do what I said to do, you have a possibility of winning. But they will hate you.” A timid question from the audience asked the obvious question, “Who?” To which he responded firmly, “Everyone. Everyone will hate you. The boss will hate you. The businesses will hate you. And even other unions who work for those businesses will hate you.”

The rest of the conference blurred behind that single plain-spoken utterance. That’s not to say that these speakers didn’t give moving speeches. They did. I heard from teachers who were rising up across the country. I heard from Puerto Rican teachers who struggled to maintain their public school system against disaster capitalism attempting to privatize it after the hurricane. I heard national and international solidarity from all sides. Everyone committed to fighting Janus, getting union members involved, and reviving the strike. The Teamsters for a Democratic Union talked a big game on how they’d get a good contract or go on strike. But all of this rang hollow. I kept hearing the echo, “Everyone will hate you.”

I finished my pack of cigarettes outside the entry to the Hyatt on the last day. Labor activists of all varieties were packing up, chatting, and waiting in huddled, smoky mobs as the vans pulled up to take them to the airport. I chatted absent-mindedly with a few friends from around the country until they had to bid me farewell and board their van. I thought about the young Teamster again and again: “Everyone will hate you.” This seemed self-evident to me. Yet, how could I possibly reconcile it with the “up with people” attitude plastered everywhere at Labor Notes? How could I possibly reconcile the brutal “we’ve got to do this” attitude with the laxity and certitude that everything would continue all right? The simple fact is that I couldn’t and wouldn’t.

I grimaced bitterly, tossed my cigarette in the parking lot, and breathlessly whispered to myself, “The left is dead…” as I walked to catch the Blue Line train home. |P

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