Notes on the 2008 Labor Notes Conference

The left press is buzzing about the SEIU disruption of the 2008 Labor Notes Conference in Detroit.  Perhaps lost, as a result, is the significance of this  event.

This bi-annual labor activist conference has been taking place for almost 30 years now, and it provides a space for labor activists to meet and discuss all the issues on labor’s plate in main sessions and, more importantly, workshops.  This year was one of the largest in Labor Notes history, with more than a thousand participating.

The workshops are the center of this conference, unlike the meetings of the “official unions” of which I have attended a few.  These convocations are mainly occasions for speeches.  Speeches by the top labor officials, and speeches by the politicians du jour.  The ranks’ expected role is to listen and applauded dutifully.

At Labor Notes, however, the grass roots have a chance to talk back and ask questions and, most importantly, to learn from leaders, who are not at the meeting to posture for the members with the next election in mind.

I was part of a seven-member contingent from the Capital District Area of NY.  This is double the number that attended from our area two years ago.  I traveled with four others in a rented van.  We left at 3:30 pm on Thursday afternoon and arrived a little before 5 am Friday morning.  We went through Canada without a major incident, even though an older member of our group didn’t have a passport.

We crashed for some sleep in a hotel room — at least one person slept on the floor.  I had a Railroad Workers United Conference to attend at 9 am, so I was doomed to function Friday on two hours’ sleep at the max.  Somehow I did it.

I make a note of this, to highlight what the typical labor activist does to attend this conference, in many cases spending their own money and vacation time to make it.  These are the kind of folks Stern’s demonstrators hoped to disrupt.

Our RWU founding convention went well, with perhaps not as many people as we hoped, but we got through the agenda we needed to, and all felt satisfaction at what we had accomplished in setting up a real solidarity caucus in the rail industry, something sorely needed to counter the craft union divisions that have plagued us historically.

Then for me it was partying for a while with the rail workers.  It was a particular pleasure for me to have some time to talk with former IAM General Chairman Will Snell, a remarkable man with a storied history, some of which I have attempted to mine in an interview on the RWU website.  Will rallied round RWU from the get-go, and will be an invaluable resource for young rail labor activists.

The next day I could participate in the workshops, after attending the morning session, and had to pick from a wealth of choices.  This is always a frustration at these LN conferences.  Hopefully internet video technology will in the future make taping them and making them available for all a reality.

I decided to go to the workshop with authors Les Leopold and Sheila Cohen entitled “Tony Mazzocchi and Lessons from Labor’s History.”  I have reviewed Leopold’s book for MRZine and it was great to meet him and get an autographed copy.  I can’t say too much about this book — its a page turner and an obvious labor of  love.

I missed the bus trip to the American Axle picket line, due to the time out I took to have lunch with my brother who lives in Detroit.  But reports were that the 200 or so labor activists were warmly received by these strikers, who have been out for something like seven weeks now.

I  attended a workshop on Shop Floor tactics, for a little discussion of the ABCs of workplace organizing.  One of the leaders of this workshop was Frank Halstead, son of the late great Fred Halstead, labor activist and leader of the Socialist Workers Party.  My wife went on a 1982 Nicaragua tour with Fred, and I was able to tell Frank a good story she relates about his father on that trip.  Frank looks much like his dad, big and friendly.  But I wouldn’t advise messing with him.

It was on to another rail worker session, meeting with Nancy Lessin on management safety programs, a big issue on some of the railroads, where they are pushing for a behaviorist “observation program” trying to get workers to report unsafe actions by each other.

Then of course came the now famous banquet, which SEIU tried to disrupt.  I was sitting at a table in the back and, like a lot of people, didn’t know there was a problem until the door opened and the shouting started.  I moved over and got a few pictures.  Thankfully, the mob of staffers and misled workers didn’t get through, and the event proceeded without further incident.  Much can be said about this, but I’ll leave that to other venues.

After another party on Saturday night, I joined some other labor activists for a breakfast session with Kay and Walter Tillow, among other things, central organizers of the “All Unions Committee For Single Payer Health Care — HR 676.”  We did some strategizing about what should happen next in this campaign.  The Tillows were instrumental in helping the Troy Labor Council, of which I am a member, to do a mass mailing on Single Payer and House Resolution 676, to every union local in New York State.

The last workshop I attended was on Contract Campaigns and Bargaining Tactics, led by Louis Rocha, President of CWA Local 9423  and Sandy Pope, President of Teamsters Local 805.  Both these presenters represented a wealth of experience in real world dealings with employers, and it was for me a good windup for the weekend.

I came away from Dearborn with some hopeful thoughts for labor, which may seem strange in current conditions.  First was the size of the conference, which spilled over into a enjoining hotel, and saw the necessity of excluding late registrations from the banquet, due to lack of space.  Then there were the numbers of young people attending, which I hope are reflected in the photo diary I took

We are now experiencing a generational demographic shift in the workforce.  Young workers are starting to flood in as baby boomers like myself reach retirement age.  They face harsh conditions created by years of concessions; it strikes me that the duty of those of us in labor spending our last years as active workers is to pass on what we have learned.  The Labor Notes Conference is an ideal place for that to happen.  Let’s hope two hotels are needed for the next one.

Jon Flanders

Jon Flanders is a member and former president of IAM LL 1145 and a member of the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

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