The Future of the Labor Movement? Reflections on the Labor Notes Conference

See, also, Dave Regan, “Why We Demonstrated in Dearborn,” MRZine, 2 May 2008; and Stephanie Luce, “Rebuilding Labor’s Power: There Are No Shortcuts,” MRZine, 2 May 2008.

I had a fantastic time at the Labor Notes conference last weekend, and am eager to build on the new connections I made and campaigns I learned about.  However, I find myself unable to shake some of the negative parts of the weekend.  Putting aside the mess at the banquet, I’ve been thinking a lot about the workshop experience I had earlier in the day.  I was facilitating a session on Labor and Politics, at 10:15 on Saturday morning.  A speaker from the California Nurse’s Association (CNA) was talking about the political mobilization they have been doing in California — how they’ve gone after the governor; how they’ve been organizing around issues like single payer; how they are mobilizing their members.

A little bit into the talk, a woman in the audience starts speaking out.  At first we think she is asking a clarifying question, but I slowly realize she is interrupting to bring up the Ohio situation.  I told her she could speak her mind but she had to wait until the discussion period, after the speaker was done.  She keeps talking, and a man in the audience joins in, yelling at the speaker.  To be honest, I can’t even remember what they said, but they were basically yelling at the CNA speaker, calling her a scab, union-buster, etc.

I raised my voice, telling them they had to be quiet but they kept going.  Others in the audience also backed me up, telling them to be quiet, to no avail.  Eventually I yelled very loudly, going into the audience, telling them that they had to respect me as the chair and the guidelines of the session.  I assured them they would get to speak their piece after the speaker.  One woman said, “Will I get my questions answered?” and I said yes, so they quieted down and the speaker finished her talk.

I then set out some rules: keep comments to 2 to 3 minutes; everyone speaks once before anyone speaks twice; keep focused on the topic of labor and politics.

I called on some people in the audience, including the disrupters.  The first disrupter, an 1199 staff member, began by apologizing for his behavior and then said his piece, and then asked that Sally, a nurse from Ohio, be allowed to say her piece.  I said I was happy for Sally to speak and I would call on her, but there was a list.  I then called on a number of people who spoke to the topic of the workshop — the Democrats, Obama, etc.  I also called on a number of people who were with SEIU, including Sally.  Everyone was relatively civil and kept to their 3 minutes when I told them to wrap it up.

I then gave the CNA folks a chance to speak, and as they did, the SEIU staffers began to shout them down, yelling out. “liar! scab!” etc.  I tried to get them to be quiet, but the two of them just kept shouting out.  It became a ridiculous scene of the CNA folks trying to talk over the SEIU people shouting out, and me trying to maintain order.

I made a plea for democratic exchange, saying that if we could not discuss our differences here in a civil way, then there is no hope for us.  I also said that many of the people in the room didn’t even know what the issues were so that they should keep that in mind.

Eventually I yelled at the man to leave the session and he said, “No! I won’t!”  Eventually he got up and threw a bottle of water, pushed a chair, and stormed out, yelling.  Then he came back in and I yelled at him to leave and he yelled back that he would not.  The audience was supportive of me, trying to get the people to stop their yelling and interrupting.

I decided I wasn’t going to call on any more SEIU people, but then when I called on one woman she passed her time to the SEIU staffer.  At first I told her she couldn’t do it, but then she insisted it was within the rules I had set out, so I felt I had to concede.  The staffer then went on to give a speech, and then I felt I needed to give the CNA speaker a chance to respond to that — which was then also shouted down.

Its a bit of a blur to me, but somehow we got to a period of calm again, and I ended the workshop slightly early, making a plea for us to work together to figure out the larger issues facing us and the need to build political power for the working class.

This is a long-winded explanation of the workshop, but I feel the need to write it all down for a few reasons.

First, whatever the word is out there about the banquet — whether there was violence, whether SEIU really intended to disrupt, etc. — my workshop experience made it completely clear that the SEIU staffers were not there for dialogue.  The SEIU press release says that the Labor Notes conference is a place to discuss the issues, but there was no possibility of that in my workshop.

Second, I felt so conflicted in the session about what to do.  I had not anticipated that scene, and didn’t have a plan to deal with it.  I really wanted to err in the direction of inclusiveness, and made a point to give the dissenters space to speak.  I felt confused: what was democratic process in this sense?  Was it allowing the SEIU folks to remain in the workshop (versus calling security to have them thrown out)?  Was it giving the SEIU folks equal chance to speak their mind?  Was it right to let them speak?  Or would democracy in this case be to cut them out, keeping to the more rigid outline of the workshop, on labor and politics?  Should I have asked the audience to vote on what to do?  I struggled to think quickly on my feet, and feel I could have handled it better.  But I’m not of a generation that had lots of experience with this and it was new to me.  I am not sure what real democracy looks like in this situation.  It would be easier to handle in a regular union or organizing meeting where there is a clear agenda and membership, but the Labor Notes conference is different.

Third, I am more and more angry by the day about what happened.  Many people in the workshop had no idea what was going on, and didn’t know anything about the dispute.  Most people at the conference pay their own way, and take their own time to be there.  Some people drive all night; some people take vacation days from work.  People come to learn.  They wanted to talk about the election, they wanted to talk about their lives.  A young man from Portland talked about his sister’s health problems and the health insurance industry.  An older woman from Georgia talked about organizing unemployed and poor people in rural areas.  I feel so angry that the SEIU staff felt completely justified in taking away a learning opportunity from everyone in the room. I feel I betrayed the audience in my role as the chair by not kicking SEIU out of the session, and that makes me angry too.

Finally, I feel deeply sad.  I could tell that the SEIU staff and members were angry and passionate.  I could tell that they believed deeply that they were right.  But the fact that they chose this approach to deal with their feelings is so troubling.  I wonder what it means for my political view that people are generally open to education and new ideas, and that democratic debate over differences is possible.

Several of my students have worked for the SEIU 1199 local involved in the Ohio dispute, and one of our students was on the front lines of the protest of the banquet.  I also know Dave Regan, president of 1199 Ohio/West Virginia/Kentucky — in fact, I had a heated argument with him about Jimmy Hoffa Senior at a wedding more than ten years ago.  I may be more sympathetic to SEIU’s concerns with the CNA than many in the labor movement because of my relationships with some of these folks and respect I have for the intensity of their work and convictions.  Yet, I feel the window for any kind of dialogue or debate is completely shut after this weekend.

When I had that argument with Dave Regan at my friend’s wedding, he was arguing that Hoffa Senior was probably one of the best things that happened to the labor movement, since he was powerful and built a powerful union.  I brought up union democracy, and he said something like, Fuck democracy!  Workers don’t care about democracy — they want power!  They want a good paycheck and a good contract.  Many of them don’t even want democracy — they want a powerful union that can represent them well!  That was long before he was head of 1199, so it is interesting to see how consistent he has remained.

There is a part of what Dave said that is compelling, and I think it is something we should not brush off too lightly.  But I believe no one is in the position to determine “what workers want” but workers themselves.  Because, of course, the working class is not monolithic.  Some people might want more money and not have to go to union meetings; others aren’t as concerned about raises but need health care.  Still others may care more about being able to perform their job adequately with proper staffing ratios.  Who is Dave Regan to say what workers want?  Who am I to say?

On the other hand, one thing I might say, if I had to guess, is that most people don’t want a world where differences are settled by who shouts the loudest.  And if what I saw in that workshop on Saturday represents the vision that SEIU is about, I know it is not for me.  On Saturday night an SEIU Executive Vice President issued a press release saying, “Tonight, SEIU members stood up for the future of the labor movement.”  But that isn’t a future I want.  I already live in a world where bullies get their way most of the time.  I don’t need a union for that.  I don’t need to devote a life of organizing to build that.

Of course, the level of disruption is nothing compared to what people have experienced in union struggles in the past, or what happens to trade unionists on a regular basis today in countries like Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia or the Philippines.  And I know by writing this, I am likely to be called a wimp, or worse, because I can’t handle the toughness required to take on ruthless employers.  But I wonder if SEIU has lost sight of the real battle.  It is ironic how they seem happy to sign partnership deals in peace with the employers, and save their yelling and disruption for a random group of union members who get together on a Saturday morning in Detroit to talk about labor and politics.  What is the price we are willing to pay to achieve our vision of union power?  Hoffa Senior was willing to deal with the mob to get his power.  What is Andy Stern willing to do, and is it worth the price? Maybe I should not be surprised at the ways things turned out in Detroit, but still, it is hard to watch up close, and hard not to be angry and sad about it.

Stephanie Luce teaches at the Labor Center of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. She is the author of Fighting for a Living Wage (Cornell University Press, 2004).

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