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A Personal Reflection on the Labor Notes Conference

Paul Garver Apr 21, 2008

As a Labor Notes conference participant I want to put what happened in perspective. For me, as for most of the thousand activists who were at the Dearborn Hyatt to attend the conference, this ill-judged but brief incursion represented a minor hiccup in a remarkably rich and smoothly functioning event. The Labor Notes staff deserves much credit for organizing it.

The structure of the Labor Notes Conference guarantees that most of the value and richness of discussion and debate occurs in a series of simultaneous workshops, and participants often have to choose among several promising alternatives. For that reason it has been useful for me to read memoirs that have been posted to blogs by participants who came to the conference for different reasons and followed workshop tracks on other issues. I recommend in particular ones by Jon Flanders and by Bill Onasch, who have no connections with Labor Notes, as well as one by Steve Early, who was involved in conference organization. The most accurate and objective account I have read to date from a journalist who attended the conference is (as it often is) by David Moberg of In These Times.

What follows is personal memoir more than objective account. I was a local SEIU staffer for 15 years before I went to Europe to work for the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF). I had mostly good and positive experiences with SEIU and regard my historical SEIU connection with pride. I remain convinced that it is so difficult to organize workers in the USA into unions that there are no easy answers to the genuine dilemmas for which the debates over centralization vs. union democracy or about the content of legitimate neutrality agreements with employers are mere “shorthand.”

I attended the conference mainly to follow a superbly organized track on organizing unions in China, and also to follow the discussions on organizing immigrant workers and on international solidarity. One main program forum on “Solidarity Across Borders” featured inspiring and informative talks by Anita Chan on organizing Chinese labor unions and Baldemar Velasquez on organizing immigrant farm workers in the USA and Mexico. I also had an opportunity to hear detailed accounts of rank-and-file union organizers working under incredibly difficult conditions in China, Colombia, Sri Lanka and other repressive environments. I could not attend the workshops that dealt with neutrality agreements and health care policy, although I heard from participants that the debates between SEIU and CNA/NNOC were heated and sometimes less than civil.

I also observed the well-attended SEIU caucus. Although dominated numerically by members of United Healthcare Workers-West, members of SMART (SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today), and a smattering of other local officers critical of SEIU national leadership, a variety of views were expressed on several tough issues in a comradely and principled way. I was positively reminded of the last time that I was in a large room filled with SEIU “dissidents.” At and before the 1988 SEIU Convention in Toronto, I had helped organize a rather diverse group that wanted to change SEIU’s current international policy, which at that time adhered too closely to the rigid “Cold War” policy of the AFL-CIO International Department. After debating at length the various resolutions at meetings of the International Committee, I was able to report back to the “dissident caucus” that we had reached a broad agreement with SEIU’s national leadership on international policy that was acceptable to all sides. At the request of the International leadership and with the agreement of the dissident caucus, I presented the report of the International Committee, which was unanimously accepted with several seconding speeches from both sides of the dispute.

I am fully aware that winning the reforms in its international policy that began in Toronto, while important in moving SEIU towards the more proactive organizing policies that now characterize its global solidarity efforts, did not trigger a process so threatening and divisive as the core issues at stake in the current internal conflict within SEIU. But I can imagine that the SEIU leadership might still prove as diplomatic and flexible in dealing with dissidents as then President John Sweeney proved to be in Toronto in 1988. Using the tools of trusteeship and manufacturing consent might succeed in the short term in repressing internal opposition in SEIU; however over the long haul compromise and conciliation would be more effective in building a better SEIU for the future. There are too many good trade unionists within the membership and staff of SEIU, who may now have sharply different views on major strategic and tactical issues, to demonize any of them.

(Paul Garver is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and a retired staffer at the Europe based International Union of Foodworkers)

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