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The Labor Notes Conference Seeks to Further Galvanize Workers in a Time of Great Urgency

Largest-ever conference of union activists plans for a labor movement transformation.

Eric Dirnbach Jun 24

Read also: Labor of Love: EWOC is Pioneering a New Model for Empowering Workers

Over 4,000 people came to Chicago June 17-19 for the largest-ever Labor Notes conference. 

Founded in 1979, Labor Notes publishes a great monthly labor magazine and organizing books and also offers labor-organizing trainings. Their book Secrets of a Successful Organizer is a must-read. But perhaps most importantly, it hosts a biennial conference that has long been a magnet that attracts unionists, activists and leftists from around the labor movement and beyond.

Historical context is important. The labor movement has been declining in members and membership rate (the percent of all workers in a union) for decades.  

Currently, just 10% of all U.S. workers are union members and an astonishingly low 6% of workers in the private sector are unionized. Union members are present in too few labor sectors and too few places. Nearly half of the roughly 14 million union members in the United States live in just six states, and in 10 states, the union membership rate is less than 5%. Prior to the recent surge, union elections and strikes also were on a steady decline for decades. 

Leaked audio obtained by The Indypendent from one of Amazon’s captive-audience trainings just days before the JFK8 union election.

All this despite recent surveys showing that a majority of workers want to be in a union. But intense, often-illegal employer opposition to unions makes organizing challenging and risky. Employers will routinely run numerous required “captive audience” sessions during union campaigns, which aim to intimidate workers and misinform them about unions. Union supporters are often harassed and even fired, with long delays if they do get their jobs back. Weak labor law and inadequate enforcement have allowed this union busting to become very common. As the labor movement gets smaller, working conditions worsen, and there’s less pressure on politicians to pass meaningful labor legislation. The National Labor Relations Act has hardly changed since 1959 and has actually gotten worse due to conservative court rulings.

Learning to fight again

Labor Notes has a goal of helping turn this decline around. Its philosophy is that union member democracy, participation and militancy makes unions internally stronger and labor organizing more effective. 

The energy at this year’s conference was palpable for a few reasons. 

One was that it has been a while since the last conference in 2020 was canceled due to COVID. So we have been anticipating this for four years. What a time to meet — after significant strikes in “Striketober” last year (during the month over 100,000 workers were either on strike or preparing to strike) and millions of workers quitting for better jobs in the ongoing pandemic “Great Resignation,” signaling more confidence among workers. 

Over the past twenty years I’ve been on staff at several unions, and I’ve seen that our current model is not working well enough.

The inspiring ground-up organizing at Amazon and Starbucks has reinvigorated this moment. Moreover, the new, more militant leadership at the Teamsters and the change to direct-membership elections for union leadership at the United Auto Workers (UAW) has given new energy to union democracy and revitalization. A new Strike Tracker from Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School gives a more accurate sense of the militancy that is happening and shows that strikes are up significantly from last year. The Tracker documented 265 work stoppages involving approximately 140,000 workers in 2021 and 87 strikes by nonunion workers, accounting for 32.8% of the total number of work stoppages. In 2020, only 86 stoppages were called in unionized workplaces, according to Bloomberg Law. 

Labor Notes’ conference program offered an exhaustive array of workshops on union issues, perhaps the most comprehensive militant-labor curriculum assembled in the U.S. in recent decades. There were plenty of nuts and bolts sessions on union-organizing tactics and bargaining strategy offered. I attended the “Striking Before Union Recognition” session, featuring workers from four strikes, and “Direct Action,” where speakers and participants shared stories on actions they’ve taken. I co-presented a session called “Researching Your Employer for Organizing and Bargaining Campaigns” to a packed room of over 100 union members and staff, where we discussed how to find helpful information about the employer, such as the labor violations they have committed.

There were lots of talks on the state of the labor movement and how we can contribute more to the energy we’re seeing. At the session “Labor’s Upsurge: How Unions Can Make the Most of This Moment,” panelists from the Amazon Labor Union and Starbucks Workers United discussed their groundbreaking campaigns. Sociologist Ruth Milkman outlined the theory that contributing to this upsurge in union activity is a new generation of young, often college-educated, politicized workers entering an economy that fails to meet their expectations for good jobs. 

Young workers confront a host of problems — the national minimum wage is still $7.25, housing is expensive, student debt is high, affordable quality health care plans are hard to find — and they are turning to unionization as a solution.

Watch the first Main Session here.

At the first Main Session, we were welcomed by Stacey Davis Gates, the incoming president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which has done much to inspire the labor movement over the last decade. Labor Notes’ book How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers tells the story. Twelve-year barista Michelle Eisen movingly talked about how she was motivated to organize with Starbucks Workers United, and asked supporters to sign the No Contract, No Coffee pledge. Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, held a moment of silence for the workers lost during the pandemic, and led thousands in chanting “billionaires, they gotta go!” and “if we don’t get it, shut it down!” They are fighting to get official recognition from Amazon after their election win in Staten Island and are talking with other Amazon workers across the country. Smalls asked folks to support the union by virtually attending the ongoing NLRB hearing of Amazon’s objections. Oh and also, union supporter Bernie Sanders came by in solidarity!

The “Meet the Authors” event was jam-packed with presentations of over a dozen labor books. One of them was On the Line by a former colleague of mine, organizer Daisy Pitkin, about organizing laundry workers in Phoenix. I recently reviewed the book and highly recommend it.

Meeting the moment?

It was coincidental that the Labor Notes conference was held the same week as the AFL-CIO 29th Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations) is the umbrella federation of 57 U.S. unions representing 12.5 million workers, the vast majority of the country’s union workers. While it’s difficult to directly compare the two events since they serve different purposes, they demonstrate a sharp contrast in politics. The AFL-CIO convention represents the institutional labor movement, while the Labor Notes attendees and readers can be seen as its insurgent, leftist wing, or as Labor Notes calls it, the “Troublemakers Union.”

The labor movement needs to organize one million new workers each year to meaningfully increase the union membership rate.

The AFL-CIO convention’s slogan was “Building the movement to meet the moment.” Among the resolutions passed is one dealing with increasing the scale of organizing, and there was also an announcement of a new Center for Transformational Organizing, which has a goal of organizing one million new workers in the next decade — which, based on population growth, may actually represent a reduction in the union membership rate. 

Now the AFL-CIO does a lot of good work, and while new organizing goals and plans are welcome, some reactions have correctly pointed out that this is very inadequate. Indeed, given the size of the U.S. workforce, the labor movement needs to organize one million new workers each year to meaningfully increase the union membership rate, as the AFL-CIO itself proposed 20 years ago.

The AFL-CIO’s highly touted organizing plan would make for a continued decline of unions for the next decade, and an acceptance of single-digit union density, which is the last stop before true irrelevance.

Transformation needed now

It should be clear that the massive scale of organizing needed will only come from the energy, participation and creativity of millions of union members and non-union workers. The role of the AFL-CIO should primarily be to help facilitate that. We will never have enough union staff to do all the organizing that is needed. Over the past twenty years, I’ve been on staff at several unions, and I’ve seen that our current model is not working well enough.

“A New Path to Organize Workers: Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee,” an interview with Dirnbach and a fellow EWOC volunteer Wen Zhuang

This is why the Labor Notes project and others like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) are so essential. Labor Notes seeks to reinvigorate union democracy and member engagement. EWOC, a joint project of the Democratic Socialists of America and the United Electrical workers union (UE) that I volunteer with, offers organizing training and campaign assistance to any non-union worker who wants to organize.

The NewsGuild also provides a good framework with their Member Organizer Program. Organizing Coordinator Stephanie Basile explained that they want to “demystify and democratize the organizing process.” The union has recruited 100 trained members to assist with new organizing, which has helped them organize 145 new shops with 7,000 workers in the past five years.

As organizer Mark Meinster of the UE reminded us at the “Labor Upsurge” panel, the labor movement rarely grows gradually. There are instead periods of upsurge, such as the 1930s (private sector) and 1960s (public sector), where millions of workers organize and strike in intense waves. This is discussed in Dan Clawson’s classic book The Next Upsurge

Today, most established unions are risk-averse institutions, fearful of striking, and generally unwilling to defy our inadequate labor law. We likely need new worker formations and models of organizing to emerge to take on the risks and experimentation that are needed to support a new upsurge. Joe Burns, in his new book Class Struggle Unionism, makes a similar proposal.

The Alphabet Workers Union — made up of workers employed at Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company — is an example for this alternative kind of worker formation. At the session “Joining a Union…Or Forming Your Own,” a member discussed their organizing within the 200,000-worker company by fighting for improvements without at this point seeking recognition and a contract, similar to the century-old Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)-style solidarity unionism. The union has over 1,000 members and is growing with support from the Communications Workers of America.

The labor movement rarely grows gradually. There are instead periods of upsurge where millions of workers organize and strike in intense waves.

The Starbucks Workers Union similarly gets support and mentorship from parent union Workers United, but has largely been a rank-and-file-run movement of baristas organizing their stores, now with more than 150 election wins so far. Only about 9,000 more to go. At the conference, there was also a lot of discussion around workers forming their own independent unions, like the Amazon Labor Union has done, something rarely considered a few years ago. If the current trend continues, we will certainly see more of these form.

A time for bold action

At the end of the conference, I caught up with my friend Jaz Brisack, who after graduating from college in 2019 became very busy, as the world now knows. Inspired by working on a UAW organizing campaign at Nissan in Mississippi, she moved to Buffalo, got a job at Starbucks, and contributed to the first election win at a U.S. corporate-owned store, starting a movement and making history. More of this, please.

At a time when corporations and billionaires have a stranglehold on our politics and government and right-wing fascism threatens much worse, a growing and militant labor movement is essential. Any group of workers can start organizing today, and should reach out to EWOC for training and assistance. Do not wait for unions to come around because it may never happen. The capacity of the working class to organize and challenge their bosses at work, and the political system at large, has proven transformational in past eras, and can be again. We need it now more than ever.

Eric Dirnbach is a labor movement researcher and union activist in New York City. He has published in Jacobin, Labor Notes, New Labor Forum, and Organizing Work, and is a volunteer with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee.

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