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At an Exhilarating Labor Notes Conference, the Working Class is Standing Up

Biannual gathering brings together more than 4,000 labor activists to share experiences and strategies for how to build on the recent surge in pro-union momentum.

Eric Dirnbach May 1

Recently in front of a standing-room only crowd of more than 4,000 labor activists, United Auto Workers (UAW) President Shawn Fain said, “Something is happening in this country. Something we haven’t seen in a long, long time. The working class is standing up!”

That spirit was everywhere at the recent Labor Notes conference. Labor Notes is a monthly labor newsletter and organizing training project that was founded in 1979. It also hosts a conference every two years, and it’s getting bigger. This year in Chicago, over 4,700 people attended, and the energy was intense. I have been to a half dozen Labor Notes conferences, and this huge gathering of the left wing of the labor movement is always energizing.

The “Organizing the South” session was in a large packed room, and featured a teacher, call center worker, nurse, retail worker, and a worker from a non-union auto plant.

At over 300 packed workshops and panel discussions throughout the weekend, attendees discussed workplace organizing basics, effective collective bargaining, union democracy, and how to push on aggressively with the revival of the labor movement that feels very real. Labor Notes has made recordings of the main sessions available.

The conference is happening amidst what may be the beginning of a union upsurge in the United States. The number of union elections, workers organized through elections and union strikes have risen in the last few years. The popularity of unions is at a near-record high of 67% approval, according to Gallup’s latest annual survey. 

Younger Gen Z workers in particular are interested in unions, as a response to economic uncertainty exposed so well by the recent pandemic. Union contract settlements won first year raises of 6.6% last year — the highest in decades. These trends are all encouraging, but we have yet to see them translate into an increase in the union membership rate, the percentage of all workers who are union members. Last year it continued to drop and is now about 10% of the workforce.

Decades of defensive and complacent unionism has enabled this loss of membership. The folks at Labor Notes are the union members and activists that most urgently want to reverse this decline with a bolder unionism that features militant, member participation.

The NewsGuild, affiliated with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), is a good example of this, and they had over 100 members at the conference. The union has won dozens of strikes so far this year and has a highly regarded member organizing program. Organizer Stephanie Basile says that “newspaper workers have shared experiences and challenges in their workplace organizing, and by connecting them to discuss and brainstorm, they have the opportunity to directly learn from each other.” The program has helped the union organize over 10,000 new members at 250 workplaces over the last decade.  

It was inspiring to see so many young Starbucks Workers United members at the conference — especially after their breakthrough announcement that the company has agreed to start bargaining a contract. Negotiations have since begun, after the union won 400 store elections and staged many strikes nationwide over the past few years. The conference featured a screening and discussion of a great new documentary, The Empty Chair, about the Starbucks union campaign. The film featured a lot of the barista union activists, many of whom are LGBTQ+.

Rather than being “represented” by a sad, voiceless chair, the Starbucks workers have built an organization that is actually doing the job.  

The “empty chair” refers to a concept so vacuous that it can only come from a CEO. It’s the practice of having an empty chair at Starbucks Board meetings to remind the executives of the workers. Rather than being “represented” by a sad, voiceless chair, the Starbucks workers have built an organization that is actually doing the job.  

I enjoyed the workshop held by the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) called “Our Labor Movement is Multi-Generational,” which featured activists providing mentorship and experience from Boomers to Gen Z. I particularly liked hearing EWOC volunteer Terry Davis talk about her experiences at finding work at a manufacturing plant in Chicago in the 1970s to organize with the United Electrical (UE) union. A lot of young workers are doing this today — getting jobs with the intention of organizing a new union, often called “salting,” or improving the union already there. 

UE is a sponsoring partner of EWOC, along with the Democratic Socialists of America. EWOC is a project that started at the beginning of the pandemic to help workers organize unions and has just published a brand new Unite and Win organizing manual. 

At the conference, I facilitated a session on “Pre-Majority Unionism,” which is an organizing strategy where workers have a union and win improvements even without official employer recognition and a contract. One of our panelists, organizer Allison Becha, discussed how the United Campus Workers (UCW), affiliated with CWA, has organized for wins at many public universities in over a dozen states. They have accomplished this without a contract, as they are organizing in many states without collective bargaining rights for public employees. As part of an EWOC research project, I wrote a report with case studies on this strategy, including one of UCW.

The UAW had a heavy presence at the conference, and it’s members are on fire right now. After their “Stand Up” strike and stunning contract victory at the Big Three automakers last year, they have moved aggressively to organize non-union factories with 150,000 workers, including throughout the South. With amazing timing, their decisive win with over 4,000 workers at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, TN, was announced during the conference. Their next big election is at a Mercedes plant in Alabama from May 13-17.

The UAW has even urged other unions to align their contracts expirations for May 1, 2028 so we can have a general strike! The general strike, where many unions and potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of workers strike together, is a concept usually encountered in history books or other countries. The fact that it’s a live conversation in the United States today is amazing.

The “Organizing the South” session was in a large packed room and featured a teacher, call-center worker, nurse, retail worker, and a worker from a non-union auto plant that is organizing with the UAW. Indeed, whether the UAW and other union campaigns can revitalize large-scale union organizing in the South is a crucial question. Eleven states, mostly in the South, have union membership rates below 5%, which results in more conservative politics that have national ramifications. 

Labor and Palestine

Palestine had an important presence at the conference. A number of workshops discussed organizing around a ceasefire and in support of Palestine, and many attendees were wearing a keffiyeh. Outside the conference, a protest against the genocide drew many cops. This resulted in two arrests, but the protesters and Labor Notes staff were able to de-arrest the folks.

Union renewal is always a big theme at the conference. Indeed, the UAW’s revival has been enabled by the victory of the Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) slate in the last UAW elections, which elevated Fain to the presidency. 

At a session called “Be the Union You Want to Be,” members from a number of unions discussed their efforts to inject more militant strategies into their unions. The facilitator was Jackson Potter, Vice President of the Chicago Teachers Union. CTU inspired the whole labor movement when a reform slate took over the union and led a huge strike in 2012 to fight off education austerity in Chicago. This influenced other teachers unions, leading to the famous “Red for Ed” strike wave in 2018-2019. Former CTU member Brandon Johnson is now the mayor of Chicago, and he also spoke at the conference.

During his speech, Fain mentioned that he travels with his grandmother’s bible, but at work his other bible has been Labor Notes’ Troublemaker’s Handbook. Fain said, “This Bible taught me another kind of faith. It taught me faith in the membership. It taught me faith in the working class. And it is that faith that carried the UAW to our new chapter in history.” It’s a fantastic resource that’s sadly out of print, but Labor Notes has now made it available for a free download.

The next Labor Notes conference may be even larger, and I hope so. Labor Notes staff estimated that thousands were on the waiting list and that with a larger venue, they could have had 8,000–10,000 people in attendance. If you’re interested in the 2026 conference, register early!

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