Activists To Discuss “Rebuilding Labor’s Power”

by Bill Onasch

This article will also appear in the March 2008 print edition of the U.S. newspaper Socialist Action. To subscribe, send $12 for one year (2d class mail) or $18 for one year (1st class mail) to Socialist Action, PO Box 460501, San Francisco, California 94146-0501.

Hundreds of working class activists are expected to gather in Dearborn, Michigan, April 11–13, 2008, for a conference with the theme “Rebuilding Labor’s Power.” Organized by the widely read monthly Labor Notes, this event is the latest in a tradition of such conferences, with topical themes, held every two to three years since the 1980s.

Labor Notes presents itself as a source of news and education at the service of those putting “movement back into the labor movement.” While the leaders of the political current that produces Labor Notes obviously have a point of view on labor activities —they describe themselves as “troublemakers,” using a slingshot as their logo — their conferences are not decision-making bodies. No coordinated plan of action is expected to emanate from Dearborn.

Past gatherings have focused largely on issues of union democracy and trade union tactics — particularly shop floor struggles. Prior conferences have provided useful exchanges of experience for those trying to build adversarial unions along these lines, and the coming one will undoubtedly provide much more of the same.

When Labor Notes was founded in 1979 emphasis on such issues seemed logical. Some successful battles were still being waged against employer demands for concessions. Important shop floor resistance met early attempts to impose “lean manufacturing” transformations in industry.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), New Directions in the UAW, and the New Directions caucus among New York transit workers, offered promise of bringing democracy to some of the most authoritarian unions.

Such struggles continue, of course, and deserve attention and support. But the relationship of forces and terms of engagement in the U.S. class struggle have been drastically altered since 1979, such as,

         The massive restructuring of manufacturing and transportation, escalating in the 1980s, along with later massive offshoring of many more jobs after NAFTA, physically eliminated many major bastions of militant unionism. The newly intensified globalization of capital also brought to the bargaining table credible threats of further job loss to back up demands for more give-backs. Recently the bosses have effectively utilized bankruptcy laws to cancel existing union contracts.

         New Directions in the UAW and TDU suffered sharp reverses after some short-lived victories. Worse yet, when New Directions came to power in the New York transit union it soon degenerated into a new bureaucracy, not worker democracy.

         Saddled with the union bureaucracy’s ill-fated postwar choice to keep basic benefits tied to employer contracts, runaway costs of healthcare and defined benefit pensions can no longer be sustained through collective bargaining by even the historically most powerful unions — such as the United Auto Workers union (UAW).

         And most recently, growing awareness of the depth and urgency of the global warming crisis has called into question the viability of millions of union jobs. With no vision of how to work for a green economic conversion that maintains decent jobs, many union bureaucrats line up with corporate polluters, becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.

Not to pile it on, we also have to note that the worst of these defeats for labor have come during “good times” for the American economy. We now face a likely major recession.

Despite this sorry picture, socialists of course continue to believe that trade unions remain indispensable to defending and advancing the interests of workers under capitalism — and even beyond, in a transition from capitalism to the ultimate goal of a truly classless society.

But it is clear that the present organized labor movement in the United States is in mortal danger. Where unions are not being smashed they are withering away. Surrendering past gains in vain attempts at “partnership” with the bosses makes them appear useless to the unorganized — and to a growing number of their present members as well. While troublemakers with slingshots still have a role, much more is needed to halt and reverse the decline of the only mass organizations of the working class in this country.

The coming conference looks more promising in expanding scope. The keynote speaker is Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee. CNA is the biggest and most successful of the handful of American unions that could be described as adversarial rather than dedicated to “partnership” with the boss. In these bleak times for labor they have won a number of impressive organizing and contract settlement victories.

But they’ve also done a lot beyond the workplace. They mobilized in California to win, and then successfully defended, legally mandated patient-to-nurse staffing ratios. They have been early and staunch supporters of the Labor Party and U.S. Labor Against the War.

Now they have stepped up to the plate to take on building a mass national social movement to win single-payer healthcare in the United States. They will find, and have found, allies across the country already working on this issue. For example, the Single-Payer Action Network of Ohio, launched several years ago at the initiative of the Ohio State Labor Party, has fifteen functioning local chapters around Ohio, and is supported by dozens of community and faith-based groups as well as over fifty unions.

Another worthwhile feature in the coming conference is the participation of Les Leopold, in his capacity as author of a recently published biography of Tony Mazzocchi, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor. Discussions around this book inevitably lead to issues such as welding alliances between labor and environmentalists, and building an independent working class party organically connected to organized labor — both issues being highly relevant to today’s challenges. The scheduling of a workshop on “Labor and Environmental Coalitions” is a further modest step in the right direction.

Readers of Socialist Action, and of Labor Standard online, by attending the conference can learn much about the present state of the activist wing in the labor movement. And the socialist current represented by these publications has something to offer in the discussion about rebuilding labor’s power.

The SA/LS current is part of a historical continuity in the labor movement going back to the days of the early IWW, the Trade Union Education League of the 1920s, and the leadership of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster and Toledo Auto-Lite strikes. More recent activist participation by the SA/LS current includes the Right to Vote Caucus in the United Transportation Union in the 1970s, the P-9 Support Committee for Hormel strikers in the ‘80s, the launching of the Labor Party in the ‘90s, and the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War in 2003. The collective memory of these activities is a precious asset for today’s discussions.

An important component of the labor strategy heritage of the SA/LS current is the creation of a class struggle left wing within the broader labor movement. A resolution adopted by our “ancestors” shortly after they were expelled from the Socialist Party in 1937 still seems quite relevant.

“The need of a nationally connected left wing in the American trade union movement is the most urgent problem in that field today...Without a left-wing movement standing on the militant platform of the class struggle, the trade union movement in this country is doomed to the demoralizing effects of class collaboration and the dead-hand control of the reactionary union bureaucracy.”

Our predecessors made clear that they didn’t consider their own small group to be the left wing

“Progressive groups should be conceived of not only as fields of recruitment for the revolutionary party, but as the means of setting in motion the largest number of workers at a given time for the advancement of a left-wing position and left-wing leadership.”

While organized socialists are an even smaller grouping in the unions today than they were in 1937, there are a number of forces that qualify as potential candidates for a class struggle left wing as envisioned by the pioneers quoted above. These include:

         Unions with strong adversarial positions such as CNA, the United Electrical Workers (UE), and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).

         Nontraditional formations such as the now numerous worker centers.

         U.S. Labor Against the War.

         The Labor Party.

         Opposition groups such as Soldiers of Solidarity and Future of the Union (in the UAW).

         Local groups such as the St. Paul Labor Speakers Club.

And, of course, activists around Labor Notes.

It would be premature to launch yet another new formal structure to try to bring these forces together. Expanded discussions around the Labor Notes conference will be helpful. Even better, collaboration in action around projects such as the Guaranteed Health Care campaign of the nurses; solidarity campaigns; antiwar actions; environmental initiatives; and struggles against racism and for immigrant rights, will offer further opportunities for building trust and confidence required for launching a more structured left wing.

For more information on the Labor Notes conference go to the website at: