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At Labor Notes conference, a sense of mission and solidarity

UAW celebrations a centerpiece


Workers from New York City converged on a hotel outside of Chicago last weekend for the Labor Notes Conference, a gathering of workers, organizers and retirees from around the world held every two years by an organization that bills itself as empowering and organizing the troublemakers of the labor movement. 

Warehouse workers, nurses, teachers, lawyers, librarians and union organizers from across the five boroughs joined 4,500 of their unionized colleagues for more than 300 workshops and panels.

The three-day conference was bookended by celebrations led by officials in the United Auto Workers who, on Friday, gathered at the hotel with hundreds of attendees to watch the counting of ballots in a union election of workers at a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The union won the election with 73 percent support, the first time autoworkers from outside the Big Three have won a union election in the South. 

Shawn Fain, the union’s fiery president, celebrated with those workers on Friday in Tennessee and then spent the weekend at the Labor Notes conference, where he spoke on panels, took selfies with workers and met with autoworkers and union officials from Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere.

Fain closed out the conference on Sunday with a 15-minute speech that identified “corporate greed” as an authoritarian threat to Americans and called on attendees to welcome workers regardless of their race, sexuality or immigration status. “For decades corporate greed has threatened to destroy the working class,” he said. “Workers have been led to believe that working-class people don't have the power, the will or the courage to fight back. So today, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Chicago, Illinois, we say hell no!”

‘Empowered and excited’

UAW members, organizers and union leadership from New York City attended the conference, including a large contingent from the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, a local which has been embroiled in a fight with Congressional Republicans

“Hearing from Palestinian organizers, auto workers who’ve recently unionized in Mexico and organizers for farmworkers’ rights was a helpful reminder that we are part of a global movement for workers justice,” Leah Duncan the ALAA’s secretary-treasurer, said after the conference. “ALAA members left feeling empowered and excited to apply the nuts and bolts skills we learned to our fight and in solidarity with all workers.”

Labor Notes, founded in 1979, has long been a resource for union reformers frustrated with old school, bureaucratic unions, but this conference — and the one held in 2022, which Senator Bernie Sanders addressed — were crucial gatherings for the new generation of unionists looking to revive a movement that had long been in decline but has shown signs of vitality in recent years. Panels at last weekend’s conference reflected the interests and identities of that generation: several focused on LGBTQ workers, organizing for renewable energy initiatives and supporting workers in the Gaza Strip.

Other panels featured UPS Teamsters reflecting on their 2023 contract campaign, teachers from Massachusetts discussing the illegal strikes they’ve been holding, and rank and file union members speaking about how they’ve been organizing within their unions and winning power. There were also meetings for restaurant workers, railroad workers, nonprofit workers and union members from many other sectors.

The conference also included a meetup for members of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees attended by members of District Council 37.

Will Niedmann, a member of DC 37’s Local 371, said he was particularly inspired by the nurses from across the country he heard speak at the conference. Niedmann, an education coordinator at the Department of Cultural Affairs, added that he was determined to engage with his coworkers when he returned to the city.

“I feel like city workers have a lot of power,” he said at the close of the conference. “I’m excited to explore ways to harness that and get ourselves to the place where the nurses’ unions are.”

Honda Wang, a member of Local 1549 of DC 37, echoed Niedmann's words, saying that city workers “need to start talking to each other and getting engaged with contract negotiations going forward.” He liked a panel on Sunday featuring a nurse, a dockworker and other union members discussing how workers can organize to ensure that automation and the introduction of artificial intelligence doesn’t push workers to the unemployment line.

“Thirty to 40 years ago, city workers faced the specter of digitization that was a threat to their jobs,” he said. “We need to be even more organized now than we were then.”

And Isaac Kirk-Davidoff, a Parks Department employee and shop steward in Local 371, said in a text on Monday that after meeting parks workers from across the country, a sense of solidarity was palpable. “We’re all committed to winning the battle for democracy in our unions, workplaces and our lives,” he said. “After Labor Notes, the path to that real democracy seems a bit clearer and I can see how my fellow workers are walking on it.”


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