The Alternative Labor Movement


            Chicago           I’ve been to many union conventions over the years, both here and abroad.  They tend to be well organized, orderly, often even scripted affairs, very much like political conventions, because, duh, they are political conventions.  Whether that’s a state convention of the AFL-CIO in Arkansas or Louisiana or something huge like the conventions of the AFL-CIO, the Canadian Labour Congress, SEIU or the Steelworkers, these are displays for the membership of the power and performance of the leadership, and why they are deserving of continued support and showering the member-delegates with gifts and spectacle.

And, then there’s Labor Notes, the group that convenes the alternative labor movement.  Not the one we have institutionally, but the one that some wish we would have.  Big labor is represented in ones and twos with an SEIU, HERE, CWA, AFT or AFSCME or similar jacket or insignia showing somewhere.   These unions pay attention, but they virtually boycott these affairs that reek to them of dissidents, self-proclaimed reformers, malcontents, dreamers, schemers, unrequited organizers, and wannabe leaders.  For good reason, the newsletter is proud to proclaim itself the Troublemakers Union.  This is a grassroots jamboree of labor rank-and-file, stewards, and folks willing to shout at the podium from the back of the room.  It’s everything that big labor conventions aren’t.  It’s lines of 50 at the coffee counter.  It’s pay your own way at the lunch line among hundreds.  It’s mass mayhem in the lobby and in the scrum for workshops.

And, my goodness, are there workshops!  Hundreds with other convening on top and alongside from 9 in the morning until 9 at night for 2 days and half a day on Sunday.  The program book ran 88 pages.  It was chaos, and people seemed to love it.

At this moment that labor is having on the verge of a historic – and likely winning – vote at the first big auto plant to be organized in the South in 40 years, where the results will be announced in hours, suddenly Labor Notes was teeming with 4500 registered near the Chicago airport and a claim that 2000 had to be turned down.

I hadn’t been to one of these in years.  My last one was a quicker, smaller affair in Detroit.  There were some old hands, brothers and sisters, who had shared my time over the decades, but it was a younger crowd, as I would suspect, representing workers trying to get there, not ones who had already been there and done that.  I poked my head into a workshop on organizing in right-to-work states, which was largely about signing people up and handling business in existing public units.  I listened to courageous brothers talk about organizing under autocracies in Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea.  I was curious and listened to a brief speech by Sara Nelson, the fiery head of the Flight Attendants Association profiled in The New Yorker and a new book called The Hammer on a panel about where we go from here.

Clearly, this was exhilarating for many folks.  The energy was palpable.  It was a meeting of the clans.  It will be interesting from day to day to see how much meat is on the bones.