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A wildfire of organizing: Sparks from Labor Notes 2022

Dispatch from the largest event in the organization’s 43-year history

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Chris Smalls addresses attendants at the 2022 Labor Notes Conference. Photo by James Hutt.

The white collar crime syndicate known as Corporate America is hereby put on notice that the working people of America have had enough!
—Sean O’ Brien, Labor Notes 2022

Fuck Jeff Bezos!
—Christian Smalls, Labor Notes 2022

Suddenly, it seems, organized labour is cool again. On Twitter, leftists have taken to calling the months ahead #HotLaborSummer. Twitter is a poor barometer of, well, anything, but looking at the last few years, there has been an obvious spike in labour militancy and general interest in unions.

For example last October, over 100,000 US, workers were either striking or about to strike, leading many to dub the month “Striketober”. Then in April, we saw the stunning Amazon Labor Union victory in Staten Island, where a small scrappy group of workers won the first union vote at a North American Amazon facility. It seems almost every week a new Starbucks location unionizes (despite the best efforts and resources of the chain’s billionaire founder). The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the US body responsible for certifying unions, noted a recent surge in organizing. Add to that, a growing number of labour journalists, labour publications and podcasts. Yesterday, even the CBC warned that Canada could see a “summer of labour unrest.” Everywhere, it seems, the labour movement is catching fire.

That movement found expression in Chicago, Illinois at the biannual Labor Notes conference from June 17th to 19th, during what locals told us was an unprecedented heat wave with daily temperatures reaching the mid-to-high thirties.

The last conference had been postponed due to COVID and, with the recent surge in worker organizing, energy and excitement for the event were palpable. There were over 4,000 delegates, making it the largest event in the organization’s 43-year history. The scale of the event was staggering: the conference centre was the size of a small airport, buzzing from morning until late with thousands of union activists, staffers, academics, and journalists from every state and sector in the United States, as well as abroad. There were so many people that delegates filled two other nearby hotels. Almost every workshop was standing room only, often with people crowding out the door.

Canada had the largest international delegation, with over 200 people attending from a wide range of unions and provinces. It was my first time attending, but the consensus was that delegates were a few decades younger and more diverse than in past years. During and between sessions, hundreds of young and racialized workers were convening and celebrating: baristas in cut-off Starbucks Workers United shirts strategized in side rooms, Amazon workers in bright pink ALU t-shirts led cheers and chants in plenary sessions, and gig workers rallied outside in matching black and red Los Deliveristas Unidos swag. Less, colour-coordinated were many other workers from new industries and unions. There were over a dozen members of Naujawan Support Network (NSN), a Punjabi-led workers’ organization from Brampton Ontario. NSN’s members were a darling of the conference, speaking on several panels and receiving frequent shout-outs for using direct actions to recover more than $200,000 in stolen wages from international students and workers.

And, of course, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) were there in full force with its young(ish) members speaking on and facilitating many of the panels, and hosting socials. Since the eclipse of the Bernie Sanders 2019 campaign, DSA has prioritized labour organizing in many of its committees and chapters.

Held alongside the conference was the Great Labor Arts Exchange, a celebration of labour-related music, poetry, and art. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it featured much more than what my colleague Dwayne calls White Guys With Guitars singing folk music. As much as I love Pete Seeger, it was great to see so many hip-hop, spoken word, and theatre performances.

Labor Notes frames its mission as “putting the movement back into the labor movement.” The organization is both a media and organizing project. It publishes books, articles, and a magazine with coverage and analysis of labour trends. On the organizing side, it also provides training workshops and hands-on resources to support workers in unionizing their workplaces and increasing internal democracy in their unions. I have incorporated activities from Labor Notes’ acclaimed Secrets of a Successful Organizer training series in my own work and trainings.

The conference is a chance for the ‘left-wing of the labor movement’ to convene, form connections across unions and sectors, learn from each other’s experiments and share skills. The agenda was overflowing with a wide range of skill-building workshops, issue-based panels, forums based on sector and/or region, strategy sessions, and cultural events. The conference was impressively organized, with ample communication beforehand, a printed program and an app to keep track of the schedule, and clear maps of the venue.

Friday and Saturday’s schedules each had four workshop spots and two keynote events, while Sunday had two workshop spots and one keynote event. Each workshop spot had over 25 events to choose from. To help navigate such an overwhelming agenda, workshops and panels were sorted into 18 different tracks. These ranged from Bargaining and Contract Action Campaigns, Climate, Direct Action, Educators, Health and Safety, LGBTQ+, New Organizing, Politics and Connecting the Dots, Strategy, and Strikes.

Interwoven in this hive of activity, were main panels to frame the moment and highlight some of the most successful victories and the biggest challenges ahead.

At the top of everyone’s mind was the Amazon Labor Union, a new independent union that made headlines in April when it became the first Amazon facility in North America to win its union vote). Its president, Chris Smalls, was treated like a rockstar at the conference, with journalists and cameras trailing his every move and streams of delegates asking for selfies.

Another highlight was the Starbucks Workers United campaign, which is celebrating a wave of union victories across the US in the notoriously hard-to-organize service sector; six months ago, not a single Starbucks location was unionized. Today there are over 150. SBU members were on many panels, but at their keynote session A Union Brew(s) at Starbucks, workers shared their experiences to raucous applause. As baristas organized, they realized that managers at different locations were following a shared playbook: because stores are so small, managers played on their personal relationships with staff, often breaking down and crying about how hard the union drive was on them. As workers at different stores began to talk to each other, they realized how coordinated—and predictable it was. So SBU created a pack with frequently asked questions about unionizing, union cards, materials, and what to expect from bosses (including tears), and a captive meeting BINGO card with what bosses will say. SBU’s goal is to make it easier for each subsequent store to unionize than the last.

Friday night’s keynote panel featured many of the ‘celebrities’ of the American labour movement, including Chris Smalls, Sean O’Brien the new president of the Teamsters who successfully ousted the corrupt James Hoffa dynasty; and Stacy Gates, the incoming president of the militant Chicago Teachers Union. To close out the panel, Sanders addressed the crowd to numerous standing ovations. Sanders underscored the importance of unions in rebuilding the left and celebrated the recent uptick in labour militancy.

The main sessions were recorded and live-streamed on Labor Notes’ social media.

I attended several thematic panels, but the sessions I found most useful and relevant were the skill-building workshops. In particular, An Organizing Approach to Grievances by the News Guild of New York was a very effective peer education training on how to turn what is often a very long and disempowering process into an opportunity to develop leaders and build a fighting union.

Coincidentally right next door to that workshop, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers was leading Taking Back the Workfloor, a hands-on training session on their new direct-action approach to resolving grievances.

Open bargaining was a common topic at the conference. I attended Bring the Shop Floor to the Bargaining Table, a panel with members of unions across a range of industries who shared their experiences and lessons learned on bringing more members into the collective bargaining process. Some have taken steps to increase transparency and the ability to observe negotiations, others had found ways to increase sharing member testimonies, while others involved thousands of members in sub-committees directly bargaining over clauses. This will be an important trend to follow as a number of unions have expressed interest and taken steps towards adopting the open bargaining model in Canada.

DSA’s Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) was a central feature and one of the most prominent examples of new approaches to organizing. EWOC is a joint partnership with the militant United Electrical Radio, and Machine Workers of America union (UE), which sprung up during the pandemic to provide remote organizing support to workers anywhere.

After Bernie’s 2019 Presidential Nominee campaign, some of the architects of his renowned distributed volunteer model turned their attention to labour and questioned how masses of remote supporters could support on-the-ground union drives. EWOC uses DSA’s vast network of members, combined with UE’s organizing chops, to create a virtual war room for worker organizing. Workers who want support fill out an intake form, receive a call within 48 hours from a volunteer who triages their case, then assigns them to other teams that provide advice, resources, and often connect them to other nearby workers. The goal isn’t just to unionize new workers, it’s to increase the skills and militancy of workers and then, when applicable, help them join or start militant unions. EWOC has a team of over 240 active volunteers. Over the past two years, they have supported 130 campaigns and helped over 2,000 workers unionize. It’s still small by most standards but given that it is volunteer-driven and grassroots-funded, it has the potential to scale rapidly. Even for traditional unions, EWOC’s Data for Organizing workshop offered valuable lessons on how to use tech to expand face-to-face organizing.

Another highlight was getting to connect with other Canadian delegates during a dedicated caucus, which saw people sharing their reflections and what they planned to take back to their unions. Many expressed inspiration and a touch of envy about the new forms of organizing and recent victories in the US labour movement, sharing a sentiment that the movement there is facing more obstacles but is also more assertive and dynamic. We discussed the possibility of creating a Canadian version of the conference. Conditions between the two countries are quite different, of course, but we’re forever affected by everything that happens in the US (and political trends often follow American ones but with a few years lag). We would be wise to learn from their attempts to revive the labour movement and create ways to convene the left-wing of the labour movement across unions here—especially before we find ourselves in such dire conditions.

Trade unions in the US still face incredible obstacles and attacks from employers and their allies in government. Yet one thing is clear after Labor Notes: workers everywhere are fighting fiercely and experimenting: they are challenging complacent leaders, defying labour laws, and finding new ways to build power, both on and offline. There are countless sparks that could easily spread and erupt into a wildfire of organizing and worker militancy.

***

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Naujawan Support Network recovered more than $60,000 in stolen wages, a more precise figure of $200,000 has been included. Canadian Dimension regrets this inaccuracy.

James Hutt is a labour organizer and writer in Ottawa. He is the Climate Justice columnist at Our Times Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JamesRHutt.

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