West Virginia Strikers Headline Biggest Labor Notes Conference Ever
Middle school teacher Jay O’Neal became a Labor Notes subscriber last May, just as the school year was wrapping up in Charleston, West Virginia. He liked what he was reading, so in the fall he booked his trip to Chicago for the Labor Notes Conference, conveniently scheduled during his spring break.
Little did he know that he and his fellow teachers would end up the stars of the show, inspiring 3,000 attendees with the story of their nine-day statewide strike.
“Poor, looked down upon, beat down, disengaged, disorganized, and forgotten, West Virginians awoke and took a stand,” said Nicole McCormick, a music teacher from the tiny town of Athens, West Virginia, population 1,000, at Friday night’s opening plenary. Her takeaway: “If we can do it, anyone can.”
Conference-goers soaked up these doses of hope, and took home plenty of tips, too. “The first and most important lesson,” McCormick said, “is for everyone to realize that our labor is ours first. It is up to us to give our labor, or to withhold it.”
This year’s conference gathered union and worker center activists from 47 states and 26 countries for three days of workshops and meetings, a testament to the growing troublemaking wing of the labor movement.
Looming over the conference was the Janus v. AFSCME case, with a decision expected by the end of June. Hundreds of local unions face the prospect of being gutted financially and organizationally overnight. Many came looking for strategies to beat this corporate-backed judicial assault.
“The unions that build power in open-shop America,” said Alexandra Bradbury, co-director of Labor Notes, “will be the ones that fight hard on workplace issues their members care about, and where large numbers of rank-and-file members take on their own fights.”
Dozens of workshops focused on these types of workplace fights, from teachers beating back bullying principals, to fights around health care staffing, to organizing against sexual harassment on the job. Members flocked to nuts-and-bolts workshops, to learn how to beat apathy, supercharge grievances, and organize a march on the boss.
Among the best attended were ones based on our best-selling book Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Once again, our biggest issue was finding enough space to fit everyone.
TRANSFORMING OUR UNIONS
Too many unions are unable or unwilling to fight back—so as always, a focus of the Labor Notes Conference was the struggle to transform them. Teamster reformers were there; after nearly taking the presidency from James Hoffa two years ago, they’re now pushing the union to make a stand at UPS on forced overtime, surveillance, and poverty wages for part-timers. The Teamsters agreement at UPS, the largest single private-sector union contract, expires July 31.
Several workshops and speakers addressed the #MeToo movement. CJ Hawking told how ARISE, a Chicago worker center, is fighting the case of Teresa Acevedo and Balbina Ortiz, a mother and daughter fired and disciplined for speaking up about sexual harassment from a supervisor at a local pizza chain. And before the conference officially started, participants packed a bus for a Women’s Labor History Tour, which visited the cemetery where labor activists Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Emma Goldman, and Lucy Parsons are buried.
BACK TO WORK
A couple weeks after the last Labor Notes Conference, in 2016, 38,000 Verizon workers launched their 49-day strike. That strike showed, as Communications Workers Local 1101 Vice President Al Russo put it in this year’s opening plenary, “that we could take on Verizon—a big corporate bully with a ton of money—and we could win.”
This time, it’s Arizona and Colorado teachers who are taking the baton, with walkouts happening as we go to press.
Grocery worker Auriana Fabricatore put her new skills to work right away. “Since getting back, much to the displeasure of my management, I’ve sent six information requests,” she said. Before Labor Notes, “I didn’t even know that was a thing.” She also led co-workers in a march on the boss that got a manager to rip up unfair write-ups on the spot.
A big group of Milwaukee teachers returned home to take on their school board bosses, who are proposing draconian benefit cuts. Milwaukee’s school board director told union Vice President Amy Mizialko—who spoke at our Saturday morning plenary—to “go to hell.” Mizialko shot back: “The members of this union will go to hell and back for our students.” Hundreds of teachers, students, and community members picketed outside the next board meeting.
At Labor Notes, “I feel a solidarity I have never experienced before,” said first-time attendee Ginger Lane of Communications Workers Local 7019 in Phoenix, Arizona. “I felt the power of all of us, every union, coming together.”
We’re glad to have provided a space for so many top-notch troublemakers to rub shoulders and swap stories. We hope to see even more in 2020.
- Before they could even start speaking, West Virginia teachers got a standing ovation in their packed panel on Friday evening. That was after hotel staff pulled down a partition to make more space for attendees; it was still standing-room only. The panel got rave reviews. “It's what Labor Notes does best,” said one listener, “practical, on-the-ground reports informed by broader strategy, talking about how they built their movement.”
- Conference participants got a taste of political education programs run by several unions. Seventy people packed a room for a four-hour version of the “Reversing Runaway Inequality” workshop, led by rank and filers from the Communications Workers; the room was packed again the next day for a 90-minute version. An interactive workshop on Taking on Capitalism, plus one on race and labor designed by the Washington State Labor Council, were also hits.
- We had our best turnout ever of longshore workers, with attendees coming from everywhere from Tampa to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. “In 2016, maybe a dozen of us from the ILA and ILWU caucused together at Labor Notes,” said Zack Pattin of ILWU Local 23 in Tacoma, Washington. “We threw it together on a whim after we saw each other in the hallway, found an open room and sat down to talk. This year we had over 70 people in the room.” While most attendees rushed off to catch planes after Sunday’s closing plenary, the longshore group headed downstairs to continue meeting and making plans to keep in touch.
- Transit workers again showed up in force, with 200 Amalgamated Transit Union members in attendance, plus another 50 from the Transport Workers Union. Other groups that met included worker center activists, teachers, nurses, telecom workers, postal workers, and advocates of “Medicare for All” and worker co-ops. There were meet-ups for Latino workers, LGBTQ workers, Black workers, and women.
- A hundred Canadian participants met on Saturday afternoon. Breakout groups discussed fighting racism and the far-right and maintaining solidarity among unions despite Unifor’s recent split from the Canadian Labour Congress.
- The meeting of Asian and Asian-American activists made initial plans for a regional Labor Notes-inspired summit in Tokyo in the spring of 2019.
Around the Conference
- Labor Notes wasn’t the only conference in town—TV show The Walking Dead had a fan convention, too, with actors from the show in attendance. SAG-AFTRA member Jayson Warner Smith, who plays Gavin on the show, gave a rousing impromptu introduction to the Saturday night banquet.
- West Virginia teachers brought a new anthem to the conference, with attendees at the opening plenary joining in on John Denver’s “Country Roads,” sung regularly during the strike.
- On Friday afternoon, dozens of attendees jumped on buses to picket outside the home of a Chicago YMCA board member. They were supporting members of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, who'd struck over unfair labor practices.
- Labor Notes upped our tech game, adding a customizable online program book and livestreaming several workshops, including “Stories from the West Virginia Teachers Strike” and a panel on the crisis in Puerto Rico. Check them out on our Facebook page.
- Delegations from Germany and Japan brought us their translations of Secrets of a Successful Organizer; each has already sold over 1,000 and are on to a second printing.
- We offered two workshops based on Secrets of a Successful Organizer as Spanish-only. Spanish speakers were reportedly thrilled at not having to wear interpretation headsets for once.
- Teamsters for a Democratic Union held an evening to honor national organizer Ken Paff’s 45 years of troublemaking.
- Railroad Workers United, founded at the 2008 Labor Notes Conference, held its fifth biennial meet-up.