Troublemakers Go to School in Detroit

Union members, labor activists, and allies swapped strategies at the Detroit Troublemakers School. Photo: Jim West, jimwestphoto.com

On Saturday, March 30, 100 union members, labor activists, and allies met in Detroit for a Troublemakers School: a day of skill-sharing and strategizing about workplace organizing.

Though it was gray and drizzling outside, the energy at the Troublemakers School was strong all day, closing out with a call from Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib to keep up the fight. Tlaib is pushing for a Green New Deal that would create millions of jobs by converting our economy to sustainable energy and transportation.

Detroit could “be the engine of a Green New Deal,” said Sean Crawford, a member of the Auto Workers (UAW) at GM. “We have the know-how, we have the facilities, we can make solar panels, we can make wind turbines. Why not make it here?”

Tlaib reminded us that in Detroit, “we are on the front lines of what it means to do nothing,” and that though people say we have 12 years left, the crisis here has already arrived.

Unifor 222 member Rebecca Keetch, who works at the plant that GM plans to close in Oshawa, Ontario, called for the nationalization of GM, and urged unions to think big.

The morning began with a few words from unionists who’d been involved in labor victories for Verizon workers in New York and teachers in Chicago. Matt McCracken, an executive board member of Electrical Workers (UE) Local 506, joined the school from Erie, Pennsylvania. He spoke to attendees about the nine-day strike he and his 1,700 coworkers had just waged at the Wabtec locomotive manufacturing plant, where they successfully fended off company efforts to impose two-tier wages and mandatory overtime, for now, with a 90-day agreement.

Debby Pope of the Chicago Teachers Union described how when she first started teaching, the union leadership was out of touch with rank-and-file teachers. She joined with a group who decided that “instead of having a union that you go to when you have a problem, we [were] going to have an organizing union, and put the U back in union.”

The Chicago Teachers Union won a week-long strike in 2012, which set a precedent for the recent wave of teachers strikes that has crossed the country from West Virginia to Arizona to Oakland.

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The Troublemakers School drew a diverse mix that ranged from auto workers and electrical workers to teachers, librarians, and university faculty to social workers, bus drivers, city workers, and nurses. There were not-yet-unionized workers as well as members of the UAW, Electrical Workers (IBEW), Teachers (AFT), Industrial Workers of the World, Transport Workers, and Teamsters, among others. Attendees joined workshops with titles like “Beating Apathy,” “Race and Labor: Let’s Talk About It,” “Assertive Grievance Handling,” and “Successful Contract Campaigns.”

One participant said, “I walked out of that conference feeling empowered, which is the opposite of what I typically feel walking out of [school] district events that leave me feeling demoralized and hopeless.”

At an afternoon workshop, “Turning an Issue Into a Campaign,” we reviewed the importance of having a plan that includes escalation. Members of Wayne State University Professors (AAUP-AFT Local 6075) workshopped a situation in the libraries, where they have 10 positions that have gone unfilled for years. We discussed what our demand might be: that at least one position be filled by the end of next academic year, and that staff members author the position description. We identified the target who has the power to change the situation—in this case, the Dean and the Provost. Then we brainstormed tactics: publicizing the 10 vacancies in contrast to administrator salaries and rising tuition, by putting stickers up on campus; librarians visiting faculty meetings; and finding a student to report on the campaign in the paper.

Another group of teachers talked about a campaign to opt out of testing in Dearborn public schools. They discussed ways to educate parents and the community on opting out.

The afternoon session on “Detroit Labor History” featured panelists Bill Parker and Barb Ingalls, who were active in some of the historic labor fights in Detroit. Bill has been a UAW member for more than 40 years and described the UAW’s changing focus, from standing up for workers' rights at the bargaining table to accepting the auto industry’s position that the union's priority should be on profit-making.

Barb described the Detroit newspaper strike that began in 1995, with six unions joining in a strike that lasted 18 months. This was an iconic fight for journalists and newspaper workers right at the time when consolidation into national media chains was taking place. Although ultimately the unions did not win the battle, they received incredible support both from other unions and from the people of Detroit.

A week before the Detroit school, 200 union and workplace activists gathered in Ithaca, New York, at the Upstate New York Troublemakers School. Two more schools will take place on Saturday, April 6, in Portland, Oregon, and the Bay Area, with others scheduled in Beckley, West Virginia, on May 18 and Worcester, Massachusetts, on June 1.

Danielle Aubert and Michelle Emfinger were first-time Troublemakers School attendees.