On scene reporting by Mark Friedman, Random Lengths News contributor
Chicago- June 16. Spurred on by an increase of strikes, labor shortages, Covid pandemic, skyrocketing inflation, failed promises by politicians and a perpetual war economy, 4000 unionists from across the country and 200 international guests from 25 countries, attended the Labor Notes conference here.
The electrifying victories at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse, JFK8 and the organization of more than 100 Starbucks shops nationally, have marked a new stage in US labor and fights that will change the demographics and power of organized labor. Certainly, here and around the world.
Stacy Davis Gates, president of the Chicago Teachers Union opened the Friday night rally by explaining the teachers’ successful fight against school closings, smaller class sizes, nurses in every school, a sanctuary for immigrants and a project for homeless students and their families. They have successfully battled two Democratic mayors to achieve these goals.
“Workers are suffering under immigration policies, we are fighting for women’s reproductive rights, higher wages and sick days. At the same time, we fight for affordable housing and expand the defense of workers’ rights and human rights.”
Nolan Tabb, a leader of the 10,000 member UAW strike against John Deere, explained why they “voted down two tentative contracts negotiated by the international. “Rank and file organizing, through our Unite All Workers for Democracy caucus, won an immediate 10% wage increase plus an additional 10% over the life of the contract, pension protection, and most importantly, in the times of high inflation, reinstated cost-of-living allowance (COLA) that raises wages according to the government inflationary index.” (Although well behind actual inflation -mf)
One of the biggest contract battles on the horizon is the Teamsters UPS contract which covers over 340,000 workers. New incoming reform president, Sean O’Brien said that “We shall strike UPS next year to reverse givebacks and to get rid of two-tier pay.” Speaking of the reform slate victory,” we took over the most controversial union and this would not have happened without the activism of the rank-and-file. We will fight for no concessions.” With rhetoric and bravado, he said “we have your back.”
Perhaps the most inspiring organizing effort on a national level, has been that by Starbucks workers that originated in Buffalo in September 2021 and has now organized more than 160 of the 9000 locations.
United Workers Union barista and central Buffalo leader, Michelle Eisen, spoke of their efforts “as what union organizations have historically done… The most important lesson of the organizing is that it is shaped through the same experiences and worker led.” Individual workers have pledged $1 million to a strike fund as Starbucks pushes back in city after city. “We are told we are unskilled, but will without our labor businesses cease to exist.” Their slogan of the day is No contract, No coffee.”
Random Lengths News has covered the fight to organize Amazon workers, led by Chris Smalls, since its inception. Smalls was fired for fighting for safety on the job and without any international union behind them, with rallies, democratic organization and training of worker activists, they succeeded, as some called David versus Goliath. “In 20 years of existence no union has organized Amazon, the way we have.”
Since the victory at JFK8 in April, but a loss at a nearby smaller warehouse of primarily part-time workers, Amazon has filed 25 NLRB complaints against the Amazon Labor Union. In response to this, Smalls said “This is a call to action. It is the most important court hearing happening in the country. We need everybody to attend court hearings by zoom. We need all of you, brothers and sisters, to be there for us. If we win a contract, guess how many other workers will be inspired to join the union. Help us get one first. It will have a domino effect. It’s a hot labor summer no matter what industry we are all in this together.”
Ending the program was Sen. Bernie Sanders, who applauded the crowd in remarking “You are in the forefront of trying to transform this country. There is more concentration of ownership than at any point in the history of this land, more corporate greed and super pacs that feed both political parties. Musk and Bezos own more wealth than the bottom 42% of the population.” He pointed out that “during the pandemic, when working people paid the price and 5000 nurses died to protect us, 200 billionaires increased their wealth by $2 trillion. During the pandemic 338,000 people died unnecessarily because we do not have Medicare for all. But today we are seeing workers take on the billionaires.”
Over the course of four days, hundreds of workshops and panels took place, marking a rise in the militancy of young workers who comprised the overwhelming majority in attendance. There were hundreds of rank-and-file workers as well as committee people and shop stewards representing scores of industries and cities.
This was in marked contrast to the AFL-CIO convention which rejected the participation of workers from Starbucks and Amazon who had asked to attend.
Many workshops discussed the need for political campaigns, other than just voting, to be combined with on-the-job demands and specifically trade union issues. For example, a panel of rank-and-file General Motors workers in Mexico who’d recently overthrown a corrupt pro-company leadership as well as the delegation from Puerto Rico whose workshop discussed the crippling impact of the debt burden and the collapse of social services (closing of scores of hospitals and schools over the past decade) in this US colony, being forced to service a debt that is untenable.
Supporters and activists in the campaign against the US blockade of Cuba participated in workshops and staffed a table. There was overwhelming support for Cuba, more than 100 signed up to receive more information. There was a reception that began to organize a US labor delegation to Cuba and discussion about a panel on Cuba-US labor solidarity at next year’s conference. The reception saw a video by Havana CTC president, Miguel Angel Alvarez to participants in Labor Notes.