Labor Advocate Online

The 2012 Labor Notes Conference

Expectations Met, Hopes Deferred
by Bill Onasch


Jim West, Labor Notes

In mid-March I posted an article, Labor Notes Conference, What We Expect–What We Hope For. Now that I am back home, and caught up on e-mail, household and other chores, here’s some initial thoughts on the 2012 Labor Notes Conference.

It was big–the biggest yet of these biennial gatherings, more than 1500 registered.

It was diverse. I haven’t seen a demographic analysis but, based on my observations, I’d say there were more young mixed in among us gray-haired than at least the last couple of conferences and somewhat less dominated by pale pigment as well.

There was an impressive international component. In addition to dozens of Canadians, there were participants from Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Britain, China, Colombia, Egypt, El Salvador, France, Germany, Honduras, Japan, Mali, Mexico, Philippines, Portugal, Sweden--and I was able to have a lengthy chat with the Labor Attache of the Venezuelan Embassy, who was there as an observer.

There were inspiring moments. Of special impact for me was the presentation of a Troublemaker Award to a man I have long known, respected, and have attempted to learn from–Jerry Tucker. Not only playing central roles in numerous union solidarity and democracy battles for decades, he was part of the founding of the Labor Party and US Labor Against the War. More recently he helped initiate and drive forward the Labor Campaign for Single Payer. You could always count on catching up with Jerry at a Labor Notes Conference–but not this year. Jerry is fighting a different battle now–against a serious health problem–and couldn’t make the trip. But he did send a moving video greeting to the event and his daughter Tracy was on hand to accept the award for him. I join all who know, or know of him, in wishing Jerry the best in his current fight.

Other awards were presented to Occupy Wall Street, Warehouse Workers Organizing, and Longshore Local 21.

As always, there were dozens of workshops on a wide range of topics and industry or union based interest meetings. An obviously new topic, Occupy and Labor, was one of the best attended.

Speakers at the main plenary sessions represented Restaurant Opportunities Center; Teaching Assistants Association, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress; Chicago Teachers Union; AFSCME 3299-University of California. Mark Brenner spoke for Labor Notes.

One plenary speaker I thought I’d never live to see at such a gathering was the International President of the union to which I pay retiree dues--the Amalgamated Transit Union. Larry Hanley has shaken up this stolid union in his first term and there was a record turn out of ATU members. More than eighty of us donned orange ATU Occupy Transit T-shirts on Saturday and joined with other transit workers from the TWU, Teamsters, and UTU for a packed transit interest meeting.

There was a lunch-hour solidarity event as hundreds marched to a nearby Hyatt Hotel in support of those workers struggling for a decent union contract and conditions.

After hours, there were receptions by several groups and places where you could listen to music, even dance. I was pleased to see Anne Feeney, whose bout with cancer worried us all, back among the Troublemakers.

As usual, there were “vendor tables” set up by movement groups, publishers, and authors. KC Labor again had a table distributing a four-page brochure and selling “Labor Party Advocate” buttons. I was situated between two organizations to which I belong–US Labor Against the War and the National Writers Union. Among those stopping by were many subscribers to our e-mail list including a number I had never before met in person.

All of this met and exceeded my expectations, a rewarding experience. But the hopes I raised in the March article–not so much.

In the earlier piece I urged incorporating education and discussion in some conference format about two over-arching issues that must be urgently addressed by the working class movement if future generations are to have any hope: environmental destruction–above all, climate change, and a Labor Party to challenge the presently uncontested political rule of bosses and bankers.

But there was in fact less attention to these questions than at some recent conferences. When they were raised tangentially over the course of the weekend audience response was positive. As the chair introducing Larry Hanley to the Saturday morning plenary described the courageous stand of the ATU, along with the TWU, against the Keystone XL Pipeline the audience erupted with cheering and applause.

At the banquet that evening, the Japanese delegation handed out paper carps–a fish more highly prized in Japan than in the Midwest that became the logo of the antinuclear movement there. They reported on working class participation in this mass movement to shut down all nukes that has grown stronger than ever since the Fukushima disaster. They taught us some Japanese chants that the whole audience repeated back with them.

There was no question where the big majority of conference participants stood on these two questions that have deeply divided the union bureaucracy. It’s disappointing to see an opportunity lost to provide ammunition against the bogus counterposing of jobs and the environment to such a big and receptive gathering.

There was one workshop entitled “Labor and Politics: Getting Off Defense.” Because of a scheduling conflict, I wasn’t able to attend. But from the description provided I don’t think I missed much,

“Unions are gearing up for national elections, but many activists have found measurable success starts closer to home. Several unions are exploring strategies to punish legislators who turn their backs on labor, build independent political structures, and look beyond a purely electoral focus to craft permanent labor-community alliances that reshape what’s politically possible.”

I’m a life-long advocate of nonelectoral labor-community alliances around particular issues and am encouraged by brother Hanley’s efforts to mobilize our union where such efforts have too often been given short-shrift. The working class also recently built alliances that led to a ballot box victory in Ohio, overturning antilabor legislation there.

But the rest of this description sounds very much like the policy of Sam Gompers boosted by the steroid of fusion politics--Working Families Party style. As many athletes learned to their dismay, such instant “power building” soon leads to debilitation.

Even if short-cuts could be taken to win some local races this is not where real power lies. Health care, education, retirement–not to mention war and climate change–are not going to be settled on the local level. Nor will jobs. Being elected to govern states, cities, school districts, and transit authorities today means taking responsibility for implementing inevitable cuts in public services and jobs.

In February I wrote an article entitled Forging A Trident Strategy For American Workers. I said,

“....Poseidon’s feared trident–superficially resembling a three-pronged pitch fork–can give us a clue about how to structure working class strategy today. I believe the class war pursued by the bosses and bankers against us needs to be fought using three distinct tines:

* In the workplace
* In the communities
* In the electoral arena

“While there is some overlap, each has its own constituency, mission, and methods of functioning that need to be respected. On their own, the achievements of each will be tenuous and temporary. Attached to a unifying handle, their synergy can save our world even from the crises that recently led to the Doomsday Clock being advanced perilously closer to Midnight.”

In the USA, that unifying handle will most likely be a party built on our only existing class-based mass organizations–our unions. To survive today’s challenges we cannot ignore politics, we cannot leverage politics, we cannot allow the bosses and bankers to monopolize politics, and we cannot remain silent while union officials squander hundreds of millions of dollars and the volunteer efforts of hundreds of thousands of unionists trying to reelect the most reactionary administration in living memory.

The promising Labor Party project launched in 1996 has gone dormant due to lack of union support. It will not be revived, nor will a new more promising effort be launched , in the short-term. But such a party that draws strength from, and in turn nourishes, struggles in the workplace and communities, is the indispensable indicated next step for the class war raging in this country. We have to start discussing and debating how this can be done–and we can’t take our sweet time about it.

Not providing any organized format for such a discussion at this wonderful conference–that included hundreds of younger activists who have never been part of such a debate–is another disappointment. Other venues must and will be found.

With Medicare’s will, I look forward to attending the next Labor Notes Conference where I am confident that today’s deferred hopes will play a prominent role.

May 11, 2012

About the Author
The webmaster of the kclabor.org website is a paid-up member of UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union. During the 70-80s, while employed at Litton Microwave’s Minneapolis operations, he was elected to various positions in UE Local 1139, including Shop Chairman and Local President. In 1980 he took a union leave from the plant to work on a successful UE organizing drive at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When Litton began shutting down its four Minneapolis plants Onasch was selected to be a worker representative in a Dislocated Worker Project administered by Minneapolis Community College—where he became a member of the Minnesota Education Association. Returning to his home town of Kansas City in 1989, he soon began a 14-year stint as a Metro bus driver. During that time he published a rank and file newsletter, Transit Truth, chaired a union Community Outreach Committee that organized public protests against cuts in transit service, helped organize a privatized spin-off at Johnson County Transit, and served a term as Vice-President of ATU Local 1287. He has also been involved in US Labor Against the War and the Labor Party since those organizations were launched.

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