Labor Advocate Online

Labor Notes Conference
What We Expect–What We Hope For

by Bill Onasch

Labor Notes is a unique and valuable contribution to the working class movement. Founded in 1979, the project includes an informative monthly magazine and regularly updated website. Over the years, LN has published a number of useful pamphlets, and book-length volumes such as A Troublemaker's Handbook. They also organize custom Troublemaker Schools on various topics in local areas. And, in even-numbered years, they host a three-day conference attracting labor activists not only from across the USA but also around the world.

The conference in Dearborn two years ago was the biggest to date–over 1200. This year’s May 4-6 gathering, with a theme of “Solidarity for the 99 Percent,” is expected to draw similar attendance numbers. This will be the first of these conferences held outside the state of Michigan–at the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Those not familiar with these traditional get-togethers should be aware of two important differences between LN conferences and most other labor movement conclaves:

1-Free-wheeling democratic discussion in workshops and interest groups is not only permitted–it’s encouraged.

2-There is no discussion or vote by the plenary body on program, strategy or tactics.

The primary mission of the conference is education and networking. Labor Notes wisely does not attempt to substitute for unions or political parties.

Those limits imposed by reality are not really so debilitating. Most who attend are not looking for education just for education’s sake–they hope to carry out what they learn in the workplace or community.

Likewise with the variety of networking that takes place. Any who come expecting help in advancing in to cushy jobs in the union bureaucracy will quickly learn they have come to the wrong place. For most, networking means looking for cothinkers and collaborators in struggle, either ongoing or in needed preparation. There is no better place to find so many such folks.

These are good reasons enough for me to recommend anyone active in working class action–in or out of unions-should attend this gathering if you can. You may not find all the right answers--or even all the questions you think should be asked. You won’t be lined up for a disciplined clear line of march. But you are sure to learn and be inspired.

Two Areas Deserve More Attention
Even within the limited scope of the conference, I believe there are two urgent questions that merit more discussion in at least the workshop and interest group formats than is provided in what’s been announced as I write this in mid-March.

Climate change is an overarching issue that not only affects the working class along with the rest of humanity. In my opinion, our class is the only force with both the power and material interest to save our biosphere from corporate destroyers. Success will require the biggest undertaking in human history–and we have hardly begun.

Of course, some of our unions, spouting the same familiar excuse of saving jobs long used to justify give-backs to the boss, are marching lock-step with the coal barons, gas frackers, tar-sands plunderers and their bogus claims of job creation. Other unions and mainstream environmental groups practice a different variation of “partnership”that greenwash some of the worst polluters in a mostly vain search for “good green jobs.” Recently, some unions have begun to take more advanced steps–such as joining environmental opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.

This is one of the most controversial topics among working people. That is all the more reason why we need an honest, free-ranging discussion of class and climate within the format of the Labor Notes Conference. Perhaps no one will alter their views as a result of one workshop but it’s important to legitimize such discussion within the labor movement.

Just as climate change will not go away by ignoring it, neither will boss domination of all things political. Even when we are successful in the workplace and community fights that are the main focus of Labor Notes conferences we get hammered by bipartisan attacks from all levels of government. As long as the USA remains the only industrialized country without at least one mass working class party we cannot adequately defend ourselves.

Despite the most reactionary political climate in living memory, with few honorable exceptions our unions have taken an early pledge to inject hundreds of millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of member volunteers, in support of reelection of the present administration.

Labor Notes can’t–and shouldn’t–endorse any politicians in the coming election. But never has there been a more urgent need to once again discuss how we can organize to break from partnership with the boss in politics as well as in the workplace. This conference will not be the venue for reviving a Labor Party movement. But it should offer an opportunity for a discussion that can no longer be deferred.

Local interest expressed so far in Kansas City suggests our town will have its biggest contingent yet at this year’s conference. If you are in the area and want to plug in contact me by e-mail: webmaster[at] or telephone 816-753-1672.

On to Chicago

March 15, 2012

KC Labor will be there—Look for our Information Table

About the Author
The webmaster of the 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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