Labor Notes Conference Hears From the Ranks


DETROIT-From April 23-25, in workshops, union sector meetings, and informal discussions, workers attending the 20th Anniversary Labor Notes Conference asked similar questions:

How can we organize unorganized workers? How do we get our unions to address our problems? How do we fight the corporate attack on our living standards?

Both the positive and negative features of the conference were summed up when Leah Samuel, the chair of the concluding session, sensing the enthusiasm the audience felt for the remarks of Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) Vice President Fernando Cuevas, said, “Isn’t it great to hear from workers?”

In 1978 Cuevas was part of the 2000 migrant farm worker families that launched a successful strike against Ohio tomato growers producing for Campbell’s Soup. Though their wages were low enough to qualify for food stamps, once they went on strike the government withdrew their stamps.

After working for the same farmer for nine years, Cuevas found himself blacklisted from all Ohio farms when his picture appeared in a local newspaper article on the strike.

He became a full-time organizer for FLOC in Ohio in the summer. In winter, he and his family picked citrus crops in Florida. Even as an elected officer, he continues to migrate annually with the workers he represents.

Cuevas described FLOC’s current campaign to organize North Carolina farm workers who work for farmers contracting to Mt. Olive Pickle Co. Unlike the majority of workers FLOC represents in Ohio and Michigan, most North Carolina farm workers are not U.S. citizens. He stressed these workers’ courage as they sign up for the union despite physical threats from employers who boast of their Ku Klux Klan connections.

He explained that due to the nature of migrant farm work, once Mt. Olive’s pickle fields are organized, FLOC members will work in North Carolina’s tobacco, pork, and chicken industries as well.

Sandy Weaver, a Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 3603 steward, discussed their successful efforts to organize U.S. Air. At first, many workers were afraid to be seen with her, and in some small airports she “felt like someone being shunned in an Amish community.”

Her personal involvement (“I wasn’t some Yankee outsider trying to send their dues money up North”) began to win her a hearing.

Many more workers signed up after the union won pay for a previously unpaid mandatory five-week training program for new workers at the Winston-Salem reservations center. The union also challenged the company’s rules (e.g., a dress code requiring workers to wear navy blue wool jackets in Florida in the summer), which won new members.

The union set up conference calls and WEB sites where workers could exchange ideas. The organizing drive expanded rapidly as more and more workers learned of their similar problems and saw the possibilities for improvement.

“It’s about a movement!”

Maria Martinez, chief steward of Teamsters Local 556, and her coworkers at Iowa Beef were angered when the previous chief steward failed to adequately defend a disciplined worker. When they complained to their local union president, he told them that he had appointed this chief steward and wasn’t going to remove her.

They then submitted a petition with 100 names. He again refused to take any action against his appointee. They then mobilized to change the by-laws to elect shop stewards, including the chief steward. After turning out over 250 members for the by-laws meeting, they won this change and elected Martinez.

When Martinez began defending workers from company discipline and demanding improved safety and health conditions, management offered her a supervisory position.

She indignantly responded to this effort to buy her off, adding, “Management just doesn’t get it. It’s not about one person. It’s about a movement. Democracy is power.”

Similar inspiring stories were told by workers from Canadian Auto Workers Local 1325-which led a one-day plant occupation at a Canadian Fabricated Products plant until the company agreed to recall laid-off workers-California Teamsters who led a strike of sanitation workers, and Northwest Airlines flight attendants who are coordinating efforts between 10 bases to stage an action every month.

While it was indeed great hearing from such workers relating their real-life struggles, this was not enough to overcome the major weaknesses of the conference.

None of the speakers addressed the problem of government intervention in the unions. This was despite the fact that many of the speakers, including the banquet keynoter, were Teamsters; the previous week’s news included government attempts to bankrupt the American Airlines pilots’ union; and the meeting was held in Detroit, where government injunctions had demobilized and demoralized militant newspaper strikers.

Although over 50 workshops were held, none dealt with government intervention.

Former Teamsters candidate speaks

Tom Leedham, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 206, delivered the keynote address to the banquet. While Socialist Action correctly supported Leedham in his bid for general president of the Teamsters against Old Guard candidate James Hoffa Jr., Leedham is clearly not a militant rank-and-file fighter.

Leedham mentioned many of the positive changes that had occurred during former President Ron Carey’s administration. But he failed to criticize the government witch hunt that had led to Carey’s removal from office. Equally disorienting, he refused to acknowledge the extent of this defeat, acting as if Hoffa’s election had changed nothing.

Just as the role of the government was consistently ignored, the role of its two big business parties was gingerly side-stepped. (While there was one workshop on the Labor Party, there was also a workshop on the Working Families Party, a union-supported effort in New York that backs so-called “good” Democrats.)

In his keynote address, Leedham said his campaign promise that drew the biggest response from the Teamster ranks was, “if elected, the Teamsters will no longer write checks to candidates of the Democratic or Republican parties.”

He said, however, that the Teamsters under his leadership would have written checks for union involvement in Republican and Democratic campaigns-i.e., Teamster members would have volunteered to staff phone banks, canvass neighborhoods, etc., for the big business candidates.

While many of the workers who spoke saw the importance of unions’ addressing social issues, here too the conference fell short. While mention was made of the conference taking place on the same day as the Millions for Mumia March in Philadelphia, and workshop participants were asked to sign petitions for Mumia, no workshop was scheduled on Mumia.

Nor was there any fact sheet on Mumia in the conference packets or any explanation of the case during a plenary-only a brief box in the conference booklet.

There were also no workshops on police brutality, the death penalty, or prison-related issues. Thus, despite the petitions, the question of Mumia as a labor issue was largely ignored.

Although the opening session addressed international issues under the title, “Cutting Globalization Down to Size,” the war in Yugoslavia was not mentioned. Unlike with Mumia, there wasn’t even a petition calling on Washington to halt the bombing. No workshops were scheduled, although some conference participants added an “interest meeting” Sunday morning.

Less than 100 conference participants joined in a Cesar Chavez Memorial March, sponsored by the Chicano Development Center and the United Steelworkers of America, highlighting struggles in the local Latino community.

The theme of the conference, “Democracy is Power,” also demonstrated the gulf between the workers who really believe democracy is necessary and the staffers who view democracy as a useful tool.

In a workshop on “Winning Better Contracts with Rank and File Power,” Leedham said he could personally write down the contract demands for all the locals he represents and wouldn’t be far off, but polling the membership increases their feeling of involvement and gives them a sense of ownership.

This elitist conception contrasted sharply with the workers who described the importance of learning and addressing the concerns of all workers-whether the problems with the rest rooms at Iowa Beef, the work uniforms at U.S. Air, the lack of funeral leave among California sanitation workers (many having families in Mexico), or the over-crowded shanties provided farmworker families.

Yes, it was great to hear from the workers. It’s unfortunate that the lessons drawn from these real-life experiences were either ignored or misdirected by the conference leadership.

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