By SHIRLEY PASHOLK
Youngstown State University periodically holds labor history conferences. But the few area workers who attend complain that these conferences are boring and ignore workers’ real life experiences and concerns.
They decided a different type conference was needed-a conference aimed at workers, where present day struggles could be examined in the light of historic experience, where workers could exchange ideas on how best to respond to the corporate attack on wages, benefits, and working conditions.
Annual solidarity unionism conferences began as an alternative to the academically oriented labor history conferences. The most recent such conference, “Solidarity Unionism and Independent Working Class Action,” was held June 4-6.
Unlike the crocodile tears many AFL-CIO bureaucrats shed for foreign workers while pushing their real protectionist line to protect “their” employers’ profits, these Youngstown workers recognize the importance of uniting with workers in other countries.
Members of the Workers Solidarity Club travelled to Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Palestine to learn first hand from other workers. They attended a school in Mexico sponsored by the independent union FAT. They worked on construction projects in Nicaragua.
The opening session Friday evening, “beating back the global economic crisis” featured workers from Canada, Puerto Rico, and Korea. Youngstown workers especially looked forward to first hand accounts of the Puerto Rican general strike and the massive labor upsurge in South Korea,
Saturday featured a series of panels describing effects of the corporate assault on workers’ living standards and working conditions and what strategies workers have used to counter these attacks. While emphasizing that the employers and their representatives in government are responsible, participants decried the complicity of the labor bureaucracy.
They told of contracts rejected by the membership brought up for vote after vote until they were finally accepted. They told of workers fired for alleged picket-line infractions who were not brought back to work as part of strike settlements. They told of trusteeships and forced amalgamations to impose the bureaucracy’s will on reluctant memberships.
They also spoke of small victories won through an energized membership with active support from other working people. They debated the best ways for expanding on these successes.
They debated whether it’s more effective to organize around union democracy-direct election of all officials, including international officers, business agents, staff representatives, and shop stewards; membership ratification of contracts; etc.-or issues like wages, benefits, and working conditions.
At previous solidarity unionism conferences, such debates took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect, as participants learned from one another’s experiences. However, at this conference, an underlying tension permeated much of the discussion, as small groups frequently left to caucus.
These tensions were expressed in a series of resolutions to form a “workers’ democracy network” with a newsletter, electronic list, and website, and to participate in the so-called January 2000 Open World Conference of the Liaison Committee for a Workers International.
A number of Youngstown activists and others who had worked on previous solidarity unionism conferences countered with an “Alternative Resolution.”
Some of those arguing for a new national organization sincerely hoped that this conference could be the basis of a national class-struggle left wing in the labor movement, They felt that passing these resolutions could help create groups like the Workers Solidarity Club of Youngstown and the War Zone Educational Fund of Decatur, Ill., in cities across the country-linking them into a real national organization that could revitalize the labor movement.
For these sincere activists it was a case of allowing their desires to blind them to objective reality.
While such a national movement of class-conscious trade unionists is sorely needed, the basis for such a project does not yet exist. Proclamations to the contrary would only tend to demoralize and disorient its organizers, leading to the possible dissolution of such promising local groups as the Workers Solidarity Club.
Less than 100 sincere committed activists cannot substitute themselves for the needed mass movement. Most conference participants correctly recognized the futility of such a proposition.
Yet some who supported the call for a new national organization were not operating under misguided good intentions. For them what was important was that they have a call for a new national organization from this meeting or another name to add to the sponsors’ list for the so-called Open World Conference.
They didn’t care if such resolutions would amount to capturing themselves-with groups like the Workers Solidarity Club not participating and other individuals soon leaving in disillusionment.
They didn’t care if their resolutions completely destroyed the existing loose network in support of “solidarity unionism” (a concept the Alternative Resolution defines as “the idea that workers can best obtain support in their struggles if they look horizontally to other workers-in the same community, nationwide and internationally.) For these people, all that mattered was a name they could use on their own projects.
As they listened to the discussion, many of those who had come with supporters of the call for a new national organization realized that these proposals were not realistic. When it became clear that their resolutions would not pass, the makers withdrew them in the “interests of unity.” A small group interested in forming a new national organization then caucused outside.