Report on the Kansas City Labor Activist Conference

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Troublemakers In Kansas City: The New Crises, New Agendas Conference
by Bill Onasch, webmaster,

The New Crises, New Agendas conference, held in North Kansas City April 3-4, was initially called by the website to discuss how the working class can respond to two great crises–economic and climate change. At about the same time, the folks at Labor Notes decided to organize some regional Troublemakers Schools about the economic crisis. They invited us to partner up with their project as, of course, we did.

The agenda of the KC event was ambitious, both in the scope of issues covered and its duration–about eleven hours over a Friday evening and Saturday morning and afternoon. Even with one speaker cancellation–unfortunately our friend Peter Rachleff could not make it–we still had ten presentations, ranging from 15-40 minutes. We were also entertained and inspired by Bob and Diana Sukiel–aka Firebox Bob and Mamma Pipes–providing classical labor songs in the tradition of Utah Phillips.

Whenever I was asked before the conference how many we expected to attend I had to hedge. We really had no idea. The issues are serious and urgent and our speakers had good credentials to speak to them. But we were also fully aware that the Obama honeymoon acts as a giant anchor on the labor, environmental, antiwar and social movements. Generally I threw out a rough estimate of 25-100. We did in fact fall within that range–though closer to the bottom than the top.

Those attending were mainly labor and environmental activists. Their demographics were reasonably diverse. Most were from the Kansas City area but some–in addition to invited out of town speakers–came in from Chicago, the Twin Cities, and Wichita as well.

There were breaks after each session, and we stayed together for lunch, to give participants a chance to get to know one another. UTU and BMWE rail workers from Chicago, Kansas City, and St Paul got connected. So did UPS Teamsters from Chicago and Kansas City. There were modest contingents of UAW Ford workers and ATU transit workers and members and staff of Kansas City Jobs with Justice.

Labor folks also got a chance to mix with activists and staff from the Sierra Club, the Kansas City Climate Action Coalition, and Breaking the Silence KC–dedicated to promoting dialogue between environmentalists and people of color.

Many were introduced for the first time to a wide array of labor and environmental literature brought down by MayDay Books in Minneapolis. Copies of the just released book, Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement, were also made available by co-author Steven Ashby who was a conference panelist.

Below are links to a video recording of Labor Notes director Mark Brenner’s conference presentation on the economic crisis; the prepared text of my talk on lessons from the World War II economic conversion; and a number of photos. The photos and video are the work of Stuart Elliott, webmaster of Kansas Workbeat. We will be posting more video and text presentations as they become available. (Photos on this page were taken by Mary Erio.)

In the course of organizing the conference a group of hard working volunteers began to meet regularly. We plan to continue doing so, organizing more modest local public forums dealing with big picture issues we learned about at the conference.

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