Labor Notes conference big & diverse

By BILL ONASCH

Though official statistics were not yet available at our deadline, there were clearly at least a couple of thousand participants at the April 1-3 Labor Notes Conference in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont.

This was the 17th of these biennial gatherings sponsored by the monthly Labor Notes magazine. No votes are taken; they are strictly educational—or promotion of solidarity with ongoing class battles. There are plenaries where everyone gathers, topical concurrent workshops to choose from, and interest groups for those organized in particular unions or industries.

An off-shoot of the latter is Railroad Workers United (railroadworkersunited.org), an independent rank-and-file group promoting unity in action among the 20 or so different craft unions in the USA and Canada. They have taken to holding their conventions just prior to Labor Notes in the same venue.

Most attending are involved in unions or allied groups such as Fight for 15 or worker centers. They are mostly rank and filers or stewards, organizers, or local officers, but there were at least two international union presidents there as well. And the only socialist holding elected office in the United States—Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative, serving a second term on the Seattle city council—was present.

An effort is always made to bring international guests. This year at least 20 other countries from every inhabited continent were represented. The trend of recent conferences being more and more diverse in color, gender, and age continued. Young people were in the majority.

There was a major “disruption” in the long-planned conference schedule on Friday, April 1—the Chicago Teachers Union strike. There is an article elsewhere in this paper about the mobilization of tens of thousands of workers in solidarity with the CTU and promoting other Chicago labor issues. While I am sure some committed to leading workshops that day were disappointed that hundreds of conference participants chose the CTU actions over workshops, none had hard feelings—they would have preferred to be in the streets too.

Labor Notes has never formally endorsed a candidate in elections and cannot do so while maintaining its non-profit status. However, Labor for Bernie had both a strategy session for those who support the “democratic socialist” seeking the Democrat presidential nomination and a workshop where various views could be expressed.

As usual, this conference was worthwhile for those just entering the workers movement as well as for seasoned veterans. For this, the organizers are to be commended. But due diligence requires noting a repetition of a very serious weakness in these gatherings—the failure to seriously address the overarching crisis of climate change.

To be sure, there was a workshop on Labor Confronts Climate Change. It featured a well-qualified panel of unionists working to build a labor climate justice movement. The facilitator, Sean Sweeney, has connected climate scientists with unions and is playing a leading role in the global Trade Unionists for Energy Democracy. But their powerful message—that should have been delivered to one of the plenaries—was relegated to the smallest room available in the vast Conference Center.

The complete schedule and other information about the conference is available online at: http://labornotes.org/conference.

Photo: Panel sponsored by Labor for Palestine at the Labor Notes conference. Speaking is Manawel Abdel-Al, of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions. By Marty Goodman / Socialist Action