Reflections from Labor Notes 2024

THOUGH I'VE WORKED PROFESSIONALLY in the labor movement for 18 years, this was my first time attending the biennial Labor Notes conference in Chicago, which took place from April 19 to the 21. I’ve wanted to go for a long time. Especially in recent years with the resurgence in organizing, I’ve heard many people credit Labor Notes and its popular book Secrets of a Successful Organizer with helping them succeed in organizing their workplace or taking on other organizing challenges. I tagged along this year because my partner works at Amazon and was meeting up with other Amazon workers at Labor Notes to strategize. I ended up helping facilitate an industry break-out session for members of the union where I’m on staff, but mostly I surfed a wave of friendly faces and workshops that felt relevant (and had room! Many sessions were packed!). I saw people I’ve known through organizing over the years and so many new people who share core values of democratic labor militancy. 

Labor Notes is a nonprofit organization founded in 1979 as a publication and movement hub that offers training and resources for rank-and-file union members to build the labor movement through workplace organizing and democratizing unions. 

This year’s conference was the biggest ever, with over 4,700 attendees, occurring during a period of revitalization in union organizing. In that single week, we cheered the Starbucks Workers United victory in bringing the employer to the bargaining table and the Tennessee VW workers’ vote in favor of joining UAW. The VW vote count took place the opening night of the conference, creating a beautiful collective sense of celebration. As the tally swiftly approached a majority for the union, we grinned at each other in the halls asking: “have you seen the vote count??” 

That same evening we held a Palestine solidarity protest. We ended up blocking traffic outside the hotel that housed the conference longer than anticipated after cops grabbed two protesters. Our militant crowd of at least a hundred people held a cop car in place for an hour and eventually de-arrested the two comrades, one of whom was a YDSA member. A participant told me later that evening that the protest was already a high point of the conference, saying it would be hard to top the feeling of empowerment he experienced when we overcame the cops. 

(While many unions have spoken out about the genocide in Palestine, most of the labor movement is not following through with meaningful actions to push Biden to stop unconditionally backing Israel.)

Apart from these inspiring demonstrations of international solidarity, the conference also relayed some of the basic strategic tenets necessary to cohere, capture and mobilize union power. Workshops on tactics and strategy provide the rank-and-file in attendance the insights needed to organize  mass action that drives the renewed growth and vitality of the labor movement we are seeing across the country.

Bedrock organizing principles alongside creativity in tactics

Across multiple conference sessions, I consistently heard organizers affirm the importance of one-on-one conversations to build strong unions and move people to collective action. This basic building block of union organizing is outlined by Labor Notes in its handouts based on Secrets of a Successful Organizer and is highly relevant for any type of organizing. 

Speakers at the conference also emphasized education through action. For example, an REI retail worker described how they convinced coworkers to use their Weingarten rights – the right to have a coworker/union rep with you in any meeting that could lead to discipline – by showing it worked in practice, and making clear that every disciplinary action has some BS in it. 

Labor Notes panelists also pointed to social events as good opportunities for people to loosen up and share questions that may be holding them back from fully participating. A flight attendant described the importance of connecting with coworkers as whole people outside of work. She gave the example of a bowling night the union held called “The Power of the Pin,” referring to the small union pins airline workers wear to show their unity. These types of events are critical for on-the-go flight attendants who don’t have a single shared workplace or union hall to gather in. (The speaker reminded the room, filled largely with flight attendant union activists, that pilots are known for both their strong collective bargaining agreements and always wearing their ALPA union pins.)

Imaged above: A copy of the AFA union pin.

While Labor Notes workshop leaders agreed on the bedrock principles of organizing, they also emphasized the need to constantly develop new, creative actions to contend for power. By keeping an open mind about what specific tactics can help win a fight, experienced union leaders can both encourage newer members to put their ideas into action and keep management guessing by constantly changing approaches.

Analysis of employer reactions and motivations

Another principle labor veterans agree on is that the action is in the reaction. To develop effective strategies and escalation plans, we have to understand the employer’s actions and motivations. 

The flight attendants’ panel was unanimous in agreeing that airlines hate bad press that suggests their service could be disrupted. One said, “Find out what the company cares about… we need to be visible in the media because that presents the threat of lost business and reputational harm to the company. Even though we were only doing informational pickets, my dad called to say he saw us striking on TV.”

But flight attendants lack power to fully act on the strike threat because the National Mediation Board has created an arduous process for airline workers to seek permission to strike. AFA is petitioning Congress to end that anti-worker requirement. 

When workers who organized a union at the music app BandCamp were laid off, they used shame and leverage with artists and labels to pressure the company into negotiating a reasonable severance package – which would not have happened without the union effort. Tech workers still face an uphill battle organizing in an almost entirely nonunion industry, but through CODE-CWA and other efforts, there are today thousands of tech workers in both legally certified unions and pre-majority unions across the country. 

A union leader from a Trader Joe’s in Massachusetts said that the company’s claim to be progressive was a huge mistake. The workers’ nationwide organizing campaign caused brand damage and exposed the underbelly of how TJ operates. After the company sued to undercut the basic authority of the NLRB, the union heard from customers who called the CEO and he was calling people back personally… and lying. Clearly the workers are getting to him. But the company is owned by a secretive German family that doesn’t seem to care as much as their CEO about the damage to the company’s reputation. So the union must continue escalating in order to force the company to negotiate their first collective bargaining agreement. 

Show that it’s possible to win; that another world is possible 

Amazon workers from a variety of independent organizing formations across the country gathered at Labor Notes to hold internal strategy discussions while also connecting with the larger labor movement. A number of these groups have won impressive changes through collective action – forcing management to take their demands seriously by exercising economic power on the shop floor. They’ve diagnosed management’s desire to avoid headaches or blame for stalled production, and thereby been able to negotiate improvements to wages, safety, breaks, ear buds, and other issues by using petitions and walk-outs. They’ve shown their management that workers are unified and can make their lives miserable.

The strategy discussions I heard in workshops were dense, thoughtful, and open-minded about tactics. Everyone was super respectful of the wisdom gained from direct experience. A teamsters local president from Louisville talked about hard lessons he learned on the need to have enough leverage to win first contracts. Early in his career he helped workers organize at a plant that built components for bridges and tunnels. Workers felt they had to strike to get a first contract, but after two years on strike they had no contract, the company brought in replacement workers, and they ended up decertifying the union. The union was able to secure jobs for strikers at other Teamsters employers in the area, but they lost the fight with the employer. The lesson: it is important to create clear timelines of escalation with a plan to win. 

The local took that lesson and applied it at food wholesale giant Sysco. The organizing started among the 120 drivers in the region – workers with the most economic leverage at the company. Through a 13 day strike, they won a first contract. Then, warehouse workers organized and almost went on strike but didn’t have to. The local went from representing zero Sysco facilities to seven. 

What’s next? As the Teamsters orient towards Amazon, the local president reflected that organizing this type of giant corporation requires a pivot by the union towards building worker power at a larger scale. The Teamsters Amazon Division is inviting locals to take up that challenge

Challenging the logics of global capitalism unites the labor movement at home and abroad

I haven’t even mentioned a workshop I attended on labor struggles in the Global South. So let me end with some reflections from those organizers, who traveled from Ghana, Kenya, Honduras, and China to participate in Labor Notes. 

Globally, workers face a single capitalist system that employs a coherent set of strategies to maximize profits at all costs. In Kenya, jobs have been casualized across the board – this refers to adoption of the US-style employment-at-will doctrine, rather than the expectation that you can only be fired for good cause. With short-term contracts and subcontracting now the norm in the public sector and other formal jobs in Kenya, union busting is also the default. Once you join the union, your contact won’t be extended. (Sounds like multiple groups of Alphabet — Google — vendor workers here in the USA.)

Greater repression of labor organizing is a rising tide across the world in the past ten to fifteen years. In China, labor NGOs that used to assist factory workers with strikes are, since 2015, no longer able to be involved if they want to continue to exist, due to the crackdown by the government that has put many labor organizers in jail for multiple years. 

Yet workers continue to organize, including gig workers in China who have relatively more freedom than factory workers and are using creative means to exercise collective economic power. In both Kenya and Ghana, labor unions are seriously attempting to organize among the mass of informal workers to reconceptualize who is a worker and who can participate in economic democracy. In Honduras, all three major labor federations have joined together to document anti-union violence. They are also building south-to-south solidarity with workers in Bangladesh to address the race-to-the-bottom of global capital driving factory closures.

Workers in the US have so much to learn from each other and from the rest of the world about how to fight and win. While a three-day conference can’t accomplish everything, it certainly put a pep in my step and gave me many new contacts to follow up with. Thank goodness for Labor Notes bringing us together to light the fire. 

What’s next? Let’s replicate that feeling by coming together to share organizing stories more often locally, regionally, and globally. And let’s also party – there was a lot of partying at Labor Notes, and an original labor song contest that included this excellent performance by Labor Notes staffer Al Bradbury. 

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