Four thousand gather at diverse, youthful Labor Notes Conference 2022

Report from a participant

Audience cheers speaker Sean O’Brien, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. PHOTO: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Live News
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Labor Notes, a publication for union activists, produced an inspiring in-person international gathering in the city known for its Haymarket martyrs. From June 17–19 in Chicago over 200 sessions highlighted global solidarity, undoing racism, LGBTQ+ struggles and new young labor leadership. The event coincided with Juneteenth, celebrating the end of slavery in the U.S., and used the opportunity to educate on Black workers’ history. Participants shared skills, wins, losses and ideas in a spirit of comradery. Music, art, literature, food and drink fostered cross-border collaboration.

As a 74-year-old white, gender non-conforming female, former university worker, AFSCME Illinois Retiree Chapter 31 member and die-hard socialist feminist, I felt particular solidarity with international guests, young leaders and feisty women.

International organizing in the face of repression and austerity. I attended a workshop titled “Hong Kong: Unions Dissolved, Democracy Abolished, Now What?” It hit home as it described the birth of a new union movement during mass protests in 2019 and 2020. The government responded with the national security law. Union leaders, accused of “inciting students to riot,” were arrested and their unions shut down. Labor leaders I had met when I visited Hong Kong in 2004 are now in exile. Yet workshop speakers did not acknowledge the clear leadership role of women workers in these struggles.

At another workshop, Maria del Mar Rodriguez from the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors spoke about pushing back against austerity in Puerto Rico, “where students and women are the fiercest fighters.” At the session, “An Organizing Approach to Austerity and Colonialism in Puerto Rico,” Vanessa Contreras, with Solidarity Trade Union Movement, called for stopping oil pipelines in Venezuela and pointed to the need for unions to be part of social struggles around climate change and reproductive rights.

These discussions made clear that the solution is international working-class solidarity.

Young rank-and-file leaders fight bosses. Starbucks workers, new to labor organizing, are in the majority women (72%), as well as being LGBTQ+, youth and people of color. Unbound by gender conformity and divisions based on race and sexuality, they have united to boldly fight bosses harassing and taking advantage of young people. In the “A Union Brews at Starbucks” workshop they declared “stand up for yourself, don’t let others define you” and described how they found solidarity with customers and other labor unions in the community.

“Amazon Workers in Motion” explained how they chose their own leaders, acknowledging the importance of Black women organizers, especially church women. From low-paid campus food service workers organizing unions to K-12 teachers enlisting student support for their strikes, there were many examples of the vital role of youth in labor’s revitalization.

Amazonians United activist Christian “Zama” Zamarron echoed the sentiments of many young participants when he said, “Reform is not enough; it’s not about making capitalism a little better, it’s about overthrowing capitalism.”

Women’s leadership persists. The tenacity of women leaders was evident throughout the weekend. It was clear that where once they were kept on the sidelines of organized labor, they are now its backbone.

After 50 years of struggle to enter predominately white, all-male occupations, the “Blue Collar Women” meeting spoke to the tenacity of Black, white and trans women in their battles with both bosses and co-workers who accused them of taking their jobs. Teamsters, longshore workers, carpenters, electricians and transit operators addressed why women opted for higher paid jobs to gain independence and support their families. One of the few sessions over the weekend specifically about women, it was the only one I attended that addressed gender discrimination and how to fight it.

I worked with other Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women members to promote the National Mobilization for Reproductive Justice, a coalition of labor and community groups. Many participants eagerly signed contact cards to keep in touch with the Mobilization.

We attended the “Workers Fight for Reproductive Rights” workshop and urged unions to call for a national conference of working women, feminists and allies to strategize on how to expand and preserve these rights. The interactive panel helped build solidarity among a new network of union activists. The breadth of support for concretizing labor’s role in the fight for reproductive rights was evident in the room.

If Labor Notes organizers had emphasized the pending overturn of legal abortion in the U.S., they could have included more education on the central role of women in the labor movement and how the court’s decision will affect them on the job and in their unions.

Naming who we are and what we are fighting for is necessary to build diverse solidarity. The new youthful labor upsurge will grow stronger with a dose of feminism that integrates the fight for “women’s issues” such as childcare and abortion rights into union struggles. In concert with the fights against racism and anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry it will bolster labor, community and international solidarity.

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