By Gerard Di Trolio
The 2018 edition of the Labor Notes conference was the largest in its history with about 2800 attendees.
When I arrived at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare just north of Chicago on the morning of Friday April 6, I could already see a larger crowd registering than I did in 2016.
With the recent teachers strike in West Virginia and events in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and Colorado developing, there was definitely abuzz. On the first evening, a panel with some West Virginia teachers even had to be moved into a larger room.
There was also more negative discussions about the impending Janus decision which, given the current Supreme Court looks set to pass, will create right-to-work within the public sector in the U.S. It came up during panels where it was not even the topic.
One strength of Labor Notes has been their ability to bring in panelists from around the world to their conference. This year I had the privilege of attending a panel titled “Asian Unions Against Militarism.” It brought an excellent collection of labour activists together from South Korea, Philippines, and Japan.
Kim Kyoung-ja and Ryu Mikyung who were on the panel from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, also accepted a Troublemakers’ Award on Saturday night at the main banquet on behalf of the KCTU. Though featuring a lower overall membership density than many Western countries, the militancy of trade unions in Asia is something that should be studied.
And on a Canadian note, the Fight for $15 and Fairness in Ontario was recognized for their tremendously successful campaign with a Troublemakers Award of their own. Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre gave a barn burner of a speech when she and several of the activists involved came up to the stage to accept the award. Fight for $15 and Fairness activists were on several panels over the weekend, spreading their experience and organizing methods with their American comrades.
The Canadian meeting during Saturday afternoon was packed, much larger than in 2016 with perhaps almost 100 people. The meeting featured breakout groups discussing the major issues that attendees felt were the most pressing to tackle on issues like fighting racism and the far-right and how to maintain solidarity across the labour movement in Canada despite recent events.
RankandFile.ca’s own David Bush co-chaired a panel on Saturday afternoon with Alexandra Bradbury of Labor Notes about writing for these publications. Though the attendees only numbered about 20, they all heavily participated and showed that there is significant interest in the labour movement to learn how to tell their stories about their unions and their workplaces.
Apart from the enthusiasm from the teachers strikes, there were also a number of issues that were prevalent at the conference. There was a lot of interest in building new community-labour alliances around issues like racial justice, immigration, and the renewed Poor People’s Campaign. Organizing tech workers, a currently underrepresented industry in the labour movement also had many proponents at the conference. And there were several panels dedicated to the logistics industry and the challenge of organizing them. The workers in warehouses owned by Amazon and Walmart represent workers with significant leverage in the modern economy if they can be organized.
While there were victories to celebrate, and challenges ahead, the mood at the conference was upbeat and despite the Janus ruling hovering over the conference there was still a desire to push forward to organize the unorganized and broaden the labour movement. Like in 2016, I left the conference with the feeling that good things were brewing in the U.S. labour movement and beyond. Progress was made since 2016, and I expect to see more progress made by the time the next Labor Notes rolls around in 2020.
See you in 2020!