By David Bush
On April 4 Labor Notes, a network of rank-and-file labour activists from across the United States, held its 17th conference. The three day conference in Chicago saw over 2000 attendees participate in over a 100 workshops and meetings ranging in topic from labour and independent politics, to beating the boss in discipline cases. The attendees came from across the United States (and beyond) from all the major unions in North America. Since the last Labor Notes Conference, two years ago, a number of notable developments in the American labour movement have taken place, such as the The Chicago Teachers’s strike, the Our Walmart campaign, the Fight For 15, the successful wildcat at UPS, the coming together of the four postal unions in a common front to stop the cuts and the election of Kshama Sawant in Seattle.
The working class and the trade union movement in the United States on one level is in real trouble, the rich have never been richer and union density is near record lows. On another level it is clear that something is stirring from below in America. The Labor Notes Conference was a great opportunity to connect with the activists involved in some of the most dynamic working class struggles in the country. There is much we in Canada can learn from these activists and movements. When I was there I kept thinking to myself we should have a space like this for Canadian trade unionists, a place to talk about our organizing efforts, to strategize, to learn practical skills, and to have an honest discussion about the barriers workers face from both the bosses and from elements within our own unions. Perhaps creating this type of network is something that we should all be thinking about.
I had the chance to speak to a number of different activists over the course of the conference and ask them about their struggles, how they got involved, how they are organizing and what challenges they face. I broke up the interviews into three parts.
In part 1 I interview Kimberly Bowsky, an activist in the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) and a member of the Caucus Of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE), about how she became involved with CORE. Also in Part 1 I interview two women, Martha Grevatt and Cheryl LaBash, who are part of the fightback in Detroit, where the unelected emergency manager Kevyn Orr is looking to slash the pensions of retired city workers by at least 30 percent.
Part 2 focuses on workers who are organizing precarious jobs in the service sector and in the retail supply chain. Part 3 looks at the battles happening in the United States Postal Service and how they relate to the situation in Canada.
Interview with Kimberly Bowsky, CTU and CORE:[audio:https://www.rankandfile.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/CTU-Interview.mp3]
Interview with Martha Grevatt and Cheryl LaBash, Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs (Detroit):[audio:https://www.rankandfile.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Detroit-pensions.mp3]
I have also included a video of the opening plenary, featuring Karen Lewis, President of the CTU and Tim Sylvester, President of Teamsters Local 804.