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May 1, 2024 20 mins

This May Day Mia talks about the recent Labor Notes conference, divisions in the labor movement over Palestine, and the future union organizers are building.

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
All Zone Media. Welcome to a special May Day episode
of vicd app and here I'm your host, Mia Wong.
It wasn't too long ago that unions were finished. The
percentage of American workers in unions plunged towards the single digits.

The unions that survived, battered and broken shells of the
mighty behemists that shook the world for one hundred years,
embraced so called business unionism, which set out not to
conquer the world in the name of labor like its
great predecessors, or even really to bargain for higher wages,
but to make companies profitable in order to keep their jobs.

They took pay cuts and job losses without a fight,
forcing their membership into line, and effortlessly crushing the endless
slates of reform caucuses that sought to put the fight
back into the working class. Even the cutting edge of
Marxist theory, health time of unions was over. Workers were
too adomized, too divided, too far from the immediate processes

of production, from the discipline of the factory, and from
the massification of the city. To assemble the working class
in its old fighting form, there would be riots, To
be sure, barricades, blockades, occupations, but not strikes. Whatever the
working class did next, the age of the union was

over for much of the twenty tens. That prediction was
a smart bet. The bold proclamation of Wisconsin trade unionists
that organized labor would turn back the tide of the
CHEA Party failed to ruin under the failure of their
attempt to recall Wisconsin's hated union busting governor Scott Walker.

The CHA Party's march continued unimpeded, radicalizing even further in
the wake of the twenty fourteen twenty fifteen uprisings Ferguson
in Baltimore to produce not the victory of the working
class but Donald Trump. Even success stories like the rejuvenation
of the mighty Chicago Teachers Union AFT Local one by

a bold reform caucus called the Caucus of Rank and
File Educators or Corps, who waged a pair of unexpectedly
wildly popular strikes, was tainted by the reality of limited
wins and labor conditions in Chicago schools that remained appalling.
Even as the left returned in the wake of Occupy
Ferguson and the election of Trump, union membership continued to plunge,

and capitalists and Marxist alike continued to herald the union's demise.
They were wrong. History, it seems, delights in irony. It
was the dead enders, fighting hopeless battles and reform caucuses,
losing union election after union election. It was the Wobbles Fire,

losing campaign after losing campaign, desperately trying to organize the
unorganizable fast food and retail workers. It was rank and
file Marxist trade unionists waiting sixty long years, their comrades
dead and gone, for somebody, anybody, to hear their plans
for shutting down Capitol's logistics networks. It was Labor Notes,

sixteen staffers compiling endless analyzes of labor struggles for a
crowd that couldn't have filled a baseball stadium. Who was right?
Unions are back, While still small compared to the height
of union power in the nineteen fifties, twenty twenty three
saw a wave of massively popular strikes waged by unions

from the massive behemoths like the UAW in the Writers
Guild to tiny independent coffee unions whose members. Larger existing
unions are rather spin on than spend a single cent
attempting to organize. Only the director intervention of the President
to break a rail workers strike before it could start,
and the last second portrayal of Teamster's leadership stops twenty

twenty three from being this largest strikewave of the modern era.
Basking in his triumphs and conspiring to win more was
labor Notes. Labor Notes is a curious beast. It is
simultaneously a journal that publishes news about labor struggles, a
network that brings together a group of disparate rank and

file union reform movements largely but not exclusively from the US,
maintaining a strong emphasis on solidarity and organizing with workers
in Mexico, and a labor conference that runs every two years.
It is a relic of another time, whose time it seems,
has come again. Labor Notes was founded in nineteen seventy

nine as a way to coordinate and expand the interunion
connections formed to the United Mine Workers of America's nineteen
seventy nine bituminous coal strike. It's one of the last
direct connections to the era where labor was strong unwittingly
tasked with keeping the flame of labor alive during the
neoliberal downpour, Two weeks ago, they held their largest conference

ever FO Five hundred people crammed into the Wyatt Regency
next to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. At least a thousand
people who tried to register were turned down. I personally
watched interested workers turned away at the door because the
venue's conference halls had already reached the mass capacity for

fire safety. Labor we can safely say is back. It
is returning to the South the great rock unions have
shattered upon for one hundred years. It's moving in new
directions towards service workers previously thought impossible to organize. Most
of all, it's moving towards something we'd almost forgotten was possible.

It's moving towards victory. The first thing you noticed about
Labor Notes is it's staggering diversity. Young punks and battle
jackets sat on benches next to old anti war protesters
from the sixties. Independent trade unionists and feminist activists in
Mexico rubbed shoulders with battle hearted American union nurses. White

middle aged longshore men and women plotted with young, queer
Amazon warehouse workers to maximize the power of logistics strikes.
You saw old industrial organizers from the sixties, passing down
lessons and tactics and stories of strikes that otherwise would
have vanished into the mists of history. Media workers fighting
for their first contract, the lowliest rank and file workers

chatting in breakout groups with union presidents. For all the
talk I've done in this show about how many union
organizers are trans, even I didn't expect to see this
many trans people, It's a cross section of the American
working class come to fight, and that, above all, is

what this Labor Notes conference was about. Fighting. The most
direct conflict came on the first day of the conference,
when Palestinian union activists called for a pro Palestine demonstration
outside the hotel. The cops arrested three people in an
attempt to clear the street. This, rather predictably, was a

terrible idea. Instead of backing down, the crowd of several
hundred union activists almost immediately surrounded the lone car and
demanded they let their prisoner go. What happened next, to
use a technical term, fucking ripped. A bunch of kids
had a rave to the changing police sirens. A fifty
year old white dude from the electrical worker stood next

to me, a Chinese Transzoman from a podcast union, a
bunch of longshore men, teamsters, staffers from unions. You wouldn't
believe even if I told you Palestinian trade union activists,
nurses punkt from independent unions. No one else in the
crowd could have named. An entire mass of unionists stood
their ground and refused to let the cops take one

of ours. A tradeswoman with drums marched around the police
car and we're all saying, which side are you on?
After two hours, the police gave up to a crowd
screaming Union power at the top of our lungs. It
was an incredible display of solidarity that set the tone
for the rest of the event. We were going to

fight the bosses together and fuck them if they came
for us. This is not to say there weren't divisions.
A group of protesters broke away from the cop car
to demand that Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, the darling of
the Chicago Teachers' Union, come tell the cops to let
our people go. Now. Whether or not this would have

worked is up to some debates. These cops were not
Chicago police departments. They were the cops of Rosemont which
is technically a separate entity from the city of Chicago. However,
Labor Notes staffers and securities tried to stop the protesters
from reaching Brandon Johnson and ended up throwing punches at
the protesters. As to quote one observer, union brother fought

union brother. This fight reveals one of the important tensions
in the movement. Should unions continue to back imperfect center
left politicians in exchange for some political benefits, or should
they take a hard line against politicians who betray their
fundamental political principles. Brandon Johnson is a microcosm of the debate.

On the one hand, he was elected with enormous resource
expenditure from the Chicago teachers' unions. On the other hand,
he's been locking immigrants into berculosis ridden camps as the
city lurches from crisis to crisis. Even many of Chicago's
other unionists were never happy with with him in the
first place, as he failed to use his previous position

to come to the aid of striking nurses. When the
two points of view collide, there's a fight on a
national level. The conflict is the question of Joe Biden
in Palestine. At Labor Notes itself, there's strong support for Palestine.
Palestinian solidarity panels were packed to the rafters with workers

from every sector imaginable and activists from across the world.
I saw UAW workers deeply unhappy with their union leadership's
decision to endorse Biden, a decision made by maybe five
members of an executive committee with how to vote from
the union. Theren lies the issue, as much as Labor notes,
represents the bleeding edge of the labor movements. UAW president

Sean Fein, fresh off the uaw's astounding seventy three percent
victory at a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, gave the conference's
closing address. The remain means massive bastions of conservatism and
the labor movement, who have actively fought against even statements
on Palestine, much less concrete actions. Unions are still weak

and the positions of activists within them are still tenuous.
Even more favorable shops have yet to turn broader popular
support among rank and file workers for Palestine into substantive
strike actions, and it's deeply unclear to me if any
such action is possible at all. My pessimism on labour's

willingness and ability to stop the genocide in Palestine, a
pessimism reinforced by watching the rapid spread of student campus
occupations while labor remains silent or perhaps more precisely dormant,
is broadly intention with my optimism and effectively everything else
that I saw there. There was incredible organizing going on

at labor notes. People are coordinating rank and file links
between unions whose staffers and leaderships hate each other for
grudges whose origins have passed into the mists of time.
There was quite serious talk about plans to line up
contracts to expire in twenty twenty eight to effectively create

a miniature general strike, or perhaps more precisely, to create
a version of what's called the Spring offensive in Japan.
Spring and offensive are the same word in Japanese, and
so labor unions decided to have their contracts expire in
the spring, thus maximizing the power of their strikes. This
effort to have contracts aligned in twenty twenty eight is

broadly speaking, a larger version of the Spring Offensive. We
will cover this more in a later episode. For now,
I think it's enough to say that this cushions and
organization were quite serious, and there was significant enthusiasm, as
well as discussions of the potential difficulties of getting people's
contracts to actually align. People are organizing to bring their

unions together on a sectoral base to share resources, coordinate,
set standards for contracts, and generally help each other more
effectively oppose the bosses and unions that rule them all.
Labor Notes has also from the beginning been an incubator
for reform movements inside of unions, attempting to rest control

from corporate administrative caucuses. These reform movements almost always lose.
The last fifty years is littered with defeats in union
election after union election with sub ten percent turnout, and
yet little by little, these groups are starting to win.

We heard from a number of smaller rank and file
efforts that had successfully taken control of their unionians. The
first major victory was a rank and file slate taking
over the management of notoriously corrupt Clickish Teamsters. Now I
have my issues with the new Teamsters leadership too. There

are something like two entire hours of this show dedicated
to how angry rank and file teamsters were over the
fact that UPS workers didn't go on strike last year
due to their leadership cutting a deal with management. But
on a broader level, the victory of the Teamsters reformed
slates and the defeat of one of the oldest union

I don't know if administrative caucus.

Speaker 2 (14:42):
Is really a that's a bit of a euphemism for
the ups sort of corrupt leadership, dictatorship, but their victory
on a broader level was a sea change in American unionism.

Speaker 1 (14:59):
Their victory was followed by the victory of Sean Fain
in the UAW, a man who, as much as he's
angered members by endorsing Joe Biden walked into Labor Notes
and gave a speech about the class war and the
authoritarianism of corporate greed. Certainly there was much to annoy

trade activists concerned with Palestine in the sense that his
central metaphor labor was the arsenal of democracy. Was in
bad taste as he described the unions that he leads
as the successors of Liberator B fifty two bombers, which not,
you know, not precisely the metaphor ed shoes, as your

own members are protesting the bombs following over Gaza. But
on the other hand, if a giant speech about the
class war and the need to organize across borders is
now the conservative wing of progressor trade unionism. The future
is bright. The kind of militant union actions we've seen

over the past year have coalesced into a sort of
strategy of fight as you build. It is based on
a very basic strategy that you would think unions would
have already been doing. However, Comma, see everything I've ever
said about administration, administrative caucuses, and business unionism and corporate unionism.

The strategy is, if you win things for people, more
of them will join unions. This strategy is already bearing
fruit in Chattanooga and has international implications as well. We
heard from organizers that workers in Mexico and China were
keenly watching the UAW strikes, and for good reason. These

strikes are ultimately their fight too, and slowly but surely
workers across the world are starting to realize it. The
degree of Internet nationalism at this labrynes was remarkable. I
came into an early China panel fully expecting the same
kinds of praise for the CCP that I've seen in
other leftist events held in the city of Chicago, most recently,

the sort of fiasco China panel held at Socialism Conference
that degraded into an argument about whether or not Brazil, Russia, India,
China and South Africa socialist. Here there was none of that.
For sure, there were some slightly weird German maoist defending

the Cultural Revolution, but on the other hand, there wasn't
any defense of Chinese capitalism or their failed bankrupt model
of corporate unionism. On top of cross border organizing sectorially,
the conference has a deep and ingrained pro immigrant position.
Sean Fayn is probably the most high profile political figure

I've seen actually discussing the horrific treatment of migrants at
the border right now and taking time to remind everyone
that immigrants are just workers trying to find a better life. This, however,
makes his support for Joe Biden, the butcher of Yakumba,
even more questionable. Still, you can see the wheels of

history turning. You can see it there in the muffled
buzz of conversations drifting through hallways, in the roar of
the cheering crowd, in the bright laughs of co conspirators
who moments before were strangers, and the drowsy chatter of
abortion workers who let a transwoman sleep on their floor

to hide from the police in the chance of one
hundred workers refusing to let the cops take one of
their own. You can see the outline of the great Leviathan,
the ruling class thought buried stone dead in the nineteen eighties.
You can see the working class waking from its day's slumber,
shaking the sleep from its eyes and the dirt from

its back for the first time in decades. Hear the
clatter and the roar as it tests its chains. The
great behemoth is beginning, just beginning, to assemble the ironwill
and terrible power necessary to turn its dreams into reality,
to break its chains and shatter its cage, and reclaim

the world it built with its blood and sweat and tears.
That day is not today, it's not tomorrow, but for
the first time in my life, it could be the
day after that this has been It could happen here.
Happy Mayday, everyone, It could happen here. As a production

of cool Zone Media. For more podcasts from cool Zone Media,
visit our website cool Zonemedia dot com, or check us
out on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you
listen to podcasts. You can find sources for it could
happen here. Updated monthly at cool zone Media Com Slash Sources,
Thanks for listening.

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