The Beating Heart of the US Labor Movement Was at Labor Notes

This past weekend, 4,000 labor militants gathered near Chicago for the Labor Notes conference. Amazon and Starbucks workers, teachers, Teamsters, Bernie Sanders — Labor Notes is a mosaic that brought the labor and leftist upsurge under one roof.

The Labor Notes conference was held June 17–19, 2022, in Rosemont, Illinois. (Chris Brooks / Twitter)

At around midnight on Saturday, June 18, music broke out in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Rosemont, Illinois. Sitting at the piano near the hotel’s main entrance was Otis Price, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689. Between classics — “Lean on Me” was especially popular with union militants who began gathering around the piano — Price played a song he had written in 2019, when he and 120 of his fellow workers went on strike at the Cinder Bed Bus Garage in Washington, DC.

As Price played “Don’t Play With My Money,” his infectiously catchy strike anthem, passersby stopped to join in the spontaneous celebration. John Deere strikers, General Motors strikers, and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members belted out Price’s chorus. At one point, an Amazon worker from Bessemer, Alabama, freestyled over the music. Later, members of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) from Staten Island stopped by, with ALU president Chris Smalls leading a chant timed to Price’s song (“Who shuts shit down? / We shut shit down / Who runs this town? / We run this town”).

It was a scene that could only have taken place at this year’s Labor Notes conference.

There was no guarantee that the conference would become a home for workers forming new unions at companies like Amazon or Starbucks. But that such people showed up to a hotel complex near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in huge numbers is a testament to the relationships Labor Notes has built, and a vindication of its unwillingness to bend its vision of rank-and-file-led, militant, democratic unionism to the tough, concession-ridden decades of organized labor’s steady decline that followed its founding in 1979. For many of those new to the labor movement and those who have been in it for decades, there was simply nowhere more important to be last weekend.

Building Power on the Job

Labor Notes is the creation of rank-and-file labor militants. It’s part publishing, part organizing project. As its tagline goes, Labor Notes is “the voice of union activists who want to put the movement back in the labor movement.” It publishes both a print paper and online articles as well as books and pamphlets, with an emphasis on reports by workers themselves on fights in which they are engaged.

The goal is to build up workers’ ability to win power on the job — see, for instance, Labor Notes’ long-running “Steward’s Corner” column, which offers practical advice on how to turn grievance handling into a tool for building shop-floor union power.

The publication feeds into the organizing, connecting and building relationships with rank-and-file workers who are leading struggles — to unionize, to strike, to reform their unions — in hopes of better cohering the militant, democratic wing of the labor movement.

“A publication was needed that, while critical of contemporary union leadership, saw its main task as educating, connecting, and animating a layer of labor activists whose main task was to build effective rank-and-file unions capable of fighting the boss on a sustained basis,” wrote labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein in a reflection on Labor Notes. The recently deceased Mike Parker, one of the project’s founders, recalled he and his comrades feeling that if socialists were to have any influence, “we had to create a lake to swim in.”

Toward that end, in addition to running organizing trainings, Labor Notes hosts a biennial conference (though, thanks to the pandemic, this year’s conference was the first since 2018). While the last conference had its own hopeful feeling, full as it was of teachers who had recently engaged in a “red state revolt” of strikes and others who would shortly go on to do so, this weekend’s conference raised that energy to a fever pitch.

Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls (center) taking a photo with Munib Sajjad and Aminah Sheikh at the 2022 Labor Notes conference. (Munib Sajjad / Twitter)

The most noticeable changes were the size of this year’s gathering —  staff capped registration at four thousand people, the upper limit of the hotel’s capacity — and the average age of attendees, which seemed to have dropped by a decade or two since the last conference, a reflection of surging interest in labor organizing among young people, most visibly those at Starbucks and Amazon.

Regarding those two corporations, leading worker-organizers showed up in force. Around fifty members of Starbucks Workers United, which now boasts 164 unionized corporate-owned stores across the United States (the number rises almost daily), were present. Many of these workers had only met one another over Zoom, during sessions in which workers from unionized stores taught those preparing to unionize, which made the Chicago gathering critical for building the type of solidarity necessary to withstand Starbucks’s aggressive union-busting campaign.

Amazon workers were at Labor Notes as well, where they spent hours sharing experiences and debating strategies, of which there are real differences across organizations. Attendees included workers from JFK8, which has unionized with the ALU; BHM1, the Bessemer fulfillment center that is organizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU); workers at Amazon’s delivery stations, many of them members of Amazonians United, a network of shop-floor organizers engaged in a type of minority unionism; and RDU1, a fulfillment center in Garner, North Carolina, where workers have begun an organizing drive as Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment (CAUSE).

Other Amazon workers who have not yet launched public organizing drives were present too, as were Amazon workers from Canada, Germany, and Poland; the delegation from the latter country included Magda Malinowska, who Amazon fired last year after she spoke up about concerns regarding a coworker’s death in her warehouse.

Inextricable from the focus on organizing Amazon was that on next summer’s contract expiration at the United Parcel Service (UPS). Some 340,000 Teamsters are covered by that agreement, which makes it the largest private-sector contract in the country. Newly elected Teamsters international president Sean O’Brien broke from the James P. Hoffa regime over the former president’s handling of the negotiations in 2018. O’Brien ran for the presidency on a platform that included undoing the concessions at UPS that were undemocratically forced through by Hoffa, pledging to lead drivers out on strike should it prove necessary.

Were that to happen — and the heated, excited conversations over the weekend suggest there is a real chance that it will — it would be the largest strike in the country since the last one at UPS in 1997.

O’Brien spoke at this year’s Labor Notes — a notable development given the project’s ties to the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a long-standing reform effort to democratize the 1.2 million-member union. TDU allied with O’Brien’s slate and continues working closely with him as the union prepares to launch its UPS contract campaign. Speaking alongside the likes of Bernie Sanders, the ALU’s Smalls, CTU president Stacy Davis Gates, and Michelle Eisen — a Starbucks worker from the Elmwood store in Buffalo, New York, which was the first to unionize — O’Brien emphasized the topic of striking UPS.

Bernie Sanders speaks at the 2022 Labor Notes conference. (Labor Notes / Facebook)

“We’re going to put that company on its knees if that’s what needs to happen,” said O’Brien at the Friday evening plenary. “We’re going to get grimy, and we’re going to get gritty. We have to sacrifice — there are going to have to be some sacrifices — and we’re going to have to be a little bit creative and a little bit powerful, and some people, like corporate America and politicians, need to feel a little pain.”

O’Brien’s rhetoric had the Labor Notes crowd on its feet several times during his speech. Which only made what followed an even more surreal scene: the ALU’s Smalls came out, finishing his speech with a “Fuck Jeff Bezos!” chant (complete with middle fingers in the air); then, Senator Bernie Sanders took the stage. The room roared, and “Run, Bernie, run!” chants rang out.

Sanders’s appearance was significant both because the conference rarely features elected officials, instead emphasizing bottom-up rank-and-file organizing as the path to transforming society (though Sanders himself spoke at the 1993 conference), and because some of the leading organizers in new union drives cite Sanders’s 2020 presidential run as a crucial politicizing moment. When that campaign wound down, they directed their energy toward organizing their workplaces.

Labor Renewal How-to

How to organize Amazon? How to win a UPS contract that gets rid of the lower-paid tier of drivers? How to build on reform efforts not only within the Teamsters, but in the United Auto Workers (UAW), where the Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) movement won a one member, one vote reform last year? How do International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) members and railroad workers organize with Teamsters and Amazon employees as logistics workers, and what would it take to forward a political program around climate change, which is already affecting their respective workplaces?

What of the public sector, where teachers are building on their recent strike wave but teaching has been transformed by the pandemic? And low-wage service-sector workers, not only at Starbucks, but at restaurants, and delivery workers too (Los Deliveristas Unidos, an organization of New York City’s app-based delivery workers, were well-represented in Chicago): how do they combat gigification and organize workplaces still largely seen as unorganizable?

Participants at this year’s Labor Notes conference. (T. Rosario Local804 / Twitter)

This range of questions makes Labor Notes less a unified conference than a series of overlapping ones, with workers in particular sectors devoting much of their time to hashing out the tasks at hand. Some are big-picture issues: What will higher-ed workers do to reverse adjunctification? Others are smaller: How do the leaders of every local in this union stay connected after we leave this conference? How do I talk to my coworker who is in the higher-paid tier of our contract about why we should go on strike to get rid of the lower-paid one? All are consequential.

It’s a major lift to get workers to Labor Notes. Time must be set aside, use of resources must be justified. As such, the conference emphasizes workshops on practical skills and knowledge regarding workplace organizing and union democracy, though more historical panels would’ve been a useful addition to the program given the importance of educating workers new to the movement about its past.

But beyond the nuts and bolts, there is the conference’s role as a physical space for workers to connect with their counterparts across the country and around the world, getting reenergized to recommit to the hard work that comprises life in a labor movement that is fractured, weakened, and still under sustained attack.

There is no substitute for spending time in the same place to build the solidarity required for such organizing, and there is nowhere but Labor Notes to provide that opportunity at such a large scale.

“It’s Not Going to Be Staff”

On Saturday evening in one of the Hyatt’s conference rooms, the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a joint project of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), organized a fundraiser. The project formed during the pandemic and is growing into a real force that helps workers do the early stage organizing required to withstand management intimidation; EWOC has already had a hand in some of the new union campaigns that have won NLRB elections over the past year.

At the fundraiser, UE director of organization Mark Meinster outlined the context shaping the conference.

“How do we turn the moment we’re in into a labor upsurge in this country?” he asked:

It’s not going to be staff who do that; there simply aren’t enough paid staff anyway. It’s going to be left, political, committed people who want to see militant trade unionism, who want to see real worker organization, who want to see workers fighting back in their workplace.

Meinster’s question — how to translate an upsurge in energy into an uptick in unionization, how to transform staid unions into fighting forces for working-class power, how to change the world — hung over the weekend. The stakes could not be higher, and the sobriety among attendees, many of whom have known more defeats than victories, suggests an awareness that if we are to accomplish those goals, this year’s conference will have been a part of the story.

As I was leaving the Hyatt on Sunday, I spotted a few members of the ALU’s organizing committee sitting in the sunshine. Most of them were flying back to New York that evening, but they said that they might be heading to another state soon. An Amazon warehouse was ready to push forward on an organizing drive, and one of its workers had been at the conference and sought their support. Explained one of the ALU organizers, “They’re ready.”