Report from Labor Notes Conference

By Art Francisco, co-Chair P.J. McGuire Caucus (Carpenters Union)

The author, Art Francisco, on left with Chris Smalls at Labor Notes conference

Last weekend I had the privilege of being able to attend the Labor Notes conference, a national union conference that had 4000 attendees from unions across the country. It is hosted by the Labor Notes labor news organization that runs a respected labor publication that covered the Peter J. McGuire Group (PJMG) and our strike. I went thanks to sponsorship from my local, and I’m glad that locals across the PNW sent carpenters to attend this important event.

The conference was a three-day conference, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it consisted of workshops, panel discussions and major speakers. It was basically a who’s who of the current mover’s and shakers within the labor movement.

It was an honor meeting in person Chris Smalls, the organizer and president of the new Amazon Labor Union, Starbucks organizers, organizers in United Auto Workers for a Democracy (UAWD) Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), Joe Burns, the author of “Class Struggle Unionism,” IATSE organizers, and many others.

Labor Notes wanted me and Nina Creel, the co-chair of the PJMG to speak on the following:

Union Democracy in the Building Trades” and “Vote No! Organizing for Better Contracts.” We also worked on organizing the building trades meeting with Dave Pinkham from IBEW local 520 who spoke on the “one member one vote” campaign. There were about 50-60 workers in the building trades meeting from various unions, the majority in Carpenters and Electricians.

Overall there was a lot of discussion at the conference by various union activists on how the labor movement should move forward and what will be the strategy and the vision that will lead it to victory. The percentage of union membership continued to decline since I joined the union to a meager 10%, and without a major shift in strategy it will continue to decline as the number of workers being organized is greatly outpaced by job growth.

I believe that a major problem is the question of leadership. “What kind of leadership do we have?” and “What kind of leadership do we want?”

There was a section of PNW carpenters (a very tiny minority at Labor Notes) who urged something of the PJMG to disband because it was “too divisive” and the Facebook Group was “too toxic.” The carpenters who raised this however had almost absolutely zero role in our strike and a minimal role in the struggle for accountability of leadership against Shapiro—and their alternative to the PJMG was essentially an organization that does not yet exist, that would essentially play nice with the international representatives and union leadership. My response to that was, “we aren’t going away.” But this line of joining hands with union leadership should come as no surprise since most carpenters were sponsored by their locals and were carpenters who regularly attend local meetings. Carpenters from outside of the PNW, seemed universally suspicious of union leadership. One told us about how her local was run by business agents, and the delegates were all business agents—and they had no voice. Another from Philly complained about how the first integrated local was dissolved, a local founded by Peter J. McGuire was dissolved, and Irish local dissolved that helped to support an independent Ireland—and that we as carpenters were losing our history.

So for the Carpenters union in particular, the question of a caucus should be, what will lead us to a better union? Do we need a caucus that is controlled by the union leadership and avoids confrontation? Or one that is independent from union leadership? I believe we need one that is independent, and if union leadership is on the side of the membership, it will have nothing to be afraid of.

And outside of the Carpenters, there were other major questions raised. There was this question of “Business Unionism” vs “Class Struggle Unionism,” the former being the existing model leading to defeat after defeat, the latter being closer to the dominant model from the 1880s, 1920s,1930s. Joe Burns, author of “Class Struggle Unionism” stated on a Facebook post that there were two examples he thought were closest real-life examples, the ALU (Amazon Labor Union) and the Peter J. McGuire Group. On that note, our struggle last year in our sabotaged strike, against a corrupt leadership, it inspired a great many labor activists from different unions.

There were also important political questions brought up. One, the need for a worker’s party, and the fact that we do not have one vs the Democratic Party that has a history of using us like an ATM machine and betraying us when the going gets tough. Two, piggybacking off the first, is this idea that workers should stay out of politics and instead “build the union.” It is related, because it’s based on the idea that workers should stay in the economic struggle and leave the political struggle to the liberals. This argument is over 100 years old and is sometimes referred to as “economism” aka “trade unionism.” It should come as no surprise that it was brought up at a conference of trade unionists—but it is my opinion that this is once again, a losing strategy that I oppose, and urge you all to oppose. It’s condescending, essentially arguing that we should “stay in our lane.” And what’s the result? The liberals, supposed protectors of Roe V. Wade, stood by as millions of working-class women not only lost their right to choose, but all workers lost their constitutional right to personal privacy—the core argument that Roe v Wade was based on (and never covered in the media).

All in all, I do think the conference was positive, and well worth the time of anyone who attended. It was very educational—there were ideas, and strategies, tactics, and history everywhere. I will try to attend the conference in the future, and I strongly encourage carpenters from across the country to attend. Despite the problems within the conference, it gave me a lot of hope. If there are any questions, feel free to ask.

Oaklandsocialist comments: Thanks to Art for this report. Labor Notes has a long history of working with the “progressive” wing of the union leadership. This is the wing that will take “progressive” stances on various political issues and usually is not so very blatantly undemocratic, although they do make exceptions to that.(See, for example, the case of SEIU Local 6  in Seattle. Among other things, in that case the local president – who was well liked by the organized left in Seattle – is reported to have prevented his local rep from helping a female member who was sexually assaulted on the job by the owner of her company.)

The criticism of the P.J. McGuire group for being “divisive” is almost true: We must be very clear in explaining how the union leadership is basically running interference for the employers, and not only explaining it but also organizing an opposition in both word and deed.

Art writes about the conference organizers ignoring the issue of the Democrats vs. the idea of a working class party. This dovetails with the extreme crisis developing in US society. Recent Supreme Court rulings are a warning sign. Yes, the ruling that opens the door to complete ban on abortions is the most obvious, but there is a whole series of other, including opening the door to imposing open carry, extreme weakening of the rights of those who are arrested, and others. The Supreme Court is just the most clear face of the dangers posed by the far right, including outright fascists.

The other issue that the working class really must start to deal with is the developing environmental disaster, first and foremost from global climate disaster, but not only that. The politicians who repesent the capitalist class have proven that they cannot and will not do anything about it. All organizations and meetings of working class people should be seriously discussing this.

Despite all the criticisms of Labor Notes, Art is right that it’s worthwhile attending if for no other reason than to start to build a network of workers who are really serious. We owe a word of thanks to Art and Nina Creel, co chairs of the P.J. Mcguire Group, for attending and reporting on the conference.

The author, Art Francisco on left with Chris Smalls

Categories: labor, politics

1 reply »

  1. Caucuses that are non public are important, as well as Union Committees around shorter hours, share the work, no forced overtime when workers are laid off . If we realize we’re essentially illegal in a Class War then we ll be thinking about how to handle increasing Fascism.
    On the other hand .. More ” innocent” union Committees are good for workers organizing publicly to promote and organize campaigns for these same issues forced overtime, health and safety etc
    .Legal committees and down low committees ..You know..

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