Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Labor Notes Conference 2018. A new Era has Begun.

FMPR Leader Mercedes Martinez Inspires Thousands at Labor Notes
By Sean O’Torain

Due to health issues I was only able to attend part of the Labor Notes conference in Chicago this past weekend, April 6th to April 8th. 2018. It was an inspirational event.

There were 2,500 people registered from 25 countries. Teachers were present from West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky. It was in West Virgina where the teachers and educators struck recently. Their own leadership was continuing with their concessions to the corporate capitalist offensive. The striking teachers and education workers pushed this leadership aside, threw up new leaders, and organized their strike and won their strike in a state where strikes are illegal.  

When these activists spoke at the Labor Notes conference they naturally spoke of the role of the union leaders and were very critical of it. This could not be stopped. To leave this out would have been unthinkable for these activists. 

The organizers of this conference must be given full credit for the work they have done. They have built Labor Notes through decades to where it is able to bring together activists from just about all the prominent struggles of the day, labor struggles and non-labor struggles. Labor Notes conferences provide an arena where activists can come and share experiences can discuss strategy and tactics, can discuss what wins and does not win. This is an important achievement and an important step forward for working class struggles, and for the working class.

I have been at other Labor Notes conferences over the years. At these conferences criticism of the trade union leadership was not welcome. In fact, it was discouraged by the organizers, some of whom held positions in the labor movement. However, this year’s conference was different. It was different because it was taking place in, a new era of struggle against the corporate capitalist offensive and Labor Notes was able to bring activists from just about all of the struggles occurring today to its conference. 

The experience of these activists was that to fight and win they had to take on their own union leadership. So it was only natural that when they spoke of their struggles, they spoke of the role played by their union officials and this meant criticizing them and their policies.  So it was the presence of these activists sharing their experiences that put discussion and criticism of the role and policies of the union leadership on the agenda of this Labor Notes conference and it was this that made it different to previous conferences.

At one session I attended, a union activist with a leading position in his local asked why the union leadership refuses to fight. This sentiment was echoed by many others with some pointing out that the top union officials even go so far as to actually sabotage workers struggles. Why is this?

This was the central question that was unfortunately not addressed by the Labor Notes conference organizers. 

FMPR Marching against Privatization
At one session where this question was raised I was able to speak from the floor. I spoke of my own experience in workplaces and unions. I put my view. The union leaders refuse to fight because they do not think there is any alternative to the corporate capitalist system. So at all times they seek to go along with the demands of this system. They do not believe that the working class can end capitalism and build a new society. They see any attempt by the working class to do this would in their minds lead only to chaos.

Along with that, the union leadership has highly paid positions, good benefits, and they recognize that any offensive movement from below would lead to a challenge to their positions and privileges. This is why the union leadership refuses to fight and beyond refusing to fight, they actually sabotage their members’ efforts to fight back and halt the capitalist offensive. They do so because any significant victory would undermine their entire strategy and propaganda that victories in this period are impossible and the only alternative is to make concessions, to give in to the bosses. 

This is why the victory in West Virginia which was won by an illegal strike that also won across the board raises not only for the teachers but for other workers in education is so important; it’s a game changer.  A victory like the one in West Virginia undermines the strategy and the positions of the union leadership.  The union leaders fear victories of their own members, actually work to prevent victories for their own members, as any victory naturally inspires millions of other workers as we are seeing at the moment. 

It would have been important to open the conference with a full plenary session to address this central question. This would have helped the activists put their experiences into context and understand why their leaderships did what they did and why a new leadership has to be built, one which understood the need to take on the bosses’ offensive and to break the bosses’ laws to do so and to be prepared to take on the bosses’ system.

The unions were only built by breaking the anti-union and anti-worker laws, by confronting the cops, National Guard and thugs on the streets used by the bosses’ to break us. This struggle that has begun if it is to succeed, will need to adopt similar policies and strategies. 

Thanks to Labor Notes for organizing the conference which offers an arena for activists to come together and share experiences. Hopefully the example of the activists will now be followed and the role of the role of union leaders and why they do what they do will be on the agenda in future. 

The summing up of the conference had activists from the teachers’ struggles and the Teamsters on the platform. Mercedes Martinez  a young female activist, and leader of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation spoke. She took on Trump and his refusal to help Puerto Rico after the hurricane. She named capitalism and that it must be opposed. She brought the conference to its feet in great roars of approval. I was moved to tears. If the movement is to have a future, if there is to be a future, it is with this young woman and the millions of new fighters like her who are now being prepared for the fight by capitalism’s offensive.

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