More than three dozen UE leaders and staff traveled to Port Elgin, Ontario on November 9-11 to discuss key challenges and issues facing the labor movement with trade unionists from across North America, along with allies from Europe and Australia. The North American Solidarity Project Conference brought together 140 delegates from six unions in four countries.
UE General President Peter Knowlton reminded the opening plenary on Friday night that “as workers and as a class we have more in common with each other than with the employer, their political organizations and parties, and those corporate forces who attempt to control our fate.” Knowlton urged unionists to reject divisions of “race, nationality, sex, gender, immigration status, religion, age and every other ism which divides us” and to conduct deep education among our members and communities how these divisions prevent the working class from taking our rightful place in society.
Knowlton declared that trade union renewal must embrace a bold and comprehensive vision, must be internationalist and must be unafraid of militant action “to draw a line in the sand and force the employers to provide workers, our families, and our communities what we need and deserve.”
Unifor National President Jerry Dias spoke about the challenge for the labor movement of right-wing ideas “tugging at the heart strings and the minds of our members,” and of the appeal of such ideas to “working people who have given up hope.” In response, Dias said, the labor movement needs to be both more progressive and more aggressive.
“We have to be more committed to doing things differently. How do we involve our members? How do we take back the narrative?” Citing Unifor's recent militant actions to resolve disputes in Goderich and Thunder Bay, Ontario and Gander, Newfoundland, Dias declared “When we fight we can win, and our members will follow us because they are looking for leadership; they are looking for us to be bold.”
National Nurses United Co-President Jean Ross hailed the recent U.S. midterm elections, noting that the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will act as a brake on the “train wreck” of demagoguery, racism, voter suppression, and lies that have characterized U.S. politics for the past two years. She noted that a record number of women were elected to the U.S. House, including the first Muslim and Native women to serve in Congress.
She explained that NNU’s campaign for Medicare for All is building the ranks of spirited fighters and activists because “Healthcare is at the center of it all ... [It is] the issue that cuts across everything else and unites us all.” The failure to guarantee healthcare to its citizens in richest country in the world is not a failure of policy, Ross pointed out, but rather a moral failure. However, she said, “I'm here to tell you tonight that change is in the air.” Hundreds of candidates ran for office this year on platforms explicitly endorsing Medicare for All, single-payer healthcare and for the first time ever, a majority of Democrats in the House are co-sponsors of H.R. 676, the Improved and Expanded Medicare for All Act.
Stories From the Field
Following the plenary speakers, conference participants shared “stories from the field.” UE Western Region President Carl Rosen gave an analysis of the midterm elections. While the Democratic majority in the House will be a check on the Republicans’ legislative agenda, continued Republican control of the Senate will allow them to keep packing the federal courts with pro-corporate, anti-worker, racist judges. It is up to progressive unions like UE and our allies in other working-class organizations to engage in militant actions that capture the imaginations of working people and continue pushing the country in a more progressive direction.
Jim Harrison, a national representative with the Utility Workers Union of America, reported that Democrats in Michigan won by listening to the concerns of working-class voters: healthcare, economic opportunity, and fixing schools and infrastructure.
Corey Lanham from NNU told delegated about the union’s efforts to fight the closing of Providence Hospital in Washington, DC. The union reached out to the community and “because of the movement we built,” said Lanham, “I'm happy to report the DC city council passed legislation to prevent this hospital from closing.”
Pauline Worsfold, Secretary-Treasurer of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and Chair of the Canadian Health Coalition, spoke about the campaign to create Pharmacare, a national public drug plan for the country of Canada. She talked about the importance of mobilizing working people to confront politicians of all parties. “Politicians don't change their minds because they see the light,” she said, “they change their minds because they feel the heat.”
Maricarmen Llamas Montes of the Mexican telephone workers' union (Sindicato de Telefonistas de la República Mexicana) spoke about how the alliances built between Mexican, Canadian and U.S. unions during the NAFTA negotiations were very productive because “due to international solidarity, in our country we were able to stop the labor reform which was being pushed forward by different corporations.” Juan José Gómez of the Mexican electricians’ union (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas) added that 30 years of “savage neoliberal politics” were “devastating not only the economy but life itself.” Gómez declared, “Against that we have to raise our first and continue struggle jointly together. Unity will give us the power.”
UE Local 150 President Bryce Carter reported how his local has brought the “Fight for $15” struggle started by fast food workers into his workplace, the City of Greensboro, winning a $15/hour minimum wage for city workers effective this month. The local has also won $15/hour in the cities of Charlotte, Durham, and Raleigh, the state of North Carolina, and the Cummins diesel engine plant in Rocky Mount, where workers are members of Local 150’s private-sector chapter. Matt Nurse of Unifor discussed the “$15 and Fairness” campaign in Ontario, which won a province-wide $15 minimum wage, although the newly-elected conservative government is threatening to walk it back. “I was one of the people” who felt the legislation was personal victory, Nurse said. “I was working three jobs at minimum wage.”
Unifor Director of Human Rights Christine Maclin reminded delegates that as unions confront the white supremacists who preach hate and violence against people of color, we must also look inside to address racism within our own ranks. She described Unifor’s equity audit, completed in 2017, which measured the diversity of the union’s leadership against the diversity of the membership, and union programs which support people from equity-seeking groups in leadership roles, mentorship programs, and human rights education. Said Maclin, “Solidarity means that we have to stand up for each other, we have to unite, when we're in our workplaces and we hear that racist joke, we have to call it out.” UE Field Organizer Abbie Curtis related how when Ku Klux Klan flyers appeared in Burlington, VT, UE locals called for a mass demonstration and held a press conference of 300 workers and supporters directly addressing the Klan, making it clear they were not welcome in the community.
Tanika Chaisson from Unifor and Reggie Davis from UWUA spoke about their respective unions’ programs for young workers. “it's easy for young workers to sit on the sidelines,” said Chaisson, or be intimidated. She urged union leaders at the conference to “Talk to young workers about the issues that matter now, how we are moving forward now.”
The State of Labor Renewal
On Saturday morning, three academics shared their perspective on the state of “labor renewal,” or efforts to revitalize the labor movement.
Gregor Murray, a University of Montreal professor who has been acting as a consultant to the North American Solidarity Project study group, told delegates that the labor movement is in a time of dangerous opportunities which require experimentation, exchange and learning.
Stephanie Luce, Professor of Labor Studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, spoke about the challenge of “neoliberalism,” a deliberate set of corporate strategies designed to divide working people that has been triumphant in recent decades, as governments have enacted laws and regulations that make it easier for corporations and investors to make profits and make it harder for workers to enforce their rights. “We are in a terrifying moment,” Luce said, when many members of the working class are drawn to populist solutions out of anger and fear. However, she concluded her remarks on a note of hope: “We have another vision, our vision is internationalist, our vision is worker-led, our vision will win.”
Political scientist and University of Pennsylvania Professor Adolph Reed, who some UE members might remember as a leader of the Labor Party effort in the late 90s, spoke about the challenge of building working-class politics. For corporate Democrats, he suggested, winning elections is less important than controlling the terms of the political debate in a way that excludes working-class issues and concerns. Instead, he said, unions must pose clear alternatives for those working people who have not yet been captured by trumpism, and should keep the focus on fighting for and defending public goods like Medicare-for-All, single-payer healthcare, Social Security.
What Labor Renewal Looks Like
Delegates spent the bulk of the day on Saturday in workshops addressing the numerous challenges facing the labor movement.
“Broken Wagnerism: Building Unions Beyond the Traditional Workplace” addressed strategies for building unions in a world of work that is increasingly fragmented and precarious. Workshop facilitators suggested that the exclusive focus on the workplace encouraged by U.S. and Canadian labor law limits the scope of union militancy and also limits unions’ ability to represent the working class as a whole. Nola Lilly of Local 170 and Local 150 President Bryce Carter shared their locals’ experiences building unions in right-to-work states despite not having collective bargaining rights. (The term “Wagnerism” comes from the fact that the National Labor Relations Act is often referred to as the Wagner Act, after its author, Senator Robert F. Wagner.)
“Anti-Racism and Equity: Building Unions for Everyone,” which was led by a team including UE Northeast Region President Elizabeth Jesdale and Local 255 President Autumn Martinez explored “How can our unions' anti-racism and equity programs transform our movement so that they are truly inclusive and representative?” Jesdale gave an overview of how UE’s commitment to anti-racism and equity is rooted in the values found in UE’s constitution and history, and Martinez spoke about how that commitment informs how the union functions on the shop floor.
“From the Picket Line to the Ballot Box: Building Political Unions” looked at the connection between workplace struggles and political campaigns. NNU’s Medicare For All campaigns in Florida and Texas used the midterm elections to build a committed core of (mostly non-union) nurses able to mobilize a militant minority of their fellow nurses around Medicare for All and candidates who support it — creating infrastructure for future workplace organizing. Unifor’s campaigns to resolve lockouts in Goderich, Thunder Bay and Gander used militant workplace actions which expanded the sense of solidarity and possibility among working people.
“Labour Renewal for What?” examined how unions can provide a vision to fight for working-class interests as a whole. Presenters discussed two campaigns based on big ideas and principles: the campaign for Medicare for All, single-payer healthcare in the U.S. and the campaign for a publicly-funded drug plan, Pharmacare, in Canada.
“Power Within: Union Education to Build Power Within Our Ranks,” co-facilitated by retired UE Education Director Carol Lambiase, gave those attending an opportunity to discuss strategies for addressing the growth of divisive right-wing ideologies among our own membership. Workshops participants spoke about how it is important to be clear about what is in working people's interests, and the importance of campaigns like Medicare for All as a positive, uniting narrative to counter the right wing’s divisive rhetoric.
Unions: The Means to Fight for a Better World
The delegates adopted a joint conference statement which declared, “Our world is dangerously unequal and increasingly divided … [and] in urgent need of deep transformation.” The statement expressed participants’ “commitment to a strong labour movement and solidarity based on values of social unionism and an urgent need for union renewal.”
“We believe that empowering rank and file workers must be the core mission to organize successfully and achieve workplace democracy and fairness at work” the statement continues. “[I]t is time for unions to present a bold vision for social change and union renewal that unites the working class.”
“It is through our unions,” the statement concludes, “that working people can give ourselves the means to fight for a better world.”