From May 4th to 6th, people involved in various unions, schools, and organizations nationally and internationally gathered in Chicago for the annual Labor Notes Conference. Though it has been a month since the conference, I’d still like to share some of what I made of it. The gathering featured trans-national solidarity work, occupy/decolonize movements and creative/artistic projects. My brother and I felt this would be a great place to meet people and learn about current projects in and related to labor movements.
May 4th was the same day that I had my final meeting with my Division III (senior thesis) committee of faculty at Hampshire College. My two professor-mentors, Amy Jordan and Constance Valis Hill, evaluated my years’ worth of work and interviewed me on what I made of it all. With their guidance I wrote two chapters of a biographical study of my grandmother, since, after all, I couldn’t write about her whole life in just a year. Both of my faculty were historians and dancers, so they were supportive of my vision to do a dance/theatre production of some sort. It was a lot to evaluate in an hour and a half but they did manage to squeeze in some tough questions, like “so how do your politics connect or disconnect with your grandmother’s politics?” What a curve ball! My response was something about working with or outside of the state while maintaining sight of global class exploitation and deepening analysis of race. Basically, I said that I was just scratching the surface of how our politics converge and diverge. Overall, it was an emotional send-off since these faculty had so profoundly supported my vision and work.
After the meeting, I headed across campus, rang the “div-free bell,” hugged some friends, drank some champagne, and jumped in car to get to Springfield to the Amtrak station.* Part of me wanted to celebrate with friends all evening but I was also very eager to get on the road and have alone time. A train ride to Chicago was the perfect answer and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
Nineteen hours later I arrived in downtown Chicago and headed out to the conference center. The weekend was choc full of workshops as well as performances on Saturday night. I knew of a couple people that were going to be there who I already knew and I was pleasantly surprised to discover a couple more once I got there. Workshops ranged from highly specific tactics for people who were already very involved in unions to more broadly having to do with transnational solidarity or specific professions, like educators. My interests were all over the place but because I had been studying more labor history than current labor movement things, I felt like I needed to go to the broader ones. I first headed to “Unions in Latin America” and learned the unfortunate gravity of the situation facing unionists in Colombia. The speaker asserted that it is by far the most dangerous Latin American country to organize in, especially for the workers in the General Motors plant who have had little success in getting attention on workplace dangers and abuses. Regarding Honduras there was a woman discussing a growing international network around the banana trade wherein consumers put pressure on supermarkets as workers in banana producing areas share information and needs.
Next up was “Creative Organizing and Strategic Mischief,” facilitated by Ricardo Levins Morales, a great labor artist and organizer who I was honored to get to know a little. His work is great for educational and inspirational purposes. This was a very exciting workshop that unfortunately I only caught the last bit of. The group had split into smaller groups and shared specific challenges we were facing in our movements where we were coming from. I learned about the Chicago Transit Workers, University of Minnesota and Evergreen State University, Occupy Detroit and Detroit teachers as well as state employees from Birmingham, Alabama. We then strategized as a group about how to creatively address specific problems and came up with some useable ideas like the slogan “Off the Clock – Off our Backs!” for Chicago transit workers who were getting harrassed for organizing even when they were not working. The Autonomous Solidarity Organization in Madison, WI, was discussed as a resource for creative organizing tools. I’d still like to learn more about this organization.
That Saturday evening featured a workshop in which I felt an energy I had not witnessed until then. Sitting in a room full of educators discussing the challenges they, their students and their students families face was truly eye-opening. The panel for “Teaching Against the Odds” featured educators and union leaders from California, Wisconsin, New York, Boston and of course Chicago (the CTU being the most well-represented and excited union in the crowd). It was the most highly attended of all the workshops I had seen by that point, and it was certainly the most spirited. Both public and private educators were there, and while there was frustration at a lot of the same problems, there was a considerable sentiment that public schools needed commitment, perseverance and…to put it sentimentally…love. The dedication to working for public school students was obvious and I caught the fever.
Teacher unions across the country are facing a range of problems, from budget cuts to misinformation about unions, students struggling because of poverty to disinterested memberships. Of course, there were particularities to each region but I was struck by some of the similarities: for example in both Chicago and Los Angeles there are official sub-groups within the union that are pushing for a more radical union and school district. This may mean pursuing racial justice and anti-racism instead of just multicultural education.
Postscript: that hypothetical teacher strike that was discussed in May came to fruition this fall. The Chicago Teachers Union brought national attention to the demands made of teachers and their demands in response. While all of their demands were not met, they were able to gain some ground from the privatizing elite and their organizing continues on.
*Literally two minutes after my train left, we arrived at the station. My options were to find a bus to Chicago or to somehow catch up to the train in Albany, NY, and go from there. I was stumped but started calling friends to see if anyone could lend me a car and a driver to drive it back from Albany and amazingly it worked! Jason had the van and Taylor drove it back. We sped out to Albany, making freakishly good time, and I got on that damn train. I’ve never “caught” a train like that!