April 24, 2024

Trade Union Conference on the Move

Florian Wilde

Report from the 2024 Labor Notes Conference

This year’s Labor Notes conference broke all records: more than 4,500 participants crowded into the convention hotel near Chicago Airport from April 19-21. If registration had not been closed weeks earlier, there would probably have been several thousand more. It was the largest conference in this series, which the journal Labor Notes, founded in 1979, organizes every two years. From the very beginning, the Labor Notes conferences saw themselves as places for exchange and networking between workplace grassroots structures and militant democratic renewal movements in the trade unions. They survived the defeats of the US unions in the 1980s, accompanied the organizing turn of the big unions since the 1990s and are an organic part of the impressive upswing that the US trade union movement is currently experiencing. Recent disputes have even made headlines around the world, such as the double strike by actors and screenwriters that paralyzed Hollywood and the major strike by the auto workers’ union UAW. In the latter, a renewal current affiliated to Labor Notes had replaced the old social partnership-based leadership after a membership vote and switched the union to organizing and offensive action. As a result, the number of strikes in the USA is currently at a level not seen for decades and, at over 70%, public support for trade unions is higher than it was more than half a century ago.

Labor Notes was by no means uninvolved in this development, and so the journal’s editor Alexandra Bradbury emphasized at the conference’s grand opening plenary: “We are living through an exciting time in the labor movement. It’s been two years since Starbucks workers in this room presented us with their plan to force the company into a nationwide collective bargaining agreement – and they did it! We also heard from Teamsters unionists at logistics company UPS who wanted to put an end to unfair collective agreements – and they did it too. And we heard from UAW auto workers that they built a movement to change their union from the bottom up. And did they succeed? Yes, they did! We’re going to hear reports all weekend from union activists from every industry in this country about what they’ve accomplished, how they’ve won, and what still needs to be fought for.” In fact, the vast majority of participants and speakers were workplace activists, which gave the conference a strong proletarian character.

The UAW’s victory at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, where over 70% of the workforce voted for union representation in the recognition election, was celebrated euphorically during the conference. A truly historic result: not only has the VW Group’s last previously union-free plant now been organized, but this was achieved in the anti-union south of the USA of all places—and could thus trigger a wave of organizing in the southern states. The next recognition elections at the Mercedes plant in Alabama are already scheduled for May. In many workshops at the conference, UAW activists presented their organizing strategies and experiences. By May 1, 2028, the UAW wants to have organized all major auto plants and then, together with many other unions, lead them in a major struggle to reduce working hours and regulate AI in the world of work. “My mission when I was elected was one thing: to break with company unionism and get back to a members-driven union,” said UAW Chairman Shawn Fain at a panel on the following day, underlining the change in the union. This is the first time that a colleague with close ties to Labor Notes has headed one of the major unions, and Shawn was also enthusiastic on the closing panel: “Something is happening in this country that we haven’t seen in a long long time: the working class is standing up again.”

Shawn Fain, President of the United Automobile Workers, at a panel with Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici (Blue and white collars metalworkers federation) and Starbucks and Boeing workers at Labor Notes, Chicago.

Another important topic at the conference was “Bargaining for the Common Good”, in which concerns beyond the workplace are also made the subject of a collective bargaining dispute—often in an alliance between trade unions, communities, and social movements. This was also the case at the panel “Community and Labor Coalitions that work”, where Felix Stracke, an electrician at a bus company in Magdeburg, presented the #WirFahrenZusammen campaign by Fridays for Future + Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft (Germany’s United Services Union or ver.di). “There was so much interest in this experience of the trade union and climate movement coming together that we could have offered a whole workshop just for this!” he said afterward.

This was the second time that ver.di’s secretary Yanira Wolf had traveled from Germany to the conference in Chicago—and was once again impressed: “The atmosphere, the diversity of the audience, and the high proportion of workplace activists make these conferences something quite unique. I am once again impressed by how excitingly organizing methods are presented here. It gives me a lot of strength and motivation to hear about current struggles directly from people.”

Trade union solidarity with Palestine played a major role in many panels, in the plenary session, and at a rally of hundreds of conference participants, during which there were minor clashes with the police in front of the conference hotel. Overall, however, general political, historical or theoretical panels only played a subordinate role in the overflowing conference program with its almost 300 events. Even the US presidential elections were only dealt with in passing. The focus was clearly on formats that involved the exchange of practical experience, networking within the individual sectors, and the transfer of methods.

For as remarkable as the current successes of the US trade unions are, they are only relative: the level of organization remains stagnant at around 10% (33% in the public sector, but only 6% in the private sector) at a historically low level—even though the investment-supported upturn in the US economy and low unemployment play into their hands. And so the organizing tasks continue to be huge—and the range of workshops on the “Secrets of a Successful Organizer” (the title of the probably best-known Labor Notes book, which has also been translated into German) was correspondingly large, in which concrete methods of organizing were taught: How to deal with the indifference of many colleagues? What does a successful organizing meeting look like? How do you make a TikTok video, and how do you create a convincing “plan to win” to win over even the previously indifferent?

Some of these methods differ from those taught by Jane McAlevey, probably the most prominent US organizer, in the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s global “Organizing for Power (O4P) training program. Although her name was not listed in the program booklet, it was still on many lips, as she had announced a few days before the conference’s start that treatment for her incurable cancer had been suspended, and she had entered hospice care. At the opening of the conference, Alexandra Bradbury paid tribute to her work. Many of the nearly 10,000 North American O4P alumni are likely to have been in the Chicago conference hotel this weekend.

The conference also attracted many international participants, and a panel on “How to start Labor Notes in your own country” attempted to take stock and talk about setting up similar conferences in other regions. It became clear that the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s “Conferences on Trade Union Renewal” (“Streikkonferenzen”) can best be seen as a global counterpart to the Labor Notes conferences. Launched in 2013, the number of participants in this conference series has steadily increased from 500 at the beginning to 1,550 most recently. Similar to Labor Notes, the focus here is also on practical exchange and networking. In contrast to Labor Notes, the RLS conferences are held in cooperation with local trade union branches and attract proportionally more full-time trade unionists. Political issues also play a greater role at the German conferences. The next RLS trade union conference is being prepared for May 2025. This would be one year before the next Labor Notes conference, which can only hope to find even larger premises so that it can break its attendance record once again in 2026.

About the author: Dr. Florian Wilde is a Senior Fellow for international trade-union work at Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Wilde.