Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

“Look to your left, look to your right. Say: I GOT YOUR BACK!” This phrase, called out by Chris Smalls, President of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), was echoed by the large crowd packed into the Grand Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Rosemont, IL, for the Labor Notes conference last month. It was Smalls’ first Labor Notes, he told the crowd, and it was a triumphant debut: “For the first time, on April 1st, 2021, [after] 28 years of Amazon’s existence, we won the first union.” The crowd clapped and cheered, and Smalls proudly plucked at his t-shirt, which read “Recognize ALU.”

Four thousand workers gathered in Chicago over Juneteenth weekend to attend this year’s Labor Notes conference, which reconvened for the first time since 2018. Part workshops, part rallies, part meetups, and part panels, the conference is an illustration of what can happen when labor organizations make space for workers to link workplace struggles to social issues, build coalitions between industries, and strategize about how to confront shared forms of exploitation. That is, Labor Notes is a place where the labor movement strives to realize itself as a vehicle for social transformation.

The labor movement terrain has changed in the years since the last conference, as workers have been labeled “essential” during the pandemic but not compensated or protected accordingly. Millions of workers across the United States have quit their jobs due to poor conditions, insufficient pay, or lack of healthcare or childcare. Some found work with better pay or benefits. But many others stayed where they were, choosing to struggle with their coworkers to create a more democratic workplace in deeply anti-democratic times. This weekend was for them.


The Troublemakers’ Union

Labor Notes is a media and organizing project founded over 40 years ago, in 1979, by militant union activists seeking to “put the movement back in the labor movement.” This significant year—marking the beginning of a long string of devastating concessions by unions across industries—was exactly the right time to start an organization dedicated to creating a class-conscious, democratic perspective within the labor movement. Co-founder Kim Moody says that the original founders sought “to create a class view”—to do the hard work of grounding socialist ideas in the real struggles of the working class. They also worked hard to bring like-minded people across the labor movement, or “troublemakers” as the organization calls them, together.

The publication’s archives are proof of this early commitment to radicalism. A 1982 report on the roundup of undocumented workers in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in Chicago, for example, argues that the raids were conducted to exacerbate racial tensions within workers in the industry, blaming immigrant workers for imminent economic crisis. By reporting on care workers, Black workers, intra-union reform, and strikes, the newsletter-turned-magazine aims to create a commonality between working-class experiences and promote rank-and-file struggles. Its commitment to democracy is even apparent in its authorship, as many of its writers are actual workers writing about ongoing fights.

Labor Notes seeks to put in print the complex and uneven struggles of the labor movement, but also to serve as a practical guide for workers to win democracy in the workplace. These guides, such as the popular book, Secrets of a Successful Organizer, are also offered as ongoing workshops designed to teach workers how to overcome resignation to poor working conditions, assemble a team of committed organizers, and bring coworkers together with a campaign. In other words, Labor Notes presents collective action as the driving political force of the labor movement and offers the tools to make such action happen. It both puts the struggle in print and takes it to the streets.

The program featured many worker-organizers whose efforts to take over their workplaces have been making national headlines, from the Amazon Labor Union to Starbucks Workers United. Union members at these two megacorporations have made huge strides winning elections, and they were met with enthusiasm and encouragement. Many of the main panels, including the Friday night plenary, featured young organizers from Starbucks Workers United, which has unionized 164 locations nationwide. A panel titled “A Union Brews at Starbucks” featured baristas from Florida to Arizona, one of whom told the crowd that before the unionization drive at their store, they didn’t really know what a union was at all.

In many cases, encountering Starbucks’ anti-union strategy firsthand was a wake-up call to workers. Once the company began firing workers, holding mandatory closed-door meetings, sending head executives from corporate to discourage elections, and closing unionizing stores, workers started to realize how empty the company’s term for its employees— “partner”—really is.

In a speech at this year’s Labor Notes conference, Michelle Eisen of Starbucks Workers United shared her experience with these tactics, recounting her first closed-door meeting with the company’s then-president, Rossann Williams, who insisted that the company had done everything they could for its partners, and that they should consider themselves lucky for what they had. “I saw the looks on the faces of my co-workers as we were being bullied and manipulated into voting against our best interests,” Eisen said, “and that was the moment that I realized that I could not take a passive role in this fight. That not actively working against my co-workers was not the same as standing with them.” On December 9th, 2021, Eisen’s store won the first Starbucks union in the United States. The same day Eisen gave her speech, Williams tendered her resignation.  

Anti-union tactics were a frequent topic of discussion throughout the conference’s duration, but many workers repeated the fact that the typical management playbook isn’t working anymore. One benefit of high-profile firings (like Chris Smalls or Laila Dalton) and closing stores after successful union drives (like Starbucks or Dollar General) is that it becomes clear to other workers, and to the public in general, the extent to which companies will go to resist unionization. In this time of economic crisis and a reorientation to how we work, organized labor begins to enjoy a more prominent place in national media coverage and in the public consciousness.

Discussions about union democracy were also a major feature of the Labor Notes conference, insistent as it is on strategy and practical skills to not only redistribute decision-making power in the workplace, but also to do so within unions themselves. And last year was a watershed moment for bottom-up power-building victories in large international unions, with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union slate unseating the previously undemocratic leadership, and the One Member One Vote referendum successfully passing in the United Auto Workers, giving all 400,000 active members the ability to directly elect the executive board. Members of these unions sat on dozens of panels dedicated to the nuts and bolts of building union democracy: from assembling a transparent caucus to running a democratic meeting, from labor law’s role in supporting rank-and file efforts to carrying out a successful strike with mass participation and big wins.

Whether someone is a data analyst, a railroad worker, or a K-12 teacher, Labor Notes provides a place for union members to talk strategy both within and across sectors, with the goal of finding teachable moments and relaying resonances and tensions in situated struggles. A software engineer on a tech organizing panel stressed this sector-wide approach, saying that the contracts that their coworkers win at their company could be used to secure similar victories for software engineers at larger companies such as Google or Facebook. There was also talk of shared employer tactics, as tech workers at a company like Amazon often have very different working conditions than Amazon’s logistics workers and can be pitted against one another—and how tech workers could learn from higher education unions in this capacity. There was also speculation on the rise of unionization in the sector as startup money in the Bay Area begins to dry up. Moments later, someone raised their hand to announce that Kickstarter United had just ratified their first contract with a 97.6% majority, to whoops and cheers from around the room.

As a “troublemakers union,” Labor Notes is a place for workers who are committed to making transformative change in the workplace happen. The group understands that these victories are both high risk and high reward—but that they can make history happen.


Last Hired, First Fired

Labor Notes also made space for serious and productive conversation on race, racism, and the labor movement—an apropos topic not just on Juneteenth weekend, but also in the two years since the largest uprisings for racial justice in American history. Since the end of free labor—in other words, since the end of enslavement in the United States—Black workers have been more likely to suffer from underemployment, harassment on the job, and workplace discrimination than their white counterparts. This year’s Labor Notes focused on questions of race and labor as a major concern: What struggles do Black workers uniquely face? How can generations of Black workers learn from one another? How do we take on racist bosses? What effects did the Black Lives Matter movement have on the labor movement in the United States?

Union leaders like Stacy Davis Gates, President of the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU-AFT), turned to these pressing questions both at the Friday night plenary and at an earlier panel on “Intergenerational Black Struggle.” In both sessions, she stressed that unions must take into account workers as whole people—which would necessarily mean taking into account the social forces that affect them. “Workers suffer from police brutality,” she said to a stream of applause. “Workers are facing eviction because housing is unaffordable. Workers are suffering under unfair immigration policies. Workers are dying because we refuse to include ‘they’ instead of ‘him,’ or ‘she,’ or ‘her.’”

The work of the labor movement is to be as inclusive as possible by linking workplace struggles to social forces—issues that are typically said to be outside the scope of contract concerns such as wages and benefits. “We don’t narrow how people get in—we expand the definition of union. We expand the definition of membership. We expand the definition of workers’ rights to human rights.” This inclusive strategy, called bargaining for the common good, has been extremely successful for the CTU in particular. In 2012, the union went on strike to demand not only better pay and benefits, but also equity and justice within their Chicago communities. School closings in primarily Black neighborhoods was a major issue in the strike, affecting over 12,000 students, according to a report written by the union. CTU pushed for transformative demands to protect teachers, students, janitorial staff, and parents—all while taking aim at corporate kickbacks and decades of racist austerity.

Centering Black working-class liberation as the horizon of the labor movement in the United States is a surefire way to winning for liberation for all workers. Susan DeCarava, President of the NewsGuild of New York, stated plainly that confronting how white supremacy works as a system is the key to social transformation. Without this effort, “we’ll fight a fight, but it’s not winning—it’s not changing the context of that fight.”

And living out this strategy within union struggles has been a galvanizing call to reenergize labor power. “We needed, from a multiracial union, to hear white voices as well. And it was so important to hear white members stand up and say, “until black women are free none of us are free,” said one panelist in “Black Lives Matter Uprisings Reverberate in Workplace Organizing.” Conversations like this one not only tied racism to capitalism, but also recounted how workers came together to defeat oppression in the workplace and beyond.


The Union Makes Us Strong

“The strike is the tactic, but solidarity is our power,” AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson said to hundreds of workers at a panel called “Strike! Reviving Labor’s Most Powerful Weapon.” Nelson fielded questions from the audience about the failed political system and major disappointments in the Biden administration’s heavily reduced “reconciliation package,” which has not addressed pro-labor measures like the Protect the Right to Organize Act. One attendee asked whether it was finally time for a new worker-run party, as the Democrats had so thoroughly failed the labor movement in recent decades. “Don’t be fooled by the two-party system,” Nelson warned. “It’s the owner class versus the working class.” For this more progressive wing of the labor movement to realize its transformative social vision, it should focus on building rank-and-file strength. “If we start seeing ourselves as the working class, we don’t need a party—because the party becomes us.”

This was an appropriate reframe. Labor Notes is about politicizing the labor movement to take power over the political system, not simply using unions as a cudgel to support either party. Hours later, when Teamsters International President Sean O’ Brien took the stage with a message of fierce solidarity to the ruling class, the mood was even more enthusiastic: “When you take one of us on, you take all of us on. When you pick a fight with organized labor, whether you’re corporate America or a corruptible politician, ice up—it’s a contact sport.”

When Bernie Sanders spoke to the crowd on Friday night, he shared a familiar message of high CEO pay, war profits, pharmaceutical price-gouging, and corporate greed. But his imperative—“the time has come for us to take on the Uber-capitalist culture of today”—rang with a sense of possibility to the people in that room, who know a thing or two about taking action.

Seizing political power for socialist ends is the ultimate horizon of the Labor Notes project. The conference is an incredible, three-day experiment in theory and praxis for liberation. We can only hope that the sparkling activity of that weekend will return to workplaces across the country, where workers will need to do the hard work of organizing, losing, fighting—and occasionally changing the world.