The Labor Fightback Conference and the Birth of the Labor Fightback Network
Conference organizers are happy to report that the conference was a success. Over one hundred people attended; the overwhelming majority from unions, plus quite a few community activists. (See below for a list of unions and community organizations represented.)
The conference, held at the New Brunswick, New Jersey campus of Rutgers University, opened on the evening of May 10, 2013, with the reading of greetings from United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard; Michael Lighty on behalf of National Nurses United; Kevin Gundlach, President, South Central Labor Council Wisconsin; and Sen. Bernie Sanders. All expressed best wishes for a successful conference, as did Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who addressed the conference by videotape. After a weekend of inspiring speakers and informative workshops, participants ended the conference by forming the Labor Fightback Network, which will continue to carry out work related to the many issues discussed at the conference. (See below for speakers and workshops.)
The conference was convened for the purpose of addressing the multiple crises facing the labor movement, confronted, as it is, by relentless attacks from the corporate class and the politicians who do their bidding at all levels, federal, state, and local. These crises include:
- 27 million workers unemployed or underemployed in a stagnant economy that shows no meaningful signs of improvement.
- Sequestration, which in addition to resulting in devastating cuts to education and other social programs, will result in the elimination of 750,000 jobs during the current fiscal year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
- Good-paying jobs being lost in the industrial heartland as companies relocate offshore or to the largely unorganized South to wrack up record profits by paying lower wages and reduced or no benefits.
- Union rights being destroyed throughout the nation, such as collective bargaining obliterated for public employees in Wisconsin and right-to-work laws passed in Indiana and Michigan, with drives to enact more such laws in 20 additional states.
- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other vitally needed social programs under attack, with the president joining the chorus calling for cuts in Social Security and Medicare for starters.
- Public education being targeted for privatization, resulting in the closing of hundreds of community schools and the spread of private, often for-profit charter schools.
- Immigrant rights being trampled upon, while deeply flawed legislative proposals ostensibly designed to reform the system having the potential of sidelining the movement for real reform and even making some aspects of the present system more oppressive.
- New U.S. wars being threatened against Syria and Iran, while Congress continues to approve — on a bipartisan basis — several hundred billion dollars more for the Pentagon’s bloated budget.
- Civil rights and civil liberties facing unprecedented attacks with guaranteed constitutional rights and freedoms being undermined at every turn.
All these were among the issues discussed at the Rutgers conference. The predominant concern, however, was to agree on proposed actions to counter the assaults; actions that might have the potential of turning the situation around.
Change of Strategy Needed
We saw our mission as focusing on some key campaigns we could bring to the labor movement in this period. The challenge today is to recognize that despite the attempts to dismember the labor movement — union membership declined by 400,000 last year — it remains potentially a powerful force, with 14 million members in its ranks and huge resources at its disposal.
So why is it that labor continues to take blow after blow after blow with so little by way of effective resistance and fightback?
The answer, as many conference speakers pointed out, is basically two-fold: (1) Labor’s policy of depending on the Democratic Party to protect our interests and, (2) Labor’s response to anti-workers’ attacks being primarily lobbying campaigns, which, by themselves, are incapable of stopping the bleeding and lead only to further unanswered assaults.
Accordingly, a different course was urged: (1) End labor’s subordination to the Democratic Party, that is, affirm the independence of the trade union movement in relation to the bosses and all politicians in their service and build an independent and united workers’ movement based on a program that faithfully and consistently reflects the interests and well-being of the working class and the overwhelming majority; and (2) Take to the streets in massive numbers as the most effective way to “lobby” for adoption of that program.
Many conference speakers emphasized that the way workers won significant changes in the past, such as in the 1930s, was through strikes, occupations, defiance of injunctions, marches and demonstrations — in short, via mass actions. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and the antiwar movement of the 1970s also advanced their respective causes through mass actions, as did the women’s movement at its prime and the LGBTQ movement in the past decade. Street heat, not lobbying the same politicians who usually sell us out, is what the Rutgers conference projected for achieving labor victories in the future.
Specific Mobilizations and Campaigns
The conference called for mobilizations and campaigns in the coming months:
- Solidarity with the Chicago teachers who called actions the weekend after the conference and will undoubtedly call further actions in the future.
- Building actions called for by the AFL-CIO and the Alliance for Retired Americans to demand the protection and expansion of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — No Cuts! Current actions are set for July 2 in cities across the country.
- Solidarity with the Southern Workers Assembly, including circulating a model resolution on organizing the South.
- Supporting the campaign for the immediate legalization of immigrant workers. Stop all deportations now!
- Solidarity with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in its campaign to get a contract with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
- Building the August 24, 2013 March on Washington called by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and The King Center to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The goals are to honor King for his great contributions to the causes of jobs, justice, civil rights, human rights, and peace and to link the burning issues of the past to those of the present, by promoting a Martin Luther King People’s Agenda.
Note: Subsequent to the May 10–12 Rutgers conference, we learned that the UAW and the Detroit Branch NAACP have joined together to call for a June 22 march and rally in Detroit also to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Marech on Washington. This event should certainly be built in every possible way as well.
Thanks to Speakers, Presenters, and Attendees for Making the Conference Such a Success
Our Friday night and Saturday lunch and evening speakers gave superb talks that were moving, thoughtful, spirited, and inspiring. The many workshop presenters did an excellent job, as well. For more details, see our website at http://laborfightback.org/conference/.
The conference provided plenty of time for attendees to take the floor and share their ideas. Everyone had their say and left in high spirits and with resolve to carry the work forward.
Highlights of the conference were taped and are in the process of being edited. The final product will soon be available for sale at a modest price.
Birth of the Labor Fightback Network
The Rutgers conference concluded with the formation of the Labor Fightback Network (LFN). The purpose of the Network is spelled out in the attached Mission Statement adopted after the conference. It will help coordinate the activities of those who support its program, including doing what we can to strengthen solidarity and to press for united front actions by labor and our community partners. We have been described as the “Mobilization Wing” or the “Independent Mobilization Wing” of the labor movement.
LFN formed a 25-member Steering Committee made up of those who volunteered to be on it at the conference. Please contact us if you agree with the LFN’s Mission Statement and would like to get actively involved in building the LFN.
Conference Participants Came from the Following Unions:
Amalgamated Transit Union; American Association of University Professors; American Federation of Government Employees; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; American Federation of Teachers; Office and Professional Employees international Union; Bergan County Central Trades and Labor Council; Communications Workers of America, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; International Brotherhood of Teamsters; International Longshoremen’s Association; National Association of Letter Carriers; National Nurses United; National Writers Union; New Jersey Education Association; New Jersey State Industrial Union Council; Pennsylvania Federation of the Brotherhood of Maintenance and Way Employees; San Francisco Labor Council; Savannah Regional Labor Council; Service Employees International Union; South Carolina AFL-CIO; South Central Labor Council of Wisconsin; Teaching Assistants Association; Transport Workers Union; United Auto Workers; United Electrical Workers; and United Food and Commercial Workers.
Conference Participants Came from the Following Community and Workers’ Organizations:
Black Workers for Justice, Catholic Scholars for Workers Justice; Coalition of Labor Union Women; El Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas; Independent Workers Movement; Jewish Secular Community of Cleveland; Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Health Care; National Jobs for All Coalition; New York City Chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement; Neighbors United; New Jersey One Plan One Nation; New Jersey Peace Action; New Jersey Progressive Democrats of America; Newark Education Workers Caucus; Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee; Occupy Ft. Lauderdale Labor Outreach; Occupy Philadelphia Labor Outreach; Peoples Organization for Progress; Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools; Progressive Democrats of America; Save City College of San Francisco Coalition; Single Payer Now; Union County New Jersey Peace Council; United for Peace and Justice, and U.S. Labor Against the War.
Carol Gay, President, New Jersey State Industrial Union Council (moderator and opening remarks)
Shanell Williams, President, Associated Students of City College of San Francisco, Ocean Campus
Ken Riley, President, South Carolina AFL-CIO
Brooks Sunkett, Vice President, Communications Workers of America Public, Health Care, and Education Workers Sector
Diane Mohney, Board member Philadelphia Coalition of Labor Union Women; Retired School Nurse; Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Local 3, U. S. Labor Against the War
Larry Hamm, Chairperson, People’s Organization for Progress
Karen Lewis, President, Chicago Teachers Union (via videotape)
Eduardo Rosario, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, NYC Chapter (Executive Board); National Jobs for All Coalition-Continuations Committee
Alan Benjamin, Executive Board member, San Francisco Labor Council
Sandy Eaton, Retired Legislative Director, National Nurses United
Mark Dudzic, National Coordinator, Labor Campaign for Single-Payer
Dennis Serrette, Retired Education Director, Communications Workers of America (moderator and opening remarks)
Cheri Honkala, Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign
Charity Schmidt, Co-President, University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants Association (TAA); Executive Board, South Central Federation of Labor Wisconsin
Donna Dewitt, Retired President, South Carolina AFL-CIO
Saladin Muhammad, Retired International Representative, United Electrical Workers; Coordinator, Southern Workers Assembly; Black Workers for Justice
Nancy Wohlforth, Vice President, California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO
Don Bechler, Chairperson, Single Payer Now
Baldemar Velasquez, President, Farm Labor Organizing Committee
Music was provided both evenings by the Solidarity Singers of the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council.
List of Workshops and Workshop Presenters
(Note that the facilitators were also presenters on their respective panels.)
1. Solidarity and the Fight to Protect Labor’s Rights. Facilitator: Jerry Gordon, retired International Representative, United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Presenters: Jim Pope, Executive Council, Rutgers American Association of University Professors-AFT; Charity Schmidt, Co-President, University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), Executive Board, South Central Federation of Labor Wisconsin
2. The Key to Labor’s Fightback: Building Labor/Community Coalitions and Mobilizing in the Streets. Facilitator: Carol Gay, President, New Jersey State Industrial Union Council. Presenters: Greg Coleridge, Director, Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee; Carmen Martino, New Labor; Ron Whitehorne, Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS) Steering Committee, Occupy Philadelphia Labor Work Group; Lynne Turner, Labor Educator, New Jersey State Industrial Union Council
3. Guaranteeing Access to Quality Education: Yes to Defending Public Education and No to Privatization. Facilitator: Dennis Serrette, retired International Representative, Communications Workers of America. Presenters: Shanell Williams, President, Associated Students of City College of San Francisco, Ocean Campus; Vickie O’Donnell, SFT/PSRP 2069 Savannah Federation of Teachers/Paraprofessionals and School Related Personnel; Deborah Cornovaca, Save Our Schools, New Jersey; Gene Bruskin, labor activist, former director, AFT Strategic Campaigns Department
4. Labor’s Stake in Organizing the South. Facilitator: Brett Hulme, President, Savannah Regional Central Labor Council. Presenter: Saladin Muhammad, retired organizer, United Electrical Workers and founder of Black Workers for Justice.
5. Immigrant Rights: a Working Class Position on Deportations, Legalization and a Path to Citizenship. Facilitator: Eduardo Rosario, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement-New York City Chapter (Executive Board), National Jobs for All Coalition Continuations Committee. Presenters: Nelson Carasquillo, Executive Director of El Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas (Committee of Support to Farm Workers) of Glassboro, New Jersey; Yves Nibungco, National Chairperson, Anakbayan-USA
6. Redirecting War Spending to Meet Human Needs: Stopping Unjust Wars and Occupations. Facilitator: Tom Bias, New Jersey State Industrial Union Council, retired former member of International Typographical Union Local 103. Presenters: Madelyn Hoffman, Executive Director, New Jersey Peace Action; Michael McPhearson, National Coordinator, United for Peace and Justice, former Executive Director, Veterans for Peace; Kathy Black, President, Philadelphia Coalition of Labor Union Women.
7. What Will It Take to Make Labor More Effective in the Electoral Arena? Facilitator: Millie Phillips, retired former member, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245. Presenters: Bennet Zurofsky, General Counsel, New Jersey State Industrial Union Council; Donna Dewitt, retired President, South Carolina AFL-CIO