Carrying the torch for labor renewal

Jane Slaughter at the April 2014 Labor Notes conference in Chicago

There’s the spark that spreads. There’s also the kindling that was laid for it. Probably no organization has worked more patiently to kindle a rebirth of the power of organized workers than Labor Notes, which turned 40 this year. Based out of offices in Detroit and Brooklyn, at Labor Notes a staff of nine works to “put the movement back in the labor movement” by publishing books, a 6,000-circulation independent monthly magazine, and a website with half a million yearly visitors. They also organize dozens of local and national rank-and-file-oriented events each year. Labor Notes has worked closely behind the scenes with the teacher-union activists who’ve built strike movements around the country and helped set up and staff United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators.

Labor activists in DSA look to Labor Notes for training and inspiration, and they share tactics and swap notes at Labor Notes events. Many Labor Notes staff are also DSA members, including writer/organizer Bianca Cunningham, co-chair of NYC DSA.

Jane Slaughter, Kim Moody, and Labor Notes’ other socialist founders picked a tough time to spark union revitalization, and yet in the last few years the organization has mushroomed. The biennial Labor Notes Conference has grown steadily since 2000; with 3,100 attendees, the 2018 conference was the biggest ever. Meanwhile, Secrets of a Successful Organizer— a how-to guide for rank-and-file worker power—has been a runaway hit; it’s now in its sixth printing and is closing in on 25,000 copies sold. This year Labor Notes is on track to hold over a dozen local and regional “troublemaker schools,” each training 50-400 rank-and-file union member activists.

Jane Slaughter, today a member of Detroit DSA, co-founded Labor Notes in 1979. Via WhatsApp, Democratic Left asked her what impact it’s had, and what DSA’s role could be in building a powerful, class-conscious labor movement.

Why has the U.S. labor movement been so weak for so long?

A main reason is, of course, the implacable opposition of the employing class to any form of worker organization that threatens their profits and control. Since the 1970s, employers have become more united and aggressive in their drive to prevent, smash, or hogtie unions. Another reason is union leaders’ acceptance of the permanence of capitalism. For decades, most leaders’ outlook has been to accede to the idea that management has a right to be in charge and will always be in charge. For a long time, most union leaders have not been interested in organizing members to resist the boss’s pressure in the workplace, but have tried to mobilize them only as voters. And then, of course, who do they get to vote for? Generally candidates who are “friends of labor” only in that they are less bad than the other guy.

“Putting the movement back in the labor movement” is the mission of Labor Notes. Why is it important that it be a top priority for DSA as well?

DSA makes clear that there’s no socialist movement without a strong labor movement. Weak as they are today, unions are still the largest and best organized institutions of the working class—and they are located where it matters most, in the workplace, with the potential power to disrupt business as usual. If American workers and DSAers aren’t successful in rebuilding and revitalizing the labor movement, we lose out not just in the sense of losing an “ally.” The unions are where leaders of a socialist movement are best born and trained. Socialists need to be working alongside our fellow union members and organizing more workers into unions, so that we can recruit natural leaders to socialism. The fight to make our unions worthy of the name is the best training ground I can think of for learning class struggle.

What can the vast majority of DSA members who aren’t in unions do to help revitalize the labor movement?

There’s work to be done from outside: strike support, for example, like the East Bay DSA chapter did for the Oakland teachers’ strike in 2019. But strikes are unfortunately rare. I’d suggest doing some self-education, perhaps in a chapter study group, reading books like Secrets of a Successful Organizer and No Shortcuts and Red State Revolt about the teachers’ strikes. We can approach unions with our priority campaigns, asking to speak to members about Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and Bernie Sanders. We can work alongside unions in various local coalitions, such as Jobs with Justice.

But I would urge members to consider getting a union job themselves, so that they can participate from the inside. It can be the most important and rewarding work socialists can do. It’s a long-haul perspective, at its best—but frankly, even a short-term immersion in a workplace where you hone your organizing skills can change your perceptions and your life. Some chapters are promoting this plan: In New York, members voted on a half dozen strategically smart workplaces where members could look for work. They are mentoring new union members and coordinating their work. It’s best to take such jobs in groups instead of going it alone.

What can DSA do to help organize more workers into unions?

Unfortunately, DSA is generally not in a position to undertake organizing drives itself. In most chapters we don’t have the resources to address a workplace of any size, and on a national level we certainly couldn’t undertake the massive campaigns, taking on big employers like Amazon and FedEx, that are badly needed. Although it will take time, a more fruitful strategy for organizing the unorganized is to change our existing unions so they will be able to do that work. That means being inside and working for a plan that uses existing rank-and-filers as the ambassadors of unionism. Some unions already do this well.

That said, DSA members should consider organizing their workplaces right where they are now. I got my first taste of unionism by trying to organize a union in a 43-worker shop, and what I learned helped me when I went on to get a union job later.

It should be noted that just because you have a union, that doesn’t mean you are “organized.” There is plenty of work to be done “organizing the organized”—and it tends to be a bit easier.

Labor Notes, the organization you co-founded, turned 40 this year. What impact do you think it’s had?

Labor Notes has kept alive the labor politics that most of the established labor leadership turned sharply away from beginning in the ’80s. Most went along with employers’ demands for concessions and fell into the trap of labor-management cooperation programs. Because Labor Notes was grounded in the idea that, as our Wobbly siblings would put it, the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, we were able to educate thousands of union members in why those “strategies” would not save jobs, as was touted, and give them practical ideas for how to resist. Our goal as stated in Issue #1 was to help develop “a network of activists in various unions … who consciously think of themselves as part of the same movement.” In other words, we wanted to help grow a current in the unions whose activists thought bigger than just their own local and could turn the unions around. With our conferences now surpassing 3,000 people, we’ve come a lot closer to that goal.

Has your thinking about labor changed since you started in 1979?

We’ve had to adapt to a much more aggressive employer class and figure out how unions survive when employers no longer think they have a right to exist. We were initially focused on the blue-collar unions where rank-and-file movements were active then, and now we find that it’s K-12 teachers who are leading the charge. We’ve seen most of the national reform movements that gave us so much hope in 1979 disappear and have had to reorient to local ones. Labor Notes is less of a pariah in many corners of the labor movement now, as more leaders look around desperately for answers.

Labor Notes was founded by socialist labor activists, but Labor Notes itself has never been explicitly socialist. Why?

We were always focused on building a movement much bigger than ourselves. To have founded a socialist labor magazine would have been to capture a very tiny group. We ignored those to our left and constantly reached out to workers who were still learning their labor politics (and of course we learned hugely from them; it wasn’t a one-way street by any means). We strove to create a space where you wouldn’t feel out of place if you weren’t a lefty—with the idea that people could be brought along.  You should remember that red-baiting was much more of a thing then, and often effective. Our idea was to focus on the labor politics that we had in common with militant workers, rather than those we didn’t. At the same time, it was 100% our goal to foment class struggle, because that is the best arena to cultivate new socialists—if there is a socialist organization there that can help with that. Now we finally have such an organization, DSA, if it can orient itself toward workers who are organizing in their workplaces.

For DSA members who get active in labor, what’s the right attitude to take toward existing union leadership, and the existing rank-and-file membership for that matter?

If leaders are good, back them up and make sure their good ideas are being carried out in the workplace, not just at the union hall or the ballot box. Sometimes outsiders become enamored of a union leader who is progressive on issues outside the union—while that same leader is doing nothing to help the rank and file gain power, or is even pushing concessions. When you’re on the inside you will know the difference. If your leaders are bad, you’ll have to slowly organize to get rid of them and replace them with leaders who lead. That means more workplace organizing—not just forming a slate with good ideas.

As a rank-and-file member you can organize to make your workplace a stronghold where bosses fear to tread. That will make you and your team credible candidates. Also, remember that it’s often quite possible to lead from below—rank and filers have run their own contract campaigns, turned down bad contracts, fought school closings, all before they took over their locals. As to attitude toward your fellow members, be prepared for most not to have DSA’s politics. There are many reasons why workers of all races adopt bad attitudes toward immigrants, for example, or whose first question about Medicare for All is, “Will this mean more money out of my pocket?” As a newcomer to the workplace, you have a great deal to learn from your co-workers despite some unwoke attitudes. You will be served by humility.

2020 Labor Notes Conference

APRIL 17-19, 2020