April 2010 saw the biggest conference ever for Labor Notes, the US-based rank and file trade union newsletter and network which celebrated its 30th birthday last year. Can this model be imported to the UK?

US Teamsters strikeOver 1200 activists gathered in the (unionised) hotel just outside Detroit where corporate blandness was set off by the T-shirted exuberance of American workers not shy of yelling a slogan or two – especially when workers on strike against a non-unionised branch of the same hotel chain came forward to tell a familiar story of rank injustice and betrayal.

It’s impossible to take in everything at a Labor Notes conference (especially if you’re jet-lagged) but I followed my main interests in attending a chain of workshops addressed to union organising and membership participation (or lack of it). The first of these – “Innovative Organising Strategies” – was if anything the most inspiring, featuring the crucial dynamics of organising a union “before the union came along”, as some US activists have put it.

In this case, it was one speaker in particular – a woman from the newly-formed Philadelphia Security Officers’ Union – who symbolised the bold and impressive process of workers just organising “off the bat”. Here, super-exploited security guards employed by a contractor at the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art were combining in their own self-started union despite the contractor’s refusal to recognise them and the absence of any institutional trade union support.

The same “union before the union” logic – though in this case after the union – recurred in the following day’s session, “Can Members Really Run Their Unions?”. Angela Glasper, a hoop-earringed African-American activist, inspired us with her retelling of how the dissident group now established as the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) had broken from the increasingly stifling embrace of the over-mighty Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU).

To one who has written of the deadly but in a sense inevitable virus of “institutionalisation” within trade unionism, the NUHW represents an ideal, if unsustainable picture of direct member-led democracy. The tendencies towards bureaucratisation so monstrously exhibited by the SEIU in, for example, its enormous “locals” (branches), which often cover an entire US state (or even two!), are so far precluded by any kind of official institutional framework for the NUHW; due largely to lack of funds, all its organisers are volunteers.

Angela was at pains to emphasise the unassuming approach of NUHW founder Rosselli, who even among his keen supporters at Labor Notes tends to take a background role and let the union’s workplace-based activists promote the new union “in the field”.

The future of NUHW is, so to speak, too close to call at the moment. But, as its dynamic spokesperson in this workshop put it, “Who knows what we’re worth more than us? Yes, yes, yes! Rank and file members can run their union.” Emphasising the factor of membership involvement, she argued, “An educated rank and file member is a scary member for management.”

Other speakers, from more conventional unions, were less “fired up”, and the traditional blame-the-member syndrome came into play. While a speaker from telecoms union CWA began with the rallying cry “Members are the warriors – if they don’t know why they’re fighting, they won’t fight”, she also argued, “Members [will say] ‘Trade unions are not strong’. [Our response will be] ‘That’s your fault!’ There has to be some way to go ahead and fix the apathy.”

Speakers from the floor raised similar points. In the vivid language of American activists (in this case an autoworker), “We went wide, but we didn’t go deep. When it comes to needing the members – I turned round and no one was behind me”…”We got spanked. Because we didn’t have depth on the ground.”

In fact membership “apathy” was a repeated theme (as in so many British discussions) so I followed my “thread” and attended a third workshop, “Beating Apathy”, directly on the subject. Here Dynnita Bryant from the Philadelphia Security Officers’ Union was again inspiring in describing the growing confidence of her initially timid potential membership: “They wanted it, you could tell they wanted it…They finally realised that together, we can stand up. Single, we can’t do nothing.”

While her wonderful directness had been modified by official union phraseology such as “narrative-based organising”, Bryant turned this post-modern discourse into her own uniquely vivid language: “We get them to put their issues on the table, tell their stories. Everyone’s going to have a different self-interest, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work together.” The rationale of collective representation of individual interests could hardly be put better.

But it wasn’t, of course, just the workshops. I’ve omitted the inspiring “banquet” on Saturday night, which raised over $40,000 for Labor Notes (more usual amounts are around the $25,000 mark) in a packed ballroom with delegate after delegate standing up to “pledge” amounts from $1000 to $5 – a bit like a church and not very British, but this time the “church” is a vibrant, inspiring movement featuring the self-selected cream of US activists.

The conference was studded with major sessions in which attendees packed the incongruously grand “ballroom” to be brought to their feet over and over by platform speakers who spoke of strikes across America and beyond, rank and file reform in huge, bureaucratic unions like the SEIU, the hope offered by a new left-wing leadership of the Transit [tube] Workers’ Union in New York, the ongoing struggle of trucker activists in Teamsters for a Democratic Union to take back locals from the Hoffa dynasty, and in one case a fantastic poet rapping about Detroit:

“We’re growing our organic activistsNo propaganda and no preservativesWe’re growing with the weeds and cabbagesTaking out the neo-conservatives” etc

For the full text, click here.

The young, multi-ethnic audience clapped, cheered and yelled the roof off – many first-time attendees previously unaware that there could be such a thing as a movement-wide gathering of workers who shared so many of their experiences. But they were there because, as Labor Notes co-founder Kim Moody agrees, LN has reached a critical mass – largely through its locally-based “Troublemakers’ Schools” – whereby it has gained, so to speak, independent life in the wider labour movement.

To me, Labor Notes 2010 demonstrated yet again the enormous potential such rank-and-file networks can have, both in terms of union renewal and broader socialist politics. A Labor Notes conference certainly doesn’t shove “socialism” down people’s throats, but class is in the air. Why not here?

For more information about trade union activism in the UK, subscribe to “Solidarity” magazine by clicking here.

Sheila Cohen, NUJ Book Branch