The 2022 Labor Notes conference, sponsored by the magazine of the same name, brought 4,000 worker-activists to Chicago June 17-19. The multinational, multigendered, multigenerational gathering gave voice to a range of struggles, from union drives to strikes to building rank-and-file caucuses opposed to class-collaborationist union leaders.
A rally the night before featured Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson, recently-elected Teamsters union President Sean O’Brien and incoming Chicago Teachers Union President Stacey Davis Gates. These union leaders spoke militantly to the crowd, which consisted mainly of Chicago Teamsters and people in town for the conference.
Nelson called for a general strike. She and O’Brien pointed out that Teamster truckers, united with flight attendants and other transportation workers, could shut the country down.
Conference plenary speakers included Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls, Starbucks Workers United representative Michelle Eisen, John Deere striker and Unite All Workers for Democracy representative Nolan Tabb, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers First Vice President Marcia Howard and Mexican General Motors worker Israel Cervantes from Casa Obrera del Bajio.
Among the over 200 workshops were many that featured Amazon and Starbucks workers, who are the vanguard of the working-class movement today. “A Union Brews at Starbucks” workshop featured Starbucks Workers United leaders from Boston; Phoenix; Jacksonville, Florida; Kansas City, Missouri; and Buffalo, New York. They asked everyone to sign a “No contract, no coffee” pledge and voiced solidarity with fired Starbucks workers around the country, including panelist Laila Dalton from Phoenix and the Memphis Seven in Tennessee.
“Amazon Workers in Action” brought together representatives of the Amazon Labor Union, Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment, Amazonians United and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Amazon worker-organizers described long days, short and infrequent breaks, being watched and tracked constantly, excessive heat, unjust firings, lack of safety, failure to accommodate disabilities and overtly racist bosses.
“We are living a defining moment in history,” said a Southern Amazon worker. “History will not be kind to Amazon.”
The need for working-class solidarity
There were speakers from unions in other countries, including Starbucks workers from Chile, call center workers from the Philippines, Amazon workers from Poland and Germany and auto workers from Brazil and Canada as well as Mexico. However, anti-China “unionists” from Hong Kong were given a workshop, which unfortunately gives credence to U.S. imperialism’s hostile attitude to socialist China.
Throughout the conference, panelists emphasized the term “working class” as opposed to the misleading term “middle class,” often invoked by the labor bureaucracy. Some speakers openly said capitalists or “the owning class” were the problem in society. A smaller number said workers could only get justice by getting rid of capitalism altogether.
The one speaker to get “rock star” treatment was Senator Bernie Sanders, whose campaigns for president in 2016 and 2020 excited millions of workers and youth and stimulated interest in socialism. However, his brand of “socialism” would bring progressive reforms while leaving capitalist property relations intact. Objectively his presence at the conference served to discourage a break with electoral politics and to keep the labor movement tied to the Democratic Party.
Overall, this year’s Labor Notes conference was valuable. It promoted class-struggle unionism, and brought a wide range of class battles together under one roof. What working-class and oppressed people urgently need now is a global, classwide movement against capitalism.
Ben Carroll, Ed Childs, Otis Grotewohl and Dave Welsh contributed to this article.