Organize, Organize, Organize!

Lessons learned from Labor Notes Conference 2016

Volume 116, No. 7July, 2016

Sarah Koshar and Lily Paulina
Participants at this year's Labor Notes Conference learned new tools and strategies to help workers empower themselves.

Participants at this year’s Labor Notes Conference learned new tools and strategies to help workers empower themselves.

Earlier this year, we attended the biannual Labor Notes conference in Chicago. As organizers at Local 802 we are constantly thinking about how musicians can build power to improve their wages and working conditions. This weekend-long conference, which focuses on member-driven organizing in the labor movement, gave us the opportunity to learn from workers in a variety of sectors, including education, transportation, communication, entertainment, retail, manufacturing and service. The stories and lessons from other workers often parallel the challenges musicians face in their day-to-day working lives.

The day we arrived in Chicago, we were greeted by the energy and enthusiasm of teachers who were engaged in a one-day strike organized by Local 1 of the Chicago teachers’ union. Tens of thousands of teachers, students, community members and workers from all across the city were in the streets demanding not only a fair contract for teachers, but a decent education for all. It was a great way to kick off the weekend, standing in solidarity with all kinds of different workers from across the country!

Throughout the weekend we moved from workshop to workshop, hearing stories from workers’ struggles, gaining skills, and building relationships with others in the movement. A common thread was the increasingly precarious nature of work in the United States. We were repeatedly reminded of the importance of members taking the lead in their own fights and becoming organizers themselves.

There were dozens of panel discussions to choose from. Some were more reflective and based around discussions, anecdotes and stories. Others were more about building concrete skills. Workshops ranged from advanced bargaining table tactics to more broad discussions, like one called “Labor and the Black Lives Matter Movement.” The workshop “Beating Apathy” reminded us that we as workers are generally not apa­thetic, but that there are a variety of other reasons why we often hesi­tate to take action or become involved with our unions. Until we have real conversations with each other, we don’t know, for example, whether a fel­low worker is more interested in health care for their family rather than a raise in wages, or that they might not make a meeting because they have a baby at home. If we want to come together to take action to improve our work, we have to connect and identify what’s holding people back.

Another workshop we attended, “Build a Winning Contract Campaign,” combined anecdotes from past campaigns with brainstorming new ideas. We mapped different levels of pressure to be used at different moments in a campaign. For example, on the day of negotiations, all workers can wear a union button. If negotiations don’t go well, you might take it up a notch by planning a day of action via social media, with workers and their friends and family posting about the campaign and tagging the employer. As negotiations continue with little movement from management, you might take more direct workplace action, something like a “sick out” where everyone takes a last-minute sick day.

Through all the workshops we attended, we kept coming back to “Organize, organize, organize!” Musicians today face many obstacles to building power and getting a fair deal. These obstacles are not so different from those faced by many other kinds of workers. As we learned from this conference – and from the history of the labor movement – the only way we can overcome these challenges is by standing together!

To learn more about what we learned at the conference, come find us on the third floor of the Local 802 building. We are always excited to talk with musicians about taking action to get fair wages and benefits! E-mail us at or or call (212) 245-4802 and ask for the Organizing Department.