‘We Are All Labor’

What we learned at this year's Labor Notes Conference and how it gave us hope for the future of the labor movement

Volume 118, No. 6June, 2018

STANDING IN SOLIDARITY AT THE LABOR NOTES CONFERENCE: Local 802 Recording Vice President Andy Schwartz, AFM Organizer Todd Jelen, AFM Organizing Director Michael Manley, and Local 802 organizers Sarah Koshar and Lily Paulina.
Photo: Jim West,

Contrary to some rumors, unions and the labor movement are very much alive and kicking in 2018. An exciting degree of energy among union leadership, organizers and member activists was on full display at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago earlier this spring. A team from Local 802 and representatives from the AFM took part in the three-day event along with an estimated 3,000 union sisters and brothers from around the nation and from 24 countries. Every moment of the conference was packed with valuable sessions. We had the opportunity to attend seminars and panel discussions on an array of topics relevant to sustaining labor unions: mounting successful organizing campaigns; developing innovative methods; encouraging meaningful member involvement; preparing to face off against an increasingly hostile federal government and judiciary; and countering corporations’ union-busting activities. Best practices and fresh ideas were shared among attendees and panels of experts. By the time the conference ended we were invigorated with a sense of hopefulness that our unions’ efforts can produce very real gains and benefits for America’s workers. As musicians, we know that we are artists but we are also labor. The struggle of musicians to have better, sustainable lives and careers is the same struggle of all workers across the country. What follows are some of the highlights the 802 team experienced.


Janus vs. AFCSME

The conference was filled with discussions of the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on Janus vs. AFCSME. Although the outcome could immediately threaten the ability of public sector unions to organize workers and collect dues, the likelihood of that decision leaching into our private sector is not to be discounted. Our negotiating strength depends on having the resources to stand up to well-funded corporations and their union-busting law firms. If Janus prevails, it is not, however, “game over.” Preparing our unions in light of this uncertain future demands the solidarity of membership. That solidarity is gained via a more inclusive, democratic and representative union, one that empowers committees, keeps track of members’ issues, stays in motion at all times, maintains a two-way, transparent and timely mode of communication, and keeps its ear to the ground. Taking back the narrative from anti-union forces means ensuring that members see their union not only as a provider of services but as the heart of a movement to make life better. A common refrain at the conference was “United we bargain, divided we beg.” Our survival as a professional music community will depend on us recognizing our collective power and then acting together.

We are all labor

One of the most emotionally wrenching panels, entitled “Food Workers Organize for May Day and Beyond,” and hosted by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, focused on organizing workers who process the food that many of us take for granted. Workers and their families, many of them Mexican, Salvadoran and African, told us about their social justice campaign aimed at local governments and the public. Organizers, utilizing music, art and theater, rallied on May Day last year, including in some small, one-industry towns, to shed light on the horrible treatment they have endured. The working conditions at well-known corporate food businesses – like Tyson poultry processing plants, Driscoll berries, various pork processors, Corona breweries, Constellation Foods, and elsewhere – were described by the workers themselves, women and men, strong and determined to tell their stories, often while holding back tears. One of the most sickening stories had to do with the fact that workers at many of these plants only get two breaks a day. If they leave the line, they have to pay penalties or they can be fired. Because of this, many wear adult diapers and have to work while feces or urine are running down their legs. Needless to say, there are no sick days. Inhuman treatment is the norm. These workers – some of whom spoke through translators – came from around the country to share their stories, from Arkansas, California, Mexico and, shockingly, from Brooklyn and Queens too. Here in New York City, there is a work force of 35,000 poorly-paid immigrant food service workers, some of whom work at employers like Amy’s Bread and Tom Cat Bakery. These workers are often intimidated, and they don’t enjoy the protections of a union agreement or even the law itself.  Most of us walked out of the room stunned and awakened to the harshness of these lives so closely connected to feeding our own families.

We are all labor. Say it again…

Our biggest obstacle?

When union workers discuss their jobs, it’s not unusual to hear expressions of dissatisfaction, frustration and powerlessness. What is our biggest obstacle to addressing this negativity? What is holding back members from becoming active in their union? In a word, APATHY. A panel entitled “Secrets of a Successful Organizer: Beating Apathy” brought together some highly successful union organizers to lay out proven methods and best practices to encourage members to see a way forward that is credible and leads to more engagement with their union. When organizers listen to what members really care about, then those issues most widely and deeply felt can be the basis of a clear and winnable collective campaign to address workplace problems. With the help of trained organizers, members themselves define the issues and decide what to do. The goal is to develop activist members who will talk to co-workers with positivity and transparency and who are able to answer tough questions. Successful member-driven campaigns can build the union and develop union leaders for the future. Apathy in all its forms must be combated. The first job of a union is to look internally, without rose-colored glasses, to ensure it is honestly in synch with the needs of its members. If that is the case, then we have a chance to do good work together.

A better way to bargain?

A panel discussion called “Opening Up Bargaining” featured teachers, nurses and government workers and was moderated by SEIU Local 26 (Minneapolis). The discussion focused on the benefits of a bargaining style that utilizes larger groups of members versus smaller bargaining committees that may tend to work in secret and behind closed doors. It turns out that members truly want to watch the negotiation process. Bargaining “out loud” results in a plugged-in membership and increased solidarity with the general public. Petitions draw large numbers of signatures and are often the turning point in pressuring employers. Making the boss say “no” in public is good P.R. that often impacts public opinion in favor of workers. This type of bargaining requires regular updates to the public as well as weekly communications with the membership, including surveys on specific topics. The creation of contract action teams enables widespread and efficient communication. Panelists posited that in the event bargaining breaks down or is overly controlled by management, open bargaining tactics may change the balance of power. It takes courage to raise certain sticky issues in a large caucus without expecting clear-cut solutions. It takes patience to find middle-ground positions with activists who have special demands. The process should include raising expectations rather than dampening them, planning for strikes if permissible, and setting deadlines and real-world repercussions in motion. Engaging all members should not be scary to those favoring conservative methods, although it is seen that many times conservative thinkers will not join the negotiating team if larger demographics are giving input. The goal is not to stifle bargaining information. It is to encourage members to join the process to enable progress. Leadership must allow more members to attend bargaining sessions beyond the norm and resist employers’ efforts to set the rules of the negotiation. This panel was powerfully presented and left the attendees with a lot to think about in terms of their union’s best practices.

– Andy Schwartz


Assertive grievance handling

Although “Assertive Grievance Handling” may not sound like the most exciting workshop, it was an informative session and an important reminder that the grievance process is a TOOL OF THE EMPLOYER. Rather than come together with your coworkers and build the union to address issues, the grievance procedure is often an isolating and drawn-out process that leaves much to be decided by the employer. This workshop addressed how to reclaim the grievance process to be more empowering to the union, by using grievances to involve members to directly address issues in their workplace. One tactic shared was using a petition, essentially a grievance letter signed by many workers, as a way of pressuring management. We also discussed opening up grievance meetings – the more people in the room, the harder it is for your employer to say outrageous and unfair things. Just as when we pressure management when we bargain a contract, we need to think the same way when management breaks our contracts. In other words: how can we show our power?

It’s in our hands: member-driven organizing

This was an inspiring workshop where we heard from three unions that have developed models where members are the ones organizing non-union workers and leading internal organizing. We discussed the obstacles to building these models, as well as some possible solutions. Donald Jean-Marie, a member of UNITE HERE Local 217, shared his story of organizing a 115-member bargaining unit, not with just the one organizer on staff, but by training the stewards from the one union hotel in town to go out and organize their sisters and brothers at the Hilton. They built “internal militant democracy.” This meant that the stewards were meeting every week and setting their own agenda, which led them to feel ownership of their union. They did direct actions for everything. They didn’t bother with grievances, but took collective action to address all issues, contractual and otherwise. It was through this process that the workers saw their power and built the skills to go out and organize at another hotel. The stewards went out to knock on doors and talk to non-union workers. Jean-Marie emphasized how effective it was to have these worker-to-worker conversations where folks could identify with each other’s experiences. In the end, the workers won the union election – 110 yes to 5 no. Not only did they win by a landslide (against a vicious anti-union campaign from the employer), but they built the capacity of their union by training members to be organizers, and in turn grew their union.

Stop begging, stop bargaining

This session discussed how to build a bargaining agenda around the core needs of your membership, then transform it into an all-out campaign. We discussed how the fundamental difference between begging and bargaining at the table is power. Power is created by involving as much of the membership as possible while creating a credible strike threat, so the employer recognizes the cost of refusing to negotiate fairly with the workers. Employers are looking at dollars, so the more the union can show that their refusal to come to fair terms will cost them, the more we will win.

The workshop discussed the steps involved in building a strong campaign. This includes starting the campaign a year out – you need enough time to fully survey the membership and create a bargaining agenda that speaks to all the members. They also discussed forming two committees – a bargaining committee and a contract campaign/strike committee. The bargaining committee will be smaller and more focused on what happens at the table. The contract campaign committee can be more open, to involve more members and get ready to support the bargaining committee should they need help pressuring the boss while at the bargaining table. We discussed how these committees should be reflective of the membership; they should include members of every identity (age, race, etc), every department or section and across tiers (i.e. if your workplace has different levels of employees or part-time and full-time in the same bargaining unit). From here you can put together a contract survey, develop opening proposals, have the membership vote on those proposals and come to the bargaining table in a position of preparedness and power. As the bargaining process proceeds, you will maintain open and constant communication with the members through your committees. Ultimately, a successful contract campaign where the union is bargaining, not begging, is guided and driven by the members.

– Sarah Koshar


West Virginia teachers’ strike

One particularly inspiring event was a storytelling session with six public schoolteachers from West Virginia, who shared their experiences of the remarkable winter uprising that led to a nine-day strike of 34,000 workers, and won several major demands as well as a 5 percent raise for all public employees. These teachers openly shared their own surprise at the success of their campaign – their experience at work had always been “a weak union environment,” the union rarely mentioned unless something bad happened and someone thought to file a grievance. Teacher Brandon Wolford said that the attitude at work among fellow teachers was, “No matter what we do, they’re not going to listen to us.” But fellow teacher Jay O’Neal encouraged everyone, “Just to let you know for the next time…if we can do this, anybody can. Seriously!”

In an emotional report, the 400 people listening in the room got to hear about the secret Facebook group for West Virginia public employees that started small but became a crucial place to share information and educate each other about what was going on across the state. When a proposal came out to require public employees to wear devices like FitBits and submit tracking data or face increased health-care costs, membership in the group grew and people started talking about what they could do to fight back. The Facebook group invited all public employees and included thousands of workers from different, sometimes competing, unions. Panelists said that this online space was the first time that they felt they had open lines of communication within their union, and that seeing videos and photos of actions in neighboring counties made them and their coworkers feel safer about taking action. Teacher-organizer Nicole McCormick said that, for her, things really came together when teachers and school workers from across the state started talking to each other without worrying about their union leadership or affiliation, telling each other, “If they threaten you, we’re all here with you. If they try to punish one person, we are all together; they’re not going to do a damn thing!” (The full video of this event is available at

UNITED, WE WIN: Public schoolteachers from West Virginia share their stories.
Photo: Jim West,

LGBTQ+ organizing

Certain protections that can be bargained collectively by unions are even more crucial in this political climate, as the rights of LGBTQ+ people are under attack from federal and state governments. This panel discussion among trans and queer worker-organizers spanned generations of organizing, and reflected on what is possible when people prioritize protecting each other and closing gaps that can be left in workplace protections or healthcare coverage if queer voices aren’t at the table. It was pointed out that one catalyzing issue in many recent labor conflicts has been the attack on working people’s bodies – in West Virginia, public employees mobilized toward a strike after invasive requirements were added to their health care plans. Waist size, cholesterol levels and glucose numbers caused deductible costs to skyrocket if your numbers were too high! Panelist Michelle O’Brien reflected that the labor movement can benefit from the wisdom of queer longtime organizers, because queer politics has a lot to say about bodies. Through a thoughtful discussion, panelists agreed that for modern unions to be respected and taken seriously, being up-to-date on queer issues is a necessity.

Creative organizing and strategic mischief

This colorful and funny session featured artist Ricardo Levins Morales and SEIU Local 26 organizer Dan Mendez-Moore, sharing stories and brainstorming for outside-the-box ways to bring energy and unity to union campaigns. When organizers have supported workers to develop their own frames and images for their campaigns, folks have been able to stand against attacks from their bosses in powerful ways. We heard about a hospital campaign where nurses took an employer’s comment about bunnies and ran with it, putting bunnies all over the workplace throughout their contract campaign and driving the employer up the wall. In another case, when it was clear that a manager was trying to scare workers by writing them up, those workers turned the situation around by developing a prize system when folks got written up – you could work your way up from a lapel pin, to a hat, a union jacket, or even a turkey with enough write-ups! The manager saw that when people laughed, they weren’t as afraid as he hoped, and stopped the write-ups. The stories of successful campaigns were a great reminder of how important it is to involve everyone doing the work in union campaigns and to dare to have fun in actions that make the issues accessible to everyone. Levins Morales took inspiration from musician Joe Hill, who wrote, “A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.”

– Lily Paulina


Attending the Labor Notes Conference provided confirmation that the struggle to ensure respectful treatment, wages and working conditions for all people is not faltering. The many seasoned veterans of the labor movement were in attendance as expected, but the real takeaway of the conference was the display of awe-inspiring energy, intelligence and determination from the newest generation of young organizers. They were pumped up about their mission and confident that the best days for labor are ahead. We are in good hands.