Labor Notes Conference renews, inspires attendees

By Jason Fults, Board Member of the Alachua County Labor Coalition

For the first time in the ten years that I’ve been a member, the Alachua County Labor Coalition sponsored two people to attend this year’s Labor Notes conference.

ACLC Coordinator Tim Tia and I made the trek to chilly Chicago to attend the April conference together, both first-timers, along with several ACLC veterans such as Lauren Byers, Candi Churchill, Mark Piotrowski and Joe Richard.

Candi felt it was important enough that we attend that she made an extra contribution to help cover our costs, and Mark put Tim and I up in his hotel room. I thoroughly enjoyed the rousing event and am optimistic that it will become a biennial tradition and that more ACLC members will attend in the future.

While I’ve attended many progressive political conferences, Labor Notes was undoubtedly one of the most moving. Each day of the conference ended with a plenary that featured dynamic, get-you-off-your-feet-and-hollerin’ speakers such as:

• Al Russo, a Communications Workers Vice President who led the CWA 1101 local in their successful contract fight against Verizon. Russo reiterated how important it was that groups (like the Labor Coalition!) led solidarity pickets across the East Coast.

• Roz Pelles from the Poor People’s Campaign, who introduced a video appearance by Reverend Williams Barber and gave one of the most fiery speeches of the entire conference.

• Representatives from the West Virginia teachers’ strike.

• And Mercedes Martinez of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation, who discussed the devastating impacts of Hurricane Maria, ongoing efforts to undermine PR’s education system, and the brave fight-back led by the Teachers Federation.

Each of these speakers detailed important and inspiring fights taking place within communities, within their own unions, and within the broader economy in support of worker power and economic justice.  They were the perfect way to round off days filled with informative, nuts and bolts workshops where we learned about everything from long-term trends in the economy to how to build membership in our locals and how to bargain a stronger contract.

I attended a highly interactive and discussion-based CWA-sponsored workshop called “Reversing Runaway Inequality” that I would very much like to bring to our community. No stranger to wealth inequality, I still learned a lot from this workshop and it helped frame other discussions I took part in, such as “Roots of the Public Sector Budget Crisis,” “Community Labor Alliances,” and a panel on student-labor activism.

I also appreciated the strong presence and emphasis on education workers and attended numerous education-focused workshops where I learned a variety of strategies and insights that will be useful in my own workplace.  While most of the conference attendees hailed from parts of the U.S. with much higher union density, some of my favorite speakers and panelists were southerners who had managed to build vibrant locals even in the face of “right-to-work” laws and a culture unfriendly to unions. The conference also featured musical performances and film screenings, such as the new MLK documentary “At the River I Stand,” which had to be rescreened in a larger venue because of overflow crowds.

I left Labor Notes feeling renewed and inspired to get back to work. I met unsung heroes who have fought for decades to build their unions and a militant, resilient labor movement as well as folks like myself who are relative newbies to organized labor. 

But what impressed me most was the diversity of attendees and the sense of solidarity that ran throughout the conference. I heard very little posturing so common at large, progressive gatherings.  Instead, people cheered support and congrats for each other at the slightest provocation, and when disagreements were expressed or probing questions posed, it felt very much in the spirit of comradeship and genuine interest in building a stronger labor movement.

The closing moments of the conference found me in an auditorium filled with hundreds of people, holding hands with some fella I’d never met and singing “Solidarity Forever.” When the song finished, he embraced me and said “Safe travels, brother.”

That moment encapsulated the familial sensation that ran throughout the conference, and I left hoping that I will be fortunate enough to make it back in 2020, and that the visions and struggles that were so beautifully articulated throughout Labor Notes will be closer to fruition. D

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