May Day 2010 Report for Labor Notes

On May 1st, more than 1,500 people poured into the streets of Montpelier, the state capital, chanting, “The system, let’s stop it, our health is not for profit.”

The May Day march, called by the Vermont Workers’ Center’s “Healthcare Is a Human Right” Campaign, came just after both houses of Vermont’s legislature passed by wide margins a bill championed by the campaign.

The bill commits the state to design a new health care system based on the principles of universality, equity, transparency, accountability, and participation. It commissions a consultant to design three options, one of which must be a single-payer (that is, Medicare-for-All or Canadian-style) plan.

The marchers came from all over the state and included members of all Vermont’s major unions, along with young people, students, people with disabilities, members of the faith community, retirees, and lots of previously “unorganized” working people.

The march converged on the statehouse, where marchers gathered to celebrate the legislative victory, demand that the Republican governor refrain from vetoing the bill, and hear speeches and skits from leaders of local organizing committees across the state, nurse union leaders, and Senator Bernie Sanders, a long-time advocate for single-payer health care.

David Kreindler, a rank-and-file member of the Vermont State Employees Association and a leader of the Workers’ Center, noted that when the campaign began, few among the “political class” thought it would be possible to take action on health care at the state level during the federal health care reform debate.

But “we are winning because we’re organizing,” Kreindler said. “We are winning because we’re building a social movement!”

Mari Cordes, a member of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals Local 5221/AFT, was one of more than a hundred union nurses from Vermont who travelled to Haiti in the wake of January’s earthquake to provide emergency medical relief.

“We could not have succeeded [in Haiti] without the solidarity and strength of my union,” she said. “We succeeded because we worked together, just as you and I work together every day to ensure that each and every one of us never has to worry about whether they can afford to get medical help.”

While the mood was celebratory, Workers’ Center organizers are clear that there is still a long struggle ahead, to prevent or override a veto this year and to ensure implementation of a decent plan next year.

“We see ourselves as part of the labor movement,” says James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, “and the success of this campaign demonstrates what can be accomplished when the labor movement takes a principled stand on issues that resonate with working-class and low-income people, provides a way for everyone to be meaningfully involved, and maintains independence from political parties.”

This was published as part of the longer article, “May Day Protests Gain Urgency as Immigration, Health Care Fights Explode” at Labor Notes. Though credited as the main author for the article, I really only wrote the part here, about Vermont. —Jonathan

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Why U.S. Trade Unionists Should Attend the U.S. Social Forum

Trade Unions and Social Forums

Since 2001, trade unions and other social movements, ranging from environmentalists to women’s organizations, from urban youth movements to indigenous peoples fighting for land rights, have come together at the World Social Forum (WSF) to debate and promote alternatives to the race-to-the-bottom, corporate model of globalization.  While participation from U.S. trade unions has been limited, the WSF, and the regional, national, and local social forums that have been organized on the same model, have been taken very seriously by labor movements in the rest of the world.  Brazil’s powerful labor federation CUT was one of the initiators of the WSF, and the forums have seen significant participation from some of the most powerful and dynamic labor organizations in the world, including COSATU (South Africa), the CGT (France), the NTUI (India), and many, many others.

The Social Forums are designed to be both a “space” to promote the integration of different movements, rather than a decision-making body, and a “process” that allows different movements to work together and build trust and shared understanding of the challenges we face.  They consist of a wide mix of speakers, conferences, seminars, workshops, and cultural performances, with no one event dominating, and with no pressure to come to exact agreement; there are no behind-the-scenes deals on the exact wording of resolutions.  In practice, this makes them excellent spaces for informal networking, in many ways reminiscent of the best large-scale labor gatherings in the U.S., the Jobs with Justice annual meetings and the Labor Notes conferences, but with participation from other movements as well.  They are a place where a worker who works for GE building locomotives, for example, has the possibility of meeting not only other GE workers from around the world, but also transportation activists who fight to maintain the viability of the public transit systems who purchase the locomotives.  The social forums are both a space where the “labor/community alliances” and the “movement vision” that labor activists regularly proclaim the need for are actually built, and a process that strengthens them.

The U.S. Social Forum

United States Social Forum Attempts to bring the social forum process to the U.S. have been mixed.  In the absence of strong leadership from working-class organizations such as trade unions, many local “social forums” have been dominated by primarily white intellectuals and policy organizations talking to each other, which is of limited use for rank-and-file working people and communities of color.  A recognition of this potential problem has guided Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ), a national alliance of community and labor organizations (including Jobs with Justice, UE, and FLOC) in setting up the organizing process that will lead to a U.S. Social Forum (USSF) being held in Atlanta, Georgia in June of 2007.  One of the outcomes of this process has already been a highly successful Southeast Social Forum, held in Durham North Carolina in June of 2006, where over 700 people, primarily workers and people of color, gathered to build a movement for justice in the southeast, and the Border Social Forum, held in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (just across the border from El Paso) in October of 2006, which drew over 900 people from the U.S. and Mexico.

The U.S. Social Forum will be important because working people in the U.S. are desperately in need of some kind of unified political movement.  While the November, 2006 elections provided a measure of relief from the Bush/Republican onslaught, the Democratic Party’s track record should make it clear that working people cannot look to them for the kind of aggressive, principled leadership that we need.  The crises working people face — many of which were exposed starkly in the Katrina disaster — are numerous: the health care crisis, the endless “war on terror,” the destruction of manufacturing jobs, the systematic looting of the public sector, and the racism that still permeates American society, just to name a few.  The U.S. Social Forum will not be a magic bullet to solve these problems, but it is one of the best ways to move forward towards developing the movement we need.

Practical Proposals for Labor at the U.S. Social Forum

Beyond the big-picture reasons why it is important that trade unionists participate in the U.S. Social Forum, it could also offer a valuable space for labor in numerous other, more practical ways:

Industry/Sector Meetings: Organized workers, whether organized in trade unions or other forms of workers’ organization such as workers’ centers, clearly need to share notes and strategize with other workers in the same companies, industries, and sectors.  While some in the labor movement believe that this is best achieved through mergers into single union structures, for the foreseeable future such industrial and sectoral formations will have to be multi-union.  The USSF offers an opportunity not only to hold such meetings, but also to foster dialog with communities who are affected by the industry or sector as recipients of services, customers, or dumping grounds for pollution.

Platform to Strengthen and Launch Campaigns: Many labor activists realize that we need a real national campaign for universal health care, but so far none of the networks or organizations working on this issue have gathered sufficient critical mass.  The AFL-CIO’s campaign for the right to join a union has never really taken off outside the ranks of union officials.  As our pension and retirement “system” crumbles, we will increasingly see the need for a campaign for real retirement security.  The USSF offers an opportunity to coalesce and push forward these campaigns as part of a broader movement for social justice.

Trade Union Education: One of the victims of the mergers, federational feuding ,and loss of membership which have plagued many unions has often been trade union education programs.  Basic trade union education work like campaign strategy and stewards’ training is needed now more than ever, and is especially valuable when workers from different unions get a chance to share their experiences.  The USSF offers an opportunity to do practical trade union education in an overall environment of movement-building, which would be an incredibly worthwhile experience for all trade unionists.

Originally published at MRzine.

Report from 2006 World Social Forum

This was original published (in print only) in the February, 2006 issue of the UE News.

In January, three rank and file UE members — myself, Angaza Laughinghouse (Local 150), and Armando Robles (Local 1110) — travelled to Caracas, Venezuela to attend the sixth World Social Forum (WSF). The WSF is an annual gathering of trade unionists, community organizations and other social movements who oppose corporate globalization. The goal of the WSF is to promote a globalization based on solidarity, justice and peace, one that creates jobs rather than destroys them and improves the lives of working people. The UE has been represented at every WSF since the second one, in 2002. As in previous years, we were part of a broader delegation of U.S. grassroots organizations organized by Grassroots Global Justice.

VENEZUELA

This year, the WSF was hosted by the pro-worker government in Venezuela. While much of the media coverage of Venezuela has focused on President Hugo Chavez, there is in fact a much broader process of social change going on in Venezuela, known variously as “the Bolivarian Revolution,” “the Revolution,” or simply “the process.” Virtually all of the working-class people we met were supporters of the revolution, though a few were critical of Chavez personally.

There is no doubt that this process is benefiting the working people of Venezuela. While many speak of the process as being a “revolution,” it is peaceful and democratic. There is no political repression — indeed, the opposition flourishes in wealthier areas, owns all of the private press and media, and in fact organized a large (and extremely well-dressed) anti-WSF march at the beginning of our time there. The “process” seems to primarily consist of using government resources to assist communities and workplaces with self-organization, whether it is around jobs, health care, education, public safety or other concerns. As a result, the access to health care, quality of education, level of public safety and so forth seem to be improving throughout Venezuela, in marked contrast to the U.S. where we are constantly fighting defensive battles. Furthermore, what we in the UE would call “rank and file control” is a central principle of this process; a common slogan was “the revolution is giving power to the people.” The new provision of services in neighborhoods is directed by neighborhood committees, and, most inspiringly, factories and other workplaces closed by their owners are being re-opened by the workers (see below).

VENEZUELAN LABOR

For many decades, workers in Venezuela have been represented almost exclusively by a labor federation known as CTV (Venezuelan Confederation of Labor), which was and is corrupt, undemocratic and tightly connected to both employers and the old political parties (before Chavez was elected, politics in Venezuela were controlled by a two-party system very much like our own, with both parties representing bosses’ interests). The CTV is extremely hostile to Chavez, and was involved in both the Bush-instigated coup against Chavez in April of 2002 and the “general strike” (really a general lockout called by employers) which attempted to force Chavez from power later that year. It is one of the few labor federations in the world enthusiastically supported by the Bush Administration.

In the last five years or so, rank and file workers have created a new labor federation, the UNT (National Union of Workers), which has become the dominant federation in the private sector and has also recently gained the affiliation of the key construction unions. In contract to the CTV, debate and discussion flourish inside the UNT; while the UNT membership is overwhelming in favor of “the process,” there is a vigorous debate over whether the labor movement should be close to Chavez or strive for political independence.

Another issue of great discussion and debate in the UNT is “co-management,” the process by which many closed factories and other workplaces in Venezuela are being re-opened under worker control. We met an electrical utility worker from the UNT who could barely contain his pride that he and his co-workers were now running the shop without bosses. “We run it now,” he said.

EXPOSING U.S. GOVERNMENT HYPOCRISY

At a workshop co-organized by UE and the Southwest Workers’ Union (SWU), which represents school support staff workers in southern Texas, WSF delegates from Venezuela, Colombia, Europe and the U.S. heard Local 150 Executive Board member Angaza Laughinghouse describe the struggle of public sector workers in the U.S. South for collective bargaining rights through the International Worker Justice Campaign. At another workshop organized by SWU on the general issue of workers’ rights in the U.S., Armando Robles (Local 1110) also described the struggle of workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago for a democratic union.

Participants from other countries, who often hear the U.S. government defend its military adventures or interventions against pro-worker governments like Venezuela’s with rhetoric about “democracy” and “rights” were shocked and appalled to hear how the U.S. denies the basic democratic right of collective bargaining to millions of workers. All three of us were also interviewed by a radio journalist from Quebec, who broadcast a story about the U.S. denial of collective bargaining rights over the WSF’s own radio station while we were there and also recorded a program to be played on Montreal radio when she returned.

IMPORTANCE OF SOLIDARITY

We all returned inspired by how workers in Venezuela, and throughout Latin America, are organizing and making improvements in their living and working standards. We were also impressed at how clearly they saw that American workers were not their enemies, but their brothers and sisters in a struggle to improve the lives of all workers, even though our government has been working to undermine their achievements. We returned committed to telling the truth about how Chavez’s democratic revolution is benefitting the workers of Venezuela, and to prevent Bush from intervening in Venezuela.