By most measures 1979 was not an auspicious time to start a radical publication in the United States aimed at labor’s rank-and-file activists.
Deregulation in transportation was working its way through Congress and soon to pass, threatening national agreements in trucking and airlines. Chrysler went begging to Congress for a financial bailout and soon extracted concessions from the mighty United Auto Workers. These, in turn, opened the floodgates to union give-backs in industry after industry.
Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker jacked up interest rates that soon brought on a double-dip recession that cost two and a half million manufacturing jobs, brought strikes to a screeching halt, and effectively undermined a decade and a half of labor upsurge even before Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
The industrial unions that had been the major sites of rank-and-file rebellions, black caucuses, wildcat strikes, and contract rejections during the upsurge lost two million members by the time the recession bottomed out in 1982.
The era of labor insurgency and mass social movements was about to give way to that of neoliberalism, union decline, “the end of welfare as we know it,” and lean production.
Of course, when Labor Notes made its debut in February 1979, we didn’t know all of this. “We” were three members of the International Socialists (IS), Jim West, myself, and a little bit later Jane Slaughter, charged with producing and spreading a monthly newsletter (later a magazine) meant to put rank-and-file activists in touch with each other — to present a class view by reporting events and trends across the whole labor movement.
Labor Notes couldn’t predict the employers’ offensive that began with Chrysler’s demand for concessions from auto workers in fall 1979, but it turned out that our politics prepared us for it. We knew what to say.
We also knew, based on over a decade of IS experience in workplace and rank-and-file newsletters, movements, and organizations, that Labor Notes could not be seen as, or be anything like, a “front group.” It would have to base itself on a broad network of activists whose support and input would be crucial.
IS and its successor Solidarity would continue to support Labor Notes, while at the same time respecting its independence. Individual members played important roles both on staff and as union members, but the staff grew beyond those in IS/Solidarity. To grow, Labor Notes would have to be, within a broad framework, a center for discussion and debate as well as analysis and news.
Socialist ideas, our experience told us, needed a base in an active “class struggle” current within the labor movement to be credible. The task of the Labor Notes project was to work with others to create such a current.
How did we do that? Of course, we had a general body of theory that told us about the dynamics of capitalism with its relentless drive for profits and the pressures this put on working-class life. Somewhat more immediate was an understanding of the labor movement and the unions as multi-layered social formations with internal contradictions — not only that between “the bureaucracy” and the ranks, but those within the ranks between the activist layer and mostly apathetic members, and the divisions of race and gender.
From the start, the magazine addressed these issues by reporting on what women and African-American workers were doing in the unions, how rank-and-file workers were still fighting for union democracy and an accountable leadership, as well as fighting the new concessions trend.
We also reported just how the leadership of most unions not only went along with concessions and labor-management cooperation schemes, virtually surrendering the workplace to the employers, but how these became part of the bureaucracy’s failed and costly strategy for survival even to this day.
Having an analysis or even reporting events and trends, however, is never enough. One of the most important lessons to be drawn from the Labor Notes’s experience is that you have to engage directly in the movement and with the activists — and that radicals can do that when they are willing to relate to people’s real concerns and make them aware that others in the movement share those concerns.
Jim West, editor from the start until 2003, describes the basic purpose of the project: “The idea all along was that there were all these grassroots activists and groups in various unions around the country and that our mission was to bring them together — to give them a sense that they were part of a bigger movement.”
Looking back, Mark Brenner, the current director of the project, argues this worked. “Labor Notes succeeded in creating an important space for activists in other unions and various parts of the country to recognize they were having common experiences and to actually build connections with each other.”
An important aspect was the focus on rank-and-file activists in the workplace. As Will Johnson, on staff from 2002 to 2007, put it, “Labor Notes readers are workplace leaders. What always struck me, both editing articles or in organizing conferences, was the relentless focus on winning power at work.”
Brenner, notes in this regard, “if you want to reengage or connect with members you need to start with where they spend eight, ten, twelve hours a day. I think our emphasis went much farther, arguing that our power as a movement stemmed first and foremost from our power on the job.”
This, in turn, also meant involvement in the union. Mike Parker, an autoworker for many years and a close associate of Labor Notes describes this:
I think the “focus on the rank-and-file” or “grassroots” is important but I think the reason that we succeeded where others failed is that we focused on the class struggle. That meant building, involving, mobilizing the rank-and-file and giving it control, but it also meant that we appreciated organization and the power of the labor movement so we struggled for union reform efforts sometimes led by local (or national) union leaders with mixed or contradictory consciousness.
Brenner adds, “It was crucial that we were one of the only places that was not just blaming the one-sided class war, or trade agreements, or technology, for the decline in union strength. It was critical to our longevity that in any given period we were willing to spell out the ways labor got itself into the mess it was in.”
And this meant working with and aiding rank-and-file union reform movements, such as the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Again, Brenner elaborates, “promoting union reform as a strategy for revitalizing the labor movement is one of our biggest contributions, both theoretically — because it injects politics so squarely into the discussion — but also practically, helping generations of reformers think strategically about how to run for office and win.”
Action, education, and organization, not sloganeering, were key both to building rank-and-file power and the success of the magazine. As West put it, “No sectarian language, open to anyone with a rank-and-file perspective, and pretty much focused on trade union issues.”
Leah Samuel, on staff from 1995 to 2001, agrees. “Labor Notes has always emphasized real-world practicality in its approach to helping workers bring about change in their workplaces and unions.”
Events soon taught us, however, that to bring people together and “give them a sense that they were part of a bigger movement,” as West put it, we would need to create a real “center” where activists could learn from one another. The eighteen conferences held between 1981 and 2016 provided such a center.
Former staffer Martha Gruelle puts it this way: “Labor Notes is a location—literally, at the conferences, where people can find other unionists who see the world similarly — and in the ‘spiritual’ sense of knowing these others exist and connecting through the writing, etc. It’s hugely important for militant unionists to know they’re not alone.”
The first national conference was in April 1981 at the rundown Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit. Much to our surprise 576 people registered, while an additional 100 women unionists attended a special Friday evening women’s meeting.
Crystal Lee Sutton, the real Norma Rae, addressed the conference, as did Tony Mazzocchi, then running for president against the old guard of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. Mazzocchi called for a new party of labor to oppose the old “twin parties of cancer.”
We soon found that it made more sense to let experienced union leaders and activists say some of the more political things — independent politics, for example, and opposition to wars — rather than lectures from the staff, at least in the early years.
At the center of the conference, however, were practical workshops on workplace organizing, union democracy, and many other issues and meetings of activists by industry. This would become a growing feature at the heart of all future conferences.
From the start, Labor Notes did things that no one else in the labor movement or on the political left was doing. As Slaughter put it, “Labor Notes had great success when we took on subjects that the mainstream labor movement did not know how to tackle, or was facing the wrong way, and offered readers both a political understanding of them and practical help on what to do.”
The surrender of the top union leadership in most cases in this period of retreat naturally created a vacuum for intervention on key issues such as concessions on wages, benefits, and working conditions; the introduction of team working and lean production norms that led to work intensification; the lack of democracy that characterized most unions; and the general failure to encourage strong workplace organization.
It was a willingness to intervene actively on some of these issues that allowed Labor Notes to establish itself as an important educational center.
As 1982 arrived and signs of economic recovery appeared it was clear that the concessions flood was only going to grow. We were convinced that concessions were now a central issue for workers, even nonunion workers.
So Jane Slaughter wrote Concessions and how How to To beat Beat them Them in 1983, analyzing not only the extent and underlying causes of concessions, but scores of examples of how workers were resisting and sometimes defeating them.
Concessions was an instant hit and one of the Labor Notes turning points. Activists across the labor movement used Concessions to fight them even when top leaders refused to do so. There were probably more defeats than victories, but the fact that activists saw others fighting encouraged more to resist.
In Concessions, Slaughter showed that there had been at least two rounds of give-backs and that these waves of retreat saw labor’s industry-wide national and pattern agreements shredded, opening the door to a downward spiral of competition. Even as the recession of 1980–82 was turning to recovery, corporate demands for more increased.
The second round had moved from wages to working conditions — an even greater threat. Already in Concessions there was an indication of what lay ahead. Slaughter quoted GM chairman Roger Smith’s early 1983 declaration: “There’s no way we want to put ourselves back in a position to go through the last three years again. All of us are dedicated to keeping our companies lean and mean.”
Ad hoc concessions would continue right up to today, but new ways to institutionalize them and permanently weaken labor were in the works.
Taking on Circles and Teams
In May 1981, Business Week declared the era of “The New Industrial Relations.” These were first embodied in Quality of Work Life (QWL) programs and later expanded to Total Quality Management, Employee Participation, and more. All put labor-management cooperation — on-the-job class collaboration — at their center.
Mike Parker had been researching these programs since their first public appearance around the late 1970s. In 1985 he produced Inside the Circle: A Union Guide to QWL, the first of three handbooks on the topic of labor-management cooperation and lean production. The book gave practical advice on how to resist or undermine this “feel-good” form of union-busting.
As Parker noted in the introduction, “There is almost no material available to guide the trade unionist who is trying to come to grips with these new programs from a union point of view.” Now there was.
As various forms of employee participation proliferated and morphed into Japanese-inspired lean production, Labor Notes kept pace. Parker and Slaughter together produced two additional handbooks, Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept in 1988 and Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering in 1994.
In these, they coined the term “Management-By-Stress” (MBS) which captured the way in which lean production methods created a new basis for the intensification of work by cutting the workforce while maintaining or increasing output.
Teams contributed to this through the process of kaizen, or constant improvement in productivity. Choosing Sides focused on the auto industry where many of these innovations in work intensification were first or most thoroughly applied; Working Smart expanded the analysis to other industries and groups including telecommunications, hospitals, the postal service, home care, women workers, workers of color, and even to Mexico and Sweden. These handbooks sold in the thousands.
From the early to mid-1990s Labor Notes created a new place in which workers could learn and exchange ideas about the new management strategies. Jane Slaughter describes this place:
We also spread the word on labor-management cooperation and lean production through about a dozen “team concept schools” held mostly in Detroit but also Atlanta and the Bay Area. We held one just for the Teamsters union (under President Ron Carey). These were schools of fifty to eighty people from different unions who came for an intensive three days of learning and figuring out, in teams, how to confront that situation.
Lean production methods continue today in new forms. But, as Slaughter points out, “Labor-management cooperation programs are a dead letter; employers no longer need to pretend to seek employees’ involvement.”
Aside from simply reverting to bullying and threats of job loss, lean norms became increasingly enforced through electronic and biometric monitoring and measuring technology such as global positioning systems, radio frequency identification, and barcoding.
While lean programs such as Total Quality Management had always been about standardizing jobs and intensifying work, the new types of surveillance further diluted skills and eliminated such creativity as a job might have had.
In addition, the emergence of electronically guided, just-in-time supply chains associated with the “logistics revolution” added external pressures on performance in countless workplaces. These internal and external pressures have spread far beyond traditional blue-collar work into professional occupations such as nursing and teaching.
Often hypnotized by the alleged inevitability of such technology, the leadership of most unions simply ignored the fact that most workplace technology is socially constructed to achieve management goals. Labor Notes would attempt to find new ways to deal with and resist evolving management tactics and strategies.
The handbooks and schools helped Labor Notes expand from its original base among auto, steel, trucking, and other industrial sectors to telecommunications, healthcare, transit, the public sector, and other service industries. We also got support from a few smaller unions such as the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCAW), United Electrical Workers (UE), and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).
As the working class itself was changing and management was finding new tools of exploitation, we stumbled toward an approach to workplace class conflict that could deal comprehensively with the increasing forms of union avoidance and work intensification.
I say “stumbled” because it would be a stretch to say that we put all these factors — new management approaches to lean production, new technology, workplace tactics, union reform movements — together at once. Not everything we tried worked.
For example, in 1995 we attempted to raise the shorter workweek as one way to deal with some of the new lean pressures and the increase in precarious work. We produced a pamphlet entitled Time Out! making the case for shorter hours. The pamphlet didn’t catch on and the project had to be abandoned.
We learned a valuable lesson: trying to set the agenda without actual motion among the workplace activists was not going to work.
What we did realize was that even as management tactics were evolving, we were accumulating a vast store of stories about workplace and union resistance and that many of these experiences could be used to fight the boss(es) over a variety of issues.
We held a weekend school on “workplace organizing” in 1989 where dozens of activists told their stories of resistance. We then hired Dan La Botz to pull them together into a new handbook. He produced A Troublemaker’s Handbook: How to Fight Back Where You Work — And Win in 1991. Jane Slaughter edited a second Troublemaker’s Handbook II in 2005.
Our Troublemakers handbooks used the maxim that people can learn better from a story than from a list of good advice. Like most of our Steward’s Corner columns in Labor Notes, for each situation or tactic, the books told how a group of workers did something; the reader could then apply the tactics to her or his own situation.
This method also had the advantage of using real-life examples, so the author was not just laying down a list of untested ideas—these ideas had worked for someone.
By this time Labor Notes really was established as a center of labor education of a type few others could produce. By the nineties, too, the staff had grown significantly.
The nineties also saw Labor Notes engage directly in international work, largely in cooperation with and through the European-based Transnationals Information Exchange (TIE). Our contribution in the context of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was building cross-border links through meetings in Mexico and tours in all three NAFTA countries of auto and telecommunications workers.
We also worked with the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), the United Electrical Workers (UE), the Frente Autentico del Trabajo, and the Centro de Información Laboral y Asesoría Sindical (CILAS) in Mexico City to organize these cross-border events.
It was exciting work and the worker-to-worker approach we adopted in the cross-border meetings had an impact on the consciousness of the workers who participated.
The problem here was that most union leaders are tied up in the byzantine protocol of official top-down labor internationalism, making contact between regular workers difficult. It took small, generally underfunded groups like TIE and Labor Notes, with help from the small United Electrical Workers, to navigate around the institutional barriers.
Yet the resources to continue regular cross-border exchanges and meetings weren’t there. Labor Notes’s international activity became limited to the biennial Labor Notes conferences.
At the same time I say we “stumbled” because from the late 1990s through the early 2000s, Labor Notes hit a plateau in terms of subscriptions and conference attendance, which was stuck under one thousand.
Part of this was that while we published more good handbooks — notably Democracy is Power: Rebuilding Unions from the Bottom Up by Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle in 1999 on union democracy — we were unable to turn these into the sorts of events we had with the team concept schools.
Any activity in labor or other social movements, however, is also dependent on what is going on around you. The mid-eighties to the mid-nineties saw a number of important high-profile struggles against concessions: P-9 at Hormel, the United Mine Workers at Pittston, the Communications Workers at Verizon, an innovative “inside strategy” at A.E. Staley, the Detroit newspaper strike, and the UPS strike for full-time jobs in 1997, as well as a mini-wave of union reform movements.
Looking back from 1996 in a speech to the National Lawyers’ Guild, union reform lawyer Paul Levy could report, “There is extensive intra-union activity in a large number of national unions, much more than ever before.” In addition to the big victory in the Teamsters with the TDU-backed election of Ron Carey in 1991, Levy noted revolts in a dozen or so major unions.
Many of these struggles and movements used Labor Notes literature to educate their activists. For example, in the two years leading up to the 1997 Teamster strike at UPS, TDU and the union used Working Smart to inform members on the pitfalls of the labor-management/lean production scheme UPS was trying to introduce in hopes of weakening any future union action.
In some places Labor Notes’s staffers and friends helped in defeating UPS’s labor-management cooperation program. Staffers and friends were also directly active in the New Directions caucus in the United Auto Workers from the mid-1980s, as well as in the support campaign for the Hormel/P-9 strikers.
The workplace strategy and Team Concept (lean production) schools in this period attracted hundreds of both mainstream and dissident activists from unions such as the Communications Workers, Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, and Grain Millers among others, contributing indirectly to important anti-concessions and anti-lean struggles in those industries in these years. This active engagement brought both experience and growth.
By the late 1990s, however, high-profile strikes became rare and many of the internal rebellions had faded — and with them a good deal of our natural audience.
The debacle that brought Ron Carey down after the 1997 UPS strike had a negative impact on the milieu in which Labor Notes operated. Carey’s election had been the first big victory of the union reform movement, and the illegal funding scam his hired campaign organizers had run during the 1996 election bolstered the idea that all union leaders were the same.
Carey was eventually cleared of any direct involvement in or knowledge of the scam, but the damage was done. It is also possible that the election of John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president on a promise of progressive change deflected some potential Labor Notes readers, as did the rise of the internet.
The reform efforts of John Sweeney and the “New Voice” team were largely top-down. As one article in Labor Notes put it at the time, “for every problem there was a Washington solution.”
The slate’s central promise was to ramp up new organizing in order to stop the decline in union membership. While the new AFL-CIO leaders expanded the Organizing Institute to train more organizers, this really meant getting the affiliated unions to put more energy and resources into organizing.
The institutional barriers to this proved too great and by 2005 led to a split with the formation of the Change to Win coalition, which itself eventually split.
Labor Notes, with its emphasis on rank-and-file-based reform, was critical of this bureaucratic approach. While this stance didn’t necessarily expand our base at the time, it would pay off as activists in more and more unions began to organize frequently successful grassroots reform movements in the following years.
By the late 1990s the team concept schools and our cross-border work had run their course, and we weren’t able to develop the sort of outreach project that struck the chord we had with concessions and team concept. That would await the coming of a new generation of staffers and a change in the situation.
A New Generation
With the opening of the twenty-first century a major transition began as a new generation of younger activists took over the running of Labor Notes.
Eventually Mark Brenner took over my old job of director after a number of veteran staffers filled in for a while and a series of new editors replaced Jim West, Matha Gruelle, and Jane Slaughter. These included Chris Kutalik, Mischa Gaus, Jenny Brown, and Alexandra Bradbury, the current editor.
Armed with the publication of Troublemaker’s II in 2005 this new generation took the Troublemaker’s idea to new heights beginning in 2011, with about two dozen local Troublemaker’s day schools, prepared with the help of local activists. These schools provided that place in city after city where activists exchanged ideas and helped broaden Labor Notes’s reach.
This new activity benefited from a renewed wave of union reform movements among the Teamsters, Communications Workers, Transit Workers, Postal Workers, Nurses, and others, reaching a high point with the Chicago Teachers Union’s Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators victory in 2010 and their strike in 2012, along with the Wisconsin uprising of 2011.
The period also saw the growing activity of immigrant workers that took off after the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride that crossed the country in 2003 and the May 1, 2006 “Day Without an Immigrant.”
Building on the new wave of activity, the staff produced three handbooks. The Steward’s Toolbox: Skills and Strategies for Winning at Work in 2012, compiled mostly from the Steward’s Corner columns in Labor Notes; How to Jump Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers; and Secrets of a Successful Organizer in 2016.
The conferences in 2014 and 2016 reflected the new situation, drawing over two thousand activists to Chicago, where in 2016 it coincided with a one-day Chicago Teachers Union strike — as if to illustrate the viability of the rank-and-file approach.
What Did Labor Notes Accomplish?
It hardly needs saying that all the work of the staffers and hundreds of close associates who over the decades helped make Labor Notes an institution in the broader labor movement could not stop the decline in union membership, the tidal wave of concessions, the progress and transformation of lean production into its high-tech surveillance, just-in-time regime, or, indeed, the mammoth level of inequality that has taken shape during the lifetime of Labor Notes.
That being the case, just what did it accomplish?
Here you have to step back and look beneath the institutional facade of the unions, the big collective bargaining agreements that sometimes make the business page, and the leaders who do occasionally make a public appearance and seek out those who remain mostly invisible to society and even to each other.
It is these invisible class warriors whose actions, dedication, and persistence keep the unions afloat and the labor movement alive. These are the people who sit on committees, act as shop stewards, and sometimes hold local union office even when the perks are small — labor’s activist layer.
Most of these men and women accept much of the ideology of bureaucratic business unionism, waiting and hoping “the union” or someone will do something for them through the sclerotic channels of formal collective bargaining. Many, however, do not and instead take it upon themselves along with others like them to get things done. That is where Labor Notes comes in.
The revolutionary syndicalists and Wobblies of old called this layer of workers the “militant minority.” But for decades now, this layer has been disorganized and depoliticized.
Even during the labor upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s, the various rank-and-file movements, wildcat strikers, and union dissidents had precious little contact with one another — isolated and confined largely to their own industry, workplace, or union.
Most of the changes, reforms, and civil wars at the top of the labor movement in the last twenty years or so have had little, if any impact on this reality. Missing were the radicals who at one time gave overall leadership (or misleadership in some cases) and coherence to this militant minority in the years before and after World War I and during the 1930s and 1940s.
The radicals of the 1970s who entered industry to play this role were too few, too inexperienced, too late, and often too sectarian to carry it off. It was this fragmentation within the 1960s–1970s upsurge that convinced us that something different was needed.
The idea of Labor Notes, as the earlier quotes from past and present staffers put it, was to bring these activists together, to provide them a place to connect and learn, and the means by which to become visible to one another.
The words “Let’s Put the Movement Back in the Labor Movement” that first appeared on the masthead in April 1981 were in a sense a call to these activists to take on the task of building a bigger militant minority.
The collapse of the upsurge of the 1970s meant starting on a small scale reaching out to the pockets of resistance that inevitably arose as capital’s war on the workers increased. Because old activists dropped out while new ones came in; many reform efforts failed; and the occupational, gender, and racial composition of the workforce changed; this was never a linear process.
Nevertheless, it was a process, based on all the activities described above and many more, and of course on the self-activity of thousands of worker activists themselves, that produced the growth of a militant, democratic current — the evidence for which can be seen in the Labor Notes conferences and the dozens of local Troublemaker’s Schools.
To a greater degree than in the earlier years of Labor Notes this emerging current shares a set of operating principles and goals that give it some programmatic and political coherence: union democracy and accountable leadership; rejection of labor-management cooperation; strong workplace and stewards’ organizations; direct action and mobilization when needed or possible; racial and gender inclusion and equality; resistance to austerity in society as well as at work; and the realization that the ranks will have to do or win these things themselves.
In short: a rejection of the norms of bureaucratic business unionism. Labor Notes deserves considerable credit for this political coherence and its spread across the activist layer.
A look at the 2016 conference gives some idea of why Labor Notes has played a role in shaping this alternative view of what the labor movement as a whole should stand for. While the workplace and the union remained central to the focus of the conference, of the more than 125 workshops and interest or industry meetings held in Chicago in 2016, nearly 50 dealt with big political, social, and international issues.
Yet the political hopes of some of us had been a little more ambitious. Part of the socialist conception of the purpose of Labor Notes was that it was a transitional project. That is, to borrow Trotsky’s analogy, it was meant to be a “bridge” between the day-to-day struggles and consciousness of the class to a broader class, eventually socialist view of the world.
A bridge, of course, has two ends. Theoretically, socialist consciousness and organization would be at the far end of the bridge provided mostly by socialist organization(s).
As the bridge it was not Labor Notes’s role to be the socialist educational center, organization, or publication. To attempt that would have limited its audience and the project’s effectiveness severely.
Rather, the types of ideas the project put forth were transitional ones directed at undermining the conservative consciousness produced by bureaucratic business unionism as well as all the other forces in society that promote acceptance of things as they are.
Labor Notes accomplished a good deal of this. Indeed, while the emphasis was on building power in the workplace and union, from the start Labor Notes took up most of the political, social and economic issues that affect working-class life.
The results of this can be seen at the conferences where there is a working-class political radicalism well beyond what is the norm for the American labor movement. Some of this sentiment was expressed in the nearly universal support for Bernie Sanders that permeated the 2016 conference.
While this political crossing was never seen as the main task, it has nevertheless been less complete than some of us would have wished. Independent political action, for example, is transitional — a bridge — in that it involves a break with the two major parties and their embrace of capitalism and its rules of the game (including the neoliberal framework), without necessarily embracing a fully socialist program.
To some extent Labor Notes attempted to make this part of its message. Thus, from the start with Tony Mazocchi’s labor party speech at the 1981 conference, to the coverage of and involvement with such independent political efforts as the Mazzocchi-inspired Labor Party of the mid- to late 1990s and the 2000 Labor for Nader campaign, Labor Notes promoted the idea of independent political action.
In addition, many of the conferences have featured keynote speakers who put forth the idea of independent politics. Among these in addition to Mazzocchi were Bill Fletcher Jr, who called for a new left party; various Canadian speakers who raised this question; French Marxist Daniel Singer who argued that the new millennium could be the time of the Left internationally; and, well before he was a household name, independent socialist Bernie Sanders.
Yet independent political action is not yet an integral part of the program or set of ideas that characterizes the grassroots labor current or network described above, the potential militant minority.
Could more have been done? It has to be remembered that everything Labor Notes did that worked was based on movement activity that was already actually happening. That was a lesson we learned early on. By the end of 2000, once the Labor Party lost its momentum and the Nader campaign came to an end, however, there wasn’t really anything to point to and political action seemed a bridge too far.
Should Labor Notes have done more educational work on this? Perhaps, but when choices had to be made between educating in practical strategies and actions, on the one hand, and advanced political education or mere propaganda, on the other, for better or worse we almost invariably chose the former. That was the right choice and part of what made the project work as well as it did.
Not everyone who worked for Labor Notes over the years would agree that the lack of a more political or socialist approach was a problem. Nevertheless for some of us committed to building a more advanced political consciousness in the rank-and-file milieu, the tension between the needs of the here-and-now and the future remains an unresolved dilemma.
There are signs that the times are changing in this regard and more attention to this line of action may be called for.
The contributions of Labor Notes and today’s changing atmosphere makes one of the main lessons of the Labor Notes’s experience pressing for the Left today. Socialists from an educated background, as most of us were, can have an impact in the labor movement.
The isolation of political radicals from working-class life is largely a self-imposed one. The skills, ideas, and knowledge we have are valued by those trying to fight for change — provided we learn to share them as insiders, not impose them from the sidelines.
The labor movement of today and tomorrow may still be smaller than a generation or two ago, but it is broader in occupations, backgrounds, ethno-racial and gender composition, and increasingly in political openness.
If the socialists don’t take their place in this evolving movement, its likelihood of revival is diminished as is the hope of building a socialist movement with real social power.
If the Labor Notes milieu is not yet quite the militant minority with its strong revolutionary core that Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, or Eugene Debs would recognize, it is nonetheless a very dense, alive, and contemporary network of worker activists.
Held together by the magazine, the handbooks, the conferences, day schools, a website, blog, weekly email updates, archives, and social media, the Labor Notes network is a twenty-first-century democratic current within what is still in many ways a mid-twentieth-century bureaucratic labor movement.
Whether this network can evolve into the sort of militant minority that gave political coherence to labor upheavals in the past remains to be seen. But it’s clear that without the work of Labor Notes, that would not even be a possibility.
Preview the new issue of Jacobin and get a discounted subscription today.