Million Worker March Report Back From USLAW Conference
It was important that Million Worker March (MWM) representatives participated in the USLAW Leadership Conference held in Chicago on December 3.
The USLAW Conference was pretty well attended by representative of the affiliates, over 125 people. Its main task appeared to be organizational; Suring up its financial support, expanding its steering committee to include more People of Color. There was also discussion about bringing resolutions to the floor of the AFL-CIO Convention in July.
There were at least 15 who participated in the MWM, of which at least 10 openly identified with the MWM. The MWM had a table with T-shirts, buttons and flyers.
Of the approximately 15 People of Color who participated in the USLAW Conference, 8 of them were identifiable activists with the MWM. MWM participation clearly expanded the participation of People of Color in USLAW
There was an obvious concern by many delegated to the conference about the position of the MWM regarding USLAW not endorsing the MWM mobilization and what impact criticisms at the conference would have on its outcome. Many expected the MWM to make a scathing criticism on USLAW.
Leading up to the USLAW Conference, MWM leadership and organizer Clarence Thomas and Saladin Muhammad held phone discussions with USLAW Convenor Gene Bruskin about MWM’s participation in the conference. Bruskin indicated that the USLAW Conference was a “leadership” conference mainly of its affiliates and the MWM was being invited to attend without any intentions of being able to formally address the body. It was pointed out that USLAW’s failure to endorse the MWM, particularly its reversal of the majority vote to endorse, left somewhat of a political cloud over the MWM in terms of how it is viewed by USLAW, especially since several unions endorsing the MWM as well as leading MWM were members of USLAW. The result of these discussions, which included Bruskin talking to others in USLAW, was that Clarence Thomas would be able to address the delegates during lunch which was like a plenary session.
Clarence made an excellent address; giving a perspective on how the MWM contributed to efforts to mobilize labor against the war. He spoke to the importance of the MWM in terms of providing an alternative working class expression of united mass action to the dilemma of putting all eggs in the basket of Kerry and this election as a solution to the problems facing working people. He pointed out how he and other MWM activists are members of USLAW, including being founding members and how he represented USLAW in his trip to Iraq and meetings with the Iraqi trade unions and report back trips upon his return. He pointed out the importance of Black and People of Color and women’s leadership in organizing the MWM. Clarence expressed disappointment in USLAW’s failure to endorse the MWM while saying that we understood the situation many were placed in by the decisions of the national unions and the actions of the AFL-CIO. The individual endorsement and speaking at the MWM by Gene Bruskin was an important gesture by USLAW of wanting to be supportive, despite its official non endorsement. He acknowledged Bruskin appearance and speaking at the MWM as an expression of USLAW solidarity. He called for unity between USLAW and the MWM. Clarence received a standing ovation. Clarence’s address also helped to set the tone for a resolution that passed calling for USLAW and MWM to engage in areas of unified actions.
A number of delegates approached MWM representatives saying that USLAW and their individual unions had made a mistake not endorsing the MWM. Many of these forces voted on the resolution on unity between USLAW and MWM. The USLAW Conference gave many a second chance to identify with the MWM call for unity and action.
Many of the forces in USLAW want it to be more rank-and-file and mass action oriented. The participation of the MWM in USLAW will enable us to better engage these forces from within in trying to move USLAW in this direction. Moving this section of the labor movement to mobilize the rank-and-file in opposition to the war in Iraq, US foreign policy and a broader workers agenda should be seen as one key aspect of the MWM strategy of building a mass working class movement.
There was a meeting held on Saturday night of MWM leaders Clarence Thomas, Trent Willis and activists with USLAW leadership Gene Bruskin, Nancy Wohlforth and others about identifying concrete opportunities for USLAW and MWM to engage in unified activities. There was also the airing of views about USLAW’s failure to endorse the MWM, the impact of the AFL-CIO’s opposition to supporting the MWM.
Clarence Thomas was elected to the USLAW Steering National Committee. There was a People of Color Caucus held with one goal of nominating two representatives to be USLAW Co-Convenors. The role of Co-Convenors was not defined by the Caucus convener or by the USLAW Conference packet that included information on structure.
The two persons nominated as USLAW Co-Convenors were two MWM activists; African American and Latina, male and female. It was later made known at a breakfast of USLAW Steering Committee members that the Caucus nominations were only recommendations to be considered by the USLAW Steering Committee from a larger pool made up of other People of Color put forth by USLAW affiliates. This was also not explained by the People of Color Caucus convener.
Not haven been explained in advance to the Caucus by the convener or as part of instructions from the Chair of the plenary, left many feeling that this was an effort by the overwhelmingly white USLAW steering committee to decide on what People of Color folks will be the USLAW Convenors. The continued “missteps” by USLAW in dealing with race sensitive questions is a source of ongoing tensions within USLAW, including possible attitudes about the MWM. Those who call attention to these “missteps” are often labeled as being divisive and disruptive.
We should not raise a major struggle around being Co-Convenors. However, it’s important to struggle around process and democracy that reflects the weaknesses in the trade union movement around race and gender representation in leadership that shows it self in USLAW.
One of the ideas brought up in the USLAW People of Color Caucus but not taken to the general body was that all USLAW affiliates should be required by USLAW constitution to have people of color and women to be represented as a percentage of their voting to USLAW conventions, meetings, etc. This should be one of the ongoing positions advanced by the MWM in USLAW. This would help to transform the racial/ethnic composition of USLAW from the bottom instead of just having a small People of Color Caucus giving the appearance of being a vehicle for diversity.
Despite many weaknesses in USLAW revolving around issues of the need for greater independence from the Labor bureaucracy, the need of more leadership of People of Color and more depth and actions that mobilize the rank-and-file and social movements, USLAW has made an important contribution in building anti war presence in the formal structures of US labor unions-helped to get anti war resolutions passed in many local, state bodies and national unions.
USLAW represents a forum for bringing together this anti war milieu to make decisions about how to advance the movement inside of the unions. It is in a key position to play an important role in agitating within the national unions and AFL-CIO around the need for labor to oppose the US war and occupation in Iraq and US Imperialist foreign policy. However, its impact will continue to be a more formal one such as getting resolutions passed and periodic statements from union officials, and therefore limited, without a program to mobilize labor’s rank-and-file in conjunction with the other US social movements and the international anti war movement.
Because of the MWM’s emphasis on mobilizing the rank-and-file and independent political action, it will probably be more exposed to being attacked by the right wing of the labor movement and the forces of the state. For this reason, it is also important to be part of USLAW which is currently a broader trade union network as part of a defensive strategy. This is also why the MWM must guard against “ultra leftism.”
There were periodic references but not deep discussion at the conference about the crisis within the AFL-CIO leadership over restructuring and setting a new direction for the labor movement. However, USLAW and the MWM are in a key position to open up the debate throughout the rank-and-file and to mobilize workers to express their sentiment on major questions such as rank-and-file democracy, US foreign policy, independent political action, racism and sexism. There was no decision by USLAW to organize to intervene in the AFL-CIO struggle.
Organizing around the AFL-CIO debates would be an important opportunity to advance the MWM program or at least several aspects of it as part of building a rank-and-file workers movement. This could help to deepen the discussion of the MWM program within the context of the struggle for a direction for the US labor movement.
The MWM should examine and take forward USLAW decisions into our unions and national network and where possible link them to MWM actions in our areas. We should invite USLAW speakers to MWM and MWM affiliate programs.
The MWM should consider organizing “Which Way Forward for the US Labor Movement” forums throughout the country to draw the trade union and unorganized rank-and-file into discussions about the direction of the labor movement-posing the questions and directions put forth by the AFL-CIO factions and the MWM views.
The MWM should also consider organizing a “Labor Unity Against the War at Home and Abroad” tour made up of speakers from the MWM, USLAW (and Labor Party if possible). They could be organized in each region with representative from each group in the region to hold down on cost and to deepen and expand the regional base. The initiative of the MWM will be one of the key factors in helping to transform USLAW into a more rank-and-file based movement.
The call for Unity with USLAW also stresses the importance of consolidating the MWM’s independence as a young and developing rank-and-file movement. Without rushing into establishing rigid structures, the MWM must establish working subcommittees that give us the means to connect and more clearly define our work and identity. These subcommittees would be connected by the MWM Organizing Committee and regional committees. This will also enable the MWM to more formally participate in/with USLAW and other organizations and not come across as being a “fringe,” “left sectarian” and “opposition” group as several in USLAW want to describe MWM. Our relationship with USLAW should also not be from a perspective of “them and us.” More correctly, it should be “unity and independence.”
As a national network, the MWM must begin to act and report on the proposals agreed to at the MWM Organizing Committee meeting on October 18. There have been important activities since the MWM by activists and local unions that mobilized for and identify with the MWM; public hearings on collective bargaining rights in North Carolina, meetings and demonstrations in Japan and San Francisco in support of the Hotel workers strike. These and other important struggles and campaigns need to be expanded by the MWM network. 12/8/04