Flickers of a Resurgent Labor Movement: Our Report from Labor Notes ’22

By Black Rose / Rosa Negra Labor Committee

Over the weekend of June 17-19, some 4,000 union members and affiliates congregated in Chicago for the 2022 Labor Notes Conference. Owing both to the fact that the biennial conference had been postponed in 2020 and to a modest (but nonetheless exciting) uptick in new union activity in recent months, most notably at Amazon and Starbucks, this year’s event set a new record for attendance.

Labor Notes began its life in 1979 as a monthly newsletter intending to challenge the sedate business and service models of AFL-CIO affiliated unions. The newsletter focused on spotlighting and linking together rank-and-file reform caucuses within these unions. Today, Labor Notes the periodical lives on, while Labor Notes the organization has dramatically expanded in scope to support year round “troublemaker” training schools and a publishing wing, in addition to its growing conference.

Labor Notes the organization acts on the social-political, or intermediate level, within the US (and Canadian) labor movement. Its goals revolve around developing a tendency within the labor movement oriented toward union democracy, militant action and reviving strikes, aggressive new organizing, internationalism, and building union reform caucuses. It does not promote revolutionary politics, and keeps the focus on unity around these more short term union tactics. In the last several decades, it has created probably the largest identifiable and conscious left tendency in US and Canadian labor and its conference is one of the only places for national, cross-industry rank and file labor collaboration. 

The conference itself is a three day affair made up of some 100+ workshops, panel discussions, and trainings covering a range of topics—from analyses of esoteric labor law to beginner discussions on how to inoculate one’s co-workers against union busting tactics.

Labor Notes 2022, Friday night ballroom plenary session (photo by Chris Brooks/@chactivist)

In both 2018 and 2022, Black Rose/Rosa Negra’s (BRRN) Labor Committee sent members to the conference in an effort to: 

  • Build relationships with other rank-and-file workers in the industries where we have an active presence, such as healthcare, construction, K-12 and higher education, and food service
  • Further our practical knowledge and skills in workplace organizing
  • Develop a better understanding of the current state of US labor struggles
  • Build a public presence for anarchism and anarchist perspectives in the labor movement

With two years of attendance now under our belt, we’ve made hundreds of new contacts in our industries, participated on several conference panels, connected with other anarchist and libertarian socialist attendees, and reaped valuable skills that we’ve applied to our own fights.

At the 2018 conference, BRRN hosted a semi-formal Red & Black Party which featured speakers from the IWW Burgerville Workers Union, teachers involved in the Red for Ed strikewave, and Polish Amazon workers involved in the anarcho-syndicalist union Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers’ Initiative). Though BRRN didn’t host a public gathering at the conference in 2022, we intend to renew the practice in the future.

While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Labor Notes in general and the conference in particular—that it attracts a significant number of union staffers, that it’s overly focused on changing the leadership of business unions instead of addressing the need to totally rethink the structure of unions from top to bottom, or that it gives too much space to progressive figureheads in the labor movement—we’ve found that the center of gravity at the conference is ordinary rank-and-file workers grappling with difficult questions on how best to approach rebuilding the US labor movement. In this sense, Labor Notes is an important site of experimentation for workers to discuss and debate strategy and tactics, and to learn from one another about how to best move forward.

These discussions are peppered by various expressions of the organized left, some operating openly—selling newspapers, tabling, or hosting parties—and others keeping a low profile. While the Democratic Socialists of America were by far the dominant political force at this year’s conference, there is still plenty of space for other left tendencies to maneuver and build poles of attraction. Anarchists can and should be a more forceful presence among them.

Anarchism has deep roots in the US labor movement, reflected particularly in the history of Chicago—where the Labor Notes conference is held—from the Haymarket Riot and the Central Labor Union to the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World and the “Chicago Idea” of the International Working People’s Association. But like much of the left, anarchists have limited ties to current struggles in the workplace, a crucial point of leverage in the fight against exploitation and domination.

To reclaim the influence we once wielded in the labor movement and to play a role in developing its revolutionary potential, anarchists need to be embedded in a wide-range of rank-and-file struggles and organizations on the shopfloor, inside and outside existing bureaucratic unions, and to be building public examples of anarchist labor struggle. Our task is to rebuild a tradition of class struggle unionism from the bottom up, characterized by class independence, direct action, direct democracy, rank-and-file control, solidarity and internationalism. We believe that right now an important part of that work is making connections with other militant rank and file workers to establish industrial networks across the country that can support otherwise isolated revolutionaries, develop and promote a stronger shared anarchist perspective on worker organizing for our specific conditions, and prepare a foundation for larger upsurges of revolutionary struggle.

While the current energy, activity, and excitement around unions marks a bright spot in otherwise troubling times, we are far from the militant labor movement that is urgently needed to confront the cascading crises that have cast a dark shadow over the entire globe. But we remain committed to turning the tide.