The “Troublemakers” of the Labor Movement Gather in Chicago

The “Troublemakers” of the Labor Movement Gather in Chicago

The “Troublemakers” of the Labor Movement Gather in Chicago

The Labor Notes conference explodes, with growing ranks of unionists, new organizers taking on goliaths like Amazon and Starbucks, and veterans invigorated by reform victories.


On Friday, April 19, Zach Costello’s coworkers at the Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volkswagen plant were voting overwhelmingly to unionize in a historic first for workers at a foreign-owned auto plant in the South. But Costello wasn’t in Tennessee that night—he was in Chicago for the Labor Notes conference alongside 4,700 other rank-and-file organizers, union leaders, and self-proclaimed “troublemakers,” who were gathered to share strategies, make connections, and rally around a common vision for an assertive, member-led labor movement. That night, at a reception hosted by Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), the reform caucus of the UAW, a projector displayed the vote count as it ticked up toward victory, the crowd frequently erupting in cheers. “I wish I was there,” Costello told me. “But this experience has been so empowering. I’ve never felt so small and so strong at the same time.”

The duality of humility and power that Costello described embodies the spirit of the Labor Notes conference. During workshops, industry-specific meetups, and ballroom-shaking keynote addresses, workers steeled themselves strategically and spiritually for the big fights of the year ahead, for warehouse workers, flight attendants, autoworkers, and more. For them, strong, fighting unions aren’t just an ideal to aspire to—they’re a necessity for workers facing increasingly consolidated industries, stagnant wages, and omnipresent messaging from management that workers don’t have the power to change their lives. “At Labor Notes what was on display was the link between transforming your union and more militant strikes that deliver for workers and their communities,” said Luis Feliz Leon, a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes. “Who doesn’t want to join a fighting union?”

Labor Notes is a publication and organizing outfit that literally wrote the book on building collective power in your workplace—its Secrets of a Successful Organizer is a guidebook for those looking to organize a union in a new workplace or get members more engaged in their existing union. It was founded by socialists in 1979 to “put the movement back in the labor movement” after decades of what they saw as union officials selling out the members by accepting conciliatory deals with bosses in closed-door contract negotiations. Labor Notes still leads a workshop on “What to Do When Your Union Breaks Your Heart.”

Early iterations of the conference in the 1980s saw gatherings of a few hundred unionists and activists. In the past few years, the conference has exploded, as the ranks of fighting unionists have expanded with a new generation of fired-up organizers taking on goliaths like Amazon and Starbucks and veterans invigorated by reform movement victories in the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters. The gathering, and the democratic spirit it embodies, has grown so mighty that “the bureaucracy can’t dismiss it anymore,” said Rand Wilson, a four-decade union organizer. “We’ve broken through for recognition.”

The Chattanooga victory was a major stride in the UAW’s ambitious plan to unionize 150,000 workers, particularly in the South, a common rallying point during the conference as proof positive of courageous organizing. Shawn Fain, president of the UAW and a member of the reform caucus UAWD that has championed a worker-led vision of organizing, spoke during the closing ceremony on Sunday to thunderous applause and multiple standing ovations. Fain and a slate of other reformers were voted into union leadership in 2022 after a corruption scandal revealed that UAW officials were taking cash payoffs in exchange for concessions in contract negotiations, and using union dues for lavish personal expenses. The UAW’s current bold organizing campaign is the result of years of organizing by reformers to secure members’ right to vote for their leadership and push for a more open bargaining process. Speaking before the standing-room-only ballroom, Fain declared, “The working class is the arsenal of democracy and workers are the liberators.”

Fain, who has invoked scripture and brandished his grandmother’s weathered Bible in rallying calls to autoworkers on the picket line, said he brought a different kind of bible to the conference—A Troublemakers Handbook, the 1991 Labor Notes book on “how to fight back where you work—and win!” “This was my bible when I became a union rep,” he said. “It taught me how to fight the boss. How to fight company unionism.” Holding up his highlighted copy, Fain said, “This bible taught me another kind of faith. It taught me faith in the membership. It taught me faith in the working class. And it’s that faith that carried the UAW to our new chapter in history.”

Organizers who are ushering in that new chapter came to the conference to share dispatches from the front lines and learn concrete skills for new organizing. One of them is David Johnston, an autoworker at a Mercedes-Benz battery plant in Vance, Alabama, where workers will hold a union election on May 13. At Labor Notes, Johnston met Costello from the Chattanooga plant, and Samantha Seiz, who works for Rivian, Amazon’s electric vehicle manufacturer, at an Illinois plant. “It’s great because we are all experiencing the same struggles,” he told me. “We’re all experiencing the same lies, the same union-busting tactics.”

Johnston said these conversations made him feel more equipped to combat the anti-union talking points he often hears from coworkers. “Everybody in the South has stigmas towards unions because of how they were raised, especially after the days of Ronald Reagan,” he said. When he tried to talk to coworkers about the benefits of unionizing, “Nobody wanted to hear it. Nobody wanted to talk about it. And the people that were willing to listen, they were like, in theory, that’d be great. [But] there just wasn’t anybody wanting to act on it.”

Seeing what UAW workers won from the Big Three auto manufacturers after their six-week strike last fall, including a 25 percent wage increase and the elimination of a two-tier wage system, changed the conversation around unionizing at Johnston’s Alabama plant. “Immediately after the Big Three contracts, everybody was talking about the union,” he said. “Everybody wanted to get involved. Because everybody finally got to see what’s actually possible, what workers actually have the power to do.”

To learn about strategies to combat union busting, Johnston attended a workshop on “inoculation,” or how to prepare coworkers for fear tactics from the boss. It gave him an idea—a bingo card with common anti-union talking points he could hand out for coworkers to fill out during captive-audience meetings, mandatory meetings managers can hold with workers to convey anti-union messages. “It’s disrespectful to insult our intelligence every single day,” he said. “If you bring out all the facts, [management] knows they’re going to lose that conversation.”

At the conference, Johnston has been preparing not just for the election in a few weeks but also for what comes after that—how to negotiate a strong contract and organize members to stay engaged during and after the bargaining process. He said he’ll bring what he’s learned back to other members of the organizing committee. “Coming here, I’ve learned so much,” he said, “And I feel like at the same time I haven’t learned near enough.”

In over 200 workshops and meetings, workers dug into the nitty-gritty work of organizing, from 10-minute conversations in parking lots outside work to the ins and outs of contract negotiations. Connie Wilder and Laura Hollis, who have been nurses at Good Samaritan Hospital in Massachusetts for two decades, came to the conference to sharpen these skills during a time of precarity for them and other members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “We’re at a hospital that is for-profit, and that company has, over the last eight to 10 years, basically extracted every penny out of the system that they can and now we’re on the brink of either closing…or having another company buy us,” said Wilder. “So we feel as though this is a great opportunity for us to grow our membership strength so that if we do get bought out by another for-profit, we’re stronger.”

One symbol was particularly prominent at this year’s conference—the keffiyeh, often draped over union T-shirts. Several panels focused on the role of the labor movement in Palestinian solidarity, covering topics including knowing your rights around political speech at work and how to talk to your coworkers about Palestine. Taher Dahleh, a Palestinian CWA member and Verizon field technician, said he “felt the importance of the strong Palestine focus at this year’s Labor Notes on a personal level.” During the conference, Israeli forces raided the Nur Shams refugee camp in Dahleh’s home city of Tulkarem in the West Bank.

Beyond pronouncements of solidarity, Dahleh says the workshops he attended focused on ways workers can exert material pressure against the war. At one workshop, a Scottish member of the UK union Unite who works at a factory that produces F35s in Edinburgh shared a story about how he and his coworkers organized a picket that shut down the factory for the day. “Stopping arms flow to Israel is a critical task for the labor movement, and also one that is very difficult to achieve,” said Dahleh. “The importance of getting concrete examples on how to do it…cannot be put into words.”

A broader international labor solidarity was on display at the conference. Cesar Orta, an organizer with the Independent Union of Audi Mexico Workers, linked the struggles of autoworkers across borders in his speech during the Sunday ballroom session. Orta and his coworkers launched a strike in January of this year in the first auto strike in Mexico in decades, securing a double-digit wage increase. “However, our wages are still far below yours,” he said. “These companies are using the distance and low wages to divide us. So that’s why we have to unite to keep US jobs in the US and improve the working conditions and salaries of workers in Mexico.” His remarks ended with a promise: “If we need to defend workers with our blood, we will.”

The conference’s Friday night ceremony featured remarks by Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, a former member of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) who helped build the union’s first organizing department in 2010. The CTU backed Johnson’s run for mayor last year as part of a strategy to build a coalition of community groups, unionists, and elected officials to advance a progressive economic vision for the city. In her introduction of Johnson on Friday night, Labor Notes Editor Alexandra Bradbury said, “It is pretty rare to elect a mayor who comes from the fighting wing of the labor movement. And it speaks to the power that teachers and workers in Chicago have built.” Johnson was the only government official who spoke at the conference, which primarily focused on building power through shop-floor organizing. As Fain said in his speech, “It’s not a CEO that’s gonna save us. It’s not a president that’s gonna save us. It’s not you, it’s not me—it’s us and a united working class is how we’re going to win!”

For Johnston, the Mercedes worker, and other Labor Notes participants, organizing isn’t just about winning better wages and working conditions at their plant—it’s a vehicle to build a democratic labor movement across the South and the country. The difference between this union drive and previous efforts at Mercedes is that this time it was “100 percent worker-led, worker-driven,” he said. “The only people that are going to be able to organize the South are the people who live there.” Three weeks out from the vote, Johnston feels hopeful. “We have the power to change the South. We have the power to change the way people look at unions.”

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