Labor Notes 2018: More than just unions in the labor movement

CHICAGO—When people hear about the “labor movement,” they think “unions.” While that is certainly true, the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society joined a major labor gathering in Chicago hosted by a group that is, like the WES itself, a non-union labor group.



More than 2,500 grassroots labor activists, “worker center” leaders, union members, union officers, and community activists gathered at the Labor Notes 2018 Conference at the O’Hare Airport Hyatt, hoping to spread what they say is their “fighting spirit.”


The conference’s 200 meetings from April 6-8 included sessions on creative organizing tactics, beating apathy, running for local union office, winning contract campaigns, bargaining over technology, understanding the economy, and life after “right to work.”


Tony Pecinovsky, the president of the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society and his colleague Al Neal, a lead organizer for the group, spoke at one panel about their unique organization. There is, however, a similar hybrid community-labor group in the San Jose area.


Pecinovsky’s WES started out in spring 2014 in an attempt to fill a huge gap in St. Louis, between the large numbers of African-Americans seeking jobs on which they could earn a decent living and the number of those jobs available.


A small band of community activists reached out to retired and active members of the skilled trades unions, including the Operating Engineers and the Painters to begin addressing the problem. Missouri Women in Trades joined in. The unions and the activists put together an apprenticeship training operation, reaching out to community members who could benefit.


At least 80 people who signed up for training provided by the Painters have since become skilled apprentices making a union wage. “In some parts of the country, the skilled trades aren’t known for being the most proactive in reaching out to minorities,” Pecinovsky said. “But in St. Louis that is not the case, and we have succeeded in building a relationship between community and labor unions.”


“We focus on worker education,” not on challenging companies directly or on lawsuits, Pecinovsky said. He gave as an example his group’s recent campaign to teach people about the dangers of so called right-to-work legislation passed in Missouri. The GOP-proposed law is currently sidelined after a successful AFL-CIO-led campaign garnered 375,000 signatures to push the measure onto the ballot to be decided by the people directly..


Pecinovsky differentiates between more traditional workers’ centers and his organization: “They do organizing for day laborers or immigrants, for example, where some of the main line unions do not. Our work is educational in nature but just as necessary.”


“On the other hand, we have plenty to learn from them. It is always good to hear the experiences of other folks in this very big, very broad labor movement we have in this country.”


Other conferees were eager to learn new tactics and structures for organizing and energizing workers. “We organized our union at Lipton Tea a year ago and just won our first contract,” said Anita Anderson of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 in Suffolk, Va. It’s the first tea company organized in North America. Labor Notes, first-time attendee Anderson said, is “a place where people like me can learn, I hope, to make our unions stronger.”

Source: PAI