Emergency Labor Meeting Held in Cleveland: Union Radicals Plan Left Response to War on Workers
By John Pietaro
Cleveland, OH: In the months before the embattled atmosphere over Wisconsin descended upon its working people, several veteran labor activists, Donna DeWitt, Jerry Gordon and Mark Dudzic among them, saw the urgency mounting. Reaching out to other established leaders, including Bill Fletcher (who, regrettably was instrumental in planning but unable to make the meeting itself), they began to conceptualize an “Emergency Labor Meeting”, a core gathering of union troublemakers, to begin the daunting task of building a new, far more radical front in the ranks of labor: “to explore together what we can do to mount a more militant and robust fight-back campaign to defend the interests of working people”. In that period—highlighted by burgeoning unemployment, alarming foreclosure rates, startling municipal budget cuts, and increasingly anti-worker noise from the Right—they could hardly have known that a rather revolutionary upsurge was destined for middle America.
South Carolina’s labor boss Donna DeWitt called on the militants in her reach, a lot that is more numerous and loud than we northerners have come to expect. One of them was Russell Bannan, currently an AFT organizing director in Colorado but with roots firmly planted in Southern labor. Barron reached out to this writer with an almost insistent invitation to join this growing alliance planning to meet in Cleveland, March 4th to 6th. This young old friend drove a hard bargain which included the possibility of my leading the group in labor songs. “Oh damn, Cleveland”, I thought. I still had bad memories of a frozen, mandatory ten-day assignment there when I was employed in a political action assignment a few years ago by 1199 SEIU. But, still, I considered that this would probably end up being one of those events I would seriously regret missing. And okay, these days I am back home in the warmth of another progressive NYC union, AFSCME DC 1707, where I’d worked for some years in the past. No, there’d be no trouble getting out to Cleveland. There was no reason not to go….
“But brother”, Russell clarified, “right now let’s keep this quiet. We are being very careful in the early stages of this—it’s a small select group of activists coming together to lay a foundation for what’s to come. We cannot go public till there’s a secure start”. These were not the easiest times to forge a militant labor arm, even before Madison erupted.
WITH WISCONSIN NOW GLARINGLY PRESENT and conservative politicians everywhere talking trash about public employees, I boarded a jet out of JFK. The steering committee had reserved Cleveland’s Laborers’ Hall for our conference, one adorned with banners celebrating the various craft locals which were the building blocks of this union over the past century and a half. It all seemed quite symbolic of our hopes to grow a movement, or at least plant the seeds for same. For me, far from idealistic anymore but in need of something, Emergency Labor’s call to rekindle the radicalism of the 1930s couldn’t be more relevant now.
As the attendees filed into the hall, down in front was a smallish, unassuming woman struggling with a flip chart. It was Donna DeWitt. Taking the time to look up and smile even in the last-minute crush of preparation, the nickname given her by some in her circle, “Mother DeWitt” seemed to make perfect sense. After offering a warm greeting and accepting my offer to help with some of the presentation set-up, Donna called the meeting to order. The room filled.
Fraternal gestures aside, the agenda was serious, the meeting itself quite the experiment. A bottom-up conference designed not to establish a manifesto but to create an outline and principles to bring back to the members of our various unions in this emergent atmosphere. This was to be no partisan frolic. Madison was in the forefront of all of our thoughts, as were the other battle-ground sites. Welcoming remark by Harriet Applegate, Executive Secretary of Ohio’s Northern Shore AFL-CIO, dropped fanfare for fact. She informed the group that her state’s public workers were facing a challenge not unlike that of their Wisconsin sisters and brothers, including a bill which sought to take bargaining rights. Here was one more area in which public employees had become the object of scorn instead of the financial greed-meisters who’d created the recession we now struggle through.
In the throes of battle, the first panel discussion focused on Wisconsin and explored how we might be able to help the cause. David Newby, president emeritus of that state’s AFL-CIO, offered up-to-the-minute accounts of the tumult in Madison. Newby, a tall, strong-featured man with thick graying hair, reflected the stress of the moment in his very gaze. His was a somber message, offering perhaps greater concern for the potential for demoralization if Wisconsin’s arch-Right governor is successful in his drive to break collective bargaining rights for public workers. The occasional smiles and light comments Newby offered indicated a hope that was clouded by deep concern for not only the Madison protestors but the movement as a whole. So strong were his feelings that when he was later scheduled to speak again, he requested of the moderator that his not be the closing comments, lest the anxiety of his statement cast a pall on the proceedings. But, no, his talk only spurred on the sense of fight, the need for success. Plans were laid for a big presence at the next large Madison rally next week, 3/12. In anticipation of a possible outcome of this struggle in Madison, one was reminded of Joe Hill’s famous edict, “Don’t mourn, organize”. There couldn’t be a more prominent contemporary example.
Other speakers on this panel included celebrated labor leader Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422, that which received global attention some years back during the Charleston Five case. Ken has been defiantly fighting off the racists, corrupt bosses, rogue government agents and complacent union brass throughout his career. A genteel but firm man, Riley maintains a youthful pleasantness and enthusiasm which belies his decades of radicalism. He offered the kind of militancy that would pervade over this weekend when he spoke of the need for a general strike. Recognizing the great difficulties associated with this advanced action, he nevertheless reminded us of the strength of the longshoremen’s’ position, particularly in collaboration with ground transportation workers; they can stop the wheels of capital. Imagine if you will the grip this cold have on the nation if both the ILA and ILWU, in conjunction with other strategic unions, chose to act. Imagine. This would not be the only point in which one of the speakers or the other near one hundred attendees, would raise the specter of general strike. But the building toward more concrete, immediate plans was the principle agenda here in Cleveland—the planting of seeds.
The evening closed with a song. I was proud to lead this fired-up crowd in a rendition of “We Shall Not Be Moved” which included a verse about Wisconsin. The walls vibrated with the intensity of the moment. Later, many of us gathered in a hotel bar, engaging in discussion deep into the night. Free-flowing talk allowed every school of Left and liberal thought to intermingle productively. The consensus, happily, was that an alliance among all progressives was essential. But the comradely talk reached well beyond politics. My advocacy of the need for a cultural component in this movement led to discussion of the arts in general and I enjoyed spending considerable time with Jerry Tucker, an elder statesman of labor who’d been an instrumental figure on the UAW’s international board. An intellectual, soft spoken gentleman of character, Jerry was about as well-versed on issues of jazz music, English literature or Left history as he was about organized labor.
Saturday, March 5th was a full work day for us. I awoke bleary-eyed but most inspired. After engaging in a wonderful breakfast with Ken Riley—and recognizing his formidable talents as a prime mover who should have national AFL-CIO aspirations—the panel discussion began. These included “Labor Under Attack”, “Labor and Public Sector Unions”, “Labor and the Wars and Occupation”, and “Labor and Political Action”. Speakers ranged from many of the public and private sector unions and hailed from 26 states. Among them were the afore-mentioned as well as Clarence Thomas (ILWU Local 10 Exec Board and a founder of the Million Worker March), Sal Roselli (NUHW president who led successful campaigns against formidable SEIU battle), Bill Henning (VP of CWA Local 1180 and national board member of USLAW), and Cherrene Horzuk (chief steward, AFSCME Local 3800) who spoke on the urgent topic of an FBI investigation of members who now faced federal charges due to their support of Columbian unionists). Also on hand was Saladin Muhammad (Black Workers for Justice), Patrician Frost-Brooks (Ohio’s Education Association) and noted labor journalist Steve Early.
While some of the attendees offered reasonable concern that this might just turn out to be another feel-good weekend of preaching to the choir, , well-conceived planning was prominently discussed to be sure this would not be the outcome. DeWitt had made good use of that flip-chart in the course of the days and she, by the final hour, brandished page after page of points raised by the speakers and those who took to the audience microphones to add commentary. . Multi-colored felt tip notes accentuated by circles and arrows led toward the language needed for where we can take this.
In the days to follow, both a website, a list-serve and a Facebook page will allow this body to have a presence beyond the hall we met in, even as the vision for this committee continues to develop. Most of us seek for a permanent version of what we during these chilly, rainy days in Cleveland helped to give birth to.
A public report was released widely almost immediately after the meeting’s close and all present are asked to go back to their own membership for the means to engage in continued activism toward social justice, an end to war and an urgent, militant response to the current rhetoric against unions. Plans are now being laid for outreach into the larger progressive community to build toward a larger, mass meeting. Other notable declarations included lending a voice to both the March 12 rally in Wisconsin and the upcoming April 4 Day of Action recently endorsed by the AFL-CIO in remembrance of Dr King (April 4 will be the anniversary of his assassination). Additionally, the Emergency Labor Meeting participants called for a “We Are All Wisconsin” campaign to lend immediate national support in this class war being thrust upon the workers from the right-wing politicians and talking heads.The time is now.