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2013 next wave conference

July 16, 2013

Attending ‪the third annual Next Wave Conference‬ was a really great experience. I not only had the opportunity to meet and connect with some great people from all over the country, including some fellow socialists within AFSCME (a relatively conservative union historically), I also learned a bit about Detroit labour history that I didn’t know, met two of the 1968 striking black Memphis sanitation workers, and hopefully gained some useful ideas about how to get local members more active and engaged in their union and workplace.

I arrived late Thursday night with others from the Portland area, caught a ride from a good friend of mine to the Renaissance Marriott, and met up with some other Next Wavers from Oregon. We all went out, grabbed a bite to eat at PizzaPapolis (I forgot how awesome Chicago-style deep dish pizza is), and then I retired for the night, making sure to get plenty of rest before the start of the conference.

For those of us who got in early enough, Friday began with a labour history tour of Detroit, which focused on several key locations around the city. Our first stop was the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor & Urban Affairs. Our guide, who works there, gave a brief bio of Reuther, a prominent socialist, labour leader, and the library’s namesake, and explained how many labour-related documents and artifacts were stored there, including a complete history of the UAW, a huge collection of Chavez/UFW material, and AFSCME-related documents spanning the union’s history. A sample of things were provided for the group to view, much of it AFSCME related, such as early documents, photos, and two signs used by the 1968 striking Memphis sanitation workers.

We also learned more about things like the Ford Hunger March, a demonstration of unemployed workers that ultimately ended in over 60 injuries and 5 dead—an event that, in conjunction with others over the next few years, helped lead to the unionization of Ford and the auto industry in general. At the time, auto unions were weak, with no recognition or contracts; and the Depression only made things tougher for desperate workers. One of the responses to this was the Ford Hunger Strike since Ford was one of the primary employers in Detroit, and Henry Ford’s anti-union and racially-discriminatory policies made him an especially prominent target for pro-labour groups and movements.

The march, mainly organized by members of the Communist Party, was peaceful until police attempted to stop it, firing teargas into the crowd and clubbing protesters. The crowd responded by throwing rocks at the police and continued marching towards the Ford River Rouge Complex, who were then confronted by a shower of cold water from fire engines and bullets from the guns of the police and Ford security guards. Four marchers were killed immediately, and one, a black worker named Curtis Williams, later died of his wounds. The four white workers who were killed were buried in the Woodmere Cemetery near the River Rouge plant. The fifth, however, was cremated and his ashes scattered over the River Rouge plant from an airplane because the cemetery wouldn’t allow blacks to be buried there.

From there, the tour left the Wayne State campus and wove through downtown on its way to the River Rouge plant while our guide pointed out points of interest and relayed bits and pieces of Detroit’s history. The tour ended at the plant, where we learned about its history, including the incident known as the Battle of the Overpass involving Walter Reuther. It’s sad how much of Detroit’s labour history has been forgotten, and its radicalism downplayed.

After the tour, the opening ceremony of the conference kicked off at noon in the Renaissance ballroom with a speech by AFSCME’s international president, Lee Saunders, who stressed the necessity of labour unity, connecting public sector and private sector struggles, and coming up with new approaches to the challenges currently facing labour, as well as calling for a “new spirit of militancy.” He noted that today only 11% of the workforce is unionized. More people were in unions 100 years when there “more cows in Detroit than cars,” he said, reinforcing the need for unity among workers in all sectors.

Saunder’s opening speech was followed by a panel discussion with a number of speakers that included two of the 1,300 striking black Memphis sanitation workers, Alvin Turner and Baxter Leach. Out of all the speakers, their words and example inspired me the most, and they deserved the standing ovation they received. In the heart of the south, when racial discrimination was still overt, and with families to support, these two men, along with many others, risked their livelihoods and more to protest unfair treatment and unsafe working conditions, and fight for union recognition for their local, eventually winning “union recognition, dues deduction, wage increases, a four-step grievance procedure ending in arbitration, and end to racial discrimination in promotions and job assignments” after a 65-day strike (with a little help from Martin Luther King, Jr., of course).

After the plenary, the organizers of the conference put together a bit of an ad hoc direct action to show support for local AFSCME members and protest the recent passage of emergency manager and right-to-work legislation (even after voters voted down a similar emergency management law no less). The theme of the action was “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Nerds for Democracy,” a play on Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2010 Super Bowl ad in which he called himself “one tough nerd.”

About 600+ Next Wavers, many wearing ‘nerd gear’ like suspenders, glasses, and pocket protectors, marched from the Renaissance Center to Hart Plaza, gathering in front of the Labor Legacy Landmark to listen to a few speakers explain what’s been taking place since these measures were pasted, and then continued on to City Hall, where both the emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, and Mayor Dave Bing work.

Next Wavers swarmed the lobby, chanting slogans, bewildering pedestrians, and alarming/annoying building security, then filed outside to congregate in front of the Spirit of Detroit to hear a few more speakers, who noted things like the fact Orr can’t find the money to pay for city pension and health programs yet can afford to pay his pals at his former law firm, Jones Day, $1,000 an hour. Passersby, including city workers, honked their support, and we continued our march, circling City Hall before heading back to the Renaissance Center.

While the theme of Friday’s direct action was a bit cheesy and somewhat obscured the deeper aspects of what’s going on in Detroit in my opinion, it was still cool to be a part of and worth doing. Not only because I think attention should be drawn to these kinds of issues, but because it sends a message (as vague as it may be) that working people are willing to organize and fight back against anti-democratic, anti-union, and ultimately anti-worker solutions to problems that have essentially been created by things like broader economic instability and years of capital disinvestment, a message that will hopefully inspire other working people to join the fight.

At this point, I went off on my own to see if I could find Tony downtown, but to no avail. I ended up talking to another homeless guy named Greg and taking him out to lunch instead. I also ordered a few coneys and handed them out to a few hungry people on my way back to the reception. The reception itself was nice enough, with plenty of food and karaoke, but a few of us took the opportunity to split early and head off to the Detroit Institute of Art, which is open until 10pm on Fridays, to admire Detroit’s amazing collection of art—a priceless treasure that’s in danger of being auctioned off to the highest bidder in order to appease the city’s creditors.

Saturday started with a panel discussion with Sommer Foster from Equality Michigan, Rashad Robinson from Color of Change, and Sofia Campos from United We Dream. One of the themes was the importance of developing local connections that can have the potential to lead to national partnerships. During the Q & A portion, Rashad Robinson gave some general advice on how to get people more actively and successfully involved, such as illustrating concrete harm (i.e., how people will be negatively affected by something), finding common ground (i.e., places where you can agree and start working together), avoiding your opponent’s rhetoric (i.e., reframing things in ways to support your position), and providing people with information and resources to help them address and overcome challenges.

Secretary-Treasurer Laura Reyes spoke next, whose speech touched on the importance of having mentors, organizing, and organized labour in general, at one point quoting David Macaray’s response to union-haters from an article in CounterPunch: “After listening to their tiresome litany of complaints (i.e., unions are corrupt, they go on strike too much, their economic gains are eaten up by monthly dues, they’re undemocratic, etc.), I would respond with this: ‘Say what you will about unions, but name another institution that’s solely dedicated to the welfare of working people. Name me one. Just one.’ Of course, no one could name any because there aren’t any.”

Around 11am, we broke up into groups and went to the various workshops we’d registered for earlier. I attended the “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” workshop, which explored options to solving workplace issues outside of the grievance procedure via forms of direct action. During the workshop, we were encouraged to brainstorm things from ways to get members motivated and united in preparation for a direct action to various forms of direct action themselves. One of the things that came up again and again was the importance of getting your message out there since visibility helps put pressure on employers/public officials. Another was the importance of developing relationships with groups and people that can help aid you in the future well before you need them. The usefulness of Member Action Teams in responding to workplace issues was also stressed repeatedly.

The workshops were followed by lunch and the Open Space Technology portion of the conference, which is an interesting way for participants to be more actively involved by allowing them to propose topics and then facilitating discussion groups with other members interested in exploring the same topics. A number of people proposed topic ideas via Twitter or by coming up to a microphone that were then broken up into two rounds of discussions hosted in the various meeting rooms. The first one I attended was about internal organizing and ways of getting members more involved in their locals. I found this one to be the more helpful of the two I participated in, and it gave me some ideas to take back to my local E-Board (which I hope to write up soon).

The second was about alternatives to simply supporting the Democratic Party based on the premise that decades of doing so hasn’t stopped the decline of organized labour or the Democrat’s political slide to the right, and that more time and money should be spent on organizing and direct actions. And while interesting (and something I personally agree with), it wasn’t as practically useful. The night ended with a cook-out hosted by Council 25, with plenty of food, music, and dancing.

The final day of the conference began with workshops. I went to the “Ultimate Action” workshop, which I went to because I mistakenly thought it was about running for union and public offices, but was just about running for public office. It was still interesting, though, to see all the things that go into organizing a successful campaign. Next up was the closing plenary, which started with a moment of silence for Trayvon Martin and a speech by Saunders venting his frustration over the verdict, vowing AFSCME would join NAACP in pursuing civil rights charges. Then everyone had time to share some of the things they’d learned or ideas they came up with during the Open Space discussions the previous day. The closing plenary finished with a speech from Van Jones, a former White House adviser and current president of Rebuild the Dream.

The day was overshadowed by the not-guilty verdict, and Jones opened by apologizing to our generation for having to deal with these kinds of issues in this day and age. He quipped that black children have to wear tuxedos just to go the store so they’re not stalked by strangers with guns, and noted wryly that the Martin family has been forced to repeatedly call for restraint and non-violence from supporters while the Zimmerman family hasn’t had to do the same to vigilantes like Zimmerman. But he also said that the youth of today have the power to make a difference with our numbers, our access to modern technology, and through our progressive values, courage, and militancy. “The US government,” he said, “put a man on the moon with less computing power than you have in our pockets. When you realize the phone in your pocket is a tool, not a toy, that is when your power will be realized.”

With that, the conference was officially over, and those that had to catch early flights began their migration to the airport. Those of us sticking around for a bit longer, however, had the opportunity to take a second tour, this time to the Detroit Institute of Art to view Diego Rivera’s famous Detroit Industry murals and learn about their history and meaning. The thing I most appreciated about them is the way they romanticize the workers and the production process rather than the commodities being produced. In all the murals commissioned by Edsel Ford and depicting industry at the Ford Motor Company, only one, small finished car be seen off in the distance—it’s the workers who clearly take centre stage.

After learning about the history of the murals, both from a political as well as an artistic perspective, we had a couple of hours to explore the DIA on our own. I spent some of the time with comrades from Minnesota, and the rest on my own, spending the majority of it wandering through the Modern, Contemporary, Medieval and Renaissance, and Dutch Golden Age sections, admiring the artwork and letting everything I learned the last few days sink in. Like I said, it was a really great experience.

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