Labor Notes Conference 2024, April 19 to 21

by GSU staff rep Mason Van Luven

With a delegation from ILWU Canada and their Young Workers’ Committee, I was given an opportunity to attend North America’s largest trade union biannual conference organized by Labor Notes, a labour media and organizing project which has “… put the movement back in the labor movement since 1979”. This conference was held in Chicago, and it brought together thousands of trade unionists from across the globe to attend workshops and lectures explicitly about winning against our employers and government (which can also be an employer), but also about reforming your union from the bottom-up. Starting on April 19 and finishing on April 21, I was able to hear from trade unionists talk about or explore a number of issues facing the working-class, and how their independent struggles with management, corporations, and even fellow workers were woven together with other trade unionists for us to learn from one another.

What struck me the most about this conference was how rank-and-file members across the
country, across industries, and across different unions were organizing themselves to ensure
that their union was all about one thing: a member-led militancy.

Business Unionism – an important part of your history.

So commonplace is business unionism, many workers – those in unions included – have likely never heard of the alternatives to how a union ought to operate. So often, too, are workers not shown their own history, so by the time they join the workforce they are left without knowing how powerful their labour, if organized with other workers, can actually be.

With reform being the general theme of the conference, what many of these trade unionists
were doing in their own unions was paying homage to the great worker-led struggles of history, and attempting to turn their union away from business unionism, an idea of union bureaucracy devised and then popularized in the post-war era.

Before then, unions had minimal means to be legally recognized in the workplace, which motivated unions to organize more broadly, stretching their efforts into the community. Workers, having no seat at the table, had to demand improved wages through other means – such as job action – instead of at the collective bargaining table we are familiar with today. This resulted in unions which were aggressively member-led, built on mass coalitions around progressive issues to curb employer presence in the media, the community, and in public office.

In the post–war era, things changed. With the federal government applying an emergency P.C. 1003 in 1944 which protected workers’ right to organize, employers were then also required to recognize their workers’ chosen union. This legally strengthened their legitimacy in the workplace, and for the first time in Canadian history, workers thought they could truly sit across from their employers as equals.

This changed the ethos of the labour movement. No more did members have to organize
themselves, parade in the street, publish their own work, or ever worry about poverty. Those in the movement who believed workers should not turn away from their roots, were snuffed out. This, over a generation, took the movement out of the labour movement, as teams of professional staff got cozy with the company with the promise of curbing their members from
mass participation in the workplace, in the political arena, and even in their communities.
This is when union membership became more about it being an insurance policy than as a
means to empower a worker to improve their lot in life while also improving the lot of others.

Reform is coming, and it is working.

I cannot stress how impactful listening to other worker struggles were on me. One session in
particular, entitled “How We’re Turning Our Union Around”, had a Business Agent (which is
equivalent to my role as a Staff Representative) decide to quietly root for a reform caucus in his Teamster Union called “Teamsters for a Democratic Union” (TDU). This was after it was
unveiled that for years executive officers had been finding ways to get allies elected, and selling off union assets to give themselves wage increases. Once his support was shared with these officers, his career was purposely ended a year short of qualifying for retirement. Rather than quit, he kept on fighting with the TDU, which led to a TDU slate being elected, these corrupt officers removed, and a return to an aggressively member-led local.

The same was evident in a meeting with the same UAW workers who took on the Big 3
automakers this past year, and won remarkable victories in the media and for their collective
agreement. TDU, and their impressively organized reform caucus, led the charge on similar
gains against UPS. I heard from teachers and public sector workers who had to literally fight
against elected state representatives, governors, and councilors to make modest gains at the table, whose re-election bid was dependent on “sticking it to these workers”. I heard from
graduate students who saw their tuition rates skyrocket while their teacher/research assistant hours were cut by school administrators. Most impactful by far was listening to the nurses and doctors (yes, doctors are in unions) who were forced to triage patients with minimal resources and staff while administrators cut costs to improve shareholder returns.

(Watch the video here:

Again and again, I heard examples of when workers decide that enough is enough and decide to cast away their apathy to join forces with co-workers, their lives literally improve. The first leap for many of them, after being frustrated union members for years (and sometimes decades) was getting involved.

What did I learn from this conference?

Education, education, and education. Absent a solid curriculum for workers to learn about their history, seeing beyond our own workplace or career experience does not come naturally. We are all underpaid and overworked, yet we – the collective – refrain from coming together to admit this fact. This is nothing new; what has changed is the current circumstances we find ourselves in.

Another lesson I learned was that no one is apathetic. We all care deeply about something or someone; we just sometimes need a nudge to put that care into improving our workplace, or for our care to point in the right direction. We will spend the majority of our lives working and a lot of that time with the same people. Yet if those relationships are not tapped into, and then organized, that group of workers are leaving a lot of power untapped which could be utilized to improve their material conditions. If you are unionized, to expand on this point more, an important aspect of your membership is to give you the opportunity to be more bold with management, to stick your neck out to advocate for ways to improve your workplace.

From that lesson, I learned that divisions amongst workers is what keeps us weak. We find these specific if not meaningless things to keep us from engaging with other workers, which has the intended effect of keeping us disorganized. Worse yet, some workers use those divisions to their advantage, therein playing a game with the boss the boss plays better. Again, I heard from trade unionists across the world who fight with peers that would rather sell everyone out for a nickel, when coming together could mean everyone gets a dime.


Hope is not lost. The working-class, which is increasingly inclusive of those who can barely feed themselves, have the collective power they once had. The barriers to accessing them are new or reformed (e.g. a growing anti-union consultancy industry), but are nothing we cannot overcome. What we do have to overcome is the division we place amongst ourselves. Whether it is by age, skin colour, ethnicity, or any other minor difference we can find. Another is discarding whatever apathy we have, tapping into what we care for, and doing so to improve the lot of others.

Your union is merely the representation of our charter right to participate in a free society, and serves as a permanent organization which legitimizes our fight and provides permanent
resourcing for it. As proud as these trade unionists I met were of their union, they were not “union members first”, they were “whole workers” who tapped into the power of their union – an organization which finds its strength from its membership.

What I participated in:

Workshops I participated in:

  1. Building a Member-Organizer Program

    Plenary Sessions:
    • How We’re Turning Our Unions Around
    • Using Popular Education to Rethink Trainings
    • Organizing in ‘Right-to-Work’ states
    • Burnout: What can we do about it together?
    • Coordinated Bargaining with a Common Employer
    • Canadian Workers’ Meeting
    • Organizing Remotely and Organizing from Square One

      Watch live sessions here: