Labor Activists Discuss Quebec City

Against the Current, No. 94, September/October 2001

Stephanie Luce

Russ Davis, Executive Director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, and Hal Leyshon, president of the Washington & Orange Central Labor Council (Vermont), were two of the organizers of the Northeast Labor Committee for Global Justice. The Committee helped mobilize unionists around the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) meetings in Quebec City in April. ATC editorial board member Stephanie Luce interviewed Davis and Leyshon. This article summarizes those interviews.

IN APRIL, SOME 2000 activists including many trade unionists from the New England region crossed the border into Canada to participate in the protests against the FTAA in Quebec City. The numbers weren’t overwhelming, but represented a significant organizing effort on the part of the labor movement. While workers have been affected by corporate driven trade agreements for many years, the labor movement has been slow to take a militant and internationalist stance on trade and globalization issues.

How did this mobilization come about? Since Seattle, students, environmentalists and other activists have been building organizations to protest the corporate model of globalization. In New England, a number of groups came together in the summer of 2000 to form NEGAN: the New England Global Action Network. Founded at the national Jobs with Justice conference in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, NEGAN committed early on to mobilize its forces for the FTAA talks in Quebec City.

The problem was that while NEGAN had a number of labor movement activists among its members, it was clearly not a union-focused organization. At the NEGAN conference that fall, Jobs with Justice and union members discussed the idea of forming another way to mobilize the labor movement for Quebec. They formed the Northeast Labor Committee for Global Justice.

The Committee began by developing training materials: a short video on the FTAA and a four-page supplement to the Jobs with Justice publication The Labor Page, then trained speakers to speak at union meetings and teach-ins. At first, the Committee consisted mostly of people from manufacturing unions–who understood the potential impact of the FTAA because they had seen the massive plant closings and wage concessions brought about by NAFTA–but also reached out to others from health care and other unions, and talked about the indirect and long-term effects of the trade agreements on the labor movement as a whole.

Meanwhile, other labor activists in the region had been mobilizing on their own. In Vermont, a group of activists had come together around the new Vermont Workers’ Center, out of the Vermont living wage campaign, and out of some local organizing drives. This group involved people from Teamsters Local 597, the Teachers (NEA), United Nurses and Allied Professionals (UNAP), Vermont State Employees Association, and some manufacturing unions, including the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) and UNITE!

The Vermont group joined forces with the Northeast Labor Committee, setting their own goal of getting forty union members to the Quebec protests. The Committee pushed the national AFL-CIO to participate in the Quebec actions, which was successful to a limited extent. Although the federation did not contribute much in the way of resources or organizing, they did give their blessing to the protests, and helped by sending some staff as speakers to New England area teach-ins and conferences.

Another organizing tool was a pledge, opposing the FTAA and calling on workers to organize around it. “We were remarkably successful in getting labor leaders to sign on,” said Hal Leyshon.
“We encountered no opposition. We just told people, `This is what John Sweeney wants you to do.’” In the end, about 50-60 union and labor council presidents signed.

The Protests

While there has been some confusion about labor’s participation in the protests, Davis and Leyshon have a similar interpretation of events. Many labor folks had arrived in Quebec by Friday, on the day of the direct action march. Leyshon himself participated in that, going up to the wall, where a number of labor affinity groups joined the large crowd of protestors.

Saturday morning was the official peaceful “March of the Americas.” According to Davis, the Quebec Federation of Labor had worked for many months with other labor groups to plan a march that would go near the security wall then veer away, to the Sports Arena in the suburbs. They sought to involve large numbers of members, including those new to protesting.

The planners believed that many in the labor march would not be willing to risk danger by going to the wall. According to Leyshon, it was clear to march planners that the Canadian public sector union CUPE would break from the march and lead a contingent up to the wall.

The march was large. The New England contingent brought fifteen buses of people to the march, who joined a crowd of about 50,000 people–mostly trade unionists. When CUPE broke away, some of the Vermont labor group followed them, again up to the wall. Davis and Leyshon both point out that it would be incorrect to say that the protests were segregated, with students at the wall and labor in the march. Both note that many labor activists spent the day at the wall–and some who finished the peaceful labor march then returned to the wall.

In addition, CUPE and the Canadian Auto Workers had an official presence at the wall. They had publicly endorsed the direct action, and sent “flying squadrons” to the wall on Saturday in an act of solidarity with the protestors. At the same time, it is true that no U.S. unions endorsed the direct action. According to Leyshon, almost all mobilizing was done through the Northeast Labor Committee, and its constituent locals and labor councils.

International solidarity

Davis and Leyshon feel the Quebec experience was a tremendous success.

First, the organizing gave unions a chance to organize around trade issues with unionists from other countries–primarily Canada, but also from throughout the Western hemisphere. Despite langu<->age problems, U.S. unionists made new relationships.

“Quebec was also a chance for us to create relationships with labor folks from Quebec and eastern Canada,” comments Russ Davis. “We formed a lot of new relationships through this, and we expect that those will be on-going.” The Quebec Federation of Labor helped get New England activists across the border, arranged housing for some of the labor folks, and helped coordinate a “Labor Forum” earlier in the week for unionists across the hemisphere to discuss alternative models of trade and future joint work.

Leyshon felt that the organizing enabled activists to get out a message about the trade agreement that was not framed in protectionist terms. The Vermont group organized a large conference before Quebec, attended by about 200 people, mostly unionists, where the message was not about other workers stealing jobs, but about the need to work together across borders.

Quebec was also an opportunity to get an alternative perspective on trade in the local media. Davis comments, “We knew that there would be lots of media there, and we wanted to use this opportunity to try to have our side heard.”

Activists throughout New England feel that their local media covered the meetings differently because of the protests. Leyshon feels that the labor organizing was a key part of that. The U.S. media had tried to portray globalization protestors as anti-growth, white middle-class college students with too much time on their hands. But the work of the Northeast Labor Committee made the FTAA a labor issue, and an issue for all workers.

“This helped to keep the media from marginalizing the protestors too much. It made it so that the message was that the FTAA was a concern to everybody,” explains Leyshon.

Building Coalitions

Quebec was also a success because it allowed the fragile relationship between labor, environmentalists, youth and other anti-globalization activists to continue. Leyshon notes the struggle of overcoming cultural differences between the two groups, which prompted the need for the separate Northeast Labor Committee. But the groups did work together, and continue to do so in certain events.

For example, at a recent labor action in Vermont, where UE-organized nursing home workers are fighting for a first contract, about thirty-five activists in an Art and Revolution workshop showed up to participate in the protest. And in Boston, the groups worked together in the week following Quebec to host a series of workshops and events called Global Alternatives 2001.

Another difference between the groups is the continuity. In Vermont, the Seattle and A-16 protests had led to the formation of the Vermont Action Network. That group dissolved, but a new one–Vermont Mobilization for Global Justice (V-Mob)–took its place. Student-dominated groups struggle with resources and continuity, adding to the challenge of maintaining an on-going coalition with labor.

Of course, the problems aren’t just on the student side. As Davis notes, “the relations formed through the work, the so-called `blue-green’ alliance of environmentalists and labor, is being challenged again, as unions that participated heavily in Seattle, including the Steelworkers and Teamsters, are coming out in favor of Bush’s energy plan.”

The struggle to get labor to be active, internationalist, and think long term is on-going. “There is a continual struggle within the labor movement,” says Davis. “Even if they pass nice resolutions, it’s not over: We need to continually organize to get labor to maintain these alliances and stay on the right side of the environment and globalization struggles.”

Leyshon was impressed with the way that the Canadian labor movement handled the relationship between more cautious union members and the direct action protestors. Rather than using the potential of violence or civil disobedience as an excuse to stay away from the protests, as the U.S. labor movement seems to be doing, the Canadian labor movement expressed a tremendous amount of solidarity with the direct action groups. Leyshon feels that this was able to allow various groups to contribute in their own way.

Fighting the FTAA

What are the next steps for the Northeast Labor Committee for Global Justice? The fight against Fast Track will be a major concern. Activists continue teach-ins and talking at union meetings. They hope to work with the national AFL-CIO to expand their Labor Committee model across the country.

In Boston, the group has a number of plans. A high priority is to connect local struggles with the larger issue of globalization. Davis points as an example to the Harvard University sit-in demanding a living wage for campus workers.

A lot of the workers at Harvard are immigrants who are in the United States because of the impact of globalization in their home countries. Along these lines, the group is planning some public meetings in Boston’s immigrant communities (Haitian and Brazilian) tying the FTAA to the September 26-October 2 World Bank/IMF mobilizations and the issue of amnesty for immigrant workers.

Leyshon says that Quebec was a very positive thing for the labor movement and labor council, in part because the sheer size of the protests energized the activists. “Being from Vermont, we’d never seen anything like that.”

The Vermonters were amazed to see a labor movement strong enough to mobilize so many of its members, in such a political fashion. Leyshon adds that very practical questions of bargaining and organizing at transnationals in Vermont concretizes the need for greater communication and solidarity with Canadian labor in particular.

Davis and Leyshon both see the need to continue organizing within the labor movement around the “big picture questions” involving trade, globalization and economic development. “Perhaps it’s out of sheer desperation,” remarks Leyshon, “but there seems to be a layer of labor activists willing to consider the big questions now in a way that wasn’t true before, even with NAFTA.”

At the same time, the labor movement must push itself to work with others in the globalization movement, trying to overcome cultural differences. Left labor activists should try not let the issue of violence be used to divide them, and should not themselves fetishize the debates over tactics.

The organizing for Quebec was not only about building a single event, or preparing for a single big protest, but about laying the groundwork for the left to build a long-term movement to change the way in which globalization occurs.

from ATC 94 (September/October 2001)