The 2022 Labor Notes convention will be taking place in a few days in Chicago. Organizers expect nearly four thousand attendees to gather for the first time in several years, which could make it the largest convention in its forty year history. The 2020 convention was postponed twice—like many conferences and conventions—due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so there actually hasn’t been a Labor Notes convention since 2018. And, of course a lot has happened since then, to say the least.
Among the dramatic events of the last few years that are shaping the upcoming convention are: the Covid-19 pandemic, the near collapse of the healthcare system, the shutdown of the economy, the “discovery” of essential workers, the Black Lives Matter national uprising, massive federal spending to cope with the shutdown, the end of the Trump presidency and then his failed coup attempt, the labor shortage, the early optimism in the Biden administration and then it rudderless aftermath, war in the heart of Europe, the electoral defeat and resurgence of the Trumpite right, the possible end of legalized abortion and Roe v. Wade, a mini-strike wave in 2021, and the highest inflation in four decades.
We should remember that the last Labor Notes convention in 2018 also took place at a moment of optimism for the labor movement. It was a huge event, then maybe the largest in its forty year history, and captured the spirit of the Red State teachers revolt and the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The interest and likely large turnout demonstrates both the optimism and eagerness to push forward the struggles at Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and the Teamsters at UPS, where there is talk of a national strike in 2023. These are good things to be happy about but the 2022 convention also takes place in a much bleaker political landscape.
The raging inflation—the highest since 1981—has dramatically cut working class living standards across the country, tearing to shreds what little optimism remained in the Biden administration. ABC New reports:
The prices of gas, food and most other goods and services jumped in May, raising inflation to a new four-decade high and giving American households no respite from rising costs.
Consumer prices surged 8.6% last month from a year earlier, faster than April’s year-over-year increase of 8.3%, the Labor Department said Friday. The new inflation figure, the highest since 1981, will heighten pressure on the Federal Reserve to continue raising interest rates aggressively.
Rampant inflation is imposing severe pressures on families. Lower-income and Black and Hispanic Americans, in particular, are struggling because, on average, a larger proportion of their income is consumed by necessities.
Inflation is costing the average U.S. family more than $340 a month compared to last year at this time. Many U.S. workers rely on their cars to get to work, get groceries, and shuttle their kids to school and the rising cost of gasoline is the most visible sign of inflation, but we don’t know anyone that hasn’t been shocked by rising prices everywhere. Most people in this country are worried about the economy and the Biden administration is largely stuck around 41% overall approval rating but is polling far worse on its handling of the economy.
If the Biden administration is stumbling around with no answer to the inflation crisis and the specter of a recession on the horizon, neither do the highest officials in the U.S. trade union movement. Where are demands to nationalize the oil companies—the most hated corporations in the history of the modern world—or price controls for essential goods and services? Who are the union leaders afraid of offending? The business unionism that has proved so disastrous for the U.S. labor movement for the past four still has an ideological stranglehold on it, preventing it from making political demands that will clash with the Biden administration and the privileges of Big Capital.
Biden and the Democrats largely view the inflation crisis as a “problem from hell” that only the Federal Reserve Bank can solve through a slow motion “cooling” of the economy, i.e. raising unemployment and slowing wage gains. Such a policy may make the Wall Street banking community happy but it will push large numbers of workers and their families over their precarious edge. People are already pissed and disillusioned. This sets up the possibility that many labor voters will sit out the upcoming elections or look to other solutions to their problems, like the reinvigorated Trumpite right personified by J.D. Vance. While this is not inevitable, the window is closing fast on stopping this.
For those of us who lived through the Vietnam War-era initiated inflation of the 1970s, it is hard to forget that inflation provided popular support for neoliberal policies and the triumph of what was then called the New Right in U.S. politics. The hapless presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977-81) was easily defeated by Ronald Reagan, who rode to victory on U.S. workers’ economic anxiety. The addition of Bernie Sanders as a keynote speaker at this year’s Labor Notes convention appears to be an effort to give political expression to our concerns. But, as we have learned through his two failed campaigns, the Democratic party leadership is not interested.
Tempest Collective members will be at Labor Notes. We’ve put together a hard copy issue of the “Best of Tempest” labor reporting and analysis for sale. Many of our regular readers know we have taken a more critical stance on many of the contract settlements coming out of last year’s mini-strike wave and towards the change in the Teamsters. We’ve avoided the too often, overblown rhetoric of declaring that there’s a new labor movement or that the “working class is fighting back” in the United States, given the institutional crisis and declining membership of many unions.
Finally, one of the most important differences from the last Labor Notes’ convention is the catastrophic decline of the DSA. Deep problems of participation and membership decline have been acknowledged by the national DSA leadership but with little leadership to turn it around. The all-or-nothing approach to Bernie’s last campaign and elections in general, missing the national uprising against racism in 2020, the victimization of Palestinian activists, and host of other major political problems local and nationally have had devastating effect. The strategic questions that have thrown themselves up with a vengeance have been ignored or evaded, much to the detriment of the DSA and the Left and labor movement as a whole.
Right now when a socialist alternative is necessary, it is missing. Tempest is trying to help build that alternative —despite the challenges of the moment— in solidarity with all of those who continue to bring new energy and hope to the Left, labor, and the social movements. If you are interested in discussing these issues and more; look for us at Labor Notes.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Elliot Stoller; modified by Tempest.
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Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS.