Solidarity forgotten

Apr 23, 2008 at 12:00 am

When News Hits heard about the melee at the recent Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, all we could hear in our heads was the union anthem "Solidarity Forever."

Here's the first verse, as sung to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic":

When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run,

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,

But the union makes us strong.

Unfortunately, it's the song's irony we've taken notice of — what happened at the event was anything but strengthening for labor's cause.

News about the incident was hard to come by locally — neither of the dailies said boo about it. But it was a big deal in the national world of labor politics.

Here's a summary of what happened:

The Labor Notes conference was going at the Dearborn Hyatt, April 11-13, with about 1,000 union members from at least 50 different groups from all over the country learning how to organize and mobilize grassroots forces. Labor Notes is a nonprofit organization that produces a monthly magazine of labor news, creates other printed materials and hosts the biennial conference to support grassroots union efforts. The spunky newsletter founded with the organization in 1979 has a reputation for in-your-face criticism of the labor movement.

During the Saturday evening banquet, members or sympathizers of the Service Employees International Union showed up in buses — the exact numbers of people and vehicles are in dispute — to demonstrate against the planned keynote speaker, Rose Ann DeMoro.

De Moro, as executive director of the California Nurses Association — which is a huge proponent of single-payer health care — was supposed to speak about that issue, but canceled her appearance. Apparently that didn't matter to SEIU members and supporters. The 1.9 million-member union was interested in making a very public statement about De Moro, her West Coast-based nurses group and its organizing work that competes with SEIU.

It seems the SEIU folks also have a burr in their britches over the role the National Nurses Organizing Committee, an affiliate of the CNA, has played in a health care workers dispute taking place in Ohio.

SEIU accuses the Committee/CNA of spreading false information and derailing an election to certify 8,000 employees with the Catholic Health Care Partners system. CNA says SEIU cuts deals with employers at the expense of the workers and stepped into the Buckeye State business, in part, because it learned the employer had asked for the union certification election — that's unheard of, nurses union folks say.

Incidentally, the CNA-SEIU friction goes back years in California, where the groups have clashed over nursing home employment, patient care and quality issues. Just last week — a few days after the Michigan incident — CNA obtained a temporary restraining order against SEIU in California.

Anyway, back to Michigan and that little ditty in our heads:

Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?

For the union makes us strong.

So when somewhere between 300 and 800 people (it depends on who's counting) showed up to demonstrate at the Dearborn hotel, the doors were locked.

But some SEIU members attending the conference — under false names, organizers say — pushed the doors open after chanting and banging on them, says Chris Kutalik, Labor Notes editor.

With Labor Notes attendees linking arms to keep them out, SEIUers pushed forward and into the banquet room.

What happened next depends, again, on who's talking.

"They knocked people down," Kutalik says.

"It was a peaceful protest," says Zac Altefogt, spokesman for SEIU Healthcare Michigan.

Regardless, Dearborn police showed up, though no one was arrested. A 68-year-old woman was injured. Labor, as a cause, was damaged.

"I just find it really inexplicable what they hoped to gain by this," Kutalik says. "We don't want to damage their union, but we certainly think the leadership just seems to be on a disaster course at this point."

And lost among the melee was the main message of the conference, which came at a time when union membership is down and union leadership is losing clout in national and local politics:

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old

For the union makes us strong.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]