Who can participate in “freedom of association”? Labor Notes 2018, Chicago

Much too soon after we got back from Nepal, we went to Chicago for the Labor Notes conference.

Snow Chicago

Chicago (Oak Park), April 2018. A little red, a little blue. This is from the front steps of our friends Diane and Phil’s house.

One of my goals in this blog is to record instances of how people in the US gather at the grassroots level of political action. In other words, how we practice freedom of association. That’s different from “freedom of assembly,” which we in the US have in the First Amendment. Freedom of assembly refers to gathering for “peaceable” purposes for things ranging from a performance or celebration to a demonstration. If the gathering is large enough, it may require a permit.

Individuals and societies can lose freedom of assembly; I remember that during the apartheid period in South Africa, political activists could be banned from meeting with other people or traveling. In many other times and places a gathering of more than  3 people has been made illegal.

“Freedom of association” goes further: it includes joining or leaving an actual group,  the kind of group that might have continuity, a membership list, an explicit purpose. Freedom of association is one of the basic ILO conventions (and one that the US has not signed, but we won’t talk about that).  Freedom of association is the ILO convention that is the topic of much discussion in Viet Nam. It enters the conversation when people are talking about trade agreements such as the TPP. The question is whether freedom of association might lead to the formation of independent unions, unions other than and in addition to the VGCL, whether these unions would have enough strength to be effective or whether they would just be company unions.

I’m interested in the experience of freedom of association in the US at the very grassroots level of political action. What does it look like? Who can belong? What is the relationship of the experience of entry or exit at the margins with the process of decision-making on behalf of the whole group?


I participate at the bottom level in a variety of political groups that represent types of freedom of association. If you go back in this blog you’ll see photos of a Black Lives Matter event in Oakland, the two Women’s Marches (one right after Trump’s election), the general membership meeting of the Vermont Workers’ Center, a small house party fundraiser for a woman running for the Chair of the California Democratic Party, a general membership meeting of the Democratic Socialists in Oakland, and a meeting of the CalOSHA Board attended by workers from UNITE HERE where they agreed to the musculo-skeletal standards, and maybe others. I will also include a photo of the 2018 Labor Notes conference, which is why we are in Chicago in April right now.

Organizations that I don’t have a photo of are Our Revolution, which came out of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Indivisibles, which is a giant network of Democrats and other liberals that emerged and spread rapidly after Trump’s election. Joe and I are members of both, and have held and attended monthly neighborhood meetings of a combined group, but participation ranges from 6-12 people and our most recent attempt, a fundraiser for a woman who is trying to run for Alameda County District Attorney (no contested elections for that post in 60 years!) had to be cancelled for lack of participation. However, nationally both OR and Indivisibles are strong organizations. To belong to them, you do not have to do anything other than attend or perhaps pay a small membership fee. These are not representative groups, in other words: the people who are participating are not representing anyone else. They are there on their own hook, choosing to be there for their own reasons.

All these bottom-level political action gatherings assume freedom of association, a right that is disputed in Viet Nam. In the US, the right to organize and attend events like these goes without question because it is presumed to fall under “freedom of assembly”. Yes, to have a major parade or a big demonstration you’re supposed to get a permit, but they are usually granted. More recently, however, there is increasing fear of risks of attacks by opposing groups, like in Charlottesville, when right wing white supremacists attacked a civil rights-related demonstration. It is also true that pulling together a gathering for the purpose of clarifying, unifying, expressing and planning to act on a political agenda almost certainly draws attention from persons and organizations that oppose that agenda. Such persons might be the local police, the FBI, the CIA, a citizen’s vigilante group of some sort, more recently the various right-wing extremist groups, going back as far as anyone can remember. But we still assume that the right to hold such gatherings  — freedom of assembly, from the First Amendment – is fundamentally not disputed. The gatherings may be infiltrated or disturbed by provocateurs or filmed and reported, or actually violently interrupted, but people still think we have the right to hold them. This goes for gatherings of both right, left and other types of agendas.

In the last year, when right wing groups at the University of California Berkeley invited extreme right wing speakers to present on-campus, there was a loud argument about whether these events should be allowed to happen. In one case, the event happened and students pro and con marched down into central Berkeley where right and “anti-Facists” or “anti-fa” confronted each other, resulting in broken windows and some arrests. Another time the event was tightly circumscribed by limited permits.

How do these very porous, grassroots level associations make decisions?

Now, thinking about Andy Blunden’s book, The Origins of Collective Decision Making, how do these groups, as represented by the gatherings that I have attended and mentioned in these posts, make their decisions? Blunden finds four kinds of decision making. The first two are really “on behalf of” not “by” the collective. The first is cleromancy (consulting a priest, oracle, dice, lots or magic). The second is consulting, where a group advises the leader and then he or she makes the decision. The third and fourth are majority rule and consensus, but only the last two are really collective.

Ideally, in order for the third and fourth methods to function smoothly, the parties to the decision-making have to be equal. One person’s vote has to have no more or less weight than the next person’s. (I am condensing here.) But how do you establish or achieve that equality in an association? One way is to define who can be a member so that members are or less equal.  You could decide, for example, that only men who own property can vote. But what if it’s really a grassroots open organization, and the only qualification for membership is that you want to join or perhaps pay a small membership fee that is affordable. How does that affect decision-making within the organization?

So how does grassroots freedom of association work here?

To answer this question, I looked at various groups that I am “associated” with, one way or another. First, I decided to ask, “Who can participate?” Who can participate is determined by very concrete characteristics. It includes how the event or organization is publicized, where the event is held, and what goes on during the event. What happens afterwards may be different, but we’re just looking at events themselves. What does the very first threshold of association look like?

In the Black Lives Matter event in Oakland, word went out via email and Facebook and was spread around broadly. At the event, accessibility was highlighted. There was good disabled access with signs and plenty of room down front for wheelchairs. There was a whole section for people with allergies to scents. Someone was signing the whole program, and I’m pretty sure some of it was spoken in Spanish, and the rest was translated. So the message is: Everyone is welcome.

For the Women’s March, all you had to do was get there. You could step off the sidewalk and be part of the march. Everyone was encouraged to make a sign saying whatever you had to say. There was a section of the march set aside for organizations (unions, political groups, etc.) and it so happened that they filled up the official starting location, so everyone else just started marching ahead of the groups. At the first women’s march I went to there was disabled access that put me in the front row (I had just had knee replacement surgery) along with a lot of other interesting old women (mostly).

At the Democratic Socialists meeting, you had to be a member in order to vote. Being a member means signing up in advance and paying a membership fee of about $35. You could not vote at the meeting. This was a good way to prevent outside groups from storming the meeting.

At the CalOSHA meeting, you had to be a member of UNITE HERE to actually have a participated in the union’s share in getting the standard established. That means that you were hired by and retained by the employer, but your job security was protected by the union, so that once you were hired, you were fairly free to be active. Joe and I were able to appear at the meeting by signing in as “community,” because the community at large does have an interest in the welfare of workers. The membership of the Board depended on being appointed by the Governor, and it took a change in governor to get a change in the Board to produce a yes vote. So “who can participate?” regarding the Board does have its roots in mass electoral politics, but at a remove.

The Democratic Party, with its tangle of levels of representation, is a real mess. In addition to what I wrote about how the Chair of the California Democratic Party and how delegates to the Convention get elected, the news this morning was all about how the election campaigns of the various presidential candidates are completely separate organizations — to the extent of selling and renting their email lists to the Democratic Party itself.

The Vermont Workers’ Center is also an open group. You are supposed to pay a low-cost membership fee (I think it can be as little as $5 a month) but membership is open and meetings are open.

So participating in some of these, like the Women’s March, just involves stepping off the sidewalk or showing up. Others (like the Democratic Socialists) involve paying a membership fee and filling out a form. This is what the bottom grassroots level of political activity looks like. As you move further up the levels of involvement, the ways in which your voice or vote counts change.

Labor Notes in Chicago, April 2018

Back in the 1990s when I first started going to Labor Notes, the attendance was several hundred and we gathered in a hotel in Dearborn, Michigan. Six or eight years ago they started holding it in Chicago at the various airport hotels because it now brings in nearly 3,000 people. Participants are labor activists from all kinds of organizations, including unions, NGOs and political groups. Typically, if a union is engaging in some kind of internal democratic reform process, it will send leadership and as many rank and file as they can afford. The result is an intense Friday through Sunday exchange of ideas and strategies. There are panels and workshops and interest group meetings continuously, several general sessions, a banquet and a whole lot of side meetings going on. Many people rely on Labor Notes to get together with friends across the country. There is usually a substantial non-US presence, especially from Canada. This year there were Chinese, Phillipino and Japanese panels. I attended one panel on the militarization of anti-labor activity in China and Japan.

LN 1 About 3,000 labor activists of all kinds, not just union members — at the 2018 Labor Notes conference in Chicago. No one from Viet Nam was present, to my knowledge.

Labor Notes itself is not a membership organization. It is a combination of a newspaper (a good monthly newsprint paper, the only multi-union reporting in the US) and an annual conference. There are some regional conferences put on around the US known as Troublemaker’s Schools, where there are union skills trainings and general political education. The core group behind Labor Notes is a small political organization, Solidarity, and it is a membership organization, but it keeps a low profile compared to the big conferences and the newspaper, and no one seems to object.

Voting in Nepal

Here are two posters that I saw on a wall in the village of Dhumpas, in Nepal. These are put out by the Election Commission. They were probably put up during the last year, or even the last six months. The first one is to assure people that everyone should vote. The second one shows how you come to the central place to vote. Note the diversity of people in the first poster — people with wheelchairs, crutches, old people, men and women  – everyone except children. This message had to get communicated widely because this was the first election following the establishment of a national constitution, following over 20 years of revolution and internal war. People really didn’t know about voting and had to be shown what it would look like, in pictures.


Elect 2

Everyone is welcome; everyone is expected. Old and young, men and women. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, professionals and peasants, able and disabled.

elec village


Martin Luther King, 1965: Housing March in Cicero, Chicago

This march was intended to bring some of the power of the Civil Rights Movement north to Chicago where housing was notoriously segregated.

I will end this with some of work done by our friend John Pittman Weber, a Chicago artist who has done a lot of public art around Chicago. Below is one of three carved brick stellae from a monument to the march led by Martin Luther King jr. through Cicero, a suburb of Chicago. A gang of whites attacked this march and threw stones and bricks. One hit Rev King on the head and knocked him down. This is memorialized, life-size, in one of the other stellae. King’s head is at eye-level so you can easily reach out and touch him and wince along with him as the stone lands.

This would be an example of freedom of assembly under attack. Fifty years later, there is an official monument to the marchers, in a park.

JohnJohn Pittman Weber at one of the three stellae of the Martin Luther King Jr monument in Chicago.

Here is is studio, showing some of his recent prints:

JOhn studio



Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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