These are hard times for most people and likely to get harder.    Although significant organizing efforts are underway, many of which have led to a resurgence of activism and successful workplace and community struggles, the way forward remains challenging.

Transformative change requires thoughtful and sustained organizing guided by a strategic vision.  But how precisely should we organize, what issues and which communities should we prioritize, and how do we build on struggles for immediate improvements to create broader movements for social transformation?

These and many other related questions are not easy to answer, but we are not the first to face them.  That is why Portland Rising, a committee of Portland Jobs with Justice, has decided to offer a five-week Labor History for Labor Activists class starting in October.  The aim of the class is to help local activists learn from US labor history to become more effective organizers in their own workplaces, unions, and communities.

The basics

The class will be held in the Portland Jobs with Justice basement training room (1500 NE Irving Street), for five successive Tuesdays, from 7 to 8:30 pm, starting October 10, 2017.   The sessions will also be filmed and eventually posted on the web so that those unable to take the class will also be able to benefit from the experience.

 Class structure

Class sessions will be organized both chronologically and thematically.  Some of the history to be covered in each session includes:

  • Session 1: Early Twentieth Century. AFL and IWW; Lawrence Textile Strike; Seattle General Strike.
  • Session 2: 1930s. Workers’ Self-Organization Before the CIO; Creation of the ILWU (west coast longshore union).
  • Session 3: 1930s. Origins of the CIO.
  • Session 4: Post-World War II. Attack on Labor and Labor’s Response; Retail Workers Organize; Revolutionary Union Movement in Auto.
  • Session 5: Our More Recent Past. Public Sector Unions; United Farmworkers; New Issues and Continuing Struggle.

Here are some of the themes that will be engaged across all the sessions:

  • Different visions for how to organize, what kind of organizations to build, and what organizing is for.
  • Unions as representatives of the broader working class or as membership organizations.
  • Different criteria for whom to target, whom to include, and whom to reach out to for support (race, gender, skill, and the role of community).
  • The changing nature of work, its relation to nature, and its impact on worker organization.
  • Labor’s relation to government, law, political parties and the State.
  • Different conceptions of leadership.

Each class session will also have a cultural component, through labor song, poetry, humor, graphic arts, theatre, film, stories or novels.

Class requirements

Each class session will build on the preceding one.  Therefore, participants are expected to attend all five sessions. Participants should also expect to spend around one hour reading assigned material in preparation for each session.

The instructor

Norm Diamond has worked in factories and universities and written extensively on labor and labor history. He is the co-author of The Power In Our Hands: A Curriculum on The History of Work and Workers in the United States and was president of the Pacific Northwest Labor College where he developed a program on labor environmentalism and trained workplace organizers. He is currently Oregon trustee of the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association.

The application process

The class size is limited to 15 in order to promote active engagement among participants and with the material.  The application period is now over and the class participants have been chosen.

We were very excited to have many excellent applicants and that there is such strong interest in this kind of class.  We had a difficult time deciding who to select and did our best to ensure a class with a good diversity of work and life experiences and activism.  We wish we could have accepted everyone, but then the class would not have been the one that we promised with meaningful participant participation.

We will be video-taping the class sessions and we will publicize when and how they can be accessed as soon as possible.  We also hope to offer the class again.

For more information about the class send an email to JwJlaborclass@gmail.com


Even more so than other places, our country has been formed not by what it chooses to remember of its own past, but by what it chooses to forget.…In such a country, simply to remember is itself a radical act. It is to refuse to submit to the blinders that the powers that be are always trying to slip onto the rest of us. It is to subvert, implicitly or otherwise, the tyranny of the present — to insist on expanding the realm of the possible.

                                                                                                                  Katrina vanden Heuvel