Sitting Down, Hotel Workers Rise

Originally published in New Ground 131.1, email edition 08.02.2010.

by Bob Roman

On Thursday, July 22, several hundred people gathered in front of downtown Chicago’s Hyatt Regency hotel to protest the Hyatt chain’s failure to negotiate a new contract and, more to the point, to protest management’s attempt to take back gains made in the previous contract. Management’s rationale being the recession at a time when business at the Hyatt is recovering and the enterprise is, in any case, profitable. This action was part of a nationwide day of action at Hyatt hotels called by UNITE HERE.

Some 17 different actions were held in the United States and Canada. With the exception of a Thursday morning action out at the Hyatt near O’Hare Airport, they all featured civil disobedience leading to arrests. In Chicago, not all those participating in blocking the street remained to be arrested. This was done to allow some police officers time off to attend slain police officer Michael Bailey’s wake and funeral. Not all the participants were happy about this, but everyone behaved in a disciplined and focused manner.

This is the second time UNITE HERE has used large-scale civil disobedience in Chicago, the first was last fall targeting the Hyatt hotel near Chicago & Michigan. Local 1 usually characterizes these actions as intended to call attention to their struggle and the issues involved. As a public relations tool, there’s no denying its effectiveness compared to a simple rally or picket line. Media were all over it.

But if it were only a PR tactic, civil disobedience probably would not be worth doing, mostly. It’s a risky business, for one thing, no matter how well choreographed it is with the local police. Too much can go wrong. For another, it’s also a good deal more expensive than you might think. Finally, it can’t be done too frequently before it becomes old news, requiring its abandonment or escalation.

What tips the scale is its role in building worker organization and solidarity. Turn the clock back to 2002, right before the members of Local 1 won a significant increase in wages and benefits by threatening to strike during one of the busiest tourist seasons. As part of their campaign, Local 1 organized a march down Michigan avenue with banners proclaiming each of the hotels where the local had representation. It was a good march with a much better than adequate turn out. But what was notable was the lack of confidence. Every person who showed up was greeted not simply with pleasure but relief. The members often lacked confidence that their fellow workers had their back.

In 2010, the dynamic was much different. In the training sessions and rehearsals, people were still greeted with pleasure, but it was in the spirit of “well met” rather than “thank god you’re here.” There was a sense of purpose and competence. They were people confident that their backs are covered: by the union, by the community, and most importantly by the people they work with every day.

This is not entirely due to the civil disobedience tactic. I’ve heard some interesting rumors about developments in Local 1’s internal organization, but since I’ve no experience with these matters, let’s leave it with: there’s more going on than just civil disobedience.

The dispute with the Hyatt hotel chain does seem to be coming to a head. UNITE HERE members have voted to authorize a strike. With the settlement of the civil war between UNITE HERE and SEIU / Workers United, the union seems pretty well positioned to defend its members position, if not win more. The most disturbing news was a comment by the President of UNITE HERE Local 2, Mike Casey: “The hotel industry is comprised of some pretty clueless decision makers. They turn over so much that they don’t learn from history, and make the same mistakes over and over again.” Management that is unstable and expendable tends to regard employees as even more expendable. At worst, this suggests a period of guerilla labor war before any settlement, and quite possibly more civil disobedience.

At least three Chicago DSA members were among those who sat down in the street on July 22 though none of us, I think, were among those privileged to be arrested. There were several DSA members in the crowd supporting the sit-down, as well. And we did a small postcard mailing of a few hundred directed primarily at our database for the neighborhood of the Hyatt Regency.

Wal-Mart Rampant

Chicago surrenders

Originally published in New Ground 130.3, email edition 07.01.2010.

by Bob Roman

It’s not all that unusual for progressives (a nice generic term for whatever combination of liberals, labor, and leftists is at hand) to have their asses kicked while proclaiming victory, the boot to the fundament apparently being an uplifting experience. But when, last week, the Chicago labor movement pulled the plug on opposition to a second Wal-Mart to be built in the Pullman neighborhood, their proclamations of an historic agreement between Labor and Wal-Mart sounded a bit thin, as if there were far too much helium in the atmosphere, even before Wal-Mart bluntly denied that any such agreement existed. The document the Chicago Federation of Labor news conference referred to, Wal-Mart said, was an agreement with the Pullman community though in truth no one from the community agreed to it — or possibly Wal-Mart traded $24 in beads and trinkets with the first person they met on the street. In effect, the document is more like Wal-Mart’s pledge to the community. Even then, at the very end, Wal-Mart reserved the right to do whatever it pleased, so long as it didn’t break the law: truly an aspiration on the part of Wal-Mart. Furthermore, Wal-Mart’s “community benefits memo” is specifically for the Pullman store. There is nothing in it that indicates it would apply to any of the other stores it is planning for Chicago.

What does Wal-Mart pledge?

  • A starting wage of a couple of dozen pennies more than Illinois’ legal minimum wage, to be followed, in about a year of employment, with a raise to about $9.15 an hour. Wal-Mart claims their employees in their current west-side store average $11.77 an hour.
  • Union construction jobs, up to 2000 of them. This is possibly a bit more substantive, but it’s also hard to imagine that it doesn’t represent anything Wal-Mart wasn’t planning to do otherwise, though they are perfectly capable of importing contractors from the ends of the Earth just to make a point. Still, be careful what you wish for. Labor’s civil wars have begun spreading to the building trades, with the Carpenters Union in particular organizing other crafts. Wal-Mart, for example, is constructing a store in way downstate Godfrey, Illinois, using Carpenter Union electricians, rather than workers represented by the IBEW. It’s a Chicago contractor, too, apparently.
  • Minority hiring and business opportunities. Lots of it. This is probably the most promising part of the Wal-Mart’s pledge, but once again not likely much beyond what they would have done anyway absent the uproar.
  • $20 million in charity contributions toward community economic development. It’s probably not a good thing to disrespect decency no matter how humble, but the lefty cynic in me regards this as a bribe to the local ruling class so Wal-Mart will be accepted into the local community. The gross amount might possibly be larger than usual, but this is not untypical behavior for Wal-Mart.
  • Wal-Mart’s community benefits memo makes the local alderman the go-to guy for several of it’s pledges, most particularly the pledges listed on the first page so they are hard to miss. If you’ve ever wondered why many politicians are so cheaply bribed, the explanation is simple: the money is secondary to the transaction itself. The transaction demonstrates that the briber acknowledges the bribee to be among the central figures in getting the project done. In politics, this is very important. This first page of the memo was probably worth dozens of thousand dollar campaign contributions, especially as other Aldermen envision themselves in the same position.

Finally, any number of folks have pledged to make sure Wal-Mart lives up to its pledges, Alderman Howard Brookins for one. But it’s hard to see this as particularly serious. And if this were not enough, US Bank is apparently financing the Pullman store using money from the federal anti-foreclosure Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Old Gene Debs never had much luck with Pullman, either. “Still a company town,” he sighs from the grave.

In the mean time, Wal-Mart continues on the offensive. Contrary to Mayor Daley’s babblings, opposition to Wal-Mart is not just a Chicago thing but has been widespread even in the suburbs. Now Wal-Mart is suing one of its competitors, Supervalue, saying that opposition to proposed Supercenters in Mundelein and New Lenox was a put-up job of astro-turfing. And remember Wal-Mart’s efforts to become a bank? It just succeeded in Canada, and the U.S. may not be far behind.

Can you liberals out there still pronounce the word “anti-trust?”

Wal-Mart Offensive

Chicago was about to be over-run…

Originally published in New Ground 130.2, email edition 06.16.2010.

by Bob Roman

It sure is nice when you have money to throw at a problem. This is what Wal-Mart is doing to crack the Chicago market. You may have noticed some CTA L cars newly wrapped in advertising urging citizens to ask their alderman to allow Wal-Mart into the Chicago, referring them to Chicago’s “311” non-emergency call center (to be connected with the appropriate alderman, apparently) or to a web site Wal-Mart has set up. They’ve also been running radio ads (notably on WBBM-AM) and slipping “public service” items into the news stream.

Opponents of Wal-Mart are not, strictly speaking, opponents of Wal-Mart. Mostly they just want Wal-Mart to pay a living wage, at least, if they are to do business here in the city. The reasons are pretty obvious. Poverty wage jobs will force other, competing businesses to cut wages or benefits for their own employees, encouraging a “race to the bottom” for workers. Poverty wage employees, whether at Wal-Mart or elsewhere, won’t have money to support commerce, to support government services, to properly support and educate their children.

And while “big-box” stores like Wal-Mart do bring the consumers some advantages, they also have the disadvantage of promoting a car-centered life style that is expensive for the less well-off and is expensive for the government.

There’s quite a bit of research on the subject of Wal-Mart. Two examples specific to Chicago are the Center for Community and Labor Research’s 2004 study and a more recent (2010) study by Loyola University’s Center for Urban Research and Learning.

Advocates of good jobs can’t pay for advertising wraps of CTA cars. But they do have a few useful web sites. Check out the Good Jobs Chicago Coalition and Good Jobs First – Illinois as two examples. Wal-Mart’s efforts at expansion are still corralled in a City Council committee, but it’s not a stable (begging your pardon) situation in the long run. You might want to call that 311 number as well.

Worker Rights Are Civil Rights

but the Supreme Court may decide otherwise

On Monday, February 26, 2018, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 case that, if decided in favor of the plaintiff, may not actually outlaw unions for public employees but will make them decidedly impractical. Essentially, a decision for the plaintiff will impose “open shop” rules across the nation on public employees. At present in Illinois and in many other states, if your place of work is organized, you are not required to be a member of that union but you do need to pay that union an agency fee: compensation for the work of collective bargaining and defending your rights under the contract. Typically in an “open shop” the union, as sole bargaining agent, is still obliged to serve non-members even if those non-members do not pay the union an agency fee. You get a free ride.

It is anticipated that a 5 to 4 majority of the court will decide to screw workers’ rights by favoring, to one degree or another, the plaintiff.

In anticipation of the court arguments and eventual decision, the AFL-CIO and allies organized a series of rallies across the nation, linking the events to the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. This 1968 strike, under the auspices of AFSCME Local 1733, rapidly became a cause in the Civil Rights movement and was actively supported by Martin Luther King, Jr, leading to his assassination in Memphis on April 4. The point of the linkage being that labor rights are civil rights.

In Chicago, the rally was held at Noon in Daley Plaza in the Loop. The folks at AFSCME Council 31 estimated the crowd at 5,000. If I remember correctly, the plaza overflows at 10,000, so that estimate is plausible if rather generous for peak attendance but maybe conservative if you were counting everyone who came and went during the event. The weather was reasonably decent for February.

Media coverage was minimal as near as I can tell. A few TV news rooms (and at least one radio station) had brief reports of uneven quality. (And they all estimated the crowd as “hundreds”.) The Chicago Tribune web site had a half dozen photos. The Chicago Defender (Chicago’s African-American press) had no coverage. The Chicago Sun-Times, where unions have partial ownership, did not mention the rally. Sigh. Not an event that would worry the U.S. Supreme Court, I think.

[Post Script: SEIU organized a much smaller rally in front of the Picasso in Daley Plaza on Monday, February 26. This did get Chicago Sun-Times coverage for some reason.]

At least a number of politicians were there, including Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and County Commissioner Jesus Garcia. (There were more, but those were the ones I spotted.)

This rally was notable for its attention to acoustics. The speakers were all clearly audible, and not because the sound was cranked up to heavy metal levels. The trick seems to have been an array of speakers across the width of the plaza.

For more information on Janus v AFSCME Council 31, see:

  • Ongoing coverage at SCOTUSblog.
  • For a look at the conservative wrecking crew behind this attempt on worker rights, see this In These Times article.
  • The Economic Policy Institute did its own analysis of the issues and the crew financing this attack on workers’ rights.
Photo by Roman
Photo by Roman
Photo by Roman
Photo by Roman
Photo by Roman
Mother Jones
The famous turn of the previous century labor agitator, Mother Jones, was here in spirit. Photo by Roman.

For more information about Mother Jones, visit the Mother Jones Museum.

Chicago DSA
Photo by Roman
Photo by Roman
Our old friends from UNITE HERE Local 1 were there, but what I really like about this photo is the contrast in scale between the crowd and the buildings. Photo by Roman.
Just about! Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman
A glimpse of the media platform. Photo by Roman.
Congresswoman Jan Shakowsky. Is that Bob Creamer with the dogs? Photo by Roman.
After the rally, the crowd left to march around the Thompson Center, where Governor Rauner’s offices are located. Photo by Roman.
Part of the march on Randolph between Clark and LaSalle. By this time, there were maybe half as many folks as at the peak. Photo by Roman.

Illinois Budget Crisis

the past isn’t even past

Originally published in New Ground 128.2, email edition 02.15.2010.

by Bob Roman

New Ground has been among those predicting disaster because of the ongoing failure of responsible political leadership in Illinois. (There’s more, but most recently New Ground 127 and New Ground 126.2.) Illinois is not unique, of course. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has issued a report that most states are suffering a shortfall in revenues. Even accounting for efforts to close the gap, CBPP anticipates the shortfall for 2010 and 2011 to total something on the order of $350,000,000,000 nation-wide.

Illinois’ $14.3 billion deficit is not the worst. In absolute terms California, Arizona, and New York are larger. Expressed as a percentage of the state’s general fund, Illinois is still in the runner-up position, Nevada rising to #3, but the deficit for Illinois still amounts to 40.9% of the general fund budget. If you need any indication that “cutting waste” and promoting “efficiency” are nothing more than weasel words for doing nothing, these facts should be that.

In a recession or depression, deficit spending is not a bad thing. But Illinois and the other states can’t print money, and like most states Illinois is required have a balanced budget, or at least something it can pretend is balanced. Thus the deficit is paid for by simply not paying outstanding bills, looting special funds, and other such accounting tricks. The tricks work for a while, too. Then you cut services and lay off workers. None of these are good policy, especially in a recession or depression.

The Progressive States Network is circulating a sign-on letter for state legislators to urge the President and Congress to move swiftly on job creation and state fiscal relief. There’s also a tool citizens can use to urge their state legislators to sign on. While Federal assistance is needed in the short term, the Progressive States Network argues that the fiscal crisis is in large part a result of a failure of politics, that the crisis can be solved and the anti-tax movement is mostly a failure. (Indeed, Arizona is #2 on the fiscal failure list in large part because, unlike most other states, the conservatives have had their way with the state’s finances.)

Wal-Mart Again

prelude to an ass-kicking

Originally published in New Ground 128, January — February, 2010.

by Bob Roman

As New Ground went to press, a proposed compromise that would have allowed Wal-Mart to build additional stores in Chicago bit the dust. The compromise ordinance would have required a “living wage” of $11.03 an hour for retailers that employ more than 50 and benefit, directly or indirectly, from a city subsidy.

According to the Sun-Times, Wal-Mart would not agree, claiming the proposed compromise was “at the expense of Chicago’s working families, not on their behalf.” The Illinois Retail Merchants Association chimed in with “A job killer”, and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce called it ten times worse than the vetoed big-box living wage ordinance.

So it’s all about jobs, yes? No. The quality of jobs in the city is a major concern, but it’s also about the very nature of the city: how we get around, how we shop, how and where the money flows. Politicians in favor of Wal-Mart coming to town wrap themselves in the flag of jobs, but in fact Wal-Mart, and other businesses, would be perfectly happy to do business using no employees at all. Consider the “big box” stores that encourage you to ring up your own purchases, or the shabby trick (most popular among manufacturers) of staffing your enterprise almost entirely with “temps.” It’s not about jobs.

Coincident with this latest skirmish, Loyola University’s Center for Urban Research and Learning ( finally completed and released a three year study on the effect on employment and business by Chicago’s one and only Wal-Mart on the west side. The basic finding was that opening that Wal-Mart had no net effect on employment; the area lost as many jobs through business closings as were created by the new store. For certain kinds of retail stores, there was a measurable distance effect. Closer stores were more likely to go out of business. For others, distance was not a variable. These observations were also broadly consistent with other studies done on the question.

The basic tool used was a survey of surrounding retail businesses over a three year period from the 2006 opening of the Wal-Mart. But the study also looked at sales tax receipts and data on retail employment from the Illinois Department of Employment Security, and these were consistent with the effects observed in the survey data.

The CURL study is available on their web site and it’s worth a read in its entirety. It does provide useful information for countering the jobs spin, even though the official position of the report is agnostic regarding whether Wal-Mart (or any other “big box” retail establishment) is a good idea for any given neighborhood.

Even discounting an official agnosticism (in other words, know your enemy), it’s worth asking just what is a Wal-Mart good for? The “jobs” mantra is a tired attempt at populism that the business community uses every time it wants a handout or evades responsibility. But the prospect of a Wal-Mart in these neighborhoods does have some popular support; the aldermen pushing for more Wal-Marts are not noted for being risk-takers. If a Wal-Mart is generally neutral at best for employment and toxic for much of a neighborhood’s retail businesses, there must be some positive economic consequences nonetheless. Otherwise the popular support for such stores would be far more ephemeral than it is. The interesting question is just who are the local beneficiaries? Possibly it’s time to start looking at things like non-commercial property values, and more subtle things like the sequence of effects.

Many of the aldermen opposing more Wal-Marts are also not known for being risk takers. Let’s return to the Sun-Times for a quote from Alderman Burke, a leader of the opposition, that says it all: “People look at the way the union movement got involved in the last election and nobody’s looking for that to occur again.” Not again, eh? This is clearly Burke’s attempt at minimizing and dividing Labor’s participation in the next municipal election, a return to business as usual. Given that Labor’s effort was expensive in money and labor; given the political capital expended to reach only an approximate consensus on candidates; given the way projects are regarded as expendable if they don’t directly help to organize workers: Well, it could happen. Unfortunately.