Get on the Freedom Bus!

Originally published in New Ground 90, September — October, 2003.

by Bob Roman

At the very beginning of the 1960s, the legal foundations of segregation and Jim Crow were crumbling. But if segregation and discrimination were less and less the law of the land, it was still very much the practice of the land. The progress of the Civil Rights movement was, for many, just about as rewarding as waiting for water to boil. Despite two Supreme Court decisions outlawing segregation in interstate bus service (the Irene Morgan decision in 1946 and the Boynton decision in 1960), it was still not possible for African – Americans to receive equal services. In the South, regardless of the law, they still had to ride in the back of the bus.

To turn up the heat, activists around the Congress of Racial Equality planned and executed a series of “Freedom Bus Rides” through the South that did nothing more than claim the legal rights then recognized by the Supreme Court. The trail of burning buses and broken bodies may not have seemed encouraging at the time, but it was really old Jim Crow that took a beating. The Freedom Rides have become a part of history and legend, a symbol of speaking truth to fear, hatred and impunity.

The New Freedom Riders
Now a new generation of freedom activists is putting this legend in the service of a fight for freedom and equality for immigrants to the United States. With the campaign to make English the “official” and only language, with the exclusion of immigrants from benefits when welfare was “reformed”, with various and sundry gratuitous acts of hatred and robbery, with an immigration bureaucracy far more interested in exploiting the numerous “gotchas” in the law than in service, with the paranoia generated by a politically motivated “war” on “terrorism”, it is this constituency that has been branded “other”, denied access to government services, imprisoned, exploited and expelled.

Organized by a coalition of community, religious, activist and political groups, but most especially by the union movement, the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride envisions several bus caravans from all across the country converging on Washington, DC, for a day of lobbying then proceeding on to New York for a monster rally. Along the way, each caravan will stop for rallies, photo ops and additional participants.

Many of these rallies will not be small. The Chicago leg of the Freedom Ride will depart the Federal Plaza at Dearborn and Adams on Saturday, 10 AM, September 27. The kick off rally is expected to draw more than ten thousand. The final rally in New York is expected to draw hundreds of thousands.

Power Concedes Nothing Without…
Each member of the coalition brings its own agenda to the table, but as a coalition, the Freedom Ride is organized around essentially three basic demands. The first is for a new amnesty program for undocumented, tax paying workers in the U.S. This has become a particularly urgent issue in the context of the current drive for alien registration. This demand also includes an “improved road” to citizenship. The second is for better family unification laws. The current laws are so restrictive that there is an outrageous backlog of family members waiting to come to the States. The third is for improving the rights of undocumented workers to organize. In particular, the coalition has in mind the recent Supreme Court extraordinary “Hoffman” decision that denied back pay to a worker illegally fired for organizing activities protected under the National Labor Relations Act simply because of his immigration status. The AFL-CIO has filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization over this decision as the Supreme Court appears to have violated a number of agreements to which the U.S. is a party.

Legislation
While the Coalition has not promoted any specific legislation, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez has introduced HR440, the “U.S.A. Family Act”, that addresses many of the Coalition’s concerns. At present, the bill has 17 additional cosponsors, including Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. The U.S.A. Family Act is much more than just an amnesty program; it seeks to remove many of the “Catch 22” provisions of the current law that make applying for work permits, residency and citizenship a risky business for aliens. As a back up, perhaps, some of the cosponsors, including Gutierrez, have introduced a bill that is more simply an amnesty, HR 152, “The Immigration Adjustment Act of 2003”.

Neither bill addresses labor’s concern over the Hoffman decision. Both bills exploit the conservative fetish of judging people as “deserving” and “not deserving”; HR440, for example, requires applicants to demonstrate they have not “received public cash assistance”. Neither bill addresses the longer-term questions of immigration policy that make such amnesties desirable.

Advertisements

The Congress Hotel Strike

One of the longest running strikes in U.S. history. It didn’t end well.

Chicago DSA was there at the beginning. Our annual Debs – Thomas – Harrington Dinner was at the Congress Hotel that evening. The union (HERE) contract was up in June. One of our honorees was Henry Tamarin who was then the President of HERE Local 1. Management wanted to exclude hotel employees from attending the Dinner. I was prepared to cancel the event had they insisted. HERE held a rally outside the hotel in support addressed by Chicago DSA co-chair Harold Taggart. Chicago DSA was actively involved in supporting the strike until pretty much the end. In this post, I’ve collected my articles about the strike.

This first article was published in New Ground 89, July — August, 2003.

Congress on Strike!

by Bob Roman

Congress Plaza Hotel strike 2003
Impressive display of union solidarity. Photo by Roman

Hundreds of labor union activists and supporters rallied with striking Congress Hotel workers on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 2nd. At its peak, the picket line in front of the hotel in downtown Chicago required traffic control to keep it legal, though in contrast to demonstrations (including labor union rallies) earlier this year, the police were notable mostly by a merely token presence. For some photos of the action, go to http://www.chicagodsa.org/conhotel.html.

The occasion for the picket line was the first distribution by the union of strike benefit checks since the strike began in mid-June. Strikers who participate on the picket line for at least 25 hours a week receive $200 a week, half from the International and half from the Local 1 strike fund. Chicago DSA has contributed $500 and the postcard mailing we did advising of the demonstration seems to have generated at least that much.

On Saturday morning, July 12, Local 1 organized another mass rally, this time drawing from religious, activist and immigrant communities.

Congress Plaza Hotel Strike
AFSCME Council 31 head Henry Bayer (left) in conversation with HERE Local 1 President Henry Tamarin. Photo by Roman

This is an important strike. Last September, Local 1, in negotiating with an association of Chicago area hotels, won a major increase in wages and benefits for hotel employees in Chicago. It didn’t bring these employees up to the standard of other major metropolitan areas, but it narrowed the gap spectacularly. It was also a great example of how a union in an apparently relatively disadvantaged position vis-a-vis the bosses can use community and political pressure to balance the equation.

But not all union hotels in the Chicago area participated in these negotiations. Among these, the Congress Hotel was the delinquent, initially demanding a major pay cut, cuts in benefits, and the right to “outsource” jobs to what are essentially temp agencies. This is the model much of the non-union manufacturing sector in the United States has pursued. It’s possible to find factories wherein the only actual employees of the company are a few managers. Everyone else works for little money, no benefits, and totally at the whim of the management.

It appears that the Congress Hotel may very well have wanted a strike. Certainly it made little effort to actually come to an agreement with Local 1. Over five months after the contract expired, the hotel declared an impasse and imposing wage and benefit cuts. A month later, the 130 unionized employees voted 113 to 1 to strike, whereupon the Congress Hotel began implementing its vision of utopia. According to press reports, there have been no negotiations between the Congress Hotel and HERE Local 1 since the beginning of the strike.

If the Congress Hotel wins this fight, it will not automatically mean the end of unions in hotels, in Chicago or nationally. The Congress Hotel has been a “marginal property” for some years now; there are quality of service issues; the union can always sell employee competence to some degree, just as the building trades have. But it would seriously compromise Local 1’s ability to win much at the next round of contract negotiations. Worse, the “hospitality industry” keeps a close eye on itself, and this model could spread to other non-union operations. Not only would this further impoverish an already poor workforce, but “temp” agencies have been notoriously difficult to organize (not that there aren’t some impressive efforts ongoing, such as the Day Labor Organizing Project in Chicago), adding an additional barrier to organizing in that industry.

At this point in time, the Congress Hotel is no better than a cancer cell and it must be stopped from spreading. Local 1 needs to win this fight or the Congress Hotel needs to be put out of business. It’s a measure of just how pissed many of its striking employees are that they would be happy with either.

You Can Help!

If you’d like to help fight Congress, you can do three things.

1) the Local 1 picket line operates 24/7 at the hotel at Congress and Michigan in downtown Chicago; join it when you can.

2) contribute to the strike fund with a check made out to HERE Local 1 Strike Fund with “Congress Strike” in the memo line and mailed to

HERE Local 1
55 W. Van Buren 4th Floor
Chicago, IL 60605.

3) boycott the Congress Hotel and spread the word.


From “Other News” in New Ground 91, November — December, 2003.

Congress Hotel Strike
On September 30, the NLRB office in Chicago filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the Congress Plaza Hotel, claiming a failure to bargain in good faith, specifically by prematurely declaring an impasse in negotiations, refusing to provide financial results to support a wage cut and threatening union members with disciplinary action if they didn’t leave Chicago DSA’s Debs ­ Thomas ­ Harrington Dinner at the hotel prior to the strike. A hearing will be held on February 10. A person could starve in the meantime, but if the judge upholds the complaint, the Congress Hotel will be unable to hire replacement workers. In the meantime, HERE Local 1 is maintaining a picket line 24/7 at Michigan and Adams. Volunteers are welcome.


From “Other News” in New Ground 92, January — February, 2004

Congress Hotel
According to news reports, there has been some contact between the hotel and HERE Local 1, the first time since the workers walked out last summer. It would probably be an exaggeration to call this one meeting much more than a conversation. The January 9 meeting was apparently initiated by a change in health care coverage under the plan administered by the union. There was not even any public agreement as to which side requested the meeting though there was agreement that there was no agreements reached at the meeting. But published reports indicate that there will be another meeting on January 22.

In the meantime, the Congress Hotel has gotten into some difficulty with building code violations. For an idea of some of the problems as related by disgruntled customers, check out the strike web site, http://www.congresshotelstrike.info/. According to the City, most of the over five dozen violations have been corrected or are being corrected. The hotel is due back in court on these issues January 29.


From “Other News” in New Ground 95, July — August, 2004.

Congress Hotel Strike
HERE Local 1 marked the one year anniversary of their strike against the Congress Plaza

Congress Plaza Hotel Strike
Workers infiltrated the Congress Hotel to hang a banner demanding justice. Photo by Roman.

Hotel (see New Ground 89) with a monster picket line in front of the hotel on the afternoon of June 15. Well over a thousand people from a broad cross section of the Chicago labor movement nearly encircled the building. Pickets were accompanied by two huge inflated rats as statements on the management’s attitude. The picket was accompanied by some ritual civil disobedience (blocking Michigan Avenue) and a creative infiltration of the hotel to drop a three story banner demanding justice from a window. News reports said 15 people were arrested.

Chicago DSA supported the picket by publicizing the event by a postcard mailing, email alert and a web listing. I counted nearly two dozen Chicago DSA members on the line though, as usual, we were invisible as a group.

About a month later, UNITE and HERE held a joint convention in Chicago to formalize a merger between the two unions. The delegates took time off to rally across the street from the hotel, bringing some 1500 demonstrators to remind hotel management that without justice there’ll be no peace.

For photos of the June 15 picket, go to http://www.chicagodsa.org/c040615.html.


From New Ground 101, July — August, 2005.

A Lesson in Solidarity

by Bob Roman

The second year anniversary of the Congress Plaza Hotel strike brought several hundred people to picket and rally outside the hotel on June 14. This was partly a celebration of the ongoing strike, partly “shot across the bow” of the Chicago hotel industry whose contract with UNITE HERE Local 1 is up for renegotiation next year, and partly pressure on the Congress Hotel to start negotiating in good faith.

This action was preceded by an action the previous week where a delegation from Chicago Jobs with Justice attempted to deliver a letter signed by dozens of community groups. The letter asked that the Congress Plaza Hotel resume negotiations with the union. Chicago Jobs with Justice Executive Director James Thindwa very nearly was arrested then, not for anything he did, but an employee of the security firm guarding the hotel panicked when she realized she was not in control of the situation. This may or may not have had something to do with the main entrance of the hotel being closed during the June 14 demonstration.

Last year saw a similar, rather larger demonstration to mark the first year’s passage. That demonstration brought a wide cross section of the labor movement and the community together as an act of solidarity (see New Ground 95 and http://www.chicagodsa.org/c040615.html). There seemed to be less effort at outreach this year though Jobs with Justice, Chicago DSA and others did postcard and email alerts. The crowd this year was dominated by UNITE HERE hospitality industry workers attending a regional conference in Chicago and SEIU members, though many others were present.

One should not make assumptions about labor factionalism or the state of the strike based on the crowd. It had far more to do with the event being a celebration. Celebrate is an odd word to associate with a strike that has been so long and painful for the workers. But the mood of the picket line was buoyant and lively. There was a Mariachi band in full regalia. (They were often inaudible despite their best efforts. When the pickets chanted “No Justice! No peace!”, they had the decibels to prove it.) There was recorded music. There was a stage from which speakers at a concluding rally spoke. One speaker was John Wilhelm, President of UNITE HERE’s Hospitality Division. Wilhelm praised the strikers. He said he had just come from a meeting in Washington, DC, where the future of the labor movement was being discussed and debated. But the future of the labor movement is here in Chicago, he went on, you are the future of the labor movement. And after others had added to or ratified his sentiment, each of the striking Congress hotel workers was recognized by name. This was indeed a celebration of the courage, dedication, and endurance of a small band of people.


From New Ground 103.3, 12.17.2005 (email edition)

Congress Hotel Strike: 30 Months and Counting
While the members of HERE Local 1 had won a tremendous victory in negotiations with the Chicago hotel industry in September of 2002, one hotel, the Congress Plaza Hotel, refused to go along with the industry settlement, insisting on pay cuts and outsourcing. In June of 2003, the workers at the Congress walked out. (One of the early job actions was at our 2003 Debs – Thomas – Harrington Dinner, see New Ground 88.) They’ve been out ever since.

This late last Thursday afternoon, December 15, UNITE HERE Local 1 called its members and friends out for a special picket line to protest the presence of the Midwest Band Clinic. About a hundred people gathered in support of the strike.

At the end of the demonstration, Rev. Calvin Morris (Community Renewal Society), Jane Ramsey (Jewish Council on Urban Affairs), and William McNary (Citizen Action Illinois) spoke in support of strikers. One of the striking Congress workers also spoke, as did Henry Tamarin, President of UNITE HERE Local 1. Tamarin noted that the scabs at the Congress are making 75% of what Local 1 members are making, and without benefits. The industry contract that the Congress refused to accept is set to expire next September, and the Congress is still talking pay cuts. Tamarin noted that one local hotel executive told him that he’d love to pay his workers what the Congress is paying, but not if it means having Congress picket lines outside his door. For more information on the strike, go to: http://www.congresshotelstrike.info/


Originally published in New Ground 105, March — April, 2006. This article touches on the Congress Plaza Hotel strike, but is mostly about the launch of UNITE HERE’s campaign to organize currently non-union Hyatt hotels and others.

What Do Hotel Workers Want? More…

schoolhouses and less jails;
more books and less arsenals;
more learning and less vice;
more leisure and less greed;
more justice and less revenge…

by Bob Roman

The start of UNITE HERE’s “Hotel Workers Rising” campaign was a week of kick off rallies, including an event in the Drake Hotel on Chicago’s near north side. The indoor rally on Friday afternoon, February 17, drew an overflow crowd to the hotel’s ballroom, primarily but not exclusively members of UNITE HERE, SEIU, and UFCWU. This rally was third in of series that began in San Francisco on February 15. Rallies were also held in Los Angeles on February 16 and in Boston on February 18.

The Hotel Workers Rising campaign on one level unites the efforts of workers in 200 hotels in seven major markets to win better conditions. They all have contracts expiring this year, except that the hotel workers in San Francisco began their fight last fall. Wages and benefits are certainly among the immediate objectives of this fight. In Chicago, for example, the average hotel housekeeper wage is $11.75 an hour. This might be adequate but spartan for an individual, alone, but it’s hardly an income sufficient to support children. And like most American workers, health care availability and cost are also on the table. Rather more important, though, are the working conditions resulting from demands for increased productivity. These raise occupational health and safety concerns, and they may end up being among the more important immediate issues on the table.

On another level, the Hotel Workers Rising campaign is one of the first undertaken by the new Change to Win federation. As such, this nationally coordinated bargaining is likely to take advantage of increasing consolidation in the hospitality industry to seek employer neutrality agreements on organizing and the use of “card check” recognition, bypassing NLRB elections.

Card-check recognition occurs when an employer agrees to recognize a union when the union shows that it has majority support among employees, typically though the use of simple authorization cards. This procedure does not guarantee that a union will successfully organize a shop, nor does it win a first contract, nor does it prevent a decertification election. If unions are much more successful at organizing with the card check process, at least part of the problem with elections is the NLRB itself. (See New Ground 43, “The Quick Vote” by Kurt Anderson.)*

Organizing as a priority applies the Change to Win strategy of increasing union density in particular markets, among particular sectors, especially where employers cannot flee to low-wage venues.

The Counter-Attack Begins
The hospitality industry has been whining about this trend toward nationalizing negotiations, pointing out how various the local markets are. And it is true that a lot of the action this year will be local.

But the employers are not content with just whining. A new “astro-turf” group (which is to say, a group that emulates grass roots support by substituting money for people), “The Center for Union Facts” (CUF) began its own campaign with full page newspaper ads in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The ad depicts North Korean president Kim Jong Il, Cuban president Fidel Castro, and UNITE HERE president Bruce Raynor beneath the headline “There’s no reason to subject the workers to an election.” The ad goes on to ask the question, “Who said it?” CUF’s answer is Bruce Raynor. The point being: CUF contends avoiding an NLRB representation election is an abridgement of employees’ rights and that UNITE HERE intends to do away with such elections. Neither is true.

CUF is apparently a new part of Washington lobbyist Rick Berman’s family of non-profit, right wing front groups. The Employment Policies Institute is among the better known corporations of this family. The IRS does not require much in the way of reporting about who contributes to non-profits, and information about CUF is not yet available in any case, but there is considerable information about Rick Berman available on the web. I’d recommend starting at http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Center_for_Union_Facts for more information.

The Permanence of the Political
The card check process is also under attack in Congress. The so-called “Secret Ballot Protection Act”, introduced by Georgia Congressman Charlie Norwood with about 81 co-sponsors including Judy Biggert and Donald Manzullo of Illinois, would require recognition elections and prohibit the recognition of unions through the card check process. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. It has 5 cosponsors. Both bills were introduced early last year and neither has advanced beyond committee.

This industry counter attack already in progress illustrates the permanence of the political in union organizing. It is unlikely that anyone in the Change to Win federation ever thought organizing could exclude politics and be viable, but it’s possibly fortunate that the AFL-CIO has decided to toss $40,000,000 at the political side of the equation.

Much of this political work will need to be done on the Federal level. Federal labor law preempts state law, greatly limiting what can be accomplished at that level. In Illinois, for example, it is illegal to employ “professional strikebreakers”. In 2003, the state legislature attempted to make strikebreaking more difficult by making it a criminal offense to bring in day or professional labor service agencies to replace strikers, something of an expansion of the term “professional strikebreaker”.

In 2004, the Congress Hotel, where UNITE HERE Local 1 has been on strike for nearly 3 years, received a query from the Illinois Department of Labor about the origins of its current labor force (day labor agencies, in fact) shortly after the amendment to Illinois law came into effect. Management went ballistic and headed for the nearest Federal court.

The District court (Judge Gettleman) did not want to hear the case. It figured there was no case, no cause for action. Illinois had done nothing but ask and no criminal case had been filed, let alone decided. The Congress Hotel appealed. At the appeal, Illinois argued the Appellate court (Judges Easterbrook, Ripple, and Kanne) should affirm the District court’s dismissal because the law had already been preempted by an earlier District court case, apparently involving another notorious Illinois employer, Caterpillar. This argument could just be legal strategy or it could be an indication of just how enthusiastic Dick Devine and “labor’s friend” Lisa Madigan are about defending the amended law.

The Appellate court wasn’t having any of it, though. They sent the case back to the District court. They pointed to a string of cases brought to Federal court prior to litigation at the state level when the public good was served, and in any case, District court rulings do not create precedents. But more to the point, the Appellate court offered this opinion of Illinois:

“The state’s effort to make the hiring of replacement workers a crime is so starkly incompatible with federal labor law, which prevails under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, that we do not understand how a responsible state legislature could pass, a responsible Governor sign, or any responsible state official contemplate enforcing, such legislation.”

Rally for the Future
Those closest to organizing the kick off rallies might be uncontent with various particulars of each rally, but I think UNITE HERE and Change to Win should be generally pleased with them. They created a modest media buzz, they provoked labor’s enemies, they rallied the troops.

In Chicago, the Drake Hotel may have been chosen because of ownership issues, or because of its generally elite clientèle. Or it may have been chosen because while its largest hall is not small neither is it huge; almost any half way decent turn out would have looked good. As it was, I joined a long file of people inching inward. The delay was that the organizers wanted people to sign-in. The stations were divided between three unions: UNITE HERE, SEIU, and UFCWU. There did not seem to be a place for “other”, but I was advised to go to the SEIU table. Wanting to be cooperative (and because they were handing out some cool t-shirts), I waited in that line for a time but ultimately gave up and headed into the ballroom. Just in time, for shortly after I got in, the room was closed and people were diverted into adjoining conference rooms set up for overflow.

The “other” category made up a small but significant percentage of the crowd. Some of the unions represented in this group were recognized from the podium. Special mention was made of Dennis Gannon, President of the Chicago Federation of Labor, thanking him for his past support and his presence at the rally.

The program featured UNITE HERE Local 1 President Henry Tamarin, who served both as a master of ceremonies and had much to say on behalf of hospitality workers in Chicago. UNITE HERE’s John Wilhelm, president of the Hospitality Division, also spoke. Former Senator John Edwards appeared here and at other of these rallies, possibly because UNITE had endorsed his attempt at gaining the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. He made a very good labor speech, ending with a call for labor law reform. And if Henry Tamarin had words on behalf of the workers, the program also featured several workers from Chicago and elsewhere who had much to say on their own behalf: about the circumstances of their work and their lives, about their hopes and frustrations, about their jobs. They were effective presentations.

There were projected electronic presentations on particular subjects and prerecorded music. And live music. UNITE HERE has a choir (who knew? though choirs were once common in the labor movement), and while they were dressed much like a church choir, their music was rather more ribald.

The music, live and recorded, seemed intended to enliven the crowd. I may have missed it, but the music was devoid of any political or ideological content. I heard none of the old union hymns.

And why should those old hymns have been played, even using Bucky Halker’s up-tempo covers? Very few of the attendees would have known the music. At most, these days, the anthem “Solidarity Forever” gets reduced to singing, repeatedly, “Solidarity Forever”, as if this business about bringing to birth a new world from the ashes of the old makes folks a bit uncomfortable. And, one has to ask, would those old anthems have spoken to anyone but the ideologues in the audience? (And there were more than just a few at the rally. Despite the conservative canard about leftists running the universities, the easiest place to find a marxist is not on campus but among union staffers. The easiest place to find an ex-marxist is among elected union officials.) My feeling is that most of the audience would have responded well to particular elements of a socialist critique of capitalism but advocating the abolition of capitalism would have sounded like goose farts on a muggy day.

So was the rally devoid of ideological content? Was it, as conservatives might insist, a cynical promotion by the “union business” to increase its revenue stream through more dues paying members?

Not at all. Never mind what the union leadership had to say. The union members addressing the crowd made their expectations plain. They did not want the full “surplus value” they generated through their work, only enough that they would have the means to make choices in their lives. This is one of the defining characteristics of being “middle class”: that you have options and your choices might reasonably make a difference. They did not demand “ownership” of their “means of production” (though just what constitutes “ownership” is an interesting question) but rather the ability to say “no” when management demands seem unreasonable or injurious. They were demanding that their jobs be good jobs, that their jobs be “middle class” jobs.

And that was the terminology the workers at the rally used. It was the terminology that the locked out A. E. Staley workers used a dozen years ago when they came to Chicago looking for allies among lefties and anyone else who would listen. And it is terminology widely used throughout the union movement. Lefties should be advised that the workers are not speaking through a lack of “consciousness”. They know what they say and mean what they say.

Thus the “hotel workers rising” is not about insurrection (though corporate managers may think so) but about yeast.

If corporate and libertarian conservatives yearn for a return to an imaginary 19th Century, labor now yearns for a return to a slightly imaginary 1950s, when workers often had the ability to bid up their share of the wealth they produce rather than participate, however unwillingly, in today’s race to the bottom. You might call this a return to “fordism”, or an evolved “labor republicanism”, or “industrial democracy”, or even a kind of “social democracy”. It doesn’t much matter. Though the demand is modest, it could benefit far more than just the members of UNITE HERE, Change to Win, and the AFL-CIO. Though the demand is modest, it may be progress (one can only hope) toward that new world that democratic socialists still sing about. That so modest a demand seems so huge a task is a comment on our times.

* Kurt Anderson’s article simply documented that unions win a great many more workplace elections if the elections are held promptly rather than giving management an extended opportunity to intimidate employees. The article was published in 1995. It wasn’t until significant labor law reform kept failing that the National Labor Relations Board under the Obama Administration finally made the procedural change.


Originally published in New Ground 119, July — August, 2008

5 Years and Striking

by Bob Roman

Well over a thousand people showed up at the Congress Hotel on Thursday afternoon, June 12, to support Congress Hotel workers on the 5th year of their ongoing strike. Supporters of UNITE HERE Local 1 turned out in such numbers that they were able to form a double picket line encircling the entire building which occupies fully half a city block. Giant balloon rats contributed by various building trades succinctly represented the prevailing opinion about Congress Hotel management.

Management Rats
Management Rats at the Congress Plaza Hotel. Photo by Roman.

The picket line was followed by a brief rally where Henry Tamarin, President of Local 1, expressed regret that this conflict had turned into the annual event that united all of Chicago’s labor movement. John Wilhelm, the President of UNITE HERE’s Hospitality Division, was among the more eloquent speakers at the rally. He spoke about how the strikers were part of a heroic tradition of social justice. Wilhelm has made it a point to appear at each of the anniversary demonstrations for this strike since it began. 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti also spoke, his speech slyly referring to some of the litigation resulting from increased City Council scrutiny of the Congress Hotel by stating what he would like to say if his lawyers hadn’t told him not to.

There were also speakers from the Local 1 rank-and-file, Interfaith Workers Justice, Dennis Gannon who is President of the Chicago Federation of Labor, and others.

Henry Tamarin took the opportunity to recognize some two dozen or so organizations that had been especially supportive of the Congress Hotel strike, including Chicago DSA. The recognition came with a plaque that does indeed make a pretty office ornament. Chicago DSA had sent out some 800 postcards advertising this demonstration, mostly to addresses in the central city area, our members, and our friends. We had a decent turnout of DSA members for a Thursday afternoon. I counted about a dozen, but those were the people I saw and recognized. Photos of the demonstration are posted on the web at http://www.chicagodsa.org/c20080612/index.html.

It seems pretty clear to me, at least, that Local 1 (and possibly the rest of UNITE HERE even more so?) would like to be done with this strike. Not that they are about to throw in the towel but just what deal, if any, the workers might be willing to do for a contract is moot as, by all accounts, Congress Hotel management has been totally disinclined to do any negotiating this past year. The 5 years length of the strike plus a hotel occupancy rate that reportedly never exceeds 30% (usually much less) pretty much gives lie to management’s original assertion that it could not afford to pay the going rate under UNITE HERE contracts. The Congress Hotel has probably lost more money with the strike than they would have with a settlement. Plus, management has somewhere found the money to start doing renovations to the hotel. This mulish behavior will probably leave Local 1 with no alternative but to turn up the heat.

Local 1 will be beginning another round of contract negotiations with Chicago hotels soon. The ominous news is that Local 1 is voting on whether or not to increase their dues, the extra money to be going to their strike fund. Stay tuned.


From “Other News”, New Ground 121, November — December, 2008.

The President Pickets Congress!
The occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is not the only war that has been stretching on forever. The conflict between the Congress Plaza Hotel and its workers is now at about the 5 1/2 years mark, but the workers are hanging in for however long it takes.

The past two months have seen a number of actions directed at educating the general public and prospective customers of the hotel about the conflict and the issues at stake. Most recent was a spirited picket line outside the hotel during Obama’s Grant Park victory celebration. With a South Michigan Avenue location, the hotel did attract some business from Obama supporters attending the rallies. Some of these people did their unsuccessful best to pretend nothing was wrong, others had the decency to be dismayed.

But real enthusiasm and support came from the incredible street traffic that shared the side walk with the pickets. (One learned to be cautious when making the turn at the end of the picket line!) People were uniformly friendly. They took leaflets. They stopped to ask questions. They sometimes stopped to join the picket line for a few turns.

In this particular fight, the air war is secondary, but UNITE HERE has updated the strike web site to take advantage of the Obama connection: http://www.presidentpicketscongress.org . There are videos, yes, and if you’re coming to Chicago, you’ll also find a guide to union hotels.


Originally published in New Ground 125, July — August,  2009.

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Standing on Your Throat

by Bob Roman

Over a thousand people gathered outside the Congress Hotel on Monday, June 15, to protest the hotel’s ongoing refusal to negotiate with UNITE HERE Local 1. The workers at the Congress Hotel have been on strike for 6 years now. For the scabs within, the pay and benefits they earn are said to be unchanged from when the strike began and represent a cut in what the workers earned prior to the strike. This strike represents unfinished business from successful industry-wide bargaining that Local 1 did back in 2002. The Congress Hotel separated itself from the process and after several months of dilatory desultory bargaining declared an impasse and imposed its own conditions.

The strike also is said to be one of the several factors motivating the split in UNITE HERE. But if folks from the exiting “Workers United” locals were not obviously present at the protest, there was a sizable contingent from SEIU. Which, if you’ve been following this, is now a party to the split. It’s messy, and complicated, and there are good people on both sides of the argument, even if the eggs-on-faces seem maldistributed to the SEIU side. UNITE HERE held its national convention in Chicago a few weeks after this protest and gathered broad support from the leadership of AFL-CIO unions and UNITE HERE’s (and SEIU’s) fellow Change to Win unions. The convention was another occasion for a large picket line outside the hotel.

The split in UNITE HERE comes at a particularly bad time for Local 1. The Local has the Congress strike that, come October, will be the longest hotel strike in the union’s history. (The exiting Workers United organizations may have some longer strikes in their past.) But Local 1 also has the industry-wide contracts for Chicago hotel workers expiring August 31, as well as upcoming contracts covering food service workers and contracts covering workers in the gaming industry in northwest Indiana. In all, these affect some 70% of the Local 1’s 14,000 members.

And then there are the organizing projects. Union staff feel pretty strongly that the union’s ability to negotiate good deals is strongly correlated with the percentage of the industry’s workers who are organized. In Chicago, this is about 57%, so they’ve been able to do reasonably well. But go back a few decades and the percentage was over 80. The decline has not been a loss of union shops but the expansion of Chicago’s hotel industry. Of the organizing projects currently in play, the Blackstone Hotel has the union most particularly steamed. A publicly financed (TIF money again) redevelopment project, the “historic” Blackstone Hotel is run by Sage Hospitality, a largely non-union operation, under the Marriott International brand. The company promised neutrality if the workers wanted a union. The hotel has not lived up to its promise, the union feels. While Local 1 represents the workers, there has been one decertification attempt that the union suspects to be management inspired. And there has been at least one mass firing of 9 employees in June. Management says it was part of an internal reorganization related to the economic downturn. Local 1 has filed an NLRB complaint that the workers were fired for union activity. Negotiations continue and continue and continue toward a first contract. Local 1 has begun soliciting community support for the Blackstone workers.

In addition to a cross section of labor and community groups, the June 15 Congress Hotel protest also drew a bevy of politicians. Our new Governor, Pat Quinn, was there, as well as our ambitious State Treasurer, Alexi Giannoulias. Of somewhat greater significance were the representatives from city hall: Aldermen Rick Munoz, Toni Preckwinkle, Joe Moore, and Bob Fioretti. 2nd Ward Alderman Fioretti’s presence was probably the most consequential. The Congress Hotel is in the 2nd Ward and, partly by tradition and partly by law, the local alderman has a great deal of influence regarding zoning changes and permits. The Congress Hotel wants both, has been denied, and is suing Alderman Fioretti alleging their civil rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause have been violated. This is currently being argued in court and has gotten considerable coverage in the Chicago Journal.

The Congress Hotel also wants to expand, and as a landmark more-or-less on the lakefront, those plans need to be approved by the Chicago Plan Commission under the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. The Commission was persuaded to say no in 2008, based on a history of building code violations. The Congress Hotel sued the city, arguing that the Commission had no such authority under the specific provisions of the ordinance that were cited. The Circuit Court agreed and ordered the Chicago Plan Commission to reconsider the plans without reference to past building code violations and the labor dispute.

On Thursday, June 18, some 70 union members and community supporters gathered in the City Council Chambers to witness the inevitable rubberstamp of the Congress Hotel’s plans. We were prepared for this as the city’s attorneys had declined to appeal the ruling and had advised the Commission to apply the Court’s judgment broadly. So it was no surprise that Local 1’s suggestion that a different provision of the ordinance could encompass responsible behavior was not accepted. It was a surprise, though, that Commission Chairman Linda Searl would not allow any testimony to this effect, even after she had earlier allowed the introduction of city documents showing that the Congress Hotel had pretty much cleaned up the outstanding violations it had in 2008. She was quite emphatic about it, and we were equally vocal about our disapproval. We were ordered to leave in much the same manner as the Red Queen ordered beheadings. We departed in rather more order than a scattering pack of cards. The attending police had lunch in mind, not Searl nor our demonstration.

The Plan Commission, you understand, does not plan. Developers are required to do plans for certain kinds of projects, and they present their plan and a dog and pony show to the Commission staff and then to the Commission to show what a great idea it is and how it complies with the applicable ordinances. Under this legalistic model, the Commission has very limited authority. Considering the enthusiasm with which Searl and the city attorneys embraced the Circuit Court ruling, I expect they’re happy with chopping minutiae. Nonetheless, if you want to play civic tourist, at least one Chicago Plan Commission meeting is highly recommended.

For all its limited authority, the Commission’s decisions under the Lakefront Protection Ordinance are not reviewed by the City Council. Nonetheless, the ball moves to that court as Alderman Munoz reintroduces the “Right to Know” ordinance. This legislation would mandate that the reservation desks of hotels in a labor dispute notify customers making reservations of that dispute. This legislation will be considered at a City Council Finance Committee meeting on July 27 at 9:30 AM.

The workers’ strategy has changed, also. You will not see a picket line outside the Congress Hotel as often as before. Now the workers, and their community allies, are visiting or calling prospective customers of the hotel, asking them to withdraw their patronage. In the first six months of this year, this project claims to have diverted some $700,000 in business from the Congress Hotel, and one of the Congress’ few repeat customers has moved its annual meetings elsewhere. They are also working to gain and maintain the support of public officials.

Chicago DSA has been supporting these efforts. We did a 700 piece postcard mailing in support of the anniversary protest. The mailing targeted DSA members and friends, labor activists and unions offices downtown. DSA members have walked the picket line, participated in phone banks, and lobbied state legislators in Springfield. Tom Broderick supplemented a Local 1 picket line on Saturday morning, June 27, with about two dozen people gathered from Third Unitarian, Unity Temple in Oak Park, Oak Park Coalition for Truth and Justice, and DSA. DSA members included a guest appearance by past Chicago DSA Political Education Director J. Hughes, and his son, who were in town from Connecticut. Among other things, J. had a speaking engagement at a left anarchist science fiction convention that was being held across the street at Roosevelt University.

Unfortunately, there is no indication, not even a rumor, that the Congress Hotel is at all interested in settling this strike. It can’t be a matter of economics. The hotel has probably lost far more business because of the strike than it has saved in reduced wages and benefits. One can’t help but speculate that the Nasser family, the owners of this privately held establishment, regard this to be every bit as much a crusade as does Local 1. I can imagine them congratulating themselves for defending free enterprise and liberty. Which goes to show you: capitalists call it freedom when they are standing on your throat.


From “Other News” in New Ground 126, September — October, 2009.

Chicago Sends Congress Hotel a Letter
Amid all the other political activities on Labor Day in Chicago, UNITE HERE Local 1 called a special picket line outside the Congress Hotel in the morning. The purpose was to deliver an open letter, signed by some 200 community leaders, calling upon the Congress Hotel to resume negotiating in earnest so that the strike may end.

A few hundred people turned out that morning, including several DSA members and a few more politicians: Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn and Aldermen Bob Fioretti, Toni Preckwinkle, and Toni Foulkes. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. was also on the picket line, as were Kim Bobo (Interfaith Worker Justice), Reverend Calvin Morris (Community Renewal Society), Bob Guy (Illinois AFL-CIO), and I’m sure I’m missing a few that I shouldn’t.

Reverend Morris reported that the delegation that attempted to deliver the letter met with a woman of anonymous corporate status; management was, she claimed, on vacation. Where? She didn’t know. After some discussion, she agreed to let management know the delegation had been there. It may have been one of the shorter vacations on record. As the press were packing away their cameras, a security guard came out to announce that those desiring to get a statement from the hotel could call the following area code 312 number (with extension). Apparently management was on vacation beneath a desk.

The picket line did get a significant amount of coverage from local journalists, but it was reported almost exclusively in the context of the 2010 Democratic primary election. It’s the easier story to tell as the audience is already familiar with it. But the proper context would have been the ongoing negotiations between Local 1 and Chicago’s hospitality industry.

In other developments, as New Ground was going to press, the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee passed, 16 to 3, Alderman Munoz’ Right to Know Notification law. This would require hotels affected by a work stoppage to notify customers of the strike when a reservation is being made. The Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association was there to whine about it (too broad, unfair, illegal, etc.), but it should be noted that, whatever else the Congress Hotel does, they do note the ongoing strike on their web page. This legislation isn’t asking too much.


Originally published in New Ground 137, July — August, 2011.

The Congress Cancer

by Bob Roman

The Congress Hotel strike has been going on for a long time. Some say it’s the third longest strike in United States history. It’s certainly the longest hotel strike in history. UNITE HERE Local 1 held its annual mass picket of the Congress Plaza Hotel on June 15 to commemorate (the union’s word) the 8th anniversary of the strike’s beginning.

It was a lively afternoon rush hour demonstration with representatives of many Chicago area unions on the line with UNITE HERE members, along with community supporters and various notables. Based on the people I recognized, DSA members made up maybe as much as 5% of the picket line. As usual, the line was reinforced with props including giant rats as comments on the character of management or, perhaps, on the state of the facility.

By all accounts, Congress hotel management has not budged much from their original position. For the past several years, contacts between union and management have been infrequent. Because the hotel still participates in the UNITE HERE pension scheme (withdrawal is expensive), there is one brief (sometimes very brief) formal meeting each summer. Some years, that’s all there is. In the meantime, the wage gap between those working at UNITE HERE shops and those working at the Congress continues to widen.

Still, the workers keep on. As Henry Tamarin, President of Local 1, has pointed out both at this year’s action and on many other occasions, this strike belongs to the workers. They could end it at any time. They haven’t. And in response, one of the notables who spoke at the rally, Jorge Ramirez, President of the Chicago Federation of Labor, had this simple message: “Thank you.”

If the 8th anniversary picket line and rally was smaller than usual (only a couple hundred people) with a slightly weary trench-warfare feel, it was largely because the labor movement is fighting multiple existential battles. For UNITE HERE, this includes the as yet unresolved contract negotiations with the Hyatt chain of hotels.

If left untended, unopposed, the Hyatt hotel chain represents UNITE HERE’s worst nightmare: a cancerous spread of the Congress hotel’s business model to the industry at large. One of the Congress hotel’s demands, and current practice, is to outsource work to labor contractors, turning their employees into “temps.” The Hyatt hotel chain has been moving toward this practice for a few years now. Sometimes it has been abrupt, as when they fired their entire housekeeping staff at a non-union Boston facility. Sometimes it has been the “boiling frog” approach of simply not replacing staff and bringing in temps “as needed.” See http://www.justiceathyatt.org for more details.

This is why Jorge Ramirez’s “Thank you” at the Congress anniversary rally was so apt.

UNITE HERE’s response to Hyatt management’s reluctance to come to an agreement on this and other issues has been informational picketing, civil disobedience, one day strikes, and a boycott of Hyatt hotels (see http://www.hotelworkersrising.org ). As New Ground goes to press, UNITE HERE has declared Thursday, July 21, as an International Day of Action against Hyatt. Plans for Chicago include mass picketing at the Park Hyatt, on Chicago Avenue just west of Michigan Avenue.


From “Other News” in New Ground 143, July — August, 2012.

Congress Hotel
At least a half dozen Chicago DSA members joined several hundred UNITE HERE members and labor activists at a June 15 demonstration outside the Congress Hotel in downtown Chicago. The demonstration protested the Congress Hotel’s management’s stubborn refusal to bargain on the occasion of the 9th anniversary of the start of what has become the longest ongoing strike in the United States.

One of the issues in the Congress Hotel strike is the outsourcing of jobs to temp worker agencies. This is also an issue in the unresolved contract negotiations between UNITE HERE and the Hyatt hotels. The union is planning actions for July and asks that you save the dates:

  • Monday, July 23rd, Hyatt Visibility Day with young folk taking the forefront, making the struggle visible around the Chicago area.
  • Tuesday, July 24th, Community Day with community groups taking the forefront, focusing on Hyatt Hurts themes. A newly formed Community Outreach committee will be working on these specifics.
  • Wednesday, July 25th, Medical Community Day with the medical community taking the forefront. The medical community is the largest money-making group for the Hyatt chain.
  • Thursday, July 26th, Mobilization Day. This is still in formation, but the idea is that the public is center stage, supporting the union’s workers and their families.

For more coverage of the Congress Hotel protest, see New Ground 142.2.


The Congress Hotel Strike ended at the end of May, 2013. While Henry Tamarin, President of UNITE HERE Local 1, always said that the strike would continue as long as the workers were willing, this was not exactly the attitude of the new leadership of Local 1 who took over when Tamarin retired. When reports were published indicating the Congress Hotel would be converted to condominiums, the union basically pulled the plug. Apparently, the reports were premature; the deal fell through. The hotel is still in business and non-union (except for some infrastructure employees, possibly).


 

What I Saw of the 2018 Women’s March

in Chicago’s Grant Park

Click on any of the photos above for a larger view.

Despite the beautiful weather, this year’s march was smaller than last year’s event. It may have been at most half the size, but that is still a sizeable event; last year was a monster.

Chicago DSA brought a few dozen to the march this year: more than last year.

Despite a considerable investment in stage, sound and TV, most of the program was inaccessible to attendees. It was carried live by Chicago’s community access cable network, so you may be able to pick up the archived recording at CANTV eventually.

Post script:

The organizers of the march are claiming that the turnout was larger than 2017. Maybe it was. Crowd sizes are always difficult to numerate. Plus, are you counting everyone who participated or just the maximum crowd size? But here is what I observed:

  1. In 2017, the Red Line CTA trains southbound from Howard were packed beyond capacity. People were actually taking trains north in hopes of finding a station where trains would have some space. This year, it was pretty much a normal rush hour, extraordinary for a Saturday morning but not like 2017. I saw no evidence that there were more trains on the Red Line. The CTA did announce more buses on Route 147 that parallels the Red Line, but I rather doubt that this did anything more than maintain the usual Saturday capacity by making sure there were at least a few buses that were not trapped down in Grant Park. The CTA did add cars to the Brown Line, at least, and maybe the other lines and Metra did add a few trains and and extra cars. I’m skeptical that any added capacity would have accounted for the difference in crowding if the turnout was actually greater than 2017.
  2. In 2017, it was very nearly impossible to navigate around the demonstration. It was that packed. Maybe this year had better logistics, but apart from the space directly in front of the stage and giant TVs, it was possible to navigate the park.
  3. Columbus Drive was reserved as far south as Balbo but occupied not quite as far south as Congress. I recall the 2017 event as larger.
  4. On the other hand, I left somewhere mid-program, before the actual march, and while I was not alone in leaving there were others (and more of them on Congress) still arriving.

So how big was it? {Shrug} You’ll have to decide yourself. Regardless of how big it was in relation to 2017, it was still really big.

 

Small But Beautiful

Back in 1991, DSA met nationally every year. There was a national convention in odd years, delegated from the membership in chapters and at-large. In even years, there was a meeting of the National Board. The Board included members elected from chapters and commissions, the National Political Committee, and (IIRC) the DSA national vice-chairs. In principle, as a standing body, the Board could have met any number of times but in practice it was never more than once. In 1991 there was a move to abolish the National Board. That proposal was highly controversial. I no longer recall if it was successful in 1991, but eventually the Board was abolished. In its place in the by-laws was a requirement for an off year national conference. This proved to be beyond the resources (including members’ interest) then available. They tried regional conferences instead one year, and this is my account of that Midwest conference, originally published in New Ground 89, July — August, 2003.

by Bob Roman

The Midwest Regional DSA Conference was considerably smaller than the originally envisioned, and rather more focused on DSA. Held at the International House on the University of Chicago campus during the July 12 weekend, no more than a few dozen people attended. Yet this provided an intimate, interactive environment in which everyone could participate. Better still, while not all Midwestern DSA chapters were represented, there was a good mix of people from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, as well as many of the usual suspects from Chicago. Nor were all the participants DSA members; about a quarter were non-members with varying degrees of familiarity with DSA.

In this intimate setting, it would probably mischaracterize Congressman Danny Davis’ presentation as a keynote address. It was that, yet it was also a political sermon. Billed as “Finding a Winning Politics in 2004”, he actually provided a quiet, thoughtful monologue on a theme of faith, hope and charity, with an emphasis on the first two (faith being as much a commitment to values as to any theology), illustrated by brief parables and a colloquial marxism. Anyone hoping for the insider political technician speech typical of many DSA gatherings would have been disappointed. But Representative Davis’ talk was very much an affirmation of progressive politics and activism, and the audience was very much refreshed by it.

Each of the conference sessions started with a presentation followed by a question and answer and discussion period. It was here that the relatively small size of the conference really made a difference, allowing for participation by the most reticent of the attendees.

With Joe Persky, Ron Baiman, Mel Rothenberg and David Schweickart discussing the “New Global Economy”, one might have once again expected a heavily academic, technical discussion of politics. And indeed, the panelists offered a cogent discussion of the current state of affairs. But again, the program exceeded expectations by going beyond the usual diagnosis of systemic injustice to a discussion of democratic socialism, workplace democracy and other related topics. This was a panel that was both informative and stimulating.

Dr. David Green from Detroit DSA presided over a discussion of the Living Wage Campaigns that, in Detroit, have been instigated by DSA. They’ve won Living Wage Ordinances in five governments since beginning the project, including some that include a differential designed to encourage vendors and contractors with the particular government to offer their employees health insurance.

It turns out that all of the DSA locals with members at the conference had participated in Living Wage campaigns. There was an extended discussion of the Detroit and Chicago experiences. (See New Ground 66, 60, 54, 49, 48 and 44.)

Past Chicago DSA Political Education Director Kim Jones did indeed provide a survey of 2004 Democratic Presidential politics in Iowa, but his intent was more to stimulate a discussion of the role of Presidential campaigns in organization building, both specifically DSA and the broader left. He was rewarded with an extended discussion that was interesting in that there was little discussion of the Green Party and little faith in any of the Democratic candidates though many had their preferences. It seemed to me that the overall feeling was that Presidential campaigns were too important to be ignored but not very useful in organizing.

Lucinda Scharbach, from HERE Local 1, gave a brief presentation on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Bus Ride. This is a national tour, with routes starting at various major metropolitan areas around the country, all coming together in Washington, DC, with stops in various cities and towns along the way. From DC, the convoy will proceed to rallies in New Jersey and New York. Chicago will be the starting point for one of the routes in late September. Even at this early date, the Chicago convoy is up to nine buses.

Styled after the Freedom Bus Rides that desegregated public transportation in the South, this event is intended to lobby for legislation that, at minimum, will include:

1) a new Amnesty Program for undocumented tax paying workers in the U.S.,

2) better family unification laws,

3) improving the right of undocumented workers to organize (e.g., repeal the Hoffman decision).

It’s very much a coalition effort, and under the umbrella of these three demands, coalition members are formulating their own demands. DSA is part of the sponsoring coalition nationally.

Kathy Quinn of Greater Philadelphia DSA chaired a discussion of “Building DSA”. It was actually a discussion of “best practices”, intended to encourage conference attendees to share “what works”.

The last session of the conference was a meeting of DSA’s new International Commission. DSA is a member of the Socialist International. Traditionally, relations with the International and with other member parties has been handled by a committee of DSA’s National Political Committee. The new Commission includes non-NPC members and fulfills the same role.

Post Script: The International Commission never functioned effectively. By 2003, it was also becoming debatable whether DSA’s membership in the Socialist International was in any way useful. There were, apparently, a few DSA members with sentimental attachments who were willing to finance the annual dues so we kept on. DSA eventually dropped its membership in 2017.

National Wal-Mart Day of Action

markets ain’t free and neither are thee

Originally published in New Ground 86, January — February, 2003. What I remember most about this demonstration was the way space used by the public — parking lots, sidewalks — were actually private: where the Bill of Rights does not apply therefore no freedom of speech or assembly that’s unwelcome by the property owner. Once upon a time, governments at all levels, local through federal, had this authority also.

by Bob Roman

DSA was one of 120 local and national organizations that endorsed and participated in the Tuesday, November 21 National Day of Action at Wal-Mart stores. This Day of Action was organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCWU). Nationally, DSA was able to provide support at about 20 demonstrations.

The Day of Action was organized around eight demands:

1. Pay their associates a living wage so they can afford basic living expenses such as a home, health insurance, and modest savings for children’s college and retirement.

2. Provide affordable health care.

3. Treat injured workers fairly and provide prompt and complete medical attention for workers injured on the job.

4. Stop illegal interference with associates’ right to organize, cease all coercive, threatening and bullying tactics to discourage organizing, and let the workers freely decide.

5. Adopt less cut-throat, more cooperative policies that respect established commercial districts and avoid pricing out small businesses.

6. End employment practices that discriminate against workers who are women, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

7. Truly respect all associates as individuals irrespective of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

8. Respect the environment.

All of these demands are based on the experiences of employees and of the communities where Wal-Mart stores are located. The list of discrimination lawsuits against Wal-Mart and unfair labor judgements against it reads like a gangster’s rap sheet. About a month after the Day of Action, a federal jury ruled that Wal-Mart was guilty of violating federal and state wage laws. That particular suit had been filed by two store managers from Salem, Oregon, and was joined by 400 other employees in 24 states. 39 other class-action lawsuits said to involve hundreds of thousands of employees are currently pending against the company in 30 states.

In the Chicago area, demonstrations were planned for stores in Rolling Meadows in the northwest suburbs and in Bridgeview in the near southwest suburbs. Nationally, the demonstrations were planned from late afternoon through early evening so that people could participate after school and after work. In the Chicago area, these plans were complicated by the fact that the UFCWU locals 881 and 1546 were in the midst of contract negotiations with Jewel and with Dominick’s. As a consequence, the times locally were moved up, making it more difficult for others to participate. The negotiations with Dominick’s turned into an ugly game of chicken. UFCWU Local 881 cancelled the Bridgeview action and asked that people instead turn out for a demonstration at a Dominick’s on Chicago’s near southside. This action in turn was cancelled when Dominick’s and the union reached a last minute agreement.

Tuesday, November 21 was wet and as chilly as could be without actually freezing. The drive out to Rolling Meadows was on roads of suspended spray. What we found there summarizes the problems facing the UFCWU neatly. The store is in a mall: private property. The parking lot was swarming with Rolling Meadows police and private security. Where was the demonstration?

After some wandering, we eventually discovered that the UFCWU had managed to set up a tent and generator in the parking lot of a strip mall several hundred feet away: “next door” in suburban terms. There was a small crowd that steadily grew to somewhat more than a hundred.

The rally was harangued by a number of speakers, including DSA member Libby Frank who was representing the Northwest Suburban NOW chapter. The demonstration was then allowed to march past the Wal-Mart to another far corner of a parking lot for another brief rally (covered by a cable network, I believe) then back to the original site where the demonstration rapidly dispersed, hours early.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a desultory effort. This is a serious business with consequences for the workers that UFCWU already represents. There’s no limit to the areas of retailing that Wal-Mart may go into (groceries in particular are an immediate concern), and this could easily drive union shops out of business or degrade the contracts in those shops to fig leaves.

Not only does the union face an over worked (and now, with Dubya in control, hostile) National Labor Relations Board, but the stores are all surrounded by moats of “private” property, often guarded by hostile courts. The Day of Action included rallies in 100 towns and cities in 40 states but not Wal-Mart’s “home” state of Arkansas. A state judge had issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the union from soliciting inside Wal-Mart buildings and stores.