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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Labor struggles today: A report on a recent civil disobedience action in Chicago

Labor struggles today: A report on a recent civil disobedience action in Chicago

Laurie Rojas

Platypus Review 16 | October 2009


ON SEPTEMBER 24, 2009, approximately 900 Chicagoans rallied on the sidewalks in front of the Park Hyatt Hotel near the Magnificent Mile. At the height of rush hour, about 200 members and community allies of UNITE HERE Local 1, Chicago’s hospitality workers’ union, arrived at the scene and blocked all four lanes of Chicago Avenue by sitting down in rows and linking their arms.

As the demonstrators chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” among various other long-familiar slogans, organizers passed out fliers that read, “We work in hotels, airports, casinos, schools, restaurants and cafeterias. We are union members and allies. We will continue to fight to improve our lives and will not let global corporations use the economy as an excuse to push us backward.” From this the fliers went on to single out the Civil Rights Movement as the inspiration for the day’s civil disobedience action: “Today, we follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. and others before us who have fought for a better future for themselves and their families.” The rally’s message, if not made clear by the flier, was written on the backs of the shirts of all those arrested. Under a long list of names of local employers, the shirts declared, “We are not afraid.”

UNITE HERE Local 1’s multi-year hotel contracts in Chicago had just expired on September 1. Representing more than 15,000 hotel, food service, and casino workers in Chicago and Northwest Indiana, including workers at the Congress Hotel Plaza in Chicago who have been on strike for years, the union is keenly aware that Chicago employers intend to use the recent economic crisis as an opportunity to cut their members’ wages and benefits. The September 24th civil disobedience was conceived as a pre-emptive action against Chicago hoteliers. As a tactic, it applies pressure without actually threatening to strike, which Local 1 views as a measure of last resort.

UNITE HERE planned the Park Hyatt action carefully. Their representatives and lawyers notified the Chicago Police Department well in advance, so that they were present even before most of the union members arrived. Those who sat in the street had been prescreened to ensure that no one had a prior record of arrest, which could make for more severe penal consequences. The drama was so well orchestrated, in fact, that the action felt somewhat anti-climactic. The cops had even cleared the streets before the arrestees arrived. They were taken away in buses and released by 8:00 PM with a citation for obstructing traffic. After the offenders were released, UNITE HERE ally Carrie Graham commented, “The cops said we were the nicest people they had ever arrested.” Graham added, “We just gave the tickets to the lawyers, I will probably never hear anything about it again.”

Everything went according to plan, thanks in large part to the UNITE HERE training sessions a week earlier, which consisted of exercises and drills meant to prepare those who pledged to get arrested. A flier titled “Civil Disobedience Dos and Don’ts” was circulated, its rules exhorting protestors to “be composed and serious,” “bring picture ID,” and “signal a marshal in an emergency,” while warning them not to “go limp,” “carry weapons or even [a] pocket-knife,” or “consume alcohol (or drugs) before the arrest.” The point of these sessions was to make sure that, in the media exposure following the event, the union appears organized and disciplined, so that the focus remained on the demands of the workers. Although the president of Local 1 told the demonstrators “anything can happen” and “we do not know what the Chicago Police will do,” the union took every reasonable measure to be as organized and prepared as possible.

Undoubtedly, the civil disobedience comes at a time when UNITE HERE needs to build up union morale. In 2004, UNITE, a union of garment workers in both manufacturing and laundry representing over 150,000 workers, merged with HERE, Hotel Entertainment and Restaurant Employees. The merger created a union with 440,000 members. It was a marriage of convenience, as UNITE’s growth had stagnated despite access to substantial funding via the Amalgamated Bank, the only union-owned bank, whereas HERE’s membership was expanding but lacked financial backing. The merger maintained two leaders, with Bruce Raynor from UNITE as president while John Wilhelm from HERE assumed control of the hospitality division. Despite the difference in titles, both leaders were meant to share equally all executive and budgetary responsibilities. But, disagreements over strategy and the allocation of funds led to tensions and, eventually, lawsuits. The lack of integration extended to the locals, some of which identified primarily with UNITE while others were loyal to HERE. Tensions came to a head in March, 2009, when Raynor, along with delegates from 15 affiliates representing roughly 100,000 workers, disassociated from UNITE HERE to establish a new union, Workers United, which then affiliated with the rival Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the nation’s second largest union. Together with his following, Raynor took with him the Amalgamated Bank and $23 million of the strike fund, the legitimacy and legality of which is bitterly disputed. This, at a critical time for American labor. As Nic Mijares, a recent graduate from Columbia College, and now an organizer for UNITE HERE said during the training, “companies are using the economy to take benefits from us and it is not fair. We are fighting for the respect we deserve.” When asked about what could go wrong with the civil disobedience action, Mijares responded, “people not understanding the message.”

A week before the civil disobedience, the remainder of UNITE HERE announced its (re-)affiliation with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) during the closing ceremony of the 2009 AFL-CIO convention. Previously, UNITE HERE, along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the SEIU, had broken with the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form a new federation, called Change to Win, which in the 2008 election mobilized thousands in support of presidential candidate Obama. Representing roughly 11 million members, the AFL-CIO will prove an important ally for UNITE HERE in its battle against SEIU and its president, Andy Stern. However, it is uncertain just how well UNITE HERE is poised to benefit from its affiliation with the AFL-CIO. Even more doubtful is whether the labor movement as a whole will emerge stronger from the recent strife.

Supposedly, this is labor’s moment.[1] With Obama in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress, hopes are high for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) to protect and expand the right to organize. The entanglement of organized labor’s hopes with the Democratic Party is evident even in the slogans chanted at the rally, which included, in addition to the tired old ones mentioned above, the fresh, new, if desperate, “Si se puede! Yes we can!” Given this linkage to Obamania, it is unsurprising that most commentators on the current struggle within labor’s ranks view the rift with regret. For them, it threatens to weaken the labor movement at just the moment they have fought so long for. As John Nichols argues in the pages of The Nation, “The problem, and it is a big one, is that Change to Win and the AFL-CIO are both struggling to win passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), health care reform and other labor agenda items.”[2] This is a view widely shared by labor leaders and rank-and-file workers: The struggle between SEIU and UNITE HERE distracts American unions from fighting for the passage of the EFCA to help secure workers’ rights to unionize.

Yet it is not unlikely that the Obama administration’s support for EFCA has been vastly overestimated. The White House is asking Change to Win and the AFL-CIO to reunify into one federation, which may prove no more than a distraction from the setbacks to the passage of the EFCA. Certainly, the Democratic Party intends to use EFCA to bludgeon American organized labor into forming a single negotiating body that is more than ever beholden to them. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has hampered workers’ ability to fight for better wages. Waiting for legislation that may never come, organized labor around the country fails to resist management’s relentless speed-ups, cutbacks, and layoffs. As Chuck Hendricks, an organizer for UNITE HERE who was arrested during the civil disobedience, states with regards to organized labor in a previous issue of The Platypus Review, “The vision of what is possible is what is lacking.”[3] After a training and rehearsal session for the civil disobedience in Chicago, Hendricks commented, “It is the first time I actually feel like I am part of a movement.” The question for organizers like Hendricks, then, is not so much unity for its own sake or for the sake of further subordination to the Democratic Party, but strategic fighting, and building rank-and-file leadership in the labor movement.

Richard Rubin of Platypus recently pointed out that, in the early 20th century, the working class faced the dilemma of whether to reform capitalism or to abolish it. Over the last four decades it has become clear the path that was taken. As Rubin argued, both cause and effect were “an internalization of defeat and even a fear of victory.”[4] The last forty years have unquestionably been a period in which the last vestiges of the international Left withered and died. It is therefore unsurprising that during these same decades the strength of the American labor movement has waned considerably.

So the question to be posed in light of even the most well-coordinated labor activism is clear: To what extent does an action like that held in Chicago lead not only to the improvement of the conditions of workers in the U.S. and internationally, but to the constitution of a labor movement whose vision extends beyond the Obama administration and the Democratic Party? Was the September 24th civil disobedience an action in the struggle for socialism? Of course not. Yet, as Hendricks expressed, the action does potentially strengthen the union and build the confidence necessary to make more far-reaching demands. On the other hand, the wishes of organizers in unions like UNITE HERE to build a powerful labor movement from the ground up, may prove implausible in the present. As the recent UNITE HERE split and re-affiliation with the AFL-CIO might indicate, certain unions will find strategies of direct politicization and labor militancy insufficient. The fault, however, might not lie solely in unions, but on the overall impotence of the Left. Certainly, there is little reason to doubt workers and organizers when they proclaim in both word and deed to employers and union bosses alike, “We Are Not Afraid.” |P

[1]. See Peter Dreir’s article “Divorce—Union Style,” in the August 12, 2009 issue of The Nation. Dreir expresses the consensus opinion of political analysts with regard to workers’ rights in the recession: “Ask any union official, labor organizer, rank-and-file leader or labor-oriented academic—they’ll all tell you the same thing: this is labor’s moment.”

[2]. John Nichols, “House of Labor Wrangling: UNITE-HERE v SEIU, AFL v CtW,” State of Change Blog, The Nation, posted March 13, 2009.

[3]. Chuck Hendricks et al, “Left Behind: The Working Class in the Crisis,” Platypus Review 13 (July 2009).

[4]. Luis Brennan et al, “What Is a Movement?” Platypus Review 14 (August 2009).