Debs -- Thomas -- Harrington
by Amy Dean
Thank you Rev C.J. for that
warm and generous introduction.
I have to admit when Peg Strobel
called me and asked if I would speak this evening I was a bit
I took a look at the speakers
and honorees from the previous 54 dinners and the list reads
like a who's who of America's best rabble-rousers and progressive
After I reluctantly accepted
and hung up the phone from Peg, I was reminded of a time when
I addressed a group just minutes after Jesse Jackson Sr. took
We were in the parking lot
of a K-Mart arguing that workers should be allowed to join the
United Food and Commercial Workers in San Jose, CA.
I have to admit, speaking
before tonight's crowd feels a bit like it did back in that Kmart
In all serious though, it
is really an honor to address you tonight.
I am so pleased to be here
and to participate in celebrating the accomplishments of the
pioneers of our movement: Keith, Bill and the CTU.
I'm reminded of a quote from
one of America's greatest theologians of the second half of the
19th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel. He reminded us "that
in order to be an heir to a great tradition, one must be a pioneer."
This evening's honorees are
the pioneers of our great tradition!
It is a tradition of putting
the needs of people over the profits of industry;
It's a tradition of the caring
and commitment and the love we have for one another in our hearts.
Its' a tradition that reminds
us about the strength of
Strategizing together; and
As a Mother of two school
age children, I am especially proud to salute the Chicago Teacher's
Simply put, you guys rock!
Wherever workers have pushed back against the odds--
Wherever they have galvanized
a whole cross section of the public to their cause--
Wherever they have showed
that victory was possible where all around them saw defeat--
Your name is on their lips.
You didn't just bring your
students and your students' parents into the street with you.
You brought them together,
and then, together, you told the truth about what is going on
in this country. The truth about the so called school reform
movement, about privatization, about the attack on the right
for all children to a free and quality education.
And telling the truth is never
I know a little bit about
the lies people want to believe.
After all, I used to lead
the labor movement in Silicon Valley.
"It's a new economy,"
they told me. "People don't need unions. They're independent,
It turned out the new economy
wasn't so different from the old economy. Woody Guthrie sang,
"some rob you with a six-gun, some rob you with a fountain
pen." Change "fountain pen" to "Blackberry"
and there's your New Economy.
I was prepared for that, because
before California, for me, there was Chicago.
Chicago was the birthplace
of the American Labor Movement.
It was my birthplace too.
It's where I learned some
important and sobering lessons about being in the fight for racial,
social and economic justice.
I grew up on Chicago's south
side and at a young age, I learned about redlining. As our family
remained one of the last white families in Chicago's Jeffrey
Manor, we watched as banks and independent brokerage firms seduced
white Chicagoans to move to the suburbs while de-investing in
our neighborhood and the city's urban core.
I learned about how our opponents
sometimes take us more seriously than we take ourselves when
shortly after I got hired as an organizer for the ILGWU, our
organizing director, Rudy Lozano had been shot and killed while
in the middle of the Del Rey Tortilleria campaign.
I learned about the contradictions
and discrimination within our own movement as I watched Mayor
Washington vie for the COPE endorsement from the Chicago Federation
of Labor during his reelection campaign, although every Democratic
mayor before him got an automatic endorsement when running for
a second term.
And I learned something else
that shaped so much of my thinking as an activist. Back in those
days, Mayor Washington put together task forces of all key stakeholders
in Chicago's steel industry and its apparel and textile industry.
Mayor Washington had a simple yet profound economic development
strategy for retaining and growing our city's industrial base.
He understood that if government
could incent capital to move its production off shore with handsome
tax breaks and other goodies, then government could also be a
mechanism for creating the shared prosperity business never will
be on its own.
Now don't' get me wrong: I'm
not saying that any of our mayors since Washington hasn't tried
to promote economic growth.
If you talk with any mayor,
city councilman, country supervisor or county exec you'll get
the same lecture about how committed they are to creating jobs.
And you know, sometimes they
actually mean it.
But there's a difference between
handing out tax abatements, or industrial development bonds --
or even setting up job training programs.
Its one thing to encourage
commercial development, but another to require a developer to
create affordable housing and middle class jobs as part of that
And yet that's exactly what
some of the best coalition work that's happening around the country
is doing. Insisting that our community benefit when our public
assets are invested.
Tonight we find ourselves
juxtaposed between those who are leading us into the future and
some of our movement's greatest leaders of the past: Eugene Debs,
Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington.
When I think about them, the
spiritual dimension strikes me that each of them possessed.
Harrington, a lapsed Catholic,
called himself a "pious apostate".
Thomas was a Presbyterian
minister who came out of the Social Gospel movement.
And although Eugene Debs was
not religious, his speeches were legendary for their evangelical
My own Jewish faith, and the
traditions I've been raised with, have inspired and grounded
my own activism. Again, in the words of Rabbi Heschel "Authentic
faith is more than an echo of a tradition. It is a creative situation.
It is an event."
And as I think about the creative
situation Rabbi Heschel described, it reminds me that right here
in Chicago and right now as we gather tonight, that the future
of our movement is taking root in our great city.
There is a new activism that
is felt, seen and heard in Chicago and all around this country.
Some may look at the growing
low-wage worker movement and see a series of disconnected, independent
manifestations of anger or maybe even a coincidence. But when
I look out, as I'm sure many here tonight do too, I see the seeds
being planted of America's next New Deal.
I see a new activism being
led by low-wage workers and service sector workers. I see labor
becoming as much a community based organization as a work place
I see new partnerships and
stakeholders finding common cause.
I see legions of 20 and 30
something's looking to make a difference in the world and to
work for social justice as a vocation.
I see a new wave of immigrant
activism that at its best will hold America to its promise of
being a just, fair and compassionate country where one day there
will be justice for all.
Right here in Chicago and
all across our country, we are surrounded by a new generation
of organizing energy.
And what links these new forms
of action and organization together? People who make the possible
seem within our reach, in our time and in our city.
They're not waiting for elected
And while they are happy to
partner with the labor movement, they're not waiting for unions
either. They're working outside the traditional, institutional
Who can blame them? Today,
6.6% of private sector workers belong to a union. And while we
were asking, "What can we do to raise the number,"
these organizers of the future, the new grass roots, are asking
a more fundamental question:
What can we do to make our
own lives better?
And as it turns out, the answers
are all around us.
Making Change at Wal-Mart
answered the question on Black Friday by bringing thousands of
workers and community members out to picket lines at dozens and
dozens of Wal-Mart actions across the country. And some of them
were straight-up old-school wildcat strikes.
A tactic that under the current
National Labor Relations Act, unionized workers are forbidden
You know, the day after Black
Friday, I can remember a Wal-Mart spokesperson saying on TV,
"well, the action had no impact on store operations. Those
employees who stood out protesting didn't represent Wal-Mart's
I was struck when I heard
that and was reminded by what he spokesperson for the Montgomery
Bus System say on December 1, 1955.
"Well, Ms. Parks isn't
representative of our passengers."
And the answer to the question
about how to improve the lives of low-wage workers can be found
with The Domestic Workers Campaign. And although they answered
that question with a legislative strategy, they aren't' waiting
for politicians. In California, they are leading them.
They've proposed the Domestic
Workers bill of Rights in the California Assembly. The law will
end the shameful exclusion of housekeepers and caregivers form
the most basic labor protections.
And workers are answering
the question by building the Restaurant Opportunities Center.
They are working to get people to care as much about the health
and welfare of the chicken they are eating as they do about the
human being that is serving them their food.
Getting people to care more
about people that chickens is something that ROC is winning at
doing. They've changed the conversation to include working conditions
of the people who prepare and serve their food.
Under Saru Jayarman's leadership,
they've published a National Diner's Guide to Ethical Eating.
It's like a Zagat guide that rates sick days and health care
for the restaurant's employees instead of ambience and service
I'm sure just about everyone
in this room remembers Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle
about Chicago's Back of the Yards, Sinclair wanted people to
be outraged about the working conditions these workers labored
under. They got outraged all right -- but about food quality.
I'd like to believe that somewhere,
Upton Sinclair has his hands on a copy of ROC's Diner's Guide
and he's weeping with joy, saying, "Finally, finally, somebody
And the question for workers
is being answered by the work of ARISE and the car wash workers.
Car wash workers are fighting back in Los Angeles and New York
as well. They've won lawsuits. They've won union recognition
at individual shops. But they aren't stopping there, and like
any progressive union committed to more than just the institutional
interests of its membership, they are keeping there on the prize
of impacting industrial reform.
Truckers at the Ports of Los
Angeles and Long Beach are answering the question by building
a strong "blue-green" alliance -- labor and environment
-- starting in the community.
Now the port truckers have
joined together with environmentalists and activists from neighborhoods
with frightening cancer clusters.
They've built a coalition
that goes way beyond one spectacular demonstration. And they're
fighting the whole system.
The employment system that
makes truckers into independent contracting and turns them into
prisoners of their decaying, pollution-spewing trucks.
They're fighting at the job
site, in the neighborhood, at the Capitol, and in the courts,
they're fighting back.
Fast food workers just answered
the question last week. People said for years you couldn't organize
these folks. Maybe we had to wait for them to organize themselves.
These are people who have
to make the choice, every week, between paying the rent and taking
their children to the doctor.
Worse these are people who
are serving up America breakfast, lunch and dinner and yet they
and their families go to sleep every night hungry.
So what did they choose?
They chose to strike.
They chose to walk off the
job. Twice. New York City, in November. And again, here in Chicago,
just last week.
Go ask a union organizer about
organizing fast food workers. If it's on the record, they'll
say it's hard. If it's off the record, they'll say it's impossible.
But these workers are organizing
Now, if the entire labor movement
had the same kind of vision and the same kind of willingness
to stand up and fight -- chances are we would never gotten to
But today we're still paying
for the fact that, just as the moment when we needed to fight
back, as an institution, too many in organized labor seemed to
have behaved as it is was time to sit back.
It sort of reminds me of that
old story about the farmer and the pig.
A man was driving down the
road and he saw a farmer holding up a pig so it could eat the
apples hanging from the branches of the tree.
The man stopped and asked:
"Wouldn't it be a lot faster if you just let the pig eat
the apples on the ground?"
The farmer smiled and answered:
"Maybe but what's time to a pig?'
And that's the kind of attitude
I've often heard from some of our leaders in the labor movement.
And now that were on the topic
of new labor, I want to take a minute to talk about the Republican's
latest attack on the national labor relations act. They say it's
broke and I think we should let them know we couldn't' agree
The workers that I've talked
about tonight are winning not because of the NLRB but inspite
of it. And if the labor movement throws down to preserve it without
demanding reforming it at the same time, then it will have spent
what ever political capital it has in Washington trying to preserve
something that in its current form isn't protecting the interests
of our country's working families.
And for anyone who's ever
been at the negotiating table, when you throw down for one thing,
it's usually at the expense of something else.
You know, I, for one, am someone
who believes we should stand with Republicans when they get it
right. And on this one they're right: the NLRB sucks!
Don't get me wrong here. I'm
not saying we don't need a mechanism to protect the fundamental
right of freedom of association. It's just that the board has
failed in its job to that.
Justice delayed . . . is Justice
And God knows we need to protect
the freedom of association in this county.
Freedom to associate with
those who share political, social and economic interests is it
is a fundamental right that has been the feature of every democratic
country throughout all of history.
It's a fundamental right that
is protected in:
- Article 11 of the European
Convention on Human Rights
- The Canadian Charted of Rights
- International Law, including
articles 20 and 23 of the Universal Declaration of human rights;
- and Conventions 87 and 88
of the International Labor Organization.
I know, I know: Some of you
might be writing off these organizations as socialists and communists
and so what else would you expect? I'm pretty sure I even heard
the word Canadian in there somewhere.
But how's this, brothers and
sisters on the far right: The ability to freely associate is
a basic protection under America's constitution and, in case
you failed your high school history class, that would be the
Bill of Rights.
Yes, the Bill of Rights of
the United States Constitution doesn't just guarantee the protection
of individual freedom. It also guarantees our right to stand
Now I have no doubt that some
our political leaders need a refresher from High School history
although we don't have time for that tonight.
Whether or not these global
thugs were just too busy being neighborhood bullies or not; maybe,
their lack of basic civics might have something to do with demanding
teachers' to "teach to the test".
But the fact is, when the
Republicans have a good idea, let's not let partisan politics
get in the way.
In case you've been following
it, right wing columnist George Will and former Reagan speechwriter
Peggy Noonan have been calling for an end to TOO BIG TO FAIL
Now for Peggy it's about crafting
a populist message for Republicans as they struggle to pull themselves
out of the political diaspora.
And for George Will, it's
about his ideological opposition to government playing a role
in just about anything, Really, he's a purist. He's not like
a lot of these guys who believe government has a legitimate role
to play not in advancing justice but when it's about JUST US!
But I got to tell ya, our
side of the aisle bailed out the banks and we never got one dime
of it in return. And for whatever the motivation of some Republicans,
I'm hoping their courage will strengthen the backbone of our
side to take de-centralize the banking system.
I'd argue that the real enemy
to rebuilding popular control of our economy isn't as much about
the Republican Party as it is about our own Democratic Party.
And there are few issues where
this plays out -- public education. And nowhere is that fight
greater than in the fight for school reform.
I hope we all realize that
the corporate school reform movement is alive and well here in
Chicago, not to mention incredibly well funded. And in spite
of popular perception, it's not a grassroots movement as some
would like to believe.
Not surprisingly, its beginnings
can be traced back to the mid 1980's when a Presidential commission
released the report A Nation at Risk.
The report simply stated that
our pubic education is an abject failure, a system in decline
and as a result we as a country are imperiled by our educational
The report led to the infamous
legislation No Child Left Behind which governed educational policy
for the next 30 years and signaled that corporate reformers ownership
of both political parties -- as this piece of legislation was
opposed by local conservatives, teachers unions liberal allies
and the left.
No child left behind was the
turning point for the accountability in education movement became
the watchword for standardized testing.
In the world according to
No Child Left Behind, high poverty TITLE 1 schools get penalized
if their students don't exhibit, in technical terms, "adequate
yearly progress" -- that is, if their test scores don't
improve quickly enough.
And yet while the President
has renounced the ill-conceived No Child Left Behind law, he
has continued to place disproportionate emphasis on standardized
Obama's signature education
program, RACE to The TOP, is reminiscent of No Child Left Behind
-- it rewards states at a time when not one of them doesn't find
themselves cash strapped and rewards them for increased in the
role of standardized testing in the state's public education
No two institutions underpin
the strength of any democracy more than public education and
the trade union movement.
They've privatized everything
from healthcare to housing from transit, parks, water, and parking
meters. If it belongs to the public, it was part of the common
good they have put it on the auction block.
And now they want our schools.
And they've been organizing. They went into our community, organized
parents to fear public schools, to disinvest and to blame teachers.
My son Teddy goes to [Lincoln
Park HS] here in Chicago. And I'll confess, if he had wanted
to go to private school, I would have let him.
But when he looked at the
possibilities, he said, "Mama, I want to be somewhere where
the kids succeed in spite of their background, not because of
I believe the fight over the
future of public education in this country is going to be the
next civil rights issue of our generation.
It is fight about the very
direction of our democracy.
It is nothing short of a fight
over the soul of this country.
John Dewey, the philosopher
of education and democracy, and a great Chicagoan, told us never
to forget this elementary, hopeful truth.
No matter how alienated citizens
become from their democracy, it is always theirs to take back.
No matter how much power is
taken by elites in the corporations, the government, and the
media, democratic power can grow from the seeds of face-to-face
It can grow from the streets,
from the neighborhoods, from the community.
From the Wal-Mart to the car
From the port of L.A. to the
The new activism that is all
around us proves that the deeper our roots in our communities,
the more strategic are our partnerships, the higher the stakes
are that our coalitions take on, the stronger we will be.
It shows us that the people
we passed over because they were too hard to organize,
Or not strategic enough to
Will stand up for them whether
or not we organize them.
It shows us that the community
we used to ask to support us, as an afterthought, is the community
that has the most to gain?
It's here, at the grass roots,
that we will find the seeds of what I like to call our New New
In the words of John Dewey
I believe the fight to take back our country can and will be
one, so long as we do not fight alone.
It's gong to take all of us
labor and community, you and old, straight, gay lesbian and transgender,
white, black, brown and yellow, woman and men and every in every
community across this country.
We need the collective talent
of all of us.
We need the drive of that
comes form all of us
We need our collective leadership
that comes when we all work together; and the spirit we bring
to this country.
Sisters and brothers, nothing
short of rebuilding our nation's democracy is at stake.
There's a story I once heard
about how, years ago, after he was elected U.S. Senator, Bill
Bradley was invited to speak at a banquet.
He was seated at the head
table when a server carrying a basket of rolls gave Senator Bradley
one roll and on pad of butter.
The Senator looked down and
said: "Excuse me, could I have another pad of butter?"
The server answered: Sorry,
sir: one roll -- one pad."
The Senator smiled and said:
"Really?" All I want is one more pad."
The server shook his head
and said: "No, one roll. one pad."
By this time the emcee for
the dinner could see what was happening and ran over.
He said: "Young man,
don't you know who this is? This is Senator Bill Bradley."
The server answered: "Well
don't you know who I am?"
The emcee said, "As a
matter of fact I don't. Who are you?"
The server smiled and said:
"I'm the guy who controls the butter!"
Sisters and brothers when
it comes to rebuilding the foundation of this country from Chicago,
New York, California and every where in between -- we are the
women and men who control the butter.
Thank you and God bless you!