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50th Annual Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner

The 2008 Eugene V. Debs - Norman Thomas - Michael Harrington Dinner was held on Friday evening, April 25, at the Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro hotel in Chicago's Greektown. We had the pleasure of honoring Les Orear, Laurie Burgess, and Dr. Mardge Cohen. Les Orear was the founder and President Emeritus of the Illinois Labor History Society and he had been an organizer and staffer for the legendary United Packinghouse Workers of America. Laurie Burgess was a labor lawyer and Partner in the firm of Jacobs, Burns, Orlove, Stanton, and Hernandez (the late Joe Jacobs of this firm was an honoree at the 1988 Dinner). She was also active with the AFL-CIO Labor Lawyers Coordinating Committee and the National Lawyers Guild Committee on Labor and Employment. Dr. Mardge Cohen had been a member of the legendary Chicago Women's Liberation Union. She went on to help found the Women's AIDS Project in Chicago and Cook County Hospital's Women and Children's HIV Program. She was the Medical Director of Women's Equity in Access to Care and Treatment. We had intended to have Rose Ann DeMoro, the Executive Director of the California Nurses Association AFL-CIO, as our featured speaker, but she had to withdraw from the program; see the New Ground article below. Our Master of Ceremonies was Katie Jordan, President of the Chicago Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. The photos are by Tom Broderick.

The Fiftieth Annual Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner

by Bob Roman
Dinner AttendeesIt was our 50th annual Dinner . And while it is tempting to make a big deal of the Five Oh, this was in truth a Dinner marking a time of change. It is not clear how much of it is for the better or for worse. "Universal Health Care Now!" was our demand. There will be some kind of health care reform in the coming two years, but it is not clear whether we will be nibbling around the edges of the issue or whether we will have changes that our country deserves and has long been denied. While the Dinner is certainly a fundraising event, it's also always been an educational, advocacy event, and this Dinner meant to say that not all the democratic left is willing to just nibble around the edges.


Katie JordanSome change has been clearly for the worse. This was the first Debs ­ Thomas ­ Harrington Dinner without Carl Shier in attendance, at least, if not actively involved in planning the event. Our Master of Ceremonies was Katie Jordan from UNITE HERE and President of the Chicago Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and one of Chicago's "usual suspects." Jordan had worked with Shier in the Illinois Labor Network Against Apartheid and had remained a friend, both of Shier and of the Dinner. She commemorated Carl Shier with both her own memories and the words of others. We were so fortunate to have her as part of this year's program.

Larry Spivack 

The labor movement is also in flux and it is not clear whether for good or ill. The 91 years that span the life of our first honoree, Les Orear, have encompassed such history that it is tempting to dismiss the current crisis of labor with "when has it not been in flux?" AFSCME's Larry Spivack presented Orear with the 2008 Debs ­ Thomas ­ Harrington Award, mentioning only some of the history that Orear had been intimately involved in yet too modest to mention. And indeed, Les Orear performed to Spivack's expectations, playing Jimmy Higgins while he remembered some of the giants of the labor movement that he had worked for and with. I was just there to help, he protested; after all, from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

Les Orear

For your constant devotion to the cause of the working class;

For your career as an organizer and as a journalist for the legendary United Packinghouse Workers of America;

For your work as founder and President of the Illinois Labor History Society;

For a lifetime helping working people remember their history and become conscious of their common interests;

The Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner Committee does hereby present you with its annual award this 25th day of April, 2008.

 But in truth, regardless of all the other things Les Orear has contributed, even if he had done nothing else, he would have deserved the award for founding the Illinois Labor History Society. This institution is a model for other, similar institutions around the country. It also happens to be the custodian of the Haymarket Martyrs' monument that commemorates the events around the Haymarket (police) Riot in the struggle for the eight hour day. This bit of Chicago history is also commemorated by the international (except the United States) celebration of May 1st as Labor Day. Plus, with the passage of time, this was our last opportunity to honor the memory of the legendary United Packinghouse Workers of America. Thank you, Les.


When the Latino Union's Jessica Aranda introduced our next honoree, Laurie Burgess, she spoke of how Burgess saved her organization's butt after they had attempted to help a day laborer collect his unpaid wages and were sued by the deadbeat employer using a novel application of some obscure commercial law. Laurie Burgess, on the other hand, spoke of her epiphany regarding the limits of the law. She had been confronted with a situation wherein some women assembly line workers were being required to clean their bosses' homes, off the clock. "We'll sue!" was not an option because these women were "undocumented." This was a career-changing experience.

Laurie Burgess

For your work defending the rights of unions against companies and governments that would deny them;

For your advocacy of the rights of workers under the law against discrimination;

For your defense of civil liberties in time when these rights are under attack;

For your commitment to a growing and renewed union movement;

The Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner Committee does hereby present you with its annual award this 25th day of April, 2008.

 I had an opportunity to work a little bit with Laurie Burgess in promoting this Dinner. She comes across as an intensely focused person who asks good questions. One of the good questions she asked of me was why do people get this award? In her acceptance speech, she provided us with a much better answer than I was able to provide her. The people who receive this award are those who are outraged by injustice and who do something about it. I might add they also bring home the bacon. Considering the record Burgess has compiled in defense of the union movement, the rights of workers against discrimination and for fairness, the respect and good-will with which she is regarded by labor, even though she is relatively early on in her career, she meets our qualifications for the 2008 Debs ­ Thomas ­ Harrington Award.


Marcia Rothenberg introduced our hird honoree, Dr. Mardge Cohen. We appreciate Rothenberg doing this at pretty much the last minute, but the two are old friends from when Marcia Rothenberg was a nurse at Cook County Hospital. She spoke of how Dr. Cohen began an AIDS program at Cook County for women and children back when AIDS was considered a "gay" disease. In accepting the award, Dr. Cohen spoke mostly of her career, her values, and the people she learned from. (There was quite a list.)


Dr. Mardge Cohen

For your lifelong commitment to the struggle for equality for women;

For your medical research and care against AIDS among women and children in Chicago and the world;

For your advocacy of a system of universal health care for the United States;

For your passionate commitment to social justice;

The Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner Committee does hereby present you with its annual award this 25th day of April, 2008.

 It was this aspect of career and values that we felt made Dr. Cohen a good honoree. In the early 1970s, she had been active in another legendary organization, the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. The mainstream narrative is that people like Dr. Cohen, if they were fortunate enough to pursue a professional career, did so at the expense of their values. They sold out, became "yuppies." This did happen to some, but it is not the only story. Dr. Cohen is an excellent example of a great many people who found a way to combine the political values of their youth with a professional career. A staunch supporter of "single-payer" universal health insurance, she certainly belongs with this Dinner, and it really too bad that she and her husband have moved to Boston.

We also appreciate how good it was of Dr. Cohen to substitute as our featured speaker, pretty much at the last moment. She made an excellent and efficient presentation on why a "single-payer" approach to universal health insurance is really the most sensible, moral, and effective way to go. I don't think it was especially fair of us to have asked Dr. Cohen to do this, but she agreed, rose to the occasion and did a great job.


So what happened to Rose Ann DeMoro? When we decided that the need for universal health care was to be the theme of the 2008 Dinner, Rose Ann DeMoro was one of the first names that came to mind. She did not come to mind because of her union position. She is the Executive Director of the California Nurses Association / National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA). It is a small, aggressive craft union with a radical reputation (it was a major backer of the Labor Party) that had only recently joined the AFL-CIO. It has only a small presence here in Chicago. Rather, it was DeMoro's reputation as a fiery and effective advocate for universal health care that brought her to mind.

After we asked DeMoro, and she accepted, we discovered that there was a small but passionate I - hate - CNA fan club in Chicago. Their grievance was about how CNA had taken over, at Cook County Hospital, what had been an Illinois Nurses Association shop. This was worrisome but we figured on balance she would still make a terrific speaker; we hadn't invited her for her union credentials but for her politics on health care.

Unfortunately, it was only a few months later that the feud that had been simmering between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and CNA out in California erupted into something akin to open warfare nation-wide.

SEIU had for several years been trying to organize a number of hospitals in Ohio owned by Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP). By some accounts, the campaign had bogged down on the shop level, but SEIU had continued talking with management. At last, CHP agreed to an NLRB representation election and CHP (not SEIU) requested an election giving their employees a choice of either SEIU or no union. Learning of this, CNA mounted a campaign (leafleting, direct mail, and apparently some personal visits) to have the employees vote "no union" on the grounds that SEIU was cutting a sweetheart deal with management behind the employees' backs. CHP withdrew its request for an election. The feces hit the fan.

We started hearing rumors from contacts outside of Chicago of fulminations at SEIU's national office about DeMoro's appearance at the Dinner. Then we received an email from Tom Balanoff, President of the SEIU Illinois Council, which judged that "Rose Ann DeMoro does not embody the values of DSA." The letter briefly explains why and is posted at http:/ /www.chicagodsa.org/d2008/seiu.pdf, though we can send you hard copy upon request. The point of the letter, though, was that we were being asked to rescind our invitation to Rose Ann DeMoro. "We don't want to picket your event, but we can not allow Rose Ann DeMoro to speak in Chicago without educating the public of her anti-worker agenda."

And it would have been an educational surprise indeed because at that point most people (even in SEIU, I would guess) hadn't heard of this.


Our first concern was for our honorees. This was partly because even while the event was our responsibility, this Dinner was largely their Dinner. And partly because we figured that SEIU's next logical step would be to start contacting the current (and past) honorees anyway. So we felt the honorees should be consulted as to what we should do, and at that point it seemed that our main options were to continue but be picketed or to cancel the event; we were not going to uninvite DeMoro. But before we did anything, we also wanted to get CNA's side of the story. We forwarded Balanoff's letter to CNA.

CNA replied promptly with a long letter that partly attacked SEIU's politics on health care but also provided their take on what happened in Ohio and why SEIU was in the wrong. CNA's letter is posted at http://www.chicagodsa.org/d2008 /cna.pdf, though we can send you hard copy upon request. The letter also stated that DeMoro was withdrawing from the Dinner program.

One suggestion offered in CNA's letter that both Tom Broderick and I like is the idea of a debate on national health policy between someone from SEIU and someone from CNA.


"The Purple Punch-Out" That weekend, April 11 - 13, DeMoro had also been scheduled to speak at the Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Michigan. SEIU not only had a picket line at the final event of the conference, a banquet, but they also attempted to disrupt it by invading the hall. This happened despite DeMoro having withdrawn from being the featured speaker at that event, substituting a video presentation instead. One person on the Labor Notes side fell, resulting in a head gash that required stitches. One person on the SEIU side apparently died of a heart attack. It is true that organized labor has had much much worse moments, but this moment was not among the good ones.

The Labor Notes conferences have, over the years, played an important role in the labor movement, primarily by providing a space where conversations among union dissidents and sometimes between dissidents and "the establishment" can take place. Even if it doesn't translate into much organizational benefit for Solidarity (the organization ultimately behind it all), as an institution in itself the conference is an important labor event. Consequently there has been an explosion of commentary and condemnation on the web. One also gets the impression that many lefties have been getting tired of Andy Stern's aspiration to be the 21st Century's John L. Lewis and this just lit the match. For a selection of some of the better commentary, see New Ground 117.4 at http://www.chicagodsa.org/ngarchive/ng117.html#anchor217234 .

Chicago DSA's Dinner, held on April 25, has evoked far less comment apart from some scrupulously worded crowing in an SEIU press release. There was no picket line or invasion of the hall. There was a table of CNA nurses but no one assaulted them with words or food. Indeed, one party of three included a member of SEIU and a member of CNA. It just goes to show you: Americans may not be so interested in politics but they do follow sports.

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