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55th Annual Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner

by Bob Roman

The 2013 Dinner was held on May 3 at the Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza's Wolf Point ballroom, a swanky but union venue at a reasonable downtown price. This was the 55th annual dinner, and it was not a large affair by historical standards. But we had a good turnout, better than last year and younger, and it was fun.

Humor played a distinctive role this year. Bill Barclay was straightforward in his presentation of the award to the Chicago Teachers Union. And Jesse Sharkey provided a realistic assessment of the balance of power and the tasks ahead for the Chicago Teachers Union. But Peg Strobel included in her introduction of Keith Kelleher a much belated (from 2007) greeting from Barack Obama. It was revealed that Kelleher's first date with his wife was to a speech by Michael Harrington at Wayne State University. Ron Baiman conspired with friends like Heather Booth to conduct a small William McNary roast. McNary emerged largely unsinged to warmly defend the Affordable Care Act as game changing legislation (not everyone in the audience would agree) and went on to provide a fascinating compare and contrast between Bill Gates and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.

Amy Dean brought her own humor to the table. For example, when describing the reaction of some labor leaders to changes in the economy toward the end of the 20th Century, she told the story of a farmer holding up a pig so the pig could eat apples off the tree. Wouldn't letting the pig eat apples off the ground be quicker? Well, may be, but what's time to a pig?

But Dean's speech requires either a transcript or a recording. In lieu of those, some of the content was from recent articles. See, for example, the list of publications at www.tcf.org/experts/detail/amy-dean . For more photos, go to Chicago DSA's Facebook page.

A sincere gramercy to Rev. C.J. Hawking, who endured weather and traffic all the way from DC to be our Master of Ceremonies that evening.

Chicago Teachers Union

Because professionalism does not imply subservience in the face of disrespect and neglect;
Because education is a public good and vital to democracy;
Because test is not a synonym for education;
Because the Chicago Teachers Union consistently stands for education and professionalism;
But most especially because it has shown that organizing is more than just mobilization and that defending a public good requires an organized public;
In appreciation of its recent victories and in anticipation of more to come, the Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner Committee does hereby present the Chicago Teachers Union with its annual award this third day of May, 2013.

Barclay and Sharkey
William Barclay (left) presents the Dinner award for the Chicago Teachers Union to Jesse Sharkey, union vice-president. Photo by John Scott.

Keith Kelleher

For your successful campaign for a living wage ordinance in Chicago;
For your defense of public services;
For your support of universal health care;
For undertaking that slippery task of holding politicians accountable;
For enabling the poorest and most exploited workers to represent themselves;
And because you have shown labor organizing and community organizing can be successfully one and the same;
The Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner Committee does hereby present you with its annual award this third day of May, 2013.

Strobel and Kelleher
Peg Strobel (left) presents the Dinner award to Keith Kelleher. Photo by John Scott.

William McNary

For passionate oratory that has been an inspiration to action;
For your defense of public services, including Social Security;
For your advocacy of universal access to health care;
For your work toward just and equitable taxation;
For constructing a progressive consumers' movement;
And because you have been a builder of coalitions,
The Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner Committee does hereby present you with its annual award this third day of May, 2013.

Baiman and McNary
Ron Baiman presents the Dinner award to William McNary. Photo by John Scott.
Amy Dean provides the Eugene V. Debs - Norman Thomas - Michael Harrington address for 2013. Photo by John Scott. Amy Dean
program participants
From left to right, Amy Dean, Rev. C.J. Hawking, Jesse Sharkey (for the Chicago Teachers Union), Keith Kelleher, and William McNary. Photo by John Scott.
Dinner Program Book   

Debs -- Thomas -- Harrington Address

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 hesitant.

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 thought leaders.

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 the microphone.

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 Parking Lot.

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

Standing together!

Working together!

Planning together!

Strategizing together; and

Fighting together.

As a Mother of two school age children, I am especially proud to salute the Chicago Teacher's Union.

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 easy.

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, smart, entrepreneurial."

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 deal.

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 power.

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 based one.

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 officials.

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 labor movement.

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 to take.

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 employees.

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 exclusively.

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 gets it?"

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 themselves.

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 this point.

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 more.

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 denied.

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 and Freedoms
  • 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 together.

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 BANKS.

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 shortcoming.

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 testing.

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 system.

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 it."

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 interaction.

It can grow from the streets, from the neighborhoods, from the community.

From the Wal-Mart to the car wash,

From the port of L.A. to the KFC,

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 organize,

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 Deal.

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!

Tickets must reserved no later than Tuesday, April 30. A limited number of tickets may be available at the door at $80 per person. Make sure you and your organization appear in the program book. We need to receive ad copy no later than April 24. For more information about the program book or to order tickets by mail, CLICK HERE for a printable flyer (PDF). To order tickets or reserved tables online, use the PayPal buttons below. Call 773.384.0327 or email chiildsa@chicagodsa.org for more information.

Contributions are not tax deductible.

If you cannot attend, please consider participating in the Dinner Program Book or making a donation:


Dear Friends:

We're fighting forward! That's the title of this year's Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner because, for the first time in decades, it's likely that even our defensive battles are setting the stage for future victories. What better time to celebrate our accomplishments and to take inspiration for future victories and reversing past defeats? You're invited!

Our honorees this year all fight forward: William McNary, Keith Kelleher, and the Chicago Teachers Union. Our featured speaker is Amy Dean. The 2013 Dinner will be at the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza on Friday evening, May 3rd. As always, this is a union hotel located next to the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago.

William McNary
, co-director of Citizen Action/Illinois, is one of Chicago's truly great rabble-rousers. A co-founder and the immediate past president of USAction, he is on the boards of Public Campaign, the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, and Women's Voices Women Vote. McNary's leadership has maintained the consumer movement in Illinois and the nation. He has been a leader in the fight for fair taxes, preserving Cook County Hospital, universal health insurance, and preserving Social Security. He's been a great friend to DSA, to the Dinner, to progressives in general, and a real pain in the ass to conservatives. Please join us in honoring William McNary.
William McNary
Keith Kelleher Keith Kelleher is the president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois ­ Indiana, one of the largest unions in Illinois in an era of mega locals. If the last step to that status was a three-way merger, Kelleher's Local 880 was the largest of the locals. From an independent union begun as an Illinois ACORN project, Local 880 grew mostly through a labor intensive, door-to-door application of Saul Alinsky's organizing techniques. Kelleher was a pivotal leader in the successful campaign to pass a Living Wage Ordinance in Chicago. He was a major leader in organizing the New Party in Chicago, one of the more innovative attempts at independent politics in the last century. The list goes on, but this paper does not. Please join us in honoring Keith Kelleher.

Everyone is throwing flowers at the feet of the Chicago Teachers Union this year, for obvious reasons: for turning the lemons of a lousy Illinois labor law into the lemonade of solidarity, for successfully crippling Mayor Emanuel's attempt at imposing a corporate education agenda, for making a labor action a civic action. CTU VP Jesse Sharkey will be on hand to accept the award. Please join us in honoring the Chicago Teachers Union.
Amy Dean, our featured speaker, is great at fighting forward, too. She is a social entrepreneur, author, and progressive activist with deep roots in the labor movement. From 1993 to 2003, she served as president of the South Bay Labor Council in San Jose, California (Silicon Valley). The youngest person and first woman in such a position, she was something of a troublemaker. Drawing upon that experience, she co-authored, with David B. Reynolds, A New, New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She is now the principal of ABD Ventures, a Chicago-based consulting firm that helps organizations with development efforts and strategic planning for social change.

Reverend C.J. Hawking, Exeuctive Director of Arise Chicago, will be our Master of Ceremonies.

Please accept our invitation to participate in this inspiring, informative Dinner. Information regarding individual tickets or reserved tables is above.

If you cannot attend, or even if you can, please consider participating in the Dinner Program Book with a message from you or your organization. Information about the Program Book is included on this downloadable, printable flyer (PDF) which you can also use to order tickets or tables by mail.

If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to email, call or write.

In solidarity,
Robert M. Roman

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