Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Time at the Picket Line

“Those who produce should have, but we know that those who produce the most - that is, those who work hardest, and at the most difficult and most menial tasks, have the least.”
-Eugene Debs

While, in general, I lament things being “lost,” there are bits of human consciousness I am glad to see go, or rejoice at my awareness of their having left. Bell-bottoms, feudalism and electing Republicans to the Presidency all make the list, along with the chant, “What do we want?” “Justice (et al.)!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!” I always thought this antiphonic rallying call invited smart assness with its inanity, yet repulsed the same by being such an easy target, much like “(repeat)” showing up in printed lyrics.
So I was pleased when this little bit of phraseology didn't show up today as I attended my fist “street action,” a picket line around the Congress Hotel, Chicago. This was my history class, instead of talking about worker's struggles. A few classmates and I went, found our professor and posed for a couple of pictures. Most of the group, having been counted, bolted, leaving my new friend Eric, whose father is a surgeon, and I to take a lap 'round the Congress Hotel. Which took a while, as the picket line had surrounded the building, a picket line that taught me as much about the American Working Class, America itself, as any textbook could hope, a picket line illustrating the American bravado, diversity, foolhardiness and heart inherent in a healthy democracy.
What first struck me on this march was the size of the thing. I had heard the figure of 5,000 people, but I was not prepared for the impressive spectacle the protest was. I guess I was expecting something more along the lines of the YouTube video our class had watched a week or so ago: it was the same hotel, with Columbia students joining the much smaller fight. Now, it was an event, a cultural presence. There were signs, giant inflated rats, t-shirts, stickers, chants and so many people. I was there, man. I was one of the people. I got this sense as soon as I took up the walk, and had it bolstered as a woman handed me a sign of my own, which served as my lightning rod, galvanizing my zeal.
It was a sign of the local union. It had plain type, telling its reader to “UNITE HERE,” in red, with “Local 1” in black. There were other signs, though. There were several featuring the President, who has said he will walk with this picket again (he did so as a senator). There were many signs similar to my own. There were even some homemade signs, evidencing a spirit you can find in any Illinois prairie if you merely look in the sod.
The variety of signs was matched by t-shirts. I saw many shirts of the Local 1, but also the wagon wheel of the Teamsters. I saw AFSCME shirts, picking them out of the crowd easily; they are a particular green, a green emblazoned on many magazines delivered to my house for my father. What enlightened me was a group in blue. These were representatives of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. I labor under a misconception of Jews being generally affluent. This is mostly prejudice, buoyed by the only Jew I know being something of a JAP. Even so, here they were, supporting laborers. So, there goes that crap theory, but it wasn't what really surprised me.
What got me was the fact that one of the guys wearing this blue shirt was black. Which is to say, I'm pretty sure he isn't Jewish. On my walk today, I heard a bit of “¡Si se puede!” Which I expected, and black people being there didn't surprise me, but it was the sense of cross-cultural inclusion I admired. I was part of this, and anyone could be.
Not to say this was an entirely amicable function. Sure, people were laughing, smiling, joking around. People are ebullient when in the process of emancipation. Still, they don't take to the streets because they're happy, and these people were pissed. People entering the hotel were reprimanded by the crowd. “Shame on you! Shame on you!” Truth to tell, I felt this was a little unfair. These people weren't the bigwigs in charge of the building. These people had no control over where their company was having the annual bullshitting convention. Nor were they necessarily aware of the poor conditions of the hotel for both workers and guests. These poor, unwitting folks just clicked on whatever Orbitz or Travelocity or whatever the hell site told them had the best price. Oh, well.
What pervaded my thinking at the time was not the unfair chiding, nor was it the heterogeneous group. Rather, I was suffused with a sense of how American all these things were. Even while the crummy conditions of these workers is ubiquitous in America, it is in America people can take to the streets and be angry about it. All these little wonders coalesced into something sublime, democratic. I was, more than any other time in my life, proud to be an American, proud to be the son of parents who believe in the union, the son of workers. My parents, as a second job, do cleaning work themselves, and I help out fairly often, so this was my struggle. It wasn't my fight just because I've done a lot of service work myself, though. It's my task because it's my fellow Americans' task. Today, I was dedicated to that great task that lies before our nation: that all people be respected. A sentiment, I pray, never goes out of style.

“When we are in partnership and have stopped clutching each other's throats, when we have stopped enslaving each other, we will stand together, hands clasped, and be friends. we will be comrades, we will be brothers, and we will begin the march to the grandest civilization the human race has ever known.”
-Eugene Debs
If you want to learn more about the Congress Hotel strike, visit http://www.congresshotelstrike.info/ .

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