Friday, July 23, 2010

Hotel and food workers' rally

Yesterday, I didn't get arrested.

On the bus to the protest I sat next to Anna, a barrista in DePaul University. DePaul pays its own workers a living wage but does not monitor the business practices of its subcontractors, including food services. So, Anna gets paid $9.50 an hour: the poverty line is defined as $11.03 an hour.

Anna was part of a an effort of some 2,000 students to make De Paul accountable for all the workers on the campus, including those not directly employed by the university. The group's representatives met with University President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, who, on learning of this situation, committed to correcting the situation.

Anna's success story is, unfortunately, the exception. Levieve, a food worker at O'Hare airport, is paid $8.35 an hour. She says she sells sandwiches to customers that cost more than her hourly pay. She complains also that managers speak to workers as if they were children. She wants respect and she wants to be paid a living wage.

There were close to 200 people in our group yesterday, with many more hundreds cheering from the sidelines. We were protesting the Hyatt hotels new policy of taking away health benefits from its low salary employees. This radical departure from existing practice significantly harms thousands of working families in Chicago, and many more around the country. Hyatt Hotels was chosen as the focus of yesterday's effort because it is the only major hospitality company to have its headquarters in Chicago.

Our group of protestors included workers from hotels and food services in the city together with community leaders and clergy. I started a new clergy group in Chicago last year, Reform Cantors of Chicago. I am proud to say that all the cantors serving Reform congregations that I was able to contact supported this protest (the picture was taken by my colleague, Cantor Kim Harris). I was proud to lock arms with Rabbi Brant Rosen of Evanston as we sat on the pavement in front of the Hyatt Regency on Wacker Drive. Fifteen other cities across the U.S. held similar protests.

Negotiations between the workers and management have been stalled for months - to the detriment of the workers. The media has barely covered the story. My goal for this protest was to bring the issue out of the dark of backroom dealings and expose it to the light of day.

We signed up to block traffic during rush hour and to be arrested by the police.

I have never seen the inside of a jail cell. That didn't change last night. The police precinct that patrols this area of downtown lost a comrade earlier this week. A veteran member of the precinct was shot dead outside his home. The wake took place last night. Out of solidarity with the men and women of the 40th police precinct, I, along with the other protestors, wore a black armband. We also agreed to end the protest without getting arrested so as not to burden the police on a difficult day for them. A symbolic group of 25 did stay in the street after the police ordered us to leave and they were arrested.

Yesterday was about protecting the working poor. As with every financial crisis, they are the hardest hit. But the current crisis affects the middle class, too. We all know that there will be less for everybody. The challenge is how to distribute the pain in a more equitable manner. If the powerful owners of corporations hold on to their absolute wealth, there will automatically be less of the pie to share with everybody else.

What kind of society would we have if all workers were paid a living wage? Imagine the greater security we would all feel. Imagine the joy on the streets of Chicago and across the country. Imagine the barriers of resentment and racial tension melting away. Imagine, not 200 people locking arms together, but millions of people.

Isn't that worth a night in jail?

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