This was originally published at In Our Words.
In September of 2003, I took the red line from Lincoln Park to the Loop to march on the picket line with the group of Congress hotel workers boycotting outside of their place of employment. Just a few months before I had moved to Chicago to begin college at DePaul, the members of UNITE HERE Local 1 walked off the job to protest management’s refusal to include fair pay wages in the worker’s contract.
My visit to the picket line was not of my own volition—it was actually required for a class I was in about Chicago Left politics. I had registered for the class based on my 18 year-old identification as a leftist—a label rooted in a vague political analysis that was limited to being against the war in Iraq and bleeding-heart liberal understandings of poverty and discrimination. At that point, although I grew up in a working-class household with a single mom who worked two jobs, I had no real understanding of class and capitalism. I felt sad that there were so many poor people in the world, but my solution back then was to volunteer at soup kitchens. (I also had a brief stint with Food Not Bombs in high school, but the organization’s radical politics were lost on me at the time—I liked punks and feeding homeless people, but that was about as far as I got.)
When we took a class field trip to march on the picket line, all of that changed. On the train ride downtown, our TA, Giuseppe, talked to us about worker power and about how unfair labor practices inspired a group of working people to organize against their own employer. In that moment, my understanding of political struggle transformed from a liberal view of minority victims to a radical view of empowered resisters.
When we got the hotel, a short Latino woman handed me a sign that read, “ON STRIKE.” One of the workers began chanting, and I timidly joined in with a few other students. That afternoon, we walked in circles, but my path became clear. I felt in my gut that this was the community I needed to ally with if I wanted to contribute to making the world a better place. One of the most important lessons I got out of my college career didn’t come from a textbook; it came from the Congress Hotel workers. It was their resistance that taught me how best to approach fighting economic injustice.
Inspired by this action, I joined DePaul Students Against the War (which later became Activist Student Union (ASU)). I found a community of radical leftists who became invaluable teachers and life-long friends. I started to become more and more invested in the labor work we did as an organization and continued to visit the Congress picket line. One year, on a blustery Chicago Valentine’s Day, I suggested that ASU go downtown and provide hot cocoa to the strikers. Not being one to pass up an opportunity to bake things, I also made heart-shaped vegan sugar cookies and frosted them to say “The Congress Hotel Broke My Heart,” and “We <3 Workers!” I ended up writing school papers and articles about the strike and got to interview the workers and some of the Local 1 staff about their struggle. And just last month I received my PhD after defending a dissertation about the labor movement. Needless to say, the Congress Hotel picket line was one of the most memorable parts of my college experience and had an influence on me that lasted beyond my days of undergraduate activism.
When I read the news that the strike would come to a close just shy of it’s ten-year anniversary, I was overcome with a mix of emotions. It seems that UNITE HERE is staying relatively quiet on the matter, and I trust that the union had their reasons for ending it when they did.
What’s important, however, is not that the strike ended, but all that it provided throughout its ten-year tenure and the legacy it will leave behind. My personal experience with the strike is likely not entirely unique. Thousands of people have walked past that picket line, and thousands of people may have been changed by a conversation with one of the workers. More importantly, the strike will go down in labor history as the longest hotel strike of all time, and it ultimately ended up significantly costing The Congress in terms of finance and reputation. The strike is a story of resilience and a testament to the perseverance of workers in the face of global capitalism. Although the strike did not end in a traditional “victory,” it was by no means a failure. I will never fully know the impact it had on the workers themselves, but I am grateful for the impact it had on the rest of us.
For me, the end of the strike doesn’t signal an end at all. Instead, it acts as a reminder that the work is not over. I can still hear the chanting from my first visit to the Congress nearly ten years ago. The people united will never be defeated!, we sang. And it’s true still today. This battle has come to a close, but it offers space to go on to the next. The struggle will continue. Let the spirit of the strike carry us through.