Reflections on the Legacy of the Congress Hotel Strike

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.

Historic Labor-led Campaign for Transgender Healthcare Launches in March

This month marks the launch of the first-ever National Month of Action for Transgender Healthcare, a campaign organized by Pride at Work, the Center for American Progress, the Service Employees International Union Lavender Caucus, Basic Rights Oregon, the Transgender Law Center, and the National Center for Transgender Equality. The goal of the campaign is to mobilize union members, students, non-union workers, and allies in an effort to make transgender-inclusive healthcare more common, accessible, and affordable. In addition, organizers of the campaign hope to educate the public about what it means to be transgender and the ways in which healthcare industries continue to exclude trans and gender variant communities.

In many workplaces, transgender individuals are denied access to many kinds of health-care and coverage that their non-transgender (cisgender) co-workers have without question. Whether through exclusions in health insurance policies or lack of access to competent healthcare providers, transgender individuals face extensive barriers to accessing appropriate, affordable healthcare.

A 2011 national study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 19% of transgender and gender non-conforming people are denied healthcare, and 28% of transgender and gender non-conforming people postpone medical care for fear of discrimination. Key findings also reveal that respondents experienced double the rate of unemployment as the general population; near universal harassment on the job; significant losses of jobs and careers; and higher rates of poverty. Not surprisingly, the economic inequality experienced by so many transgender people often leads to a lack of quality healthcare options.

The fact that economic instability contributes to the marginalization of transgender people makes clear why the labor movement is an ideal place from which to struggle for transgender justice. Like historic LGBT-labor alliances of the past—including labor’s support of LGB teachers who fought against the Briggs Initiative, the LGBT-labor sponsored boycott against Coors, and, more recently, major union’s support of marriage equality—this campaign illustrates that injustice is intersectional and connected. The system that oppresses the working-class is the same system that oppresses LGBT people, people of color, differently-abled people, and immigrants (etc.). In order to fight against that system, all oppressed peoples must work together and recognize that, to echo labor leader Joe Hill, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Trans Month of Action will move the conversation on transgender healthcare discrimination forward by also discussing the critical need for insurance providers to include transition-related care in their policies.

The events taking place this month in conjunction with the month of action all aim to highlight these connections. So far, actions are taking place across ten cities, including Portland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Washington DC, New York, Miami, Atlanta, and Sacremento. And, for you Chicago locals, check out the Open Forum on Transgender Health, Healthcare, and the Transgender Community at UIC on March 18th.

Although the campaign is a month of action, the struggle for transgender healthcare and other demands for transgender justice need to be ongoing. In their important novel about the challenges faced by trans and gender non-conforming people, Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg writes, “Surrenderin’ is unimaginably more dangerous than struggling for survival!”

That’s a lesson the labor movement knows all too well, and the transgender and allied organizers behind this campaign are committed to the struggle. If you want to be a part of this historic effort, consider organizing a local event, or, if you have personal experience dealing with transgender healthcare issues, consider sharing your story.  Visit www.transmonthofaction.org to learn more.

This piece was originally published at In Our Words.

Critically Acclaimed Imperlialism: The rise of pop cultural representations of the CIA

jessica-chastain-zero-dark-thirty

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” –Hannah Arendt

There is a notable theme that has emerged salient in the winners of Hollywood’s award show season. Showtime’s Homeland just won six Emmy’s, and Argo and Zero Dark Thirty have been collecting statues at the SAG Awards, Golden Globes, and will likely take home some Oscars. What do all these media have in common? They are all stories about the CIA, full of characters and scripts that are the champions of American imperialism.

As Rachel Shabi has eloquently argued, what is most compelling about these popular representations of the responses to terrorism is that producers and audiences alike insist that these are nuanced renderings.  Argo begins with a voice over that, when describing the events that led up to the Iranian Revolution, acknowledges the US government’s early support of the Shah. In Zero Dark Thirty, the graphic and horrific scenes of CIA agents practicing “enhanced interrogation” have been touted as evidence that the film is not blindly condoning torture. And in Homeland, our protagonist, Brody, is, at times, an al-Qeida operative.

It is the belief that these things could be considered valuable complexities that is most troubling. Or, more specifically, that these complexities are somehow exceptional. That is, for the depiction of torture to be taken up in public discourse as something that is controversial is to grant the US government of an always-already non-torturous disposition. This is perhaps why Argo gets left out of these conversations—Argo wasn’t about torture, just a CIA agent! This discourse assumes that there can be a separation. That there are good CIA agents and bad ones. An assumption that predicates a belief that the US is fundamentally “good” and just resorts to “bad” things in extenuating circumstances.

This is illustrated to an absurd extent on Homeland. Sure we get a sympathetic view of the desire to avenge a drone strike: we even see footage of dead children, murdered by a drone sent from the Vice President. But we also see episodes in which CIA agents are shown wrestling with the ethics of drone strikes, and even feeling remorseful for their actions. And in those moments, the Showtime drama feels more like a prime-time comedy.

Similarly, the closing scene of Zero Dark Thirty shows us an emotionally broken-down Jessica Chastain, seemingly distraught now that she has successfully completed her mission to kill and capture bin Laden. There are different ways we can interpret that scene; either it is showing her doing some moral self-reflection on the loss of another’s life, or it is showing her mourning the loss of her own life. The only life she’s known for a decade has been one that involved hunting a terrorist. Now what is she supposed to do? Both interpretations do the same work, though: both suggest that these political moments are somehow matters of unique individuals’ choices, rather than stories about an agency of the government that is designed to produce these exact kinds of outcomes.

There is nothing exceptional about torture, violence, and conquest on behalf of the US government. Whether or not individual members of the CIA are “good” people or “bad” people is of little significance, as it certainly wouldn’t impact their complicity in structural violence. They are part of a system that is currently running on the blood, oil, and land of Third World nations. Any discussion of ethics that might take form in those spaces does so with an always-already US-centric, skewed definition of the “ethical.” One that is constructed by and through a white supremacist, capitalist nation.

Admittedly, as pieces of entertainment, I loved Argo, and am hooked on Homeland (even though: WTF, the last half of Season 2?). I didn’t like Zero Dark Thirty, but that was due in large part to the inability of Kathryn Bigelow’s direction to make me forget about all my aforementioned critiques. So perhaps, politically, Zero Dark Thirty is the “best.” At least it didn’t trick me into rooting for US domination.

This piece was originally published at In Our Words.

On Paul Ryan, Class Warfare, and “The Moral Case for Capitalism”

This piece was originally published on In Our Words:

Last year—(probably right around the same time of the now widely-distributed Time magazine workout photo shoot)—Vice Presidential Republican candidate Paul Ryan told an interviewer for the conservative news site Human Events that, “we should not shy away from class warfare.”

During their discussion, the interviewer stated that the Democrat’s agenda is to “shake down the rich,” and asked Ryan if Republicans “are doing a successful job making the moral case for capitalism.”  “Not enough,” Ryan responded, then continued:

“We should not shy away from class warfare. We should take this head on, which is, the president is preying on the emotions of fear, envy and resentment, and he’s speaking to people in America as if they’re fixed in some class. That’s the European model. That’s the model our ancestors left to come create an opportunity society, equality of opportunity, equal protection of the law — not equality of outcome. Government’s role is not to equalize the results of our lives. And we should take that on in a moral way and defend the system of upward mobility.”

Of course, this is not a shocking quote to hear from a Republican. During the past few years, accusations of “class warfare” have been filling the media. Those on the Right tried to bring this concept into the lexicon as a way to scare the nation about the inevitable horrors of having a Democrat in the White House. The term caught fire not only in response to Obamacare, but also during the public worker labor dispute in Madison, WI (Ryan’s home state), and as a label for the efforts of Occupy Wall Street. For many conservatives, “class warfare” has become code for anything that remotely threatens the wealth of the super-rich.

My problem with this phenomenon is not about a distaste for the term “class warfare,” but rather that it’s far too generous a label to place upon any of the aforementioned examples. And, unfortunately, it’s a concept that would never be a goal of the Democratic Party. Class war implies some actual challenge to the status-quo, and Ryan misleadingly suggests that Obama is doing just that by fomenting the revolutionary spirit of the non-rich. (If only!)

No, class warfare is not alive and well in the Democratic Party because, Mr. Ryan, Barack Obama would go to the same lengths as you to make “the moral case for capitalism.” That Democrats are being painted as anti-capitalists is laughable—raising taxes and funding PBS does not a radical overhaul of the system make. And for Ryan to suggest that Obama is “speaking to people in America as if they’re fixed in some class,” couldn’t be farther from the truth. I spent a good chunk of my time in graduate school analyzing the use of the terms “working-class” vs. “middle-class” in the media and in political rhetoric, and let me assure you that the only time class is evoked by politicians is to say they want to make things better for the middle-class. This alone illustrates the exact opposite of Ryan’s claim, since inherent in “bettering the lives of middle-class people” is the implication of upward mobility and “The American Dream.” Democrats love that shit as much as you do, Paul Ryan, I promise. Don’t forget that Obama is the best real-life example of Horatio Alger we’ve ever had.

Historian Alan Berube discusses the danger in privileging the term “middle class” over “working class,” writing:

“‘middleclass’ is used as a code word for ordinary Americans…Middleclass is the neutral ground where there is no class warfare, no class division, no class struggle, no class consciousness….It instills within us both the desire and the language with which we can erase ourselves as anything other than middleclass.”

“The middle-class” is the target audience for both parties because this allows the very real class system to seem simultaneously both natural and innocuous. Everyone from fast food workers to doctors consider themselves part of the middle class, and in the current political climate, the middle class should be feeling pretty good because everyone in the government seems to have their back.

Out of curiosity, I did a word find for the word “class” in the transcript from the VP debate. Every hit I found referred to “middle class” Americans, and both Biden and Ryan were espousing their faith in and commitment to this apparently ubiquitous group of people.

Neither side talks about the working-class, and the term “poverty” is rarely uttered. If Paul Ryan’s accusation that Obama was fueling a class war was correct, I believe we’d be hearing a lot more of those terms propagated by the Dems. Instead, the myth of the classless society is perpetuated through “middle-class” oversaturation, a term that now feels almost void of meaning.

Now, I don’t want to end this with on a totally cynical note. I don’t think the mainstream Right and Left are exactly the same, and I do plan to vote for Obama, whose administration I believe will make better choices than Romney’s. But I think it’s important for us to remember that “the moral case for capitalism” is presented by both the Democrats and Republicans on a daily basis. The immoral case for capitalism is lived by people across the globe on the daily basis. And if Ryan wants to champion “upward mobility,” he need look no further for support than his friends across the isle.

Pedagogy of a Trigger?

Last year in the Media Literacy class I was teaching, I got a lesson from a student about triggers. As a feminist, I thought I had my bases covered when it came to warning my students about content that had the potential to be harmful by way of conjuring up memories of personal trauma. More specifically, sexual trauma. As a woman, I know from both my personal experiences and the statistics [1], to be mindful of showing media clips or introducing readings that may trigger memories of sexual abuse or assault.

So when a a student approached me after class one day, noticeably distressed, and asked me to please provide a trigger warning next time I use the clip from “Glee” that was shown, I honestly wasn’t sure she was talking about. That particular day in class was led by a student. In many of my classes, I require that each student lead a day of discussion, and in my Media Literacy class, they are asked to show a media clip that corresponds with the articles we read. Having just read two provocative articles about heterosexist hate speech, my student decided to show a clip from Glee that showed how a closeted character tried to kill himself after being outed at school.

My student continued, “Seeing stuff about suicide….is hard for me.”

Suicide. The idea that I should monitor media portrayals of suicide never crossed my mind.

I apologized profusely. It was one of the lowest moments I have had as an educator. Students put a lot of trust in a teacher when they walk in a classroom, and I have often given lip-service to my intention to create a “safe space.” Of course, “safe spaces” are inherently flawed because no matter how hard we say it (or bold-font it on our syllabi) we cannot guarantee safety, because our classroom does not exist in a vacuum.

Roxanne Gay makes a similar argument in her intense essay, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion.” In it, she writes:

There are things that rip my skin open and reveal what lies beneath but I don’t believe in trigger warnings. I don’t believe people can be protected from their histories. I don’t believe it is at all possible to anticipate the histories of others in ways that would be satisfying for anyone.

There is no standard for trigger warnings, no universal guidelines. Once you start, where do you stop? Does the mention of the word rape require a trigger warning or is the threshold an account of a rape? How graphic does an account of abuse need to be before meriting a warning? Are trigger warnings required anytime matters of difference are broached? What is graphic? Who makes these determinations?

It all seems so futile, so impotent and, at times, belittling. When I see trigger warnings, I think, “How dare you presume what I need to be protected from?”

Gay is addressing a debate that has been on the mind of feminist zinesters, bloggers, and other media-makers for a long time. But I have not seen as much discussion about the role of triggers for educators.

Immediately following my experience with that student, I became vigilant about monitoring the content I showed, and I required that all student presentations be emailed to me before class so I could review the clips they picked. But I felt overwhelmed, as Gay suggests, about what may or may not be triggering. And I also started to feel problematically protective. When do we cross the line from a “feminist ethic of care” to paternalism?

I believe in a zero tolerance policy when it comes to racist, sexist, heterosexist, (etc.) speech in the classroom, but there have been times that students have said things, innocently, in those categories, and had no idea what they were saying could be considered harmful. As educators, we can use those times as “teaching moments,” but they illustrate that our professed “safe space” is an empty promise.

Some teachers try to work around this by giving the same kind of trigger warning you often see on the top of articles on Feministing or Jezebel, but verbally, right before the clip is shown. I have always found this to be a pretty terrible approach, because if there is a student who might feel triggered, any hope for anonymity is lost. Imagine: “There are images of sexual violence in the clip I’m about to show, so if you feel like you might be triggered, you’re welcome to leave.” Student gets up and leaves, and perhaps experiences humiliation on top of the already inevitable reminder of past sexual trauma. Not awesome.

I’m genuinely curious to know how other educators handle the idea of triggers. Do you refuse to show content that may be triggering? How do you determine what is and isn’t triggering? Do you give verbal trigger warnings? Is there value in the “teaching moments” that triggering material may provide?

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[1] There are a variety of studies that show the tremendously high numbers of women who are victims of sexual violence. A relevant one to college educators: 1 in 4 college women report surviving rape. It is likely that in every class you teach, there is a rape survivor.

Skinny Gossip’s Attack on Kate Upton is About More than Fat

Like many feminists with internet access, I was appalled to learn about the attack on model Kate Upton by the seemingly pro-ana (pro-anorexia) site, Skinny Gossip. Jezebel was quick to inform me of all the ugly details: the gossip site—(which, in addition to fat-shaming some celebrities and skinny-glorifying some others, provides “Starving Tips” for readers who just can’t seem to quit that nasty habit of nourishing themselves[1])—featured pictures of Upton catwalking in a bikini at a recent runway show.

Accompanying these photos were cries of disgust over Kate’s “cow-like” appearance. The blogger wrote:

“Huge thighs, NO waist, big fat floppy boobs, terribly body definition–she looks like a squishy brick. Is this what American women are “striving” for now? The lazy, lardy look? Have we really gotten so fat in this country that Kate is the best we can aim for? Sorry, but: eww!”

In response, the article in Jezebel—and a slew of other feminist-ish blogs that covered the incident—condemned Skinny Gossip for perpetuating a culture that drives young girls to eating disorders and shames women with curves.

I was happy to join in their anger. But then I actually clicked on the Skinny Gossip website and found something to be even more outraged over, something that wasn’t mentioned in any of the responses I read on the web. This post on Skinny Gossip isn’t only fat-phobic—it’s also deeply classist and implicitly racist.

In addition to describing the physical shape of Kate’s body, Skinny Gossip also trashes Upton for looking like a model for “people who shop at Wal-Mart,” and “like she would work in the back of a motorcycle shop in Nashville and give (bad) blow jobs for $25,” and, most blatantly:

“Yes, yes, I know that every tobacco-chewing, beer-drinking, shotgun-toting, NASCAR-watching man south of the Mason-Dixon line would love to get into her pants (or, as they say down South, “into her tent,” which in her case is the same thing)–but most of those guys wouldn’t know a beautiful woman if she jumped out in front of his pickup truck.”

Hold the phone.

Truth be told, I’m actually not really surprised that this kind of language is being used on a pro-ana, er, “pro-skinny” website. Making connections between “fat” bodies and cultural stereotypes of the poor can be traced back to the historical conjuncture in which “the Welfare Queen” was born. This Reagan-era discourse aided in the cutting of federal assistance programs during the 1980s. In order to make this decision popular with the public, one of Reagan’s presidential speeches relayed an image of a welfare-leech from the Southside of Chicago. Pop culture and other cultural phenomena reified this symbol more concisely: the Welfare Queen was black, a mother of too many children, drove a Cadillac, and was also fat. This myth benefitted Reagan’s plans for a trickle-down economy, and the image continues to operate in our contemporary neoliberal climate, as it demonizes bodies that appear to be failing at individual responsibility.

You see, according to cultural logic, if you are poor or if you are fat, it’s your fault.  It’s not surprising that race would be conveniently intertwined in this hypothesis, since the same ideology that promotes individual responsibility also argues that racism is over. So if you’re a person of color without a job, guess what? Still your fault.

Of course, Skinny Gossip doesn’t say anything about people of color, but she is naming Whiteness, and, in general, Whiteness is only named when it is also classed (e.g.: “red neck,” “white trash,” etc). A proper, upstanding neoliberal citizen is invisibly White, upper-middle class, and in control of their body. But those working-class, NASCAR-driving Southerners? They get set apart from hegemonic Whiteness for their similarities to the stereotypes of people of color. In a word, it’s about excess. Fat-bodied and/or attracted to fat bodies, Wal-Mart shopping, and sexual.

This is the other component to the out-of-control, unfit member of society: sexual excessiveness. This is a handy identifier, as it can discipline a whole slew of people in one fell swoop: queers, bodies of color, poor bodies, fat bodies, and sex workers. In addition to suggesting that Upton gave blowjobs in motorcycle shops, Skinny Gossip also condemns her for being just “a notch above Playboy,” and says bluntly that she looks “pornographic” (emphasis in original).

In her fascinating analysis on Hustler magazine, Laura Kipnis[2] (1999) reminds us that “what we consider gross and disgusting is hardly some permanent facet of the human psyche: it’s historically specific and relatively recent” (135). She suggests that the reason that Hustler was considered “dirtier” than magazines like Penthouse and Playboy was all about its resistance to disciplining bodies:

 Symbolically deploying the improper body as a mode of social sedition also follows logically from the fact that the body is the very thing those forms of power under attack—government, religion, bourgeois manners and mores—devote themselves to keeping “in its place.” Control over the body has long been considered essential to producing an orderly work force, a docile populace, a passive law-abiding citizenry. Just consider how many actual laws are on the books regulating how bodies may be seen and parts may not, what you may do you with your body in public and in private, and it begins to make more sense that the out-of-control, unmannerly body is precisely what threatens the orderly operation of the status quo. (134)

 Blogs like Skinny Gossip only mirror what the government establishes through policies, what our economic system establishes through its mere existence, and what pop culture establishes every time poor bodies, fat bodies, and bodies of color are represented as “too much.”

One of the many pictures of Upton on the Skinny Gossip post shows her eating a large, meaty sandwich. The blogger responds with disgust—(and, to be fair, as a vegan, I do too, but not for the same reasons)—and exclaims, “Choices, people!”

How perfectly obvious of you, Skinny Gossip! You explain the fiction of neoliberalism’s promises so clearly for us! Choices? We don’t all have choices. We live in a system that confines and oppresses marginalized members of society in very real, material ways. Individual decisions won’t change this hard truth. Collective resistance will. And so I hope that outrage about Skinny Gossip can turn into something more productive: outrage about a system that enables a blog like this to exist in the first place.


[1] After the Upton post went viral, the blog hostess removed the “Starving Tips” section, a decision she explains here.

[2] Kipnis, L. (1999). Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America. Durham: Duke University Press.

More reasons that the PIC needs to be abolished:

Every single day, the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) commits horrific abuses. These are just two examples that I read about today:

  • A woman who was raped is arrested after reporting the rape to police, and then the prison denies her a Morning After Pill. Read more here.
  • A pregnant prisoner was shackled during labor. “It was not until she was tripping over [the handcuffs around her ankles] while trying to put on her hospital gown that they removed them.”Read more, and sign the petition here.

[image from justseeds]