Report on our Midwest Day School

Ian Cornelius

August 15, 2018

There is a joint Solidarity & Philadelphia DSA Day School happening this weekend on August 18th in Philadelphia. Find out more!

The Solidarity Midwest Day School was held at People’s Church in Chicago on Saturday 28 July. The event brought together about 50 people from Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee.

Ryne Poelker opened the meeting by observing that People’s Church had been targeted by developers and their political allies several years ago, but saved by a successful social justice campaign. The building provides assistance to impoverished and homeless persons, in addition to hosting arts events and meetings of religious and social justice groups. The destructive power of property developers in Chicago – and ways of fighting it – would become a central theme in the last session of the day, a roundtable discussion with candidates in Chicago’s aldermanic races. Earlier sessions focused on the meaning of socialism, the fight against US imperialism, and the present state of the labor movement.

Our Midwest Socialist Day School panel on taking power at the ballot box, with aldermanic candidates Ugochukwu Okere (40th Ward), Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th), Maria Hadden (49th), Bob Quellos representing Rossana Rodriguez (33rd) and Angela Clay (46th).

The first session was “What do we mean by socialism? An introduction” and featured Ryne Poelker (Solidarity, DSA) and Robin Peterson (Solidarity, DSA). Poelker offered a brief overview of the contemporary political, economic, and ecological situation, working definitions of socialism and capitalism, and sources for further study of these topics. (At the top of this introductory list: Jacobin Magazine’s The ABCs of Socialism, Ernest Mandel’s Introduction to Marxism, and Michael Zweig’s “Six Points on Class”, published in Monthly Review.) Poelker emphasized the priority of movements in fighting for socialism and the crucial importance of the next years and decades.

Peterson spoke on how she became a socialist, and especially on the radicalizing experience of working as a math tutor at a “Turnaround” school targeted for closure by the city of Chicago in 2013. She subsequently worked with the People’s Lobby on a campaign to increase the minimum wage in Cook County, and joined DSA after the 2016 presidential election. She is now co-chair of the South Side branch of the DSA and an activist in the “Lift the Ban Coalition”, a campaign to improve affordable housing options in Illinois. (For more on this housing rights campaign see Peterson’s article “How Should Socialists Organize?”, published in Solidarity’s Webzine.) Peterson came to socialism from liberalism; she was drawn to socialism, she said, for its superior analysis of how power works and how to build it, among whom, and to what end.

This session was followed by “The fight against US imperialism today”, with talks by Andy Thayer (Gay Liberation Network, Chicago Coalition Against War & Racism), Vicki Cervantes (La Voz de los de Abajo) and David Finkel (Solidarity, Jewish Voice for Peace).

Thayer began discussion by observing that the term ‘imperialism’ is often (and unhelpfully) used on the left as a term of abuse, without concrete content. He argued instead for a Marxist concept of imperialism, as a stage of capitalism in which economic competition between capitals is increasingly escalated into military competition. Thayer then divided the contemporary responses to imperialism into four camps. Liberals have often attacked President Donald Trump from the right, as seen in their response to Trump’s meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Social-democrats studiously avoid the issue, Thayer said, especially in regard to Palestine. The ‘tank-y left’, as Thayer termed it, in practice supports dictators out of an exaggerated anti-imperialism. In contrast with all three approaches, the revolutionary socialist left should oppose US imperialist power in all its manifestations and support the rights of self-determination of people around the world. “Our mission,” Thayer concluded, “is to get the yoke of the US off the necks of oppressed peoples around the world so that they can decide their futures for themselves.”

Cervantes spoke on the history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America, from the 1823 Monroe doctrine and the Mexican war of 1846–48 forward to the present day. US imperialism has taken many forms over this period, from direct military intervention, brutal counterinsurgency campaigns and support of puppet governments, to the extraordinary oppressive power of US corporations, especially in the fruit-growing and mining industries. The coup d’état in Haiti in 2004, in which Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the elected president, was forcibly removed from that country on a US plane, marked a return to direct US participation in non-democratic regime change in this region. The coup in Honduras in 2009 was a continuation of this policy.

David Finkel, the third speaker in the session on imperialism, began by contesting the prevailing liberal discourse, according to which President Trump and his administration have initiated an unprecedented departure from a rules-based international order. This is a misconception, Finkel argued: the history of US imperialist violence around the world shows that there never was a rules-based international order, except as an ideological construct. “Yet it is true,” Finkel added, “that the ideological construct is now coming apart at the seams, and the Trump administration is accelerating that.” The new nation-state law in Israel is an instance of this. By proclaiming Israel to be an ethno-religious state, this law abandons a central pretense of the ‘rules-based international order’: namely, equal civil rights for all, without consideration of religion or ethnicity. For more on this topic, Finkel referred the audience to Amira Hass’s article “Israel’s Holocaust Credit Line in Running Out” published in Haaretz, Alan Wald’s review article “BDS Versus Settler-Colonialism” published in the latest issue of Against the Current, and Jeff Halper’s book War Against the People: Israel, Palestine, and Global Pacification (2015).

Afternoon sessions began with a panel on “Labor resistance today: post-Janus and more”. Speakers were Peter Landon (Solidarity, Teamsters for a Democratic Union), JP Kaderbek (DSA National Labor Commission, Teamsters for a Democratic Union), Abby Agriesti (co-chair of Chicago DSA Labor Commission) and Jane Slaughter (Labor Notes).

Landon reported on the state of contract negotiations with UPS, where the Teamsters union establishment has negotiated a concessionary contract, despite the objective strength of labor’s position within this large and highly profitable corporation. For additional details Landon pointed the audience to the article “Embattled Hoffa Offers Two-Tier, UPSers Push for a Better Deal”, published earlier this year in Labor Notes.

Kaderbek, also with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, spoke on the DSA’s activities in the labor sector, which, he said, is improving after years of disengagement. Much of the work of DSA’s National Labor Commission is presently focused in strike solidarity, Kaderbek said. Agriesti, who spoke next, reported that labor solidarity is a main focus of Chicago DSA’s Labor Commission. Other areas of focus include education and outreach, often in partnership with Jobs with Justice. Agriesti underlined the importance of educational and outreach work, noting that Chicago DSA is primarily a millennial organization: most members have no direct experience with unions. CDSA’s Labor Commission recently ran a “labor 101” workshop for social workers in training, aiming to give unorganized workers a toolkit for union organizing.

Slaughter pointed out that the West Virginia and Arizona teachers’ strikes were begun by young socialists who knew how to organize – in person and on social media – and knew how to craft policy demands with a clear class analysis. These strikes, Slaughter contended, show how to organize after Janus. Labor Notes has just published a special issue on this topic.

Discussion of labor and unions continued in the fourth session, “From the Classrooms to the Streets: Dispatches from Today’s Teacher Movement”. Panelists, all union members, were Dawn Tefft (University of Illinois-Chicago Graduate Employees Organization), John Fleissner (Milwaukee public schools), Nina Chacker (Detroit public schools), and Noreen Gutekanst (Solidarity, Chicago public schools). Panelists spoke about how their unions have responded to ‘open shop’ and ‘right to work’ legislation in their states and how they are preparing for the consequences of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision. All speakers emphasized the importance of moving beyond a transactional or bureaucratic model of unionism, towards one that is centered on workplace democracy, workers’ power, and movements for social justice. Fleissner and Chacker spoke on their experiences of winning fellow teachers over to support of sick-outs, and on the importance of a bottom-up model for planning actions: “The union leadership is going to do what they do; we will do what is needed,” Chacker said. Doing what is needed includes mobilizing for social justice issues that affect the broader community. Tefft and Fleissner spoke about organizing actions to demand sanctuary status at their university and school district, respectively. Chacker spoke about campaigning against water shut-offs and foreclosures in Detroit, and about the imperative to confront fellow teachers when they engage in gender-, race-, and class-based discrimination. Gutekanst emphasized the importance of organizing against the increasing police presence in schools: “The school to prison pipeline is real,” she said: “A ten-year-old can be taken out of the school in handcuffs.”

The final session, “Taking Power: Activists and the Ballot Box”, featured a panel of community activists who are running for office on the Chicago City Council: Angela Clay, candidate for 46th ward alderman and community activist; Maria Hadden, candidate for 49th ward alderman and community activist; Ugo Okere, candidate for 40th ward alderman and DSA member; and Byron Sigcho, candidate for 25th ward alderman and DSA member. Also on the panel was Bob Quellos (DSA, 33rd ward Working Families), representing the aldermanic campaign of Rossana Rodriguez. Each of the candidates is a community activist and organizer, turning to electoral politics as an extension of their activist work. Their presentations and the subsequent discussion centered on the many ways in which Rahm Emanuel and his neoliberal allies on City Council have failed the people of Chicago: divestment from schools and other social services, corrupt zoning practices, unchecked promotion of the interests of property developers, racist policing, and an out-sized police budget (currently 40 per cent of the total city budget). Many of the panelists are running against incumbents who have been in office for decades. This panel brought them together for the first time, to put forward their visions for a more just city of Chicago.

Throughout the day there was discussion of the current status of the socialist movement, unions and labor power, and of anti-war and anti-imperialist movements. Noting the present weakness of the left, participants stressed the importance of finding new ways forward.


One response to “Report on our Midwest Day School”

  1. Ron Lare Avatar
    Ron Lare

    Thanks for the very well-written report. Substantial and yet succinct, not an easy art.