by Lenoard Pierce
The annual Debs-Thomas-Harrington Dinner is one of Chicago DSA’s oldest and most honored traditions, and it closed out its sixth decade in high style on Friday, May 19th, 2017.
Considering Chicago DSA’s rapid growth over the last year, the dinner was expected to be well-attended, and did not disappoint: the Crowne Plaza Chicago West Loop’s ballroom was filled up with previous attendees and newcomers, all eager to lend their support to our efforts in the coming year. In fact, “A Way Forward” was the theme of the 59th annual dinner, and our speakers and honorees all focused on the road ahead as food and drinks were served by the hotel’s union staff.
As should be expected from an event commemorating the life of labor titan Eugene V. Debs, labor was one of the most crucial themes of the evening. After dinner, the DSA’s first honoree, Adriana Alvarez, was introduced by C.J. Hawking, a United Methodist pastor, executive director of Arise Chicago, and one of Oak Park’s most prominent faith-based labor organizers. The Rev. Hawking talked about Ms. Alvarez’s vital work organizing McDonald’s workers in the Fight for $15 movement and how she represents a critical new path in labor agitation for the new millennium.
Adriana Alvarez – with 5-year-old son Manny in tow! – then took the stage to accept her plaque, on behalf of and accompanied by a number of her McDonald’s co-workers. She spoke of her astonishment at being so honored and her surprise at finding herself travelling all over the world to represent some of society’s most marginalized workers, people often taken for granted in the new economy. Ms. Alvarez noted that the work was often degrading, dangerous, and subject to few protections, but focused on the many victories Fight for $15 has won since its inception and emphasized the vital role of solidarity in winning those victories.
Clem Balanoff was the next up at the podium, introducing the DSA’s next honoree. Balanoff, a lifelong activist from a storied family of radical Chicagoans, described Larry Cohen as a man “bad at retirement”, who stepped away from a leadership position with the Communication Workers of America only to find himself chairing Bernie Sander’s campaign for Labor. Cohen accepted his plaque with verve and enthusiasm, reminding the audience that the CWA is still fighting battles every day (several attendees at the dinner had come directly from standing on CWA picket lines as they engaged in a three-day strike against AT&T). He stressed the importance of building movements, and of keeping the momentum of the Sanders movement going forward to build more just and democratic institutions in the Age of Trump.
The evening’s final speaker was Carlos Ramirez Rosa, the young alderman of Chicago’s 35th ward and a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He charismatically addressed the room with a story of the opportunities afforded him by his immigrant parents, and how he was radicalized as a teenager by the migrant march in 2006 to protest the unfair deportation policies proposed by Republicans in Congress. Though he seemed like an unlikely candidate for government office, he challenged the Democratic machine and won an overwhelming victory to become the alderman of his native Logan Square. He reminded the crowd that while every action may seem like a tiny trickle of effort, they can combine into an unstoppable flood of justice.
South Side DSA member Brandon Payton-Carrillo closed out the evening with a great rendition of “Solidarity Forever”. Many attendees stuck around afterwards to socialize, plan future actions and events, and consider the theme of the evening. DSA plans on being an integral part of the Way Forward to a post-Trump, post-capitalism America. See you all next year at the 60th annual Debs-Thomas-Harrington dinner!