On May 11th, 2019, the sold-out 61st Annual Eugene Debs – Lucy Gonzalez Parsons – A. Philip Randolph Dinner and Dance Party (or the Debs Dinner for short) was held at the National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 11 union hall on Chicago’s South Side. The Debs Dinner celebrates the fighting grassroots labor movement that democratic socialism is rooted in. It dates back to at least 1955 and was originally put on by the Socialist Party. In the 1980s, it was taken up by the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America and renamed the Eugene Debs – Norman Thomas – Michael Harrington Dinner.
Last year, it was renamed the Debs/Parsons/Randolph dinner to bring focus to both the Chicago roots of the event and to the diversity of both the labor movement and socialism generally. It was also upgraded from a fairly sedate dinner held in hotel ballrooms to a raucous party in a union hall that celebrates the rising militancy of the labor movement. And it’s also something of a socialist prom, complete with a photo booth in front of a mural commemorating the NALC’s 1970 wildcat strike.
The Debs Dinner used to be the primary source of funding for Chicago DSA; that’s no longer the case as member donations have taken that spot. So the Debs Dinner has become more about building and maintaining connections between the socialist movement, the labor movement, and other community movements. To that end, we presented the Lucy Gonzalez Parsons Community Organizing Award to reproductive rights advocate Benita Ulisano from Illinois Choice Action Team and the A. Philip Randolph Award to the Chicago Hotel Workers who went on strike in 2018 for better working conditions and healthcare coverage.
While Benita Ulisano was not able to attend, Rachel Zibrat, co-chair of CDSA’s Socialist Feminist Working Group, accepted the award on her behalf and spoke in her honor on the importance of reproductive justice and the essential work done by clinic escorts.
Wanda Williams accepted the A. Philip Randolph Award on behalf of Chicago’s Hotel Workers for winning their strike against hotel operators citywide. Williams is a shop steward and a key leader of Local 1, UNITE HERE and has worked as a housekeeper at the Blake Hotel for 20 years. She spoke about hotel workers’ recent strike and got the crowd amped up with some picket line chants. The highlight was Williams announcing that she was going to join DSA because of all the solidarity Chicago DSA had shown during the strike.
The keynote address for the Debs Dinner was given by Sara Nelson, International President of the AFA-CWA. Ms. Nelson is one of the most radical labor leaders you will find today. Her talk about a general strike and threats by flight attendants to walk off the job shut down La Guardia Airport in January and ended Trump’s government shutdown. As expected, she gave a powerful speech that emphasized the need for a labor movement that is grassroots, radical, and willing to fight the bosses, and also drew connections between the labor movement, democratic socialism, and other social movements.
When I spoke with Ms. Nelson after the event, she expressed some anxiety that her fiery speech would be lost in the noise of dinner and land with a thud in the (delicious) mashed potatoes. That’s not what happened. Instead, she electrified the crowd, who gave her multiple standing ovations.
The crowd clapped loudly when she mentioned the refusal by flight attendants to work flights that facilitated the federal government’s family separation policy and when she described the solidarity work AFA-CWA did to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Her shoutouts to the Chicago Teachers Union and to striking rideshare drivers also got a loud response. And what else can a room of socialists do but go absolutely nuts when Ms. Nelson emphatically said that “working people will get our fair share of the wealth we help create.” While not (yet) a member of DSA, Ms. Nelson is certainly operating on a similar political wavelength as DSA members.
We’ve made videos available for these speeches so everyone can share their crucial message (and you can read the text of Sara Nelson’s speech at Jacobin). Of course, we aren’t sharing the fun and entertainment dinner-goers also enjoyed. If you want to see stand-up comedy and emceeing from Arish Singh or a musical performance by Chicago DSA’s jazz band the Haymarket Trio, you’ll just have to come out next year!
If you couldn’t make the dinner and you’d like to support Chicago DSA’s work, feel free to donate. Financial support from members (and non-members) is the only way we can keep up the labor support and electoral work that has helped us make such powerful impact in Chicago.
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