Hot Labor Summer is a project of 48th Ward Neighbors for Justice, a leftist independent political organization (IPO). Authors Joel Thorson and Nick Ward are both dual members of 48th Ward Neighbors and Chicago DSA. Nick Ward is also a candidate for Alderman of the 48th Ward seeking Chicago DSA’s endorsement.
We are living through an exciting moment for the American labor movement. Although unionization rates remain historically low, there is a new burst of fierce, militant organizing in shops across the country. Chicago in particular has been a labor battleground this summer. Howard Brown Health Workers United are in the process of forming one big, powerful, wall-to-wall union at the iconic healthcare provider and the Brown Elephant, while non-tenure faculty at the School of the Art Institute will be attempting to join their colleagues as part of AICWU, and Starbucks Workers United have launched union drives across the city (the first two successful of which were at stores in Edgewater!).
There is a tension between the energy in the air and what most of our neighbors can feasibly do, though. As Jason F. wrote in his recent report on the strike at the Clark and Ridge Starbucks (which you can and should read here!), “community members can’t start organizing drives or win campaigns”, at least at workplaces where they aren’t employed. If the task of a socialist organization is to help organize, shape, and facilitate the conflict between the entire working class and capitalists, we also need to find ways to push people outside of individual shops into participation in that conflict. It’s in that spirit that we launched Hot Labor Summer, a three-month labor support project where 48th Ward Neighbors for Justice boosted labor struggle in our ward and prompted our neighbors to participate on the side of workers.
The first component to the program is the simple one that everyone knows: just get people who are already active and passionate to show up! Organized workers periodically take public action to test their cohesion and measure community support. A classic example of this is simply walking the picket line alongside a union on strike. DSA support at the Nabisco strikes in 2021, for example, put more warm bodies on the line and allowed for striking workers to take time off for breaks and contract review. In our case, we joined several CDSA members at the Clark and Ridge Starbucks’ sip-in and strike, and asked our neighbors to as well. Doing so provided workers at that store support as they stood up to district management, and prompted members of our community to take the time to show that they had their backs.
We also took the initiative to make direct asks of our neighbors, including the ones who aren’t politically active. Our IPO has a long history of tabling for initiatives like democratic control of the police and working class city budgets, so when the weather started getting warmer and it became time to haul our supplies out of our closets we knew we had to use those muscles to connect our neighbors with the broader labor struggle. Since late May we’ve hit high-traffic areas once a week and asked passersby to write solidarity postcards for specific worksites. The result of this effort has been hundreds of supportive cards hand-delivered to each local Starbucks that had unionized or filed to do so, and dozens for the workers pushing to join the existing union at Howard Brown Health. In addition to providing moral support for those workers, it also allowed us to talk to neighbors directly about local labor struggles and to ask them to take a side, and to talk about the electoral priorities we have that intersect with unionization.
In the 48th Ward, those electoral priorities intersect with the Nick Ward for 48 Aldermanic campaign. Since the beginning of June, we’ve knocked on 4,500 doors in support of the Workers’ Rights Amendment, a November ballot initiative that would enshrine workers’ rights to organize into the Illinois constitution. We’ve found that many of our neighbors know about and support the Starbucks Workers United and the Howard Brown Health Workers, but hadn’t yet heard about the WRA. This gives us an opportunity to engage in quick political education and plug more of our neighbors into a political project that extends beyond our ward and our city. By marrying the Nick Ward for 48 campaign to the Workers’ Rights Amendment we seek to expand our capacity for a much wider political project, one that goes beyond this election cycle.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Starbucks is firing unionizing workers around the country. Illinois healthcare workers are playing a crucial role in protecting abortion and transgender rights, care, and access. Just last week, House Democrat Henry Cueller introduced the Worker Flexibility and Choice Act, which will strip federal employee minimum wage and overtime protections from gig workers. We cannot rely on benevolent leaders who make vague overtures to allow the collective bargaining process to play out. We must fight to protect workers’ rights by mobilizing our communities. Chicago is a union town, and we have to get the entirety of the city’s working class in fighting shape if we want it to stay that way.