Last Friday night, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) held their 54th Annual Eugene V. Debs--Norman Thomas--Michael Harrington Award Dinner at the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza in Chicago. You of course might not expect anything too fancy from a group so devoted to the needy and the working class--but not to worry, these wine-sipping socialists proved they know just how to spend an evening discussing how to spend other people's money.
On the surface, it seems well within the realm of possibility that the Holiday Inn was a modest choice for this group--and appropriate, as it is recommended on Unite Here Local 1’s website as a union hotel. However, modest may not be the most accurate way to describe this not-so-little shindig.
For starters, it wasn’t your typical stuffy lower level ballroom function, crammed between a business association meeting and a wedding. This was a fine gala, in a much more exclusive atmosphere: the Wolf Point Ballroom on the 15th floor at the internationally renowned Merchandise Mart. It featured stunning views of a breath-taking sunset--a perfect place to unwind with a top shelf cocktail before settling in to condemn the greedy “rich.”
After the delightful libations, everyone entered the exquisite dinning room, which featured 180-degree panoramic southwest skyline views, overlooking the cityscape and the Chicago River. The tables were lined with fine cloth, and individual sets of utensils for each of the three courses. Decadent slices of cheesecake awaited each guest, occupying their plates atop swirls of sweet-tangy raspberry sauce to whet their appetites for the abundant meal that was in store.
Following a fresh chilled house salad with a choice of multiple creamy dressings, the wait staff hauled out one giant tray full of food after another to feed the primarily white-dominated crowd. These weren’t your typical bland hotel meals of three asparagus sprigs and a three ounce portion of salmon with lumpy hollandaise, either. The plates were overloaded with heaping mounds of mashed potatoes, a pile of assorted squashes and vegetables, and not one, but two succulent and juicy chicken leg quarters, smothered in savory-rich gravy.
There was, in fact, so much food that, as I looked around at the tables nearby, I noticed not one person (comrade?) was able to finish the food on his (or her) plate. And despite knowing about all the hungry people out there in Chicago--and even perhaps the very servers in the room--with mouths to feed at home, shockingly, these DSA members let all those leftovers go to waste. Weren’t these socialists heartbroken to think of how many mouths could have been fed with all that extra food?
I remarked, however, to an older couple (longtime DSA members) at my table: “At least you get what you pay for here!” They chuckled and nodded their heads in agreement; after all, they had paid $70 each; why shouldn’t they get more than enough, right?
Ruth Conniff, editor of The Progressive magazine and keynote speaker for the night, sat at my table with her husband, Mitch Cooper. They, too, were stuffed but enjoyed it tremendously. Maybe it was ok, since everyone was stuffed together…well, everyone except the servers. Why didn’t anyone think to offer part of their abundant meal to them? Or maybe pay a few extra bucks so they might take a slice of that delicious cheesecake home to their families. With all the empty seats, there was more than enough left over.
After the feast, the awards ceremony and program began. The recipients for this year's awards were John Bowman and Chicago Jobs with Justice. John Bowman is the President and Director of Advocacy at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. He is a leader in the “Responsible Budget Coalition” as well as the successful statewide effort to create Family Care and All Kids programs that provide health insurance to the working poor and their children. (Oddly enough, I personally know many Illinois residents who are nowhere near living in poverty, and who have no problem qualifying for and using these programs anyway.)
Chicago Jobs with Justice is a community organizing group that seeks to achieve universal healthcare; “fair trade” vs. free trade; labor rights; the preservation of public services; and “full employment” (whatever that is). I recently interviewed one of the guests at the dinner: Lenny Lampkin of Chicago Jobs with Justice, who received an honorable mention during the ceremony. He told me on that occasion that the Jobs with Justice “idea is to organize people that aren’t in unions, to stand with the unions and fight for people to have fair contracts.” He also said, “teachers should be the highest paid employees in this country.”
Susan Hurley accepted the award on behalf of Chicago Jobs with Justice. Hurley has worked with the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and MoveOn.org and also gave a keynote speech at the Communist Party U.S.A.’s 2010 Peoples World Banquet in Chicago.
Hurley announced Chicago Jobs with Justice is going to begin a campaign organizing against the Chicago Board of Trade and Mercantile Exchange. The initiative's goal is to pass a tax on every trade that takes place at the exchange. “Because we are socialists,” she joked while being praised with laughter, “we are calling for a statewide tax on the trades at the Board of Trade and the Mercantile Exchange in the state of Illinois, of $1.00 per contract.”
She went on to portray every contract (inaccurately) as having a value of $250,000. While that may be true for contracts on certain commodities, Hurley failed to mention that it is only once the contract matures and purchasers take delivery of the goods, that the value is so high. Each individual futures trade is worth far less--more like $30 or less, and often times results in large losses for traders who provide constant and steady liquidity in the marketplace. Hurley's proposal would be no different than taxing $1 on a $30 stock purchase and another $1 to sell the same stock for $29, resulting in a $3 net loss. Multiply that by a 100 share/contract transaction, and the loss would then be $300--$100 in tax on the purchase, $100 in tax on the sale, and a $100 loss in value. Hurley clearly demonstrates what little understanding of commodities trading she has, but she has no trouble seeing how this tax could generate $6 billion in revenue, provided the markets could absorb that kind of overhead. But it’s all about fairness, so it’s OK!
Finally, there was the guest of honor, who I had the pleasure of dining with--Ruth Conniff. How did she end up at my table? I can only assume there were some external forces at play, and I have some interesting suspicions myself, but I will assume for now that it was just my lucky night.
Throughout her speech, Conniff described her extreme distaste for Governor Scott Walker and how awful he has been for the state of Wisconsin. She praised Illinois and Governor Quinn for “getting it right.” Conniff bragged with pride about her whole family being opposed to Scott Walker, and explained in her speech that her children had made it to the union protests in February of 2011 before she and her husband could even get there, due to the fact that their teachers had skipped out on school and caused classes to be canceled.
Her kids went down to the protests as well, and thought it was the coolest thing to see their teachers there. Conniff boasted how one of her daughter’s gym teachers had become lost in the emotion of the protest and was one of the people who jumped through the broken windows to get into the capital and occupy the building during the trashing and destruction we all witnessed as a result of the massive demonstrations last year. She closed her remarks by claiming, “the era of passive citizenship is over, there is a broad based movement now to radically change our culture…this is what the whole past year in Wisconsin and the Occupy protest is about, you can see it, you can feel it. It’s a moment not just for winning a horse race but for talking about the deeper issue about what is right and what kind of a society we really want to be. As Americans, we recognize the stakes…I just want to share with you the feeling I have, that from where I sit, this is the beginning of a whole new political moment. Thank you, and solidarity.”
To close out the memorable evening, taking note of the struggles and the plight of those in need, while ridiculing those who have more and accusing them of greed, these swanky socialists, pleasantly plump, could not call it quits without a sing-a-long to “Solidarity Forever.”
Past honorees and award winners at the DSA dinner have included many other favorite radicals, such as Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL); Dr. Quentin Young (close personal friend and mentor to President Obama); and William McNary, who recently declared it was time to “knuckle up” and “fight” at a protest against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in Springfield, IL.
One that occasion, McNary also used, as an example of greed, those in America who would go to a dinner and take more than their fair share. Ironically, he wasn’t talking about the Democratic Socialists of America.