Is Hyde Park outsourcing its activism?
Such would seem to be the case, based on the document I have before me, signed by 5 local notables and requesting recipients to call Leslie Hairston and ask her to block the University's proposed hotel project at the site of Doctors Hospital.
Chiefly on account of the troubled track record of labor relations at White Lodging, the hotel management company. The letter came in an envelope with a return address "Local 1" on Van Buren Street. The stamp and mailing were paid for by Unite Here! a union representing industrial, textile, and service workers.
Now, the fact that a number of respected and senior neighborhood folks signed this letter, each likely recruited on the basis of presumed "thought leadership," does not lessen the fact that the letter is moderately incoherent, and comes across as hijacking a local issue for the benefit an outside interest group.
I'm not against unions. What I am against is something that is unique to the history of labor: building a movement by driving jobs away. Historically, labor has organized and fought over jobs that already exist. The fight was often between the folks that had jobs, and the ones who wanted them. But first you needed to have jobs. That's how you get leverage in a union -- you start by being able to sit down on the shop floor.
With this strategy, on the other hand, the union has no leverage. It doesn't even have a potential source of new recruits. It has nothing, and leaves the 5th and surrounding wards with deep reservoirs of poverty and no more jobs than they started with. But it does have publicity, and can lend it to a few cranky people who are worried about loosing their views of the Lake. Neighborhood politics make strange bedfellows -- high-rise dwellers with lake views and single family home owners on one side, together with chamber maids and busboys on the other. Do you smell a marriage of convenience?
The Spice Girls and Boys were probably right not to tackle the University head-on with this one, because they would surely lose, just like Unite Here! is going to lose with this campaign. Hairston voted against the Big Box Ordinance in 2006, stating clearly that her constituents would rather she bring some jobs to her ward, even low-wage ones, rather than none at all. That stance probably hasn't changed.
So whose "community" is being lobbied here? Folks interested in what the ever-shifting and opportunistic "community" thinks in this case should reflect on Hairston's statement of why she voted against the Big Box Ordinance:
"I will vote the way my community told me to vote last night,” she said. “And they told me to vote no. "
That community, the one that wants jobs and currently doesn't have enough, must not be the same community as the one this letter was sent to, with the high-profile signatories, who so earnestly want to protect the jobs that the other community doesn't have.
But let's move on to the clumsy attempts to splice this union campaign onto the trunk of local grievances. "Our message is simple: Respect our neighborhood, respect our values, respect the workers."
Translation: respect our entitlement to park for free in front of our house; respect our obstruction of every project that would bring property-tax paying businesses into the school district; and respect the workers who I would rather not make noise and disturb me in my back yard.
In the end, this petition, while highlighting labor issues that are legitimate, hooks them up to a boilerplate set of NIMBY gripes that have much less to do with labor than with middle class dyspepsia. The hotel will benefit the neighborhood in many, many ways, but it will be a change, and change is what NIMBYs are allergic to, even if it benefits the rest of us.