On May 1, 1886, 35,000 workers in Chicago walked off their jobs. In the following days, they were joined by thousands more, as the city became the national center of a labor movement agitating for an eight-hour work day. (The actions would eventually culminate in the Haymarket Affair.)
“May Day has its origins here in Chicago. Generally known as International Labor Day, it has been celebrated as a worker holiday since the late 19th century,” explained Esther Isaac, an organizer with Graduate Students United and the University of Chicago Labor Council (UCLC) at a march this Saturday. Isaac used her words to amp up the 200-person crowd as anxious participants raised their signs to march for workers’ rights.
During the essential worker speak-out portion of the rally, a woman named Nina spoke on behalf of union nurses at the University of Chicago who couldn’t be there due to pandemic restrictions. According to Nina, nurses at the U. of C. had to take collective action to help the university distribute personal protective equipment to keep everyone safe. They also have been denied their rights as workers during the pandemic.
“The University of Chicago Medical Center has chosen to go back on their previous commitment to pay nurses sick with COVID their full benefits and they chose to break that code by denying those same nurses their workers comp while recovering from COVID,” she said. (A spokesperson for the University of Chicago Medicine did not respond to a request for comment.)
Laura Colaneri, a media representative for GSU, said that graduate workers are still continuing with their student service fee strike, which began in February and currently has more than 600 student participants.
“They don't want to listen to graduate workers, when we say, you know, we can't afford these fees, they're more expensive than other universities, and you're making us pay them for the privilege of working for you.”
Starting out in the Jewel-Osco parking lot at 60th Street and Cottage Grove, the crowd eagerly made its way to the Experimental Station, stopping at University of Chicago Police Department headquarters, 850 E. 61st St., and Levi Hall for members of other groups to speak out on injustice they are facing within the U. of C.
Warren Wagner of the student group #CareNotCops gave a speech in front of the UCPD building, stating that he thinks it’s wise to call the event a rally against cops and bosses because at the university there is no separation between the two.
Faye Porter of Tenants United gave a brief history of the racism that used to be abundant in Hyde Park, stating that it was a “sundown town” — a place Black people couldn’t be caught after sundown because they’d be lynched. Porter also spoke on the relationship between policing and tenants rights, stating that UCPD helps protect Mac Properties.
“They take money out of existing tenants’ rent and build new luxury apartments, then evict those tenants and raise rent so high that working class tenants can never return," she said. Porter asked those in attendance to join Tenants United or Chicago Tenants Movement to get organized.
Unionization rally caps march
The march ended with attendees joining a May Day event held in support of Experimental Station employees’ ongoing unionization efforts, as a large crowd gathered on the vacant field just north of the building at 6100 S. Blackstone Ave.
Event attendees listened to music and speeches, which touched on the indefinite closure of Blackstone Bicycle Works and alleged mistreatment of its former employees.
Despite the serious subject matter, the mood in the crowd was mostly ebullient: children danced in the grass to house music selected by DJ Track Master Scott and DJ CQQCHIFRUIT, while groups of young people reclined on blankets, eating vegan sloppy Joes from the Qumbya Housing co-op.
A smattering of usual suspects of the Chicago progressive left — members of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America, Lift the Ban, Southside Together Organizing for Power, Tenants United, Care Not Cops, Graduate Students United, the Invisible Institute, Build Coffee and City Bureau — also picnicked together.
Investigative reporter Jamie Kalven arrived to the event shirtless with a black labrador in tow. The community organizations Mural Moves and Fro Skate stood at tables next to GSU organizers, talking with event attendees. Skateboarders from Fro Skate, a womyn and POC centered skate crew, led impromptu skateboard lessons on the street.
The event began at around 5 p.m. after marchers arrived at the field, shouting the lyrics to Solidarity Forever over a microphone. After a round of applause, Experimental Station union member J. Michael Eugenio delivered a short speech, saying, “The only conversation we’ve gotten from our bosses has been a union busting meeting. After that, we’ve only heard silence.”
His remarks were followed by speeches supporting the union and criticizing Experimental Station’s management.
Maira Khwaja, director of public impact strategy and outreach at the Invisible Institute, said, “The Experimental Station is our landlord and they’re not treating their employees correctly. Because of the ecosystem we’re all in, we all need each other.”
While emphasizing that employees of the Invisible Institute were separate from the employees of the nonprofit Experimental Station, she said that, as tenants of the building, her colleagues stood to benefit from unionization. (The Herald, which is housed in the Experimental Station, has not participated on either side of the unionization effort.)
Trina Reynolds-Tyler, a data analyst at the Invisible Institute, and Anwulika Anigbo, development director at the Invisible Institute, also delivered speeches in support of the union. Both alluded to the recent layoffs of employees at Blackstone Bicycle Works, an Experimental Station program in which Black youth from surrounding neighborhoods learn bike repair skills.
According to the Experimental Station Union’s Facebook page, “Experimental Station leadership decided to indefinitely close Blackstone Bicycle Works, with only a week's notice” in January of this year. It says that the three remaining mechanics at the time were laid off and that those who applied were denied unemployment.
“There are various places where really problematic hierarchical structures exist. Sometimes it’s the police, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s folks who are associated in the nonprofit industrial complex,” said Reynolds-Tyler. “Sometimes it’s folks who are literally profiting off of young Black children and who could in good conscience wake up the next day and let (Blackstone Bicycle Works employees) know they didn’t have a job and that was the end of it all.”
Anigbo pointed out how Blackstone Bicycle Works provides a uniquely uplifting environment for kids, saying “Young people are often talked down to, young people are often living in a different world where their experiences, their understanding, their emotions are not respected and I can really say for sure that at Blackstone that was not the case... I think that the employees deserve the same kind of respect that they give to the young people.”
The union is currently hosting a GoFundMe fundraiser to assist the mechanics financially.
When reached for comment, Experimental Station Executive Director Connie Spreen said: “Blackstone Bicycle Works is closed temporarily to business as we undertake a stakeholder survey and strategic planning process to figure out what the best model for the youth program ought to be.” She added that because business has been challenging in the past 15 years, and that the pandemic led to the shop “operating without sufficient managerial oversight”, it “makes sense to take this moment to step back and reassess before moving forward into our next 15 years.”
In reply to criticism of the shop coming from members of the Invisible Institute, Spreen said, “It is disappointing that an award-winning investigative journalism organization did not bother to gather any actual facts or try to gain any amount of understanding of the challenges and complexities of operating in the context of the pandemic.”
Members of the organizations tabling at the event and attendees from the public shared their thoughts about the Union and what the Experimental Station organization as a whole meant to them.
Attendee Erin Michelle Haynes said, “I came out today to support Experimental Station because they have excellent events for all the communities. They had a free concert where one of the young ladies was playing the violin. Not only was she a young lady, she was an African American lady.”
“I love living in Chatham, but we don’t have events like this,” she added “Especially on days like today, it would be nice to have something like this.
Jess Monigal, who works at the architectural firm Civic Projects, headquartered in Experimental Station, said “I came out today to support my friends. I think the way the union has been dealt with is super messy. You can hide behind an ethos, but there comes a certain point where you need to have structures that live up to it.”
Karlie Thornton, founder of Fro Skate, said “The Experimental Station is one of the first places I came when I moved here to Chicago. It was the first place in Chicago that made me fall in love with the city. It’s a beautiful space. It was heartbreaking to hear stories behind the scenes with people from Blackstone getting fired.”