January 23, 2009

Revolt on Goose Island: The Congressman


In the newest installment in her Melville House Live Book Project, Kari Lydersen looks closer at one of the key players in the story

Rep. Luis Gutierrez speaks at a rally in front of the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez speaks at a rally in front of the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008.

Chicago, January 23, 2009 — Following our previous backgrounder on the UE union, here are the basics about another key player in this drama: Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

Of all the politicians who voiced support for the Republic Windows workers, Congressman Luis Gutierrez was the first to adopt the issue and arguably the most vocal and activist throughout the process.

Several supporters remember being impressed by the congressman on the occupation’s first night, as he passionately fielded a reporter’s question about the legality of the strategy. The equipment and inventory in the plant may belong to the owner, the congressman essentially said, but the products were produced by workers’ labor, something which has tangible value too. A relatively Marxist statement to come out of the mouth of a politician.

Gutierrez represents Illinois’s Fourth Congressional District, known as the most politically gerrymandered in the city, having a strange horseshoe shape designed to encompass both the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of Humboldt Park and Logan Square and the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen. Gutierrez himself is Puerto Rican; he was the first Latino elected to Congress from the Midwest and has served eight terms in the House. (Visit his website here.)

Gutierrez being place under arrest by soldiers at Vieques.

Gutierrez being placed under arrest by soldiers at Vieques.

Gutierrez is known for taking an activist stance especially on issues related to immigrants and Latinos. As this CNN report details, he was jailed for civil disobedience on the U.S. Navy bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as part of a long-running campaign to force the Department of Defense to stop using the lush, lovely and impoverished island for bombing exercises that took a serious environmental and human toll. Not long after the high profile visit by Gutierrez (and Rev. Jesse Jackson, another Republic Windows supporter, among other celebrities), the bombing exercises were stopped.

After more than 400 undocumented immigrants were arrested during a militaristic raid at a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa last spring, Gutierrez made it a point to highlight both the systematic labor abuses that had gone on at the plant and the inhumane conditions resulting from the raid. The immigrants faced group trials at the local fairgrounds in what lawyers and politicians called a grossly unfair and demeaning process, and family members who were left behind in the Postville area faced with homelessness, hunger and separation from their loved ones. A passionate New York Times editorial agreed and detailed the charges, and included a link to a heart-rending essay (pdf file) by a court-appointed translator in the case.

Currently Gutierrez has also been leading efforts to pressure the Obama administration to take action to keep “mixed status” immigrant families together. His office has hosted several large forums in Chicago churches where families with both undocumented and citizen or legal resident members give testimony about their situation. As noted in this Washington Post story, Gutierrez’s office is in the process of compiling these stories for the president.

Gutierrez goes at it with Pat Buchanan on immigration on Meet the Press.

Gutierrez goes at it with Pat Buchanan on immigration on Meet the Press.

But not all immigrant activists see Gutierrez as a champion. He was a lead sponsor of the STRIVE Act of 2007, an immigration reform bill which would have helped keep families together but also called for increased militarization of the border, relatively high fees and strict requirements for citizenship or legal residency (see a full overview here). Some immigrant groups supported the legislation, others called the bill (and its sponsor) a sell-out that would impede meaningful and progressive immigration reform.

According to one participant in the Republic Windows negotiations, Gutierrez “exploded” when owner Richard Gillman asked that the bank loans cover his wages and $90,000 for his car leases.

Gutierrez’s statement upon the completion of negotiations said: “This money will only be used to pay the workers the benefits they are owed under the law, and it will not, under any circumstance, be used for corporate bonuses, luxury cars or any other perk for the owners of the plant. Just as with the financial rescue package Congress passed this fall, these negotiations were not about yielding golden parachutes, but about the just and rightful compensation of workers whose have spent countless, invaluable hours away from their families.”