Chicago’s union-busting mayor

June 23, 2011

Bob Quellos explains what Chicago's new mayor has in store as he takes over.

AT A press conference in mid-June, Chicago's new Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood in front of a checklist of his perceived accomplishments during his first month in office. He gave himself a grade of "incomplete" for the tasks he says he aims to complete during his first 100 days in office--and then praised the previous day's decision by the Chicago School Board to cancel an upcoming 4 percent pay increase for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

In reality, the press conference wasn't about Emanuel's accomplishments. It was another maneuver, designed to build support for his all-out attack on organized labor in the public sector, with the CTU as the first target.

Meanwhile, by the end of June, a two-year deal with unionized city workers to take furlough days and go without overtime pay is set to expire--and Emanuel is certain to press for unions to continue giving concessions in some form when negotiations take place.

As a staffer for the CTU said of this attack on the public sector:

Rahm Emanuel has amply demonstrated his contempt for the labor movement with his saber-rattling against the CTU and his threats against the Chicago Federation of Labor to gut all our pensions. His intention is to break us--either one by one or all at once. The only way Chicago unions can push back is by recognizing each individual attack as an offense against the entire labor movement.

Chicago's new mayor Rahm Emanuel
Chicago's new mayor Rahm Emanuel (Lloyd Lee)

ON ELECTION Day last February, in a city of more than 1.4 million register voters, just 590,000 people turned out to vote in what was billed as a historic mayoral election. By the end of the day, Emanuel, who had spent an unprecedented $11 million on his campaign, won a bare majority against a divided opposition--with the political figures who might have given him the toughest challenge having decided not to run.

Chicago's mayoral election informally kicked off last fall with the surprise announcement that Richard Daley would be stepping aside after a 20-year reign. Within the first days of Daley's announcement, more than a dozen candidates announced their intention to run, and the city was abuzz with the possibilities for a democratic debate about Chicago's post-Daley future. However, after a few months, just as the field of candidates narrowed, so, too, did the discussion about Chicago's future--and the media's ability to ask questions about hot-button issues facing Chicagoans.

Almost immediately, the election became all about Emanuel. The only real challenge to his candidacy was a legal battle over his status as a Chicago resident--since he had been living in Washington as Barack Obama's chief of staff for two years, and before that as a leading figure in the national Democratic Party. With the majority of media attention and donations going to Emanuel, it quickly became obvious that Emanuel was almost certain to win.

Emanuel's campaign funds dwarfed those of his opponents--and when it was over, he still had more than $2 million in the bank to spend on his preferred candidates in 14 run-off elections for seats on the City Council. Nearly 30 percent of the money came from outside the state, and more than half was from outside Chicago--with Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg on the list of those who contributed at least $50,000.

Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., and the attitude toward elections reflects this--commentators view the campaigns in terms of how the racial categories of the candidates will influence the outcome.

Emanuel faced two Latino candidates--Gery Chico and Miguel del Valle. Chico, a lawyer, former Chicago Public Schools board president and long-time ally of Richard Daley, was seen as representing the remnants of the old Chicago political machine--he won just over 24 percent of the vote. Miguel del Valle was the main candidate of choice for progressives, but was only able to get 9 percent of the vote.

African Americans accounted for three of the six candidates on the mayoral ballot after an attempt by some in the community to find a "consensus candidate" failed.

The 1983 victory of Chicago's first Black mayor, Harold Washington, which broke the total control of the white Democratic machine, still looms large in Chicagoans' minds as an example of how a progressive Democrat, by relying on grassroots support and connections to civil rights activism, can overcome the power of the city's political establishment.

But in contrast to Washington's carefully organized challenge, Carol Moseley Braun--the most visible Black candidate running against Emanuel--seemed to be running as a whim. In the end, Braun's campaign, which sounded progressive themes at times, suffered from a lack of funding. Her television ads were pulled from the air just days before the election, and Braun's campaign almost completely shut down.

Two other African American candidates, William "Doc" Walls and Patricia Van Pelt Watkins, ran even less-well-funded campaigns--they got 3 percent of the vote between them.

On Election Day, Emanuel was able to win more votes in some Black wards than he did in some white wards. As Mary Mitchell of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "Emanuel racked up 59 percent of the Black vote without the support of the city's best-known Black community organizers, politicians, clergy and civil rights leaders."

FOLLOWING HIS victory, Emanuel put together a pro-business transition team--its 72-page plan was made public the day after his inauguration.

Parts of the plan propose ambitious projects, but there is no detail as to where funds will come from to implement them. The plan proposes miles of protected bike lanes to be constructed over the coming years; a community gardening initiative; a citywide recycling program; elimination of "food deserts" where there are no supermarkets for large areas of the city; and expansions of the city's public transit system.

The plan also backs the Illinois Dream Act, modeled after the federally proposed legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for a minority of undocumented immigrant youth. The Illinois version would not have the authority to grant citizenship, but would allow undocumented students access to state college tuition programs and create a privately funded scholarship account for undocumented students.

Emanuel is thought to have played a part in derailing immigration reform proposals under Obama, even famously referring to this as "the third rail of American politics." But his endorsement of both the Illinois Dream Act and of Chicago as a sanctuary city for immigrants should be no surprise, given his realpolitik approach to power.

All of the progressive proposals found in the transition plan have been pushed for in some form by Chicago residents for at least a decade, and deserve to be enacted. But as Emanuel takes office, Chicago faces an estimated $700 million budget deficit for 2012, and the only solutions currently coming from City Hall and the city's establishment have been to freeze or cut spending, and go after public employee pensions.

On his first day in office, Emanuel immediately put a freeze on city spending in an attempt to cut another $75 million from Daley's last budget by merging city departments and implementing layoffs and cuts. Senior management payroll was cut by 10 percent, and some 60 injured workers were forced back onto the job by placing them in less physically demanding jobs at an estimated cost savings of $500,000.

Spending cuts are sure to be the norm in Emanuel's Chicago. Shortly after Emanuel was sworn in as mayor, Laurence Msall, president of the Chicago Civic Federation, told the Chicago Tribune, "Reducing the number of city workers has to be part of the equation because wages and benefits make up more than 80 percent of day-to-day city spending."

Prior to that, days after Rahm's victory, a Chicago Sun-Times editorial made clear how the paper felt about the future of public employee pensions, a sentiment echoed by other major media outlets and the city's elites. "The challenge in Chicago and Illinois," wrote the Sun-Times, "is to extract those union concessions without wallowing in the mud of union-busting, as Republican Gov. Scott Walker is doing in Wisconsin."

While Tea Party Republicans have been getting much of the attention nationwide for their all-out assault on public-sector unions, many Democratic governors have been able to pass similar legislation, from Massachusetts to New York to California. With little mainstream opposition--and Obama's former chief of staff--at the helm, we should expect the same to occur in Chicago.

During his inauguration speech, Emanuel stated, "I reject how leaders in Wisconsin and Ohio are exploiting their fiscal crisis to achieve a political goal...That course is not the right course for Chicago's future." But days later, Emanuel admitted to asking for concessions from Chicago labor, saying:

I've asked them to come forward with ideas to hit that $16 million savings. I know they want to get rid of the furlough days. [But] I have to reconcile a contract with labor that calls for something that ends June 30 with a budget that assumes something else. Labor will be my partner in finding that savings.

The cornerstone of these "savings" will be direct attacks on public employee wages, benefits and pensions, and the privatization of public resources--under the notion that we all must make sacrifices in hard times.

EMANUEL HAS stated that privatization of major public infrastructure is off the boards for the time being. For instance, he said he wouldn't follow through on Daley's attempt to sell off Midway Airport on the city's southwest side.

But he is already moving forward with an attempt to privatize more city services. One of his campaign promises was to cut $65 million from the annual cost of garbage collection, a move that could end in at least partial privatization.

And while selling off major public infrastructure may be on hold, the ongoing privatization of Chicago's public schools will be kicked into high gear under Emanuel's leadership.

Jean-Claude Brizard has been appointed the new public schools CEO. Nobody is expecting Brizard to be a friend of labor. As superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., he received a 95 percent vote of no confidence from the Rochester teachers' union. A champion of charter schools, Brizard arrived in Chicago with a full endorsement from former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Emanuel's education transition team was loaded with private business interests and those already feasting off Chicago's transition to charter schools, including Don Feinstein of the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) and Michael Milkie, co-founder of the Noble Street charter school.

His newly appointed Board of Education isn't much different. David Vitale, the new board president and current board chair of AUSL, was also previously CEO at the Chicago Board of Trade.

Vitale will be joining a team of eight board members that includes billionaire Penny Pritzker, who was the national finance chair for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Pritzker served on the board of the pro-charter school Chicago Public Education Fund and contributed $50,000 to Stand for Children--the organization that helped pass Senate Bill 7. That measure, signed into law last week by Gov. Pat Quinn limits the union's ability to strike, allows for the lengthening of the school day and makes it easier to fire teachers.

In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, Ray Long succinctly commented on the one-sided class nature of Senate Bill 7 and Stand for Children:

In short order, Stand for Children tapped into a network of the city's rich and powerful--including billionaires with names like Pritzker, Crown and Zell--to raise millions of dollars. The stockpile of money is geared toward influencing elections and paying an all-star lineup of lobbyists across the political spectrum to prod lawmakers to act on issues that previously failed or were thought to be undoable.

Chicago has been one of the hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. Currently, according to estimates, one-third of Chicago homeowners are paying more in loans on their homes then they are worth. The problem is most devastating on Chicago's historically African American South and West Sides. According to the latest census data, the City of Chicago lost more that 200,000 residents in the last decade, and 180,000 of them were Black.

As Whet Moser, writing for Chicago Magazine, put it, "It does seem clear that the destruction of high-density public housing, not just under the Plan for Transformation, but also during the Clinton administration, has played a role in the decline of Chicago's Black population." What has become commonplace in these areas are swaths of empty lots where homes and businesses once were, and blocks where as many as half or three-quarters of homes are boarded-up due to foreclosures.

Emanuel's transition program only calls for guidance for those who find themselves facing foreclosure. The rest of the plan around housing reads as a giveaway to large developers. According to Emanuel, the city is supposed to take stock of abandoned lots and blocks with abandoned homes possibly facing demolition. At the end of the day, it should be expected that these properties will be bundled for big developers at a low cost.

TO JUSTIFY his future plans, Emanuel has threatened that Chicago has two choices--either go along with his proposals or risk becoming another Rustbelt city like Cleveland or Detroit. "I think the decisions we make in the next two years, three years, will determine where we're going to be in the next 20-30 years," Emanuel said. "If we get them wrong...we could veer off to a Cleveland."

Coming from Emanuel, such comments border on the ludicrous considering his history in Bill Clinton's administration as the person responsible for pushing NAFTA--a major contributor to deindustrialization in Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago. They become even more absurd considering that many parts of Chicago resemble Detroit or Cleveland already.

It's clear that when Emanuel talks about Chicago's future, he's not addressing himself to the people who live these parts of the city--and who are experiencing levels of joblessness, foreclosures and poverty that are not far off from Chicago's Rustbelt neighbors.

As far as Emanuel and Chicago's wealthy interests are concerned, the choice available to Chicagoans is to cut pensions, jobs and city services--or perish.

The current budget problems in Chicago are real, but a solution that benefits the majority of residents won't be found in further sacrifices by the city's working class and poor.

Union-busting and further attacks on people's basic standard of living is no option. For Chicago to be livable for its current working class and poor residents, money must be directed into the city from the federal level; corporations like those owned by the billionaire Pritzker Family must be taxed; and the giveaway of public funds and infrastructure to corporations, along with the union-busting that accompanies this, must end.

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