Who will represent Chicago’s 99 Percent?

September 26, 2013

Chicago activists Marilena Marchetti and Lauren Fleer argue that achieving more political power will require building an independent alternative to the Democrats.

SCHOOL HAS been back in session for just over a month, but the movement for education justice in Chicago didn't get a summer vacation.

How could we? We had just begun to digest the devastating closure of 50 neighborhood schools in May when City Hall delivered the news of $200 million in school budget cuts and successive waves of layoffs that left more than 3,000 teachers and staff without a job.

How could this be the city's response to the months of public outcry at the end of the last school year? Thousands of Chicagoans spent last fall and spring attending hundreds of public hearings to voice opposition to budget cuts and school closings. We marched for three days from the West and South Sides through downtown to protest the city's plan to close neighborhood schools, with its inevitable destabilization of communities of color. More than 100 people were arrested at a massive protest the day the closures were announced.

The people of Chicago spoke unmistakably in favor of fully funded public schools in every community of our city, with a rich curriculum for all students, regardless of race or income level. Yet Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council gave us the exact opposite.

Education justice activists protest drastic budget cuts and layoffs in Chicago Public Schools
Education justice activists protest drastic budget cuts and layoffs in Chicago Public Schools (Bob Simpson | SW)

These defeats have led the education justice movement to reach for greater political power in the city where we live. Expanding our political power will require more of the activism and organizing that have brought so many out into the street already. But there is also widespread support for an electoral alternative. Like New York City, which is "poised to elect its most progressive government in 50 years," according to Juan González of Democracy Now!, Chicago has the potential to replace some of the Emanuel machine's hacks with grassroots candidates when the city holds its 2015 municipal elections.

But who will represent the 99 Percent in Chicago? Will it be a) the Republicans; b) the Democrats; c) an independent formation; or d) none of the above?

WE KNOW it's not the Republicans--that's a no-brainer.

Then there's the Democrats. They rule Chicago, and they run the White House. President Barack Obama promoted Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan to be his Education Secretary after Duncan closed 60 public schools and opened 100 charter schools as part of his Renaissance 2010 plan--which even the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune declared an utter failure.

In Washington, Obama and Duncan implemented "Race To The Top," which incentivizes the privatization of education and destruction of teachers' unions. The $4 billion fund rewards states that expand charter schools, and tie school funding and teacher pay to standardized tests--tests that better reflect students' family income than their learning ability or the instruction they received from teachers.

Democratic Mayor Emanuel, his rubber-stamp Democratic City Council and the overwhelmingly Democratic Illinois state legislature have all refused to tap available revenue sources to fully fund our schools. They have failed to act on reasonable proposals for generating new revenues, such as a modest 0.01 percent financial transaction tax or a graduated income tax that would place a greater burden on the wealthy than on the poor.

Instead our elected representatives have prioritized the interests of Chicago's business elite with school privatization and a full-scale attack on public employees' wages, benefits and pensions. The city government fabricates financial crises in order to justify cuts to public services--and simultaneously redistributes tax dollars to the rich, most famously through the tax increment financing (TIF) program.

The TIF program is essentially a mayoral slush fund. It siphons off property tax revenues from the general city budget, where it would pay for education, health care, parks libraries, etc.--supposedly so the money can promote community development in blighted areas. In practice, TIF money goes to the friends and allies of Emanuel and his predecessor, Richard Daley--businesses, real estate developers and even multinational corporations, none of which are suffering blight. Walmart, Coca-Cola and Hyatt Hotels are among the private enterprises that Chicago taxpayers have funded by the TIF scheme, without ever receiving a dime of the profits in return.

While 50 neighborhood elementary schools shut their doors for good at the beginning of this school year, the City of Chicago--led exclusively by Democrats--awarded $55 million in TIF funds to a private university to build a basketball arena.

School closures, privatization and corporate welfare: this is the record of the Democratic Party. While often seen as the "lesser evil" compared to Republicans, the Democrats also represent the 1 Percent. Corporate America bankrolls election campaigns for both Republicans and Democrats at the federal, state and local levels--turning officeholders into little more than paid representatives of big business.

These financial relationships are only one reason why the Democratic Party will never live up to its boast of being a "party of the people." The interests of corporations and workers are directly counterposed: the former benefits due to the exploitation of the latter. No party can genuinely represent both camps.

Some Democrats do support progressive reforms. But progressives within the Democratic Party will always remain junior partners in the larger project of serving the interests of the ruling class.

History shows us that attempts to reform the party from within--such as Dennis Kucinich's Progressive Democrats of America or Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition--have not succeeded in pushing the Democratic Party to the left. Both efforts ended with their leaders delivering their supporters to much more conservative Democratic presidential candidate.

In Chicago, the newly formed Progressive Reform Coalition of City Council members has put forward the admirable aim of fighting for a more just and equal Chicago. One of the coalition's founding principles promises to "work towards a budget that ensures that city finances and contracting, especially public-private partnerships, are managed with taxpayers as a priority and supports strong city services and quality of life for all."

While this sounds better than the current system of corrupt corporate handouts, a working class perspective must acknowledge that public-private partnerships are inherently unequal and unfair. Every tax dollar paid into the system by working people should be invested in infrastructure and services for our collective benefit. It's not enough that private profits derived from tax dollars be regulated--they must be prohibited.

It's also worth noting that more than half of the Progressive Reform Coalition voted in favor of Emanuel's budget proposal for 2013--and thus bear some of the blame for the current state of cuts and privatization.

WHAT'S NEEDED to advance the education justice movement and other social justice struggles is a political alternative to the Democrats. We need independent political representation accountable to the interests of working people 100 percent of the time.

In Chicago, we need an independent slate of grassroots candidates united around a platform that includes the creation of an elected school board; protection of public employee pensions; an end to the privatization of public assets and services (i.e., no new charter schools); and expansion of revenue to the public sector via a financial transaction tax, a graduated income tax, TIF reform, etc. And that's just for starters.

The attacks on public education in Chicago that began a decade ago have created hundreds of leaders and fighters for social justice. Community organizations, local unions and grassroots formations of different types have evolved, grown and collaborated in new ways. The potential exists for institutions and organizations that serve families, working people and the poor--the vast majority of Chicagoans--to work together to advance a platform and an independent slate of grassroots leaders.

A campaign independent from the Democrats, even if it did not achieve election victories, would be a bigger step forward for our side than running Democrats and further consolidating the other party of the 1 Percent. Win or lose, the critical task before our movement is to take the step toward political independence--to clarify our political objectives and build our capacity to win them.

No matter who wins City Council seats in 2015, we will still need to organize and fight to win justice and equality in our schools and in our city. As Howard Zinn famously said, "[T]he really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories."

It's by this principle that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) forced concessions from Mayor 1 Percent when they went on strike in September 2012. The CTU, alongside its community and union partners, was the only force powerful enough to stop attempts to drive down working and learning conditions for 30,000 school employees and 400,000 students.

Rank-and-file leaders can express the will of this movement in the electoral arena, but to do so requires a decisive break with the party of Rahm Emanuel and Arne Duncan. We can't fight for our lives against them one day and suit up for their team the next.

We must make common cause with our fellow parents, teachers, neighbors, unions and community organizations--and represent ourselves with an electoral formation that is strictly accountable to the interests of the 99 Percent.

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