A budget for bankers in Illinois

February 13, 2014

James Illingworth reports on the war that Illinois politicians are waging against working people--and the prospects for an independent alternative to develop.

ILLINOIS POLITICIANS are once again pleading poverty to justify their attacks on workers and the poor. In a state that has already become a watchword for fiscal mismanagement and political gridlock, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who is up for re-election in the fall, this week persuaded the state legislature to let him postpone his budget announcement until the end of March.

When the budget does arrive, we can sure it will include further attacks on pensions and social services.

Truth be told, Illinois is broke. It has the lowest bond rating of any state, with Standard and Poor's giving Illinois an A- rating. The state is therefore forced to offer a higher interest rate in order to sell its debt, making it more expensive for the state government to borrow money.

All of the rating agencies have given one reason for their downgrades of Illinois's credit rating: the state's massively underfunded pension system, which some estimates put at a staggering $100 billion in debt. Essentially, S&P and the other agencies are using the rating cuts to demand some sort of "pension reform" in Springfield.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (Chris Eaves)

Quinn has shown himself more than willing to implement Wall Street's favored solution to the pension crisis: Pass the costs off onto teachers and other state workers. Indeed, Quinn (in)famously declared two years ago that he "was put on God's Earth" to cut teachers' pensions.

State workers, of course, are not to blame for the pension deficit. For years, teachers and other government employees have made the pension contributions mandated in their contracts. Springfield, however, has not--consistently underfunding or ignoring its pension obligations in order to keep tax rates low and dole out corporate welfare.

In 2011, for example, Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) received tax cuts worth hundreds of millions of dollars--although Sears promptly closed stores in Illinois and downsized its corporate office in Chicago anyway. Now, Speaker of the House (and Chairman of the state Democratic Party) Michael Madigan is proposing to give big business another $1.5 billion by halving the state's corporate tax rate.

So far, the poisonous factionalism among Illinois Democrats has prevented Quinn from getting pension reform through the state legislature. For most of last year, Madigan and state Senate President John Cullerton were championing competing pension reform bills. Quinn summoned the state legislature into emergency session and threatened to withhold the pay of state lawmakers and still got nothing.

IN PART, Illinois Democrats understand that pension reform is politically toxic. Public-sector unions remain a huge part of the Democrats' financial, organizational and voting base and career politicians like Madigan are loathe to anger their allies any more than is necessary. Going after the pensions of the state's existing retirees would be even more disastrous for the Democrats.

Even if he hasn't been able to gut the pension system in quite the way he would like, Quinn has repeatedly demonstrated his allegiance to policies of austerity and privatization. This year's budget, for example, included $500 million in cuts to state human services, including mental health clinics, after-school programs and women's shelters.

And Quinn has chosen as his running mate in this election Paul Vallas, a notorious education deformer, advocate of charter schools and enemy of teachers' unions across the country. Vallas is probably most famous for his role in the total destruction of the public school system in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where he oversaw an almost complete takeover by privately run charter schools.

Quinn's whole austerity agenda is racist to the core. The cuts he has implemented in human services have a disproportionate impact on working-class and poor communities of color, exacerbating the already huge disparities in wealth between, for example, Black and white Illinoisans. And his attacks on public-sector unions and pensions target one of the few sectors of the state economy in which people of color have been able to secure jobs with decent pay and benefits.

At the same time as he cuts social programs, Quinn aims to increase funding for "public safety," including the cops and prisons and the whole racist system of mass incarceration.

QUINN'S CRUSADE against state pensions has made him deeply unpopular among public-sector workers in Illinois. Even some of the previously most loyal unions have been threatening not to endorse him in this year's election.

But Quinn's campaign for union support has benefited from the reputation of his likely Republican opponent, Bruce Rauner. A venture capitalist and personal friend of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Rauner got himself into hot water recently by proposing the idea of a cut in Illinois's minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. Under such circumstances, it seems highly likely that the unions will swallow their pride and jump on the "Anybody But Rauner" bandwagon.

In Chicago, the legacy of the 2012 teachers' strike and the subsequent movement against school closures has created a mini-revolt within the Democratic Party. The state primaries next month will include two challengers who have spoken out against pension reform. In the 39th Ward, which includes parts of Chicago's Near Northwest Side, Will Guzzardi is making a second attempt to oust machine loyalist Toni Berrios, while in the West Side's 26th Ward, community organizer Jay Travis is running against incumbent Christian Mitchell.

Both Guzzardi and Travis have received backing from sections of the Chicago labor movement, including money and endorsements from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), SEIU health care workers and the police union.

Up until now, however, labor's resistance to austerity has stayed within the framework of the Democratic Party. Although the CTU recently voted to create an "independent political organization," it's not clear to what extent this development means a break with the Democrats, as Marilena Marchetti noted in a SocialistWorker.org article in January.

The CTU is planning protests against the skewed political priorities in Springfield: the union will be organizing a caravan to the state capital on February 19, and then again when Quinn finally delivers his budget address on March 26.

GUZZARDI AND Travis are both running on decent progressive platforms, including opposition to pension reform and school closings. A victory for either or both them would represent some kind of victory over the most openly corrupt and pro-business wing of the Democratic Party.

But any genuine challenge to austerity and privatization will face insurmountable obstacles so long as it remains within the confines of the Democratic Party. Although the Democrats rely on public-sector workers for money and votes, and although the grassroots of the party sometimes produces rebel candidates like Guzzardi and Travis, the state and national Democratic Party is just as wedded to corporate interests as its Republican rival.

As Marchetti and Lauren Fleer wrote in September:

[T]he 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.

In other words, working people will never be able to advance their interests effectively in a political party allied to the very same banks and corporations that are robbing them blind.

Is there any hope for a genuine working-class political alternative to emerge during the upcoming elections? The victory of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant in the Seattle City Council elections late last year has given hope to those who would challenge the Democratic Party's stranglehold. Sawant ran on an openly socialist, pro-worker platform, including support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and defeated a respected Democratic incumbent.

Inspired by Sawant's success, a coalition including the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative, independent leftists, trade unionists and community organizers has been meeting to discuss the possibility of a socialist electoral campaign in Chicago--possibly for upcoming City Council elections.

Backing such challenges needs to become a vital part of labor's resistance to the bipartisan austerity agenda. An independent, working-class political movement could emerge alongside of, and even help organize, a campaign of mass demonstrations and civil disobedience to push back against the bankers' regime in Springfield--regardless of whether Quinn or Rauner wins in November.

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