A voice for workers in Chicago elections

June 23, 2014

The election of Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council represented a qualitative step forward in the building of an independent left alternative to the two-party political establishment. Not only was the campaign itself a rallying point for the left, but as a City Council member, Sawant has helped advance the struggle for workers' rights.

Buoyed by Sawant's victory, activists and socialists launched the Chicago Socialist Campaign (CSC) to support a candidate for upcoming city elections, scheduled for February 2015. On May 1, the CSC nominated Jorge Mújica as its candidate for alderman of the 25th Ward on the near South Side of the city. The ward includes two working-class neighborhoods, Chinatown and the largely Mexican immigrant Pilsen, along with one of city's richest neighborhoods located just south of downtown. The ward's current alderman is the powerful Danny Solis, one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's main allies.

Mújica, a well-known activist in Chicago's immigrant rights and labor movements, talked about the campaign with Obrero Socialista's Orlando Sepúlveda. The original interview in Spanish was translated to English by Karen Domínguez Burke and Jason Netek.

WHAT TYPE of relationship is the Chicago Socialist Campaign looking to have with the people of the 25th Ward?

AS SOCIAL activists, we often speak a lot to the people, but generally, we don't stop to listen to them. We can spread our message to workers, but I think that, at the end of day, we have to give voice to the message coming from workers. We have to create a process that allows the people to speak, to express themselves and to form their own platform. Then we will be able to join up with that.

Everyone has struggles. Everyone has some kind of grievance. The worker who has to wake up each day at 4:30 a.m. to catch a truck to work has a struggle and a grievance. We have to bring this grievance to light, so that it can be expressed. We must be in the streets, knocking on doors to listen to what the people want. Only in that way can we become a vehicle for working class struggle in our ward.

Our campaign isn't trying to substitute itself for workers' struggle, but to fight side-by-side with workers to magnify their voices. We don't want to tell working people in the ward, "Don't worry, go home and watch TV--we'll solve the problem." We want to tell them that we're going to meet their neighbors, who have the same demands, so let's form a committee to fight around those demands. In this way, having a socialist on the city council would really help to champion the struggle.

Jorge Mújica speaks to participants in a radical history bike tour raising funds for his campaign
Jorge Mújica speaks to participants in a radical history bike tour raising funds for his campaign

Moreover, we want to include all forces who want to contribute in whatever way. Each person can feel that they can struggle for their own interests, but the final result will benefit the entire socialist movement. If we restrict this campaign to the already-organized left, we will limit the number of folks who can help.

If someone wants to use this campaign for their own ends, and their goal is to move the Democratic Party to the left, then that's fine. If they turn this to their advantage, it will be to ours as well. It's a fact that the right wing--even the far right--dominates official politics in this country. So anything we can do to move the political debate to the left will be a great advance.

We must be broad, but at the same time, we shouldn't forget that this is a socialist campaign. This means that our principle goal is not to move the Democratic Party to the left, although this could be a result, as we saw in Seattle. This is a socialist campaign because we want to present socialism as an alternative to the two dominant parties in this country. We want to demonstrate that socialism is a real, viable and practical option. We intend to show that we can run a ward in a way that favors working people.

WHY IS it important for your campaign to display its differences with the Democrats?

THE YEAR I came to the United States, I joined Jesse Jackson's campaign for president, because he was the one who was going to shake the system up a bit. Since then, I have seen many campaigns--liberal, progressive, left-leaning, independent, Democratic--that over the years have made me ask myself, "Is this what we want?" None of these campaigns did anything to build the left, nor to shift the political debate to the left.

Right now, Bernie Sanders, an independent in the U.S. Senate who has always voted with the Democrats, wants to do something similar. If you want to be a progressive Democrat, go and be a progressive Democrat, but you will continue to be part of the system--part of an oligarchical party, a party bought by the corporations. I believe that things cannot go on in this way, and now is the time to be moving ahead, putting socialism out in front.

Traditionally, a lot of people on the left say that the Republicans are bad and the Democrats are good--or at least not as bad as the Republicans. I believe that the Democrats have shown many times that they are just as bad for the working class as the Republicans.

Chicago is a Democratic city. Here, there is no way to blame the Republicans for all the anti-worker measures that the City Council passes. If the Democratic Party, as a structure, were the solution for workers, then we wouldn't have any problems in Chicago. Chicago would be a labor paradise! But obviously, it isn't like that. We must break with their structure.

HOW WOULD the 25th Ward benefit, concretely, if it elects a socialist as its alderman?

AN ALDERMAN has a lot of power. It's a very interesting office: an office where you are a legislator and executive at the same time. Where you vote on the budget, and then put it into effect in your ward.

This is a characteristic that many public offices don't have. In the majority of cases, the legislative and executive powers are separated. But here in Chicago, an elected official is in charge of one ward. Thus, the power they have to oversee a budget clearly permits them to decide who will benefit. It's within the alderman's power to decide whether the budget benefits the corporations or the people who live in the ward.

For example, in city administration, we have what are called capital investments. What do we mean by capital investments? These are long-term investments in the infrastructure of a ward for the benefit of...who? That's the question. There are plans to build a heliport in the ward. But is this the biggest priority for the people of this ward, or is it a priority for those who want to go from the airport to downtown in 15 minutes?

Why not invest in housing, for example? The money can be used to avert foreclosures or stop evictions. We could convert the buildings, whose owners live who-knows-where in the suburbs, far from the city. These landlords live on the rents their tenants pay, but they have no plans for building maintenance. They are only waiting for the building to fall down so they can sell it to developers.

Instead of this, we could convert these buildings into a block of condominiums, with the same tenants who pay rent today, and they could begin to pay their mortgage the next month. How? Through the capital investments! This is long-term planning. If the alderman decided things in this way, he or she could use the money set aside for capital investments to avoid evictions.

The city can assume ownership of buildings and sell them to their current occupants. This way, we can avoid displacements and gentrification of the neighborhood. At the same time, we can ensure that the occupants take care of their buildings, because each improvement they make to their homes will be an investment in their own building.

This is the type of thing that we can do within the system that will benefit the vast majority. On the other hand, who knows who will become a millionaire building heliports?

YOU'RE RECOGNIZED in Chicago as an activist for the rights of undocumented immigrants. Will see your campaign be an extension of this struggle? How can an alderman help the undocumented?

FOR THE Democrats and Republicans, immigration reform has become an election issue. The latter use it to whip up votes from their racist base, and the former try to take political advantage of this genuine need for many working families. I believe that if the ward elects me--someone who was an undocumented person when I arrived in this country, and a socialist--we can show the city and the country that the problem of the undocumented is a serious issue that shouldn't be used as a political football.

Take the fight for 15 in Seattle. They just approved a minimum wage of $15 an hour. And while there may be some problems with the proposal--for example, the length of time that the bosses get to comply--Seattle is having this discussion, thanks to the fact that they first elected a socialist to the City Council. If Chicago elects a socialist, then we can do the same for undocumented immigrants.

For example, instead of having an Office for New Americans, which Rahm Emanuel established to support legal immigrants--many with the means to establish businesses in Chicago--we can generate a discussion about the undocumented in Chicago who don't have papers due to federal policy.

This discussion would be about recognizing immigrants' rights to live free from harassment, and aimed at finding ways to help them take advantage of the possibilities the city offers. For example, we would make sure that the schools which serve them aren't overcrowded, and that they have the means to help students who are learning in Spanish.

Moreover, thanks to the leverage that a city council seat offers, we can also force private companies to recognize the matricula consular [an ID issued by the Mexican consulate] as a valid ID, just like state of Illinois agencies must do, according to state law. Why not? This is the same as making them pay $15 an hour. And this can be done now, but the current aldermen would rather make excuses about immigration being a federal problem.

HOW DOES the Fight for $15 relate to your work in the immigrant rights movement?

PAPERS ARE a huge necessity. Undocumented people suffer a huge amount of exploitation. But at the end of the day, having papers doesn't mean the end of exploitation, only a lessening of it.

I work in a center for labor rights where we see many cases of abuse and exploitation. Only 5 percent of the cases we get are directly associated with papers. In the other 95 percent of cases, the problems are abuse, the few rights that workers have, the limited ability to enforce the rights that do exist, and lack of organization.

With our campaign, we want to fight for basic equality. Of course, so that no one in the city is discriminated against for not having papers, but also for the African American worker at McDonalds who only gets 25 hours of work a week, at minimum wage, and who faces the theft of part of their wages by their employer. They have the exact same problem as the undocumented worker who also works at McDonalds and gets 25 hours of work a week, and whose employer robs them of their wages.

The fight for a minimum wage of $15 an hour is a fight that will raise up all low-wage workers. Workers have the right to a decent minimum wage, with or without papers. This campaign can be a continuation of the fight for papers. Chicago can be a city where everyone has papers, but also where all workers, no matter their immigration status, can get a fair wage. Thus, the fight for $15 also has the power to unite all immigrant and African American workers in a struggle for a better life.

THE CURRENT alderman Danny Solis claims to be bringing money and jobs to the 25th Ward--specifically to Pilsen, with the construction of a scrap metal plant, as well as the heliport you talked about. What do you have to say to that claim?

THE CONSTRUCTION of the heliport and the scrap metal plant are related to the question of amount of power the alderman of a district has--how much power that person is willing to use to defend the interests of the district, and how much they want to use to satisfy the greed of their buddies and the Chicago capitalist class.

There are different things to consider. In the heliport example, there isn't much to say. Since we don't have an airport on the lakefront anymore, they need the heliport to convert Chicago into a top-flight city of business, where executives can go from the airport to signing a contract in the middle of Chicago in 15 minutes.

But they want to build this heliport on the same block as a school. The noise of the landings and takeoffs of a helicopter every two minutes will make it impossible for the kids to concentrate and learn. You can't isolate it or put a roof on it, obviously. There's no good solution. It doesn't have to be built.

There's also the claim that this will create jobs. But what type of jobs? More franchises of McDonald's or Subway or other multimillion-dollar companies to create minimum wage jobs, at 25 hours a week? That's not what the ward needs. With this, the alderman isn't doing anything but creating the illusion of bringing money into the ward and creating jobs.

The neighborhood can create its own jobs, with better labor conditions than the corporations. The alderman, if he or she has the backing of the community, has the power to decide that, instead of bringing in another multinational corporation's franchise, we could open another taquería de Panchito y Josefa, which was displaced because it didn't have the financial ability to keep its place.

Why not reopen Panadería de Don José y Doña María? Let's arrange it with them that they have six workers, and those six workers get paid a decent salary and get enough hours a week so that it's worth working there, and let's help Don José and Doña María meet the necessary legal requirements. This is much better than opening a Subway.

In the case of the scrap metal plant, how many jobs will it create? How many of them will be for neighborhood residents? An alderman can put requirements on this type of construction. We can ask of that company that 35 out of 40 jobs created be for the people who live in the neighborhood. Here, in this neighborhood, are many qualified people who are unemployed. The neighborhood has an unemployment rate of 13 percent, which is much higher than the national average.

Also, we can ask about working hours and wages. And we can require the unconditional commitment that the company not interfere with future unionization efforts by these workers.

SOME OF the community organizations in the district are concerned about the environmental effects of the plant. Is there a real barrier between workers and protecting the environment? What could you do as alderman to address these concerns?

The case of the environment is a bit more complicated. I have working experience in environmental health. I know that it's possible to build plants with heavy machinery in a way that doesn't contaminate the city with noise, dust or air pollution. It's possible that this will double the cost of what the estimated cost is now, of course. But if that's what's necessary, then they should pay.

Building this plant under Solis will mean that going outdoors, you wouldn't be able to hear anything two blocks from the plant, because they will be crushing cars--and something everything they crush will end up in the air in the form of dust and smoke.

Is it possible to build a scrap metal operation in a way that doesn't contaminate the environment? We must study this question. We must secure the most expert advice that we can get, not just in technical terms, but also in terms of social, economic and environmental justice.

To solve the problem, I believe it will be necessary to convene a committee of residents from the neighborhood. If they approve the construction, this same committee can monitor the pollution. In this way, we can teach the neighborhood how to control an operation like this, and how the neighborhood can be sure the operation will benefit the ward.

What is Solis's plan? To receive a bunch of money, to convince himself that everything will be fine, and to not worry about the effects of crushing metal. The socialist solution will be to use all the means at our disposal--and the alderman's seat would be a very important one--to do all the research required and to ensure this project would benefit the ward.

SOME PEOPLE have criticized your campaign by saying that socialism is a "foreign idea." How do you respond to this accusation?

SOCIALISM IS not foreign. Socialism is universal. Right now, it's true that in its most developed form, socialism is associated with European political thinkers--Marx and Engels, for example. But if that makes socialism foreign, then unions are foreign, and Social Security is foreign.

The subject of foreignness is an argument that the right uses when it doesn't have any other arguments to make--in the hopes of playing on xenophobia. The Tea Party declared socialism foreign--and Barack Obama as well.

Nevertheless, socialism has been a constant actor in the history of workers here in the U.S. Socialists played a hugely important role in the Pullman strike, which is commemorated on Labor Day, the first Monday in September. Socialists also took a leadership role in the fight for the eight-hour day, celebrated each May 1 worldwide, on International Workers Day--whose origins can be traced back to our city. The Teamsters are the big union they are today thanks in large part to the strike in Minneapolis in 1934, where socialists were critical to victory.

WHAT DO you say to those on the left who say that people aren't ready for a socialist candidate and their ideas, and who are therefore critical of your campaign?

I BELIEVE this is an old argument that many times has served as an excuse for passivity. The idea is that only a handful of socialists are ready to put forward a socialist campaign. Some people are convinced that this isn't possible.

But it isn't just about hoping that workers will join up when they're ready. We're the ones who need to propose socialism to the workers--and argue with them that socialism is the remedy for the evils of capitalism. If we wait for the masses to be ready, they will be one day--but we will be sitting inside the house and watching the corpse of capitalism roll by.

No socialist committed to the struggle can accept this. Moreover, why would someone vote for a socialist if that person is only ready to be an open socialist when being one is popular? The people in this campaign don't accept that.

I believe that some on the left in the U.S. still suffer from the traumas of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Under McCarthyism, many leftists lost their jobs--some were even harassed into committing suicide. All this created a stigma for people to say, "I am a communist," or "I am a socialist." People continue to be afraid--particularly today, with all the revelations of spying and state security.

What does the left have to lose by involving itself in a socialist campaign here in Chicago? There's nothing to lose, but there is much to gain. If Chicago elects a socialist, next year, we could have one in Dallas, one in Houston, three in New York--and when you come to Seattle again, five or six.

Electing a socialist as alderman in Chicago would help renew the entire socialist movement, in all its variations and in all parts of the U.S.

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