A pro-labor mayor for Chicago?

March 26, 2015

Lee Sustar examines organized labor's efforts to propel Chuy García into the mayor's office--despite his support for layoffs and budget cuts as a Cook County commissioner.

JESÚS "CHUY" GARCÍA is relying on support from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and large Service Employees International Union (SEIU) units in his campaign to unseat Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel--even though García's record of supporting layoffs and pension cuts should be a warning sign for labor.

Emanuel, a national political powerbroker who was unexpectedly forced into an April 7 runoff election for the mayor's office against García, is despised among union activists for his budget cuts and layoffs. But García, as a Cook County commissioner, has boasted of an agenda that involved layoffs. "I believe that we demonstrate through our actions that we can live within our means," García said.

Then there's the closing of 49 schools, which cost jobs and disrupted thousands of children's lives. García criticizes Emanuel for that move--but won't promise to reopen any of the schools.

García has also systematically avoided any discussion of how to increase city revenues or of specifying budget cuts. While García did endorse a financial transaction tax, his aides quickly added that the candidate merely supports such a measure as national policy--but not as a strategy to make Chicago's financial powerhouses pay their share to cover Chicago's looming $1 billion-plus pension and other budget shortfalls.

García has promised to end the use of tax subsidies for business through the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) scheme that divers revenue away from schools and into a virtual slush fund controlled by the mayor. But he stopped short of saying he'd abolish the program.

Rahm Emanuel (above) and Chuy García on the campaign trail
Rahm Emanuel (above) and Chuy García on the campaign trail

And while Emanuel drew the ire of city employees by pushing through steep pension cuts, García has served as floor leader for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has a pension-shredding plan of her own that would cut benefits, raise the retirement age and force workers to pay more.

García told reporters that as mayor, he'd consider similar measures for municipal employees--but he'd talk union leaders into going along with such cuts, rather than simply ramming them through, Rahm-style: "I do not support cutting benefits for current city employees until we have a dialogue and an agreement of the stakeholders, including organized labor," he said.

García's fiscal plan states:

The City will always need to negotiate contracts, and the landscape of City facilities will evolve. Marshaling the cooperation of stakeholders--instead of the sweeping polarization the incumbent has incited in four short years--will be instrumental if the City is to have any hope of unwinding from its financial mess.

Translation: Rahm provoked struggles and a strike when he wielded the budget ax--but they'll accept austerity from me. But whether it's negotiated or imposed, a pension cut is still a pension cut.

IN THIS intramural Democratic Party fight for mayor of Chicago, almost any challenger to Rahm Emanuel could claim to be the pro-labor candidate in the race--notwithstanding the "yes, boss" approach of a number of union officials who have backed the incumbent mayor.

Emanuel was the Clinton administration's point man in the push to pass the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which hammered workers on all sides of U.S. borders. He was chief of staff for Barack Obama when White House turned its back on the proposed Employee Free Choice Act to make union organizing easier.

Then, Emanuel intervened in negotiations to bail out the Big Three U.S. automakers to demand deep concessions from the United Auto Workers--with the catchy phrase "fuck the UAW" as his slogan. Next came the teacher-bashing Race to the Top education legislation, also championed by Emanuel.

After getting himself elected mayor of Chicago in 2011, Emanuel took on the unions immediately, privatizing much of garbage collection and much more, closing mental health clinics and pushing state legislation for drastic cuts in public-sector employees' pensions.

Emanuel's biggest showdown with labor, of course, was with the CTU. Even before taking office, Emanuel orchestrated a difficult legislative obstacle to Chicago teachers striking at all. When CTU President Karen Lewis stood up to him, Emanuel declared in standard fashion, "Fuck you, Lewis." The 27,000 members of the CTU made Emanuel eat those words, defeating the mayor in a nine-day strike in 2012 that was one of the most important labor battles in years.

COMPARED TO Emanuel, Chuy García, a former community organizer who often aligned himself with unions as an alderman (as members of Chicago's City Council are known) and state senator, might appear to be an old-school labor Democrat.

Plus, García has some of the right political enemies to have in the Chicago Democratic political establishment. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley played an indirect but unmistakable role in ousting García from the state Senate in 1998--using as his vehicle the Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO), a patronage-based Latino outfit that later collapsed amid a huge corruption scandal resulting in a prison sentence for its leader.

The disarray this caused in the pro-Daley Latino establishment opened the way for a García comeback. After years in community development and philanthropy, García won a seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2010, defeating a 16-year incumbent, Joseph Moreno, who was later sentenced to 11 years in federal prison in another corruption scandal.

Back in elected office, García was the choice of CTU President Lewis to run for mayor after a serious illness forced Lewis out of a race against Emanuel. The union bypassed its normal political endorsement process to help launch García's campaign. The big SEIU Health Care Illinois-Indiana union also backed García, along with the two locals of the Amalgamated Transit Union that represent workers at the Chicago Transit Authority. The CTU and its allies were able to use their weight to block a proposed Chicago Federation of Labor endorsement of Emanuel, who is backed by the Teamsters and most of the building trades.

Many prominent labor leaders wanted to stay out of the mayor's race, heeding the old Chicago Democratic machine slogan, "Don't make no waves, don't back no losers." SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff threatened SEIU Health Care for violating the union's state council's decision to be neutral.

But once García finished second in the February general election with a better-than-expected 33.6 percent of the vote--holding Emanuel up well under the 50 percent threshold needed for an outright win--Balanoff, along with labor leaders nationally, jumped on board the Chuy bandwagon. SEIU Local 1 declared Emanuel to be the "millionaire's candidate."

The local affiliate of National Nurses United, which represents nurses at Stroger Cook County Hospital, also endorsed García. The union did so even though García and other county commissioners have refused to negotiate a new contract with the nurses since the last agreement expired in late 2012.

García also made quick trips to Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C., for labor-backed fundraisers, anchored by the SEIU and teachers' unions.

At the Washington fundraiser, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten declared, "So there is a real choice here, of somebody [Emanuel], you know, who bullies his way through life, versus somebody who puts coalitions together, block by block, working folk, Latino, African American, white, the colors of the rainbow to actually make a city work."

WE'VE BEEN here before. The CTU and other unions twice backed Democrat Pat Quinn for governor of Illinois, first in a successful campaign against a union-hating right-wing social conservative, then against billionaire hedge fund boss Bruce Rauner, who won the governor's office last November.

There was no sitting governor anywhere in the U.S. who was more dependent on labor support. But Quinn, a onetime reformer, repaid the unions by canceling wage increases and pushing cuts in pensions. Union members, unsurprisingly, sat on their hands in the last election, which opened the way for Rauner to win.

Now, though, union members in Chicago are being told that García, a Mexican-American immigrant from a working-class background, would be different. García's long association with community groups and the dynamics of urban politics will open up new possibilities for organizing.

Labor's backing for García parallels the support that the candidate has among many leading activists across Chicago. Among them is Amisha Patel, executive director of the city's Grassroots Collaborative, who wrote that García's success in forcing a runoff election is:

bigger than any one organization. What Chicago's various social movements have built did not materialize over the course of one election cycle and cannot be understood as just a set of electoral strategies, clever tactics or shrewd messaging. For years, Chicago has been an epicenter of militant, grassroots organizing that has come to deeply resonate with working-class families. A long-term transformative vision lies at the heart of this organizing, taking aim at oppressive systems and corporate interests that exploit and divide people along lines of class and race.

Certainly the struggles cited by Patel--the fight against mental health cuts, Occupy Chicago, immigrants rights organizing, the CTU strike, Black Lives Matter activism--have been critical to the revival of an activist left in the city. Patel and her organization have made important contributions to many of those efforts. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that, by historical standards, the level of activism is far lower than the waves of radicalization seen in Chicago during the labor battles of the 1930s or the civil rights and Black Power struggles of the 1960s.

Saying this is not intended to dismiss the importance of today's fightbacks, which are the building blocks for bigger struggles of the future. But the limited success of these struggles--apart from the CTU strike victory--has led many to conclude that the only way to advance politically is to work through the Democratic Party--to back its "progressive" wing against its "corporate" one.

For example, the inability of the CTU and its allies to stop Emanuel's school closing agenda led union leaders and activists to search for a political solution. In a handful of cases, this led to political independents running for City Council. But for most, the political focus was voting Emanuel out of office. The CTU and SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana, along with some community groups, tried to balance both approaches by launching the United Working Families party that backed some independents, such as CTU member Tim Meegan, who narrowly missed forcing a runoff election for a spot on the City Council.

The problem, of course, is that the Democratic Party is not a vehicle for advancing social movements, but rather a means to absorb them. Ever since the Cook County Labor Party effort collapsed in the 1920s, the Democratic Party in Chicago has routinely absorbed successive generations of radicals and militants who entered the party to do battle with the infamous machine--perfected by Mayor Richard J. Daley, Richard M.'s father, in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Communist Party took this approach from the mid-1930s onward, and the revolutionary left that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s followed a similar route. Figures like Illinois Black Panther Party leader Bobby Rush were elected to the City Council and later to Congress--Rush is a Rahm Emanuel supporter today. Bright community activists like Barack Obama, with an influential law firm easing the way, can be put on course for a political career.

IS CHUY García different? Supporters argue that the example of Harold Washington, the city's first African American mayor elected in 1983, is a model for García to follow.

But whatever his intentions, Washington found himself hemmed in by a Republican governor and the massive budget cuts pushed by President Ronald Reagan. Washington's austere budgets put him on a collision course with the CTU, which went on strike against him twice. Washington--with the support of García, then an alderman--sought additional revenue by raising property taxes. When he died suddenly in 1987, what had been called a "movement" collapsed into a bitter faction fight.

On the campaign trail, García avoids that part of the Harold Washington story. "Working-class folk who stepped up in this campaign feel that Chicago needs to be responsive to the neighborhoods and toward ordinary people, and we delivered," he said after the general election forced a runoff vote. "It may be the retooling of a Democratic coalition, maybe with a small 'd.'"

But you can't be for the working class in Chicago and hail the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago as a "visionary organization," as García did in the pages of Crain's Chicago Business. This group, founded by union-crushing Chicago robber barons in the 19th century, continues that agenda today under guise of "fiscal responsibility." Its actual "vision" includes a legal ban on strikes by the CTU and deep cuts in public-sector pensions.

Faced with the choice posed by the old labor song "Which Side Are You On?" García wants to have it both ways--sounding populist themes to mollify the unions and working-class voters while signaling to business that he would be a better manager of city finances than Emanuel.

In any case, a Mayor García would face the same pressures to conform to the dictates of business and austerity budgets. His tenure as Cook County Commissioner shows that García has already internalized the pro-market logic of neoliberalism. The rarity of roll-call votes on the Cook County Board rivals the mid-20th century heyday of the Chicago machine, when the elder Mayor Daley's allies lined up votes in advance.

THESE DAYS, the real "boss" of Chicago--as the journalist Mike Royko called Richard J. Daley back at the height of his power--doesn't sit in the mayor's office on the fifth floor of City Hall. Rather, the "boss" is a collection of bosses--sitting in corporate boardrooms and the offices of big investment firms and hedge funds.

Of course, those people prefer to deal with Rahm Emanuel, who built his career around service to the wealthy and the powerful. But liberal politicians like García know that future campaign contributions and political influence depend on pleasing that particular constituency, too.

That's why García attacks Emanuel for "fiscal mismanagement" when bond ratings agencies downgrade Chicago's debt, forcing higher interest payments. It's a message to the bankers and bondholders that they can count on García to ensure that Chicago "lives within its means," as García described his policies as a county commissioner.

If García is on course to disappoint his supporters' hopes for economic fairness, those looking to him around social justice issues--the "long-term transformative vision" that the Grassroots Collaborative's Amisha Patel described--will be disenchanted, too. As Flint Taylor, an attorney who has long defended victims of police torture and brutality, wrote:

García took a position in the primary elections that, to many progressives, appeared to be to the right of Emanuel on the issue of policing. He called for 1,000 more cops on the street in his one and only TV advertisement, a position that hardly resonated with those people of color and progressives who suffer the slings and arrows of overly aggressive, racially motivated policing.

García has also tried to avoid comment on the secret police holding facility in Homan Square on the West Side, where suspects face long detentions without a court appearance or notification of their families or attorneys.

With García's moderate campaign stance and his refusal to lay out a tax-the-rich program that the city needs, some of his supporters are attempting to fill the gap. Amisha Patel and National Nurses United official Jan Rodolfo advocated a new report by the Roosevelt Institute's ReFund America project, which points out that "the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools are trapped in a host of predatory municipal finance deals that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year."

It's a sharp critique of the bondholders who "are using these downgrades to push an austerity agenda in Chicago," as the authors put it. But don't expect García to take up that battle cry.

For its part, the CTU has laid out its own financial program for the city, including a financial transaction tax, rollback of regressive taxes and redistribution of wealth. But it's far to the left of anything that García has said on the campaign trail, let alone any measures he could be expected to propose if he's elected.

Whoever prevails in the April 7 elections, the bondholders and big business will make their move soon afterwards in an effort to settle the state and city fiscal crisis on the backs of working people. Bruce Rauner will add to the pressure with a series of devastating budget cuts.

A stormy period lies ahead. The way forward for the emerging social movements in Chicago isn't supporting a candidate who promises a more collaborative approach to austerity, but an all-out fight against it.

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