Who has the answers that Chicago needs?

February 25, 2019

A nurse in the Chicago Public Schools looks over the candidates running in this week’s citywide elections, including labor-backed mayoral frontrunner Toni Preckwinkle.

“AM I going to die?”

I was placing a second IV into a young man who wasn’t yet old enough to buy alcohol, and had gunshot wounds to each arm. I stopped working to look up at his face, and he repeated the question, “Hey, am I going to live?”

The resident started to stutter out a confusing answer, and I interrupted them to say, “You’re going to be okay, you’re not going to die.”

I can’t imagine what was going through their mind, surrounded by strangers in a strange place. Draped in a gown, their bloodstained work uniform had been cut off so we could look for other wounds. Thankfully, there were none.

The police kept pulling the curtain open to ask them questions while we were trying to continue our work. It never became clear what happened, but be assured that incidents like this don’t occur in affluent parts of the city.

I work one shift a week at this emergency room, but my full-time job is as a school nurse in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Earlier that same day, I was talking to a parent of a fourth grader.

The student is struggling in school academically and behaviorally. They aren’t learning and are unable to make friends with their classmates. The mother said she saw behavior problems start when the student’s teenage brother had been a gunshot victim. When the student was in first grade, they saw a television news story about it.

Clockwise from left: Toni Preckwinkle, Bill Daley, Ed Burke and Rossana Rodriguez
Clockwise from left: Toni Preckwinkle, Bill Daley, Ed Burke and Rossana Rodriguez

In a previous year, I had a student whose parent had been killed by the police. This had happened several years before, and since then, they would frequently get into conflicts with others.

I came into work at that school one morning, and after another fight, the student had fled into the bathroom. I followed them in, not knowing what to do, but wanting to help. The police had been called, and the first officer on site was attempting to calm them down, but that didn’t help. The officer’s partner came in, and within minutes, the fifth grader was placed in handcuffs and escorted down the hall past the other students, out of the building.

I didn’t learn about the background story until afterwards, and I’m still angry at myself for not doing something to stop the police. Maybe I would have been arrested as well, but at least they would have had company in the squad car.

If you’re a nurse who works in diverse communities, you witness what life is like for many people in this city. Violence, racism, poverty, lack of health care, educational inequality, low wage jobs — just some of the many issues staring this city in the face, demanding answers.

With elections for mayor and City Council coming up this week, residents are asking themselves who has the answers Chicago needs. What can be done to change the power dynamics in Chicago? How can we transform this city into a place fit for humanity? This is some of what I know about the leading figures in this election — and what they stand for.


Toni Preckwinkle: 28 years in city politics

The frontrunner in the February 26 mayoral election is Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Preckwinkle has the backing of major unions, including, disappointingly, the powerful Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

Frontrunner is maybe an exaggeration — Preckwinkle is polling at 16 percent, just ahead of second Bill Daley, the son and brother of previous mayors and a highly connected fixture of the Democratic Party establishment. Tuesday’s vote is almost certain to result in runoff election between the top two candidates.

Preckwinkle, a former high school history teacher — largely in private schools and with a brief part-time stint at CPS’s Calumet High School — started her political career in 1991 as an alderman in the Chicago City Council and was re-elected five times.

She was certainly no rubber stamp. She was among those who cast the most votes of any of the 50 City Council members against then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

But she wasn’t a consistent maverick either. Preckwinkle endorsed several controversial measures related to Chicago’s tax-increment financing (TIF) system — under which property tax revenue is diverted into a fund controlled exclusively by the mayor.

TIF money is supposed to go to projects that develop “blighted” neighborhoods, but Daley and his successor Rahm Emanuel treated TIF money like a slush fund to be distributed to developer friends. One prime example came in 2012, when $5.2 million of TIF money was used to build a Hyatt hotel in Preckwinkle’s old ward — while $3.4 million was cut from nearby schools.

In 2009, Preckwinkle voted to authorize Daley to sign a contract with the International Olympic Committee for the 2016 Summer Games. The bid ultimately didn’t come to fruition, in part due to the popular discontent it provoked.

In 2010, Preckwinkle was elected president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, which covers Chicago and some collar suburbs. According to one study, while campaigning for this position, Preckwinkle’s City Council voting record against the Daley droped from 83 percent to the 30 percent — and she started getting campaign donations from the Daley’s friends.

Preckwinkle clearly understood that opposition will get only you so far, but if you want the big chair in Chicago politics, you better be ready to play their game.

In 2014, as Cook County Board president, she campaigned for pension “reform” in Springfield. Her solution consisted of increased payments by workers, a higher retirement age and delays in cost-of-living adjustments (COLA).

Though it might be hard to believe, she convinced Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 and the Teamsters to campaign for this “reform” alongside her. To their credit, other county unions such as AFSCME and National Nurses United (NNU) vocally opposed the idea.

Preckwinkle’s plan was built on a pension reform measure passed in 2010, which created a second tier of pensions for anyone hired after January 1, 2011. These workers already have a higher retirement age, a salary cap and a lower COLA.

In September 2011, Michael Yanul died. He was a patient at Oak Forest Hospital for 17 years, and required around-the-clock nursing care. When the hospital closed due to Cook County budget cuts, Michael was moved to a nursing home, and three weeks later, he was gone. In the months before the closing, Michael had told a reporter: “All the talk about closing this hospital down has been about money, but there’s a human cost to closing this hospital. Nobody talks about that.”

Preckwinkle campaigned for county board president with the promise to roll back the remainder of a 1 percent sales tax increase imposed by her predecessor. Rolling back the taxes provided an excuse to close Oak Forest Hospital. But when she was unable to get the Illinois General Assembly to support her pension deform, Preckwinkle pushed through a virtually identical 1 percent sales tax increase in 2015.

The notorious “soda tax” was sold as if it would benefit the health of the people of Cook County. Preckwinkle’s board rescinded it in 2017 about two months after it was imposed.

Unfortunately, my union at the time, the NNU, supported the tax as a way to avoid layoffs, but it was vehemently opposed by residents, as well as merchants. Like other regressive “sin taxes” on alcohol, cigarettes and gambling, this tax would have disproportionately affected working people.

Chicago politics are famously sleazy, and questions of integrity have been raised about Preckwinkle. One major one is her relationship to 50-year (yes, you read that right, 50 years) Alderman Ed Burke.

Notorious as a racist and a bigot, especially from his days organizing the opposition to Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, Burke has now been charged by the FBI with attempted extortion. After Burke was charged, Preckwinkle returned $116,000 in campaign donations from Burke to put some distance between the two.

But a Chicago politician distancing themselves from corrupt officials is about as easy as it is for Mercury to distance itself from the Sun.

In 2014, Preckwinkle’s office hired Ed Burke’s son while there were two investigations pending against Ed Burke Jr. from a previous job, one regarding sexual misconduct. Preckwinkle denied any contact with her former fellow alderman prior to Burke Jr. obtaining a $100,000-a-year job.

Her denial came at the same time as a news report of a fundraiser that Burke hosted at his house for Preckwinkle’s mayoral bid, where extorted money was allegedly collected for her campaign.

No one should harbor any illusions about who Preckwinkle is or what she has represented.

While she has some good positions regarding reducing the number of people being held without bail and overall police accountability, she is a package deal. Her political career may be better than other politicians, but it also has much in common with some of the worst, especially when it comes to balancing budgets on the backs of working people.


Preckwinkle and the county unions

If you go to the legislative database of the Cook County Board, and search for resolutions that contain “shall be reduced by 10%,” you will find a total of 42 — each representing a contract with a union that agreed to this pay cut for entry-level positions.

The unions include SEIU Locals 1 and 73; Teamsters Locals 700 and 743; AFSCME Locals 1111, 1178, 1276, 1767, 2060, 2226, 3315, 3477, 3486, 3696, 3835, 3958, and 3692; and the NNU. Every single resolution was sponsored by Toni Preckwinkle.

For a nurse with less than a year of experience who started after December 2018, this means their starting pay will be $27.14 an hour, which is about where new nurse starting pay was at the end of the 2012 contract.

I don’t know about other unions, but new nurses advance to Step 2 after their six-month probation ends, and the pay gap closes because the 10 percent cut only applies to Step 1. Still, though, that’s $2,895 that a new nurse loses during their probationary period. This shouldn’t be part of the welcoming that new nurses get for working at a union hospital.

The NNU shouldn’t be singled out for blame because of the way the county negotiates contracts. Officials get one of the dozens of unions to agree to a wage package on wages, and that sets a pattern for every other — there is no negotiation. In the last round of contracts, it was correctional officers at Cook County Jail, represented by Teamsters 700, who set the pattern.

If a union that settles afterward gains a higher wage via a strike, then the other unions have “me too” clauses. But it would be a heavy lift for one union to make this happen.

It’s worth pointing out that the AFSCME locals listed above are part of AFSCME Council 31, which is the union where the Janus case originated and traveled up to the Supreme Court, where the right-wing justices dealt a blow to public-sector unions.

That raises a question that should apply equally to every one of the unions that agreed to this deal: If the goal of public-sectors unions is to not have members use the Janus decision as a reason to stop paying union dues, why agree to a 10 percent pay cut for entry-level workers? You’ve served up the argument for anti-union organizations to campaign around on a golden platter — and given new members a way to make up some of that 10 percent pay cut.

Whatever Preckwinkle’s motivations in seeking this deal, she and other county bosses took advantage of an old trick of convincing unions that the only way to get a raise was on the backs of future employees. The hope is that they never take the time to compare their pay to the new person who started under the last contract — and find out that it’s 10 percent less.


The CTU and city politics

In an article by outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel, he concludes: “For most of my career, I preached the old gospel of education reform. But now research and experience suggest that policy makers need to embrace a new path forward and leave the old gospel behind...The brain-dead debate between charter and neighborhood schools should be replaced with a focus on quality over mediocrity.”

Rahm’s article failed to mention that he dropped the “old gospel” soon after getting hit upside the head in 2012 by the nine-day strike of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

Emanuel’s goal going into contract negotiations was to destroy the CTU. In the end, Emanuel is the one packing his bags prematurely.

But following the victorious 2012 strike, however, Emanuel got revenge with the mass closure of 50 schools. Despite considerable effort, the CTU and its allies were unable to stop this, and they set their sights were set on the electoral arena: state government, city council and a new mayor.

One of the champions of Preckwinkle’s 2014 pension reform was state Rep. Christian Mitchell, a former Preckwinkle aide. His vote on that issue won him the ire of the CTU, which backed his opponent in subsequent races for the statehouse seat.

Yet while the CTU campaigned hard against Mitchell because of the pension vote, the union’s House of Delegates voted in December 2018 to endorse Preckwinkle, the main mover of the bill. In an interview with the Chicago Sun Times, Preckwinkle reiterated her support for future pension changes.

The CTU’s reasoning for endorsing Preckwinkle was her support for an elected school board — Chicago’s board is appointed by the mayor — a freeze on charter schools and school closures, and devoting TIF surpluses to schools.

Backing a candidate whose issues align with the CTU’s appears reasonable, but it’s worth considering how other methods could have been used to achieve the same goals. Following a one-day strike in April 2016 and the threat of an all-out walkout the following October, Emanuel pulled $88 million out of the TIF fund to settle the CTU contract.

The 2016 CTU contract also won a two-year ban on school closings. When the moratorium ended in February 2018, the CPS Board voted to close four schools in Englewood. Since 2001, 16 schools have been closed in that area, while charters continue to open.

This school year already, new CTU members have led two successful charter school strikes at Acero and Chicago International Charter Schools. The most effective way to stop the expansion of charters is to curtail their profitability.

The CTU deserves credit for the role it has played in fighting for education and wider social justice: CPS CEO Forrest Claypool was replaced after ethics violations were uncovered; Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was replaced after the truth about the Laquan McDonald murder emerged and protests supported by the CTU spread; Former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez defeated because she stalled justice in that case; and above all, Rahm is gone.

But the replacements for Claypool McCarthy and Alvarez haven’t significantly changed the policies of the city, and Preckwinkle isn’t likely to either.

While it is notable that the people in positions of power in Chicago finally look more like the people who live in this city, we should ask ourselves why our life situations haven’t changed — and what this means for how we should conduct our ongoing struggles for justice.


Which way forward?

Another CTU-backed candidate is Rossana Rodriguez, who is running for the City Council for the city’s 33rd ward. While politicians like Preckwinkle look to solve budget problems on the back of working people, Rodriguez knows the the real solution lies elsewhere.

“You know,” she said in a recent interview in SocialistWorker.org, “I feel like whenever it comes to getting revenue, there’s never a scarcity of ideas of how to tax working people. It’s amazing. They come up with so many ideas. But for some reason, no one can come up with any ideas about how to tax the rich. But we can do that — we can tax the rich.”

This sentiment isn’t just being put forward by some of those running for political office, but by union leaders as well. When asked where the funding will come from for the next contract for the CTU, which will continue to fight for the schools our students deserve, CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates had a simple answer: “Rich people.”

New Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who was supported by unions such as AFSCME and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, started to deflate expectations around his promised tax increases on the richest in Illinois in the days following his election. As the number-one richest person currently in elected office nationwide, with a net worth of $3.5 billion, one reasonably wonders how willing J.B. will be to tax his friends and family.

Organized labor has a long history of endorsing Democratic candidates and getting little in return, while recent history has demonstrated the effectiveness of going on strike to force politicians to make the right decisions. The end of the recent government shutdown is a case in point — flight attendants, air traffic controllers and airport security threatened to bring national transportation to a grinding halt.

Was it wise for the CTU to endorse a mayoral candidate that the union may have to strike against to get a contract?

If past history is any guide, Preckwinkle is no consistent ally of people who work for a living. She has taken the right side on some social justice issues, but she has also negotiated contracts cut pays, come close to cutting pensions even further and implemented the regressive soda tax on soda. Some of her most attractive campaign promises are things that the CTU has won through strike action.

When asked by Chicago Fox News reporter Mike Flannery: “Can we count on you when it’s necessary to say ‘no’ to the teachers’ union?” Preckwinkle answered, “Of course.”

With that on-the-record answer, we should ask ourselves n important question: Who can say no to whom? Who has the power to make this a city worth living in?

We have to provide more complete answers to these questions than voting for one politician over another. We have to do the necessary work to build movements that provide the means to achieve our ends.

It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the questions posed in Chicago today are life and death. Our response has to be “no” — we will not allow our children, our students, our patients or our planet to die. We need to connect our issues to a set of politics that sees a better world as possible.

We have to fight, and we have do it on all fronts. Part of that means campaigning for and electing independent candidates who are accountable to our movement. For the politicians who are on the wrong side or are on the fence, we need to use our collective will, inside and outside of our workplaces, to make them do what’s right.

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