Opinion

A tale of two Chicagos

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's push to curb unions and privatize public education is invigorating grassroots resistance

December 6, 2013 9:15AM ET
Rahm Emanuel
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel arrives for the "Late Show with David Letterman" at Ed Sullivan Theater on Sept. 9, 2013, in New York City.
Donna Ward/Getty Images

Chicago is looking good, at least according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. On Oct. 23, the mayor addressed the city to describe his plans for the 2014 budget, which was approved Nov. 26 in a 45 to 5 city council vote. During his talk, he waxed poetic on positive changes that have come to Chicago.

“We now enjoy a rapidly growing food truck industry, a nationally renowned bike sharing program, new protected bike lanes that represent around 20 percent of the nation's total urban network,” Emanuel said. “And a booming tech sector that is bringing thousands of new jobs and hundreds of new companies to the city of Chicago.”

Emanuel also announced this month that alongside the annual Lollapalooza music extravaganza in downtown Chicago next summer, the city will host a summit to bring together venture capitalists and firms seeking their money. The initiative is a part of the mayor’s bid to remake Chicago as a hub of entrepreneurial innovation, a Midwestern Silicon Valley where high-tech startup companies sprout in old warehouses traversed by so-called “hipster highways” (i.e. bike lanes).

But scores of existing residents — particularly African Americans on the city’s impoverished south and west sides — feel that they are not part of Emanuel’s new vision. They do not see the food trucks and bike lanes in their own neighborhoods; they are not planning to launch or invest in start-up companies; they feel there is not room for them on the bullet train that is Chicago’s future.

An exclusionary vision

That Emanuel’s vision for Chicago excludes many residents was driven home by the closing of almost 50 public schools this year, predominantly in those neighborhoods. The mayor was on a ski vacation when the closings were announced. (To add insult to injury, a few weeks later Emanuel announced plans to use $55 million in taxpayer subsidies to build a sports arena for DePaul University on the lakefront.)

Schools that survived the closings — many of them already under-funded — subsequently suffered massive budget cuts that resulted in layoffs of music, art, language and gym teachers. Parents were forced to chip in to buy toilet paper and other classroom necessities.

Emanuel frequently holds press conferences to announce new employers that are bringing jobs to the city. In his budget address, he noted that the global Coeur Mining company was moving its headquarters to Chicago. He also recently extolled a new startup co-working space launched by a venture capital firm in the former Montgomery Ward catalog building that also houses the popular daily deals website Groupon.

But one topic Emanuel has avoided discussing in his pressers has been the thousands of city workers laid off since he took office in 2011: teachers and other schools employees; staff at the city’s libraries, call centers, transit authority and mental health clinics; and union janitors who lost their jobs when the city replaced their contracts with a politically-connected firm paying lower wages for more part-time work.

In his budget address, Emanuel praised local small businesses as the “lifeblood of our city” and said the way to support such local entrepreneurship is to “get city government out of their way” by reducing bureaucratic requirements and taxes.

That surely rings hollow to all the people who have lost their jobs because of Emanuel’s touted shrinking of city government.

And African Americans have borne the brunt of city layoffs, including in the school system and at the mental health clinics, where, according to their union, all the black male therapists were let go.

Mayor One Percent

Similar dynamics are playing out across the country. Mayors and governors have made headlines in recent years by attacking public sector unions and privatizing education, health care, mass transit and other services. Like Emanuel, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have clashed with teachers unions. Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also pushed privatization, laid off public employees and otherwise adopted a leaner and more market-based approach to city government. During a seven-day teachers strike in 2012, many protestors waved signs downtown comparing Emanuel to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, famous for his standoff with public workers, including teachers.

Emanuel is also in the national spotlight in relation to the pension crisis. Municipal and state governments nationwide are struggling with ballooning, unfunded pension liabilities, but Illinois’s and Chicago’s pension problems are among the worst. On Dec. 3, the Illinois legislature passed pension reforms backed by Emanuel and stridently opposed by unions, which raised the retirement age and reduced benefits for public workers.

If Emanuel can sell or lease off public assets and bring public unions to their knees in Chicago, odds are it can be done anywhere.

High-profile Republicans are leading the national push to rein in and privatize the public sector, but Emanuel is a powerful Democrat in a city famous for its rich labor history. If Emanuel can sell or lease off public assets and bring public unions to their knees in Chicago, odds are it can be done anywhere.

Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, had also inked privatization deals, trimmed the public workforce and battled public unions, including teachers. But Daley understood the importance of playing ball with unions and community groups, and enjoyed cozy relationships with some. Certain unions — such as those representing plumbers and streets and sanitation workers — were integral parts of the political machines of Daley and his father, the legendary Richard J. Daley. 

By contrast, Emanuel alienated even those traditionally connected unions, both during his campaign and after taking office. And he has not always come out on top.  He was widely seen as having “lost” the Chicago Teachers Union strike. His plans to privatize Midway Airport and the city’s port were scuttled, and his Infrastructure Trust, a headline-grabbing blueprint for private investment in city infrastructure, has been very slow to get off the ground. Opponents have dubbed him “Mayor One Percent.”

The mayor’s political loyalties are not surprising. While working for President Bill Clinton, he was a chief architect of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a measure blasted by unions and human rights groups in the U.S. and Mexico. He has long been known for his high finance connections, and earned about $18 million in less than three years in investment banking.

Fighting back

Emanuel is unlikely to face a credible challenger in his bid for re-election in 2015. But a formal drive has been launched to push reforms and back aldermen who will not adhere to the city council’s rubber stamp tradition.

Individual residents are fighting back, too. Among them is Asean Johnson, a 10-year-old who became a local celebrity rallying crowds during the teachers’ strike and school closings. Johnson’s great-grandfather was a steelworker union steward who marched on Washington in 1963, and his great-grandmother was a union teacher. His grandfather was a union carpenter and his mother Shoneice Reynolds is a Chicago public schools clerk.

Reynolds said Johnson’s great-grandfather, who passed away in December, had cheered them on as they took to the streets during the teachers’ strike. She laments that he did not live to see their successful struggle to prevent the closing of their local school, Marcus Garvey Elementary.

Such traditions still run strong in many Chicago communities. These residents will not sit quietly as their neighborhood and social infrastructure are dismantled. While Emanuel’s Chicago may have been expected to provide a playbook for curbing unions, privatizing public education and other municipal reforms, Reynolds is among those who think such initiatives will reinvigorate organized labor and grassroots resistance, both in Chicago and nationwide.

“Jim Crow didn’t end with one blow, as my granddad would tell us,” Reynolds told me. “With Mayor One Percent, everyday people will take back the power. And Chicago is leading the pack.”

Kari Lydersen is a leader of the Social Justice Chicago Reporting Fellowship at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a research associate at the Medill Watchdog Project. She was on the Northwestern swim team from 1993 to 1997 and was a U.S. national team member and two-time national champion in marathon swimming.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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