‘Day of Action’ coalition highlights racial implications of fiscal crisis

The Chicago Teachers Union rallied in downtown Chicago on Feb. 4, 2016.

Photo by Max Herman

The Chicago Teachers Union rallied in downtown Chicago on Feb. 4, 2016.

Thousands of Chicagoans will hit the streets Friday in a day of action against austerity—driven to protest by a fiscal crisis and by political leadership at the state and city level that has no clue about how to address it.

Between our mayor and our governor, we’ve got two leaders posing as tough guys who get things done—who can’t get anything done.

Gov. Bruce Rauner, oblivious to the failure of his attempt to buy legislative support for his anti-labor agenda in the recent primary, remains intransigent—and the state now faces the disastrous prospect of a second fiscal year without a budget.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, struggling through the most difficult year of his political career, just saw his pension reform scheme declared unconstitutional and the city’s credit rating take yet another hit—while his friend Rauner clearly would force the city’s schools into bankruptcy rather than do anything to help them.

Meanwhile protesters are buoyed by an upsurge of local and national activism against racial and economic inequities.

Teachers are walking out to protest compensation changes imposed by Chicago Public Schools during contract negotiations, which the Chicago Teachers Union maintains constitute an unfair labor practice. Contract talks have been overshadowed by CPS’s fiscal crisis, in which the overdue bill for years of postponed pension payments has exposed the inadequacy of state funding for schools.

They’re being joined by a broad coalition, including unions representing state workers in stalled contract talks, students and teachers at state universities threatened by shutdowns and activists from the Black Lives Matter and Fight for 15 movements. Expect a big crowd.

“It’s really about connecting economic justice issues and racial justice issues,” said Nathan Ryan of Grassroots Collaborative, noting “the huge racial implications of the budget,” with cuts impacting low-income minority women who work in home and childcare, public sector workers who are the backbone of the black middle-class, and black and Latino students at state universities.

Joining demonstrations on Friday will be members of the state’s two largest public sector unions, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union. Between them they have over 90,000 members who (like Chicago teachers) have been working without contracts since last summer. The Rauner administration is demanding pay freezes and sharply increased health care contributions – and even demanding that the lowest-paid homecare workers represented by SEIU forego overtime pay.

With AFSCME’s members, who are frontline service workers in state agencies, Rauner seems intent on provoking a strike, declaring an impasse in negotiations early this year in an effort to impose the administration’s terms.

Teach-ins and rallies are planned at Chicago State University, Northeastern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, with busloads of students and teachers heading downtown for the culminating rally and the march through downtown during rush hour to “shut it down.”

With no state funding coming in, Chicago State is preparing to lay off staff and NEIU—where faculty and staff have agreed to a temporary 20 percent pay cut—will face a similar prospect if no 2017 budget agreement is reached, said Richard Grossman, a NEIU history professor and faculty union representative.

Grossman pointed out that Chicago State’s student body is predominantly black and NEIU’s is largely Latino, and “these are kids who are the first generation in their family to go to college; they can get an affordable education here and move up the ladder.”

He asks, “Has Rauner decided the American Dream is over in Illinois?”

For state workers and university students, the solution is simple and involves a return to regular order, with annual budgets and an administration that’s willing to engage in collective bargaining. Only Rauner’s intransigence prevents a solution.

For Chicago teachers it’s more complicated. Years of underfunding and pension holidays have dug an enormous fiscal hole for the school district, leaving two basic options.  One is to try to cut our way out of it.  But several years of deep cuts have accomplished little besides discrediting Emanuel’s promises to strengthen schools.  There’s no appetite for more of that, and no evidence it could work.

The other option is to confront the root cause: the state’s failure to meet its constitutional mandate to be the primary funder of education. That would mean much more than rejiggering the school funding formula—though that needs to be done—or redistributing pension costs.  (In this context, those seem less like real solutions and more like talking points designed to deflect responsibility from the mayor and CPS leadership – especially when they’re linked to an effort to get yet another pension holiday.) It would mean raising billions of dollars of additional revenue.  There’s no way to get there without reforming the state’s tax structure so poor people aren’t taxed twice as heavily as rich people are.

The existing tax system just doesn’t go where the money is. It’s a system where Ken Griffin, the richest man in the state and the largest donor to both Rauner and Emanuel, gets a multimillion tax cut while schools are being starved.

In this situation, CTU finds it necessary to broaden its ranks and raise its sights—calling into motion a huge labor and community coalition and demanding the far-reaching change necessary for real solutions. And it’s finding a large number of allies among people who are getting a raw deal under the current regime.