Thousands Rally to “Take Back Chicago”

At a massive rally to “Take Back Chicago,” thousands of Chicagoans backed an agenda for economic justice — and a challenge to the policies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Members of dozens of community groups and labor unions rallied Tuesday, October 15, roaring their approval for policies to end corporate subsidies and strengthen public services and neighborhood schools.

Organized by the Grassroots Collaborative, the rally came one week before Emanuel’s annual budget address, and Dario Nunez of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association urged the audience to “keep pressure on our aldermen to make they don’t pass a budget with cuts, cuts, and more cuts.”

Many pledged to spend the next three Saturdays going door-to-door to generate pressure on council members for a neighborhood-friendly budget.

N’Dana Carter of the Mental Health Movement noted that two years ago, the city council unanimously passed a budget that closed half the city’s mental health clinics, contracting with private agencies (with limited access and capacity) instead. She called it an example of Emanuel’s program of “cutting public services and giving public money to private corporations.”

Today city clinics are so understaffed that psychiatrists have caseloads of 3,000 to 4,000 clients, she said.

On the stage, eleven council members in turn promised to “fight for a city budget that includes no cuts to essential services and no privatization.”

Other agenda items included a constitutional amendment to allow a progressive income tax in Illinois; a return of Tax Increment Finance funds — property tax subsidies to developers — to the schools; an elected school board; a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the city for corporations with more than $50 million in profits; and a stepped-up commitment to affordable housing.

Speaking for the progressive tax proposal, SEIU member Francine Rico said she makes $14 an hour after 15 years working in a nursing home. “Why should a banker or corporate executive making over a million dollars a year pay the same flat tax rate as a single mother making $15,000 a year?” she asked. “That’s not right.”

Illinois’s 1971 constitution mandates a flat income tax rate, and including property and sales taxes, low- and middle-class residents pay a far higher proportion of their income in taxes here. The model fails to capture gains in economic growth, which have been concentrated entirely at the top end of the income scale, leaving the state with a massive deficit.

Rico said that by instituting a progressive income tax and closing corporate tax loopholes, the state could raise an additional $6 billion a year.

Demanding an elected school board and increased funding for neighborhood schools, CPS student Mauro Ortega said his high school’s budget was cut by $4 million this year, and schools in his neighborhood lost $7.5 million. “How are we supposed to learn?” he asked.

After closing 50 neighborhood schools in May, Emanuel cut funding for neighborhood schools by $160 million, while increasing funding for charter schools.

Meanwhile, “Mayor Emanuel is giving $50 million in subsidies for a DePaul [University] arena and [convention center] development,” said Ortega, an activist with Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “Is that right?”

Calling for a minimum wage hike, student Mina Waight of Action Now said, “My mother works at Marshalls for $10 an hour, and she can’t make ends meet without government assistance.” She said “hard-working people be paid a decent living wage, so they can afford a roof over their heads, medical care, and food for their families.”

A study released this week by researches at the University of California at Berkeley showed that 51 percent of fast food workers in Illinois are forced to rely on public assistance, costing the state $368 million a year.

Charles Austin of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless called on the city to focus affordable housing resources on minimum-wage and other low-income workers, develop affordable housing throughout the city, use TIF funds to rehab vacant and foreclosed properties, rehab Single Room Occupancy buildings, and preserve and rehab low-rise family public housing in CHA developments now threatened with demolition.

Last week a report from Grassroots Collaborative showed that over the past decade, job gains resulting from downtown development, spurred by over $1.2 billion in TIF subsidies, have gone overwhelmingly to suburban residents. Barely one-quarter of new jobs have gone to city residents.

And while downtown added 52,000 jobs, neighborhoods lost over 10,000 jobs, with job loss concentrated in black and Latino neighborhoods.

The group recommended requiring companies receiving city subsidies to create jobs for city residents; establishing living wage requirements for all subsidy programs; and instituting a commuter tax.

Neighborhood canvassers who signed up at the rally will be urging neighbors to contact their aldermen to move an ordinance declaring a TIF surplus in order to fund schools, Nathan Ryan of Grassroots Collaborative said. The ordinance has been stuck in the council’s rules committee since it was introduced in July.