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Working In These Times

Friday, Oct 26, 2012, 5:00 pm

At Alt Budget Hearing, Chicagoans Decry Privatization and Job Cuts

BY Kari Lydersen

Rahm Emanuel raised questions with his new budget proposal, but scheduled no public meetings to provide answers. Progressive aldermen and community groups stepped into the gap.   (Talk Radio News Service / Flickr / Creative Commons)

CHICAGO–Labor leaders and workers fear that the proposed 2013 budget, which the City Council will vote on November 15, could mean many job cuts as the city moves to increase efficiency, cut services and possibly introduce more privatization in various departments.

Chicago union leaders say it is unclear exactly what the economic and job impacts of the proposed budget will be for public-sector workers and other residents, and there are not as many obvious job cuts as last year’s budget. In his budget address to the City Council on October 10, Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised no new taxes or fees in spite of the $298 million budget shortfall, and said 500 new police officers would be hired and 275 “unnecessary” administrative positions eliminated. But even union and community leaders who have parsed the recently released voluminous document say it is unclear what exactly it means for the city.

Meanwhile, residents feel they have been denied the chance to get more information and voice their opinions, especially since Mayor Rahm Emanuel has decided not to hold a series of evening neighborhood public meetings as has been the norm since former Mayor Harold Washington started them three decades ago. In response, city councilmembers of the Progressive Caucus are holding three evening community meetings of their own, including one at a high school the evening of Oct. 24

There, numerous residents—many of them public-sector union members—voiced their concerns about privatization, job loss, discrimination and the overall priorities of the city administration.

“I was laid off from the Office of Emergency Management, I worked here for 16 years and now a contractor is doing my job,” said one woman, who proceeded to speak for much more than her allocated three minutes, reciting her resume and attributes in a desperate plea for work. “I am dedicated, dependable…I am job ready. I was born and raised in this city, I love this city and I love the people,” she said.

Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader and other critics have noted that former Mayor Richard M. Daley was known to look bored, distracted and even leave the room as residents addressed him during budget hearings, but at least he attended the meetings that ran late into the evenings in diverse neighborhoods across the city. They have blasted Emanuel for not making even a half-hearted effort to hear public opinion first hand before the budget is finalized.

“For an administration that’s pledged to openness and transparency, they shut the public out,” said Alderman Bob Fioretti, one of the hosts of the community hearing. “I’m concerned about the direction of our city and what this budget does.”

“No es justo (it’s an injustice)," said Alderman Ricardo Muñoz, among the eight council members who promised to listen to community concerns and share them with the full council.

Alderman Toni Foulkes said she’s concerned about constituents like an unemployed man who called her office, worried what would happen to his family if his wife lost her job at the water department through privatization or cuts.

Loud clapping and cheering from the crowd of several hundred greeted each statement about privatization and Emanuel’s attacks on public unions.

“Privatization is for political purposes only,” said Robert Stone. “If contractors want to get city work, they give donations to politicians who are all too willing to lay off public employees. But private contractors do not do as good a job as city workers.”

Several speakers noted that employees of private contractors don’t need to live within Chicago like city workers do, so replacing city workers with contractors can mean the tax base in Chicago is essentially diluted.

“Non-residents are taking our jobs,” said Caroline Broeren, a librarian who has seen first-hand the impact of cuts to the library system in last year’s budget—though much of those cuts were restored thanks to a campaign by the AFSCME union. “We want to be able to continue providing services to the people who live in our communities, but we’re having that taken away from us by privatization. And the low initial bids of contractors end up costing a lot more later – not just financially – as an employee of the city I care about what happens in the city. I don’t know that private contractors will.”

Lula White, a member of AFSCME Local 505 and an employee of the city’s health department, said that last year’s cuts to public mental health and general care clinics have been devastating. She said that since six mental health clinics were closed and other clinics were privatized, needy patients have fallen through the cracks.

“We or I should say the mayor and his budget have cut the health services,” White said. “My question for you all (aldermen) who voted for the budget last year” is have the patients displaced from the shuttered mental health clinics found their way to other clinics? “The patients are not there … where are they?”

Sijisfredo Aviles, a volunteer with the affordable housing organization Bickerdike, noted “the loss of jobs keep many of my family and friends in poverty and many are homeless. I personally have to juggle my monthly social security check with paying my rent, healthcare and personal needs.” He said that even the affordable housing Bickerdike offers “is out of reach for dozens of people in my community because of the poverty wages they receive.” He called on the mayor to “make sure funds are used responsibly in our community and not downtown for corporate welfare,” highlighting the use of TIF (tax increment financing) taxpayer funds to subsidize the River Point Plaza outside a luxurious downtown office building.

In his budget address, Emanuel said $25 million in surplus funds from the controversial TIF program would go back into general city coffers. The Grassroots Collaborative and other groups are calling on him to make sure those funds benefit people in the neighborhoods that need it most.

Emanuel also said the $298 million projected deficit is the smallest since the 2008 recession started. He said more than 4,000 jobs are being created by bringing new corporate headquarters and other employers to Chicago, and he thanked “Labor,” specifically the Laborers' Local 1001 union and SEIU Local 73, for working with the city to make reforms that will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. In many cases these reforms are what concern workers and union leaders—for example the institution of competitive bidding (i.e., potential privatization) for airport janitorial work, tree-trimming and planting, recycling and other services—even city legal work, “starting with legal services for workers’ compensation.”

At the community hearing, skeptical residents not only railed against privatization but offered some of their own suggestions.

Joe Zefran called for city support of worker-owned cooperatives. Clearly referring to Walmart and Target, he said: “We really want to talk about what kind of jobs we want to attract and what kind of businesses we want to attract. Some of these companies coming in from northwest Arkansas and Minnesota are beneath our dignity – they’re not the kinds of jobs we want to see.”

Long-time county government employee and activist Chris Geovanis called on the city council to pass measures to protect workers from privatization and job cuts.

“We’ve asked the city of Chicago to do things like passing a (new, more comprehensive) living wage ordnance; we need to revisit that,” she said. “We need to see (city or state) legislation proposed that mirrors the (federal proposed) Employee Free Choice Act. … That would provide minimum safeguards for public-sector workers, and also these public workers being privatized out and brought back at slave wages. ... Those are the kind of ordinances we need to see from our aldermen, and we need to see a no vote on this budget.”

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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