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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Oct 31, 2012, 12:38 pm

Chicagoans Ask City Councillors To Fight Emanuel’s Cruelest Cuts

BY Kari Lydersen

Jeanette Hansen told members of the Chicago City Council's Progressive Caucus that cuts to mental health services will be disastrous.   (Kari Lydersen)

CHICAGO—Today, members of the City Council's Progressive Caucus are delivering the news to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and about 40 of their fellow councilmen that scores of Chicagoans have deep reservations about the proposed 2013 budget and what it means for jobs, families and public sector unions. Many Chicagoans are furious, afraid and skeptical about the proposed budget that they charge will usher in another wave of privatization, layoffs and service cuts in the name of “reform,” efficiency and deficit reduction.

But Emanuel and a great majority of the 50 city councilmen might not be aware of these concerns, because Emanuel broke with almost three decades of tradition by refusing to hold evening public meetings about the budget. Instead he is offering a public hearing today—an under-publicized event in the middle of the day which many working people will not be able to attend—and he has invited the submission of comments online.

Unions, community groups and the progressive city councilmen have said this isn’t good enough, so the Progressive Caucus held three hearings of their own, including one yesterday at a South Side high school.

As at the other two meetings, attendees yesterday railed against privatization of city jobs and services, from the water department to animal control to the finance department and emergency response call centers to janitorial services and charter schools. Members of SEIU, AFSCME and the Chicago Teachers Union turned out in force for the meetings, describing in sometimes wrenching detail the impact of last year’s budget cuts and the possible effect of the proposed 2013 budget on public sector workers and their families.

Contracts and Cuts

In some cases, city service jobs are already privatized, in that they are contracted out to private contractors. But Emanuel’s aggressive push to find cheaper contracts has meant endangering or simply ending union jobs, replacing them with non-union and lower-paid jobs with contractors who offered the city a cheaper deal. In his  mayoral victory speech in May 2011, Emanuel said:

“It’s time for tough choices because denial in the face of challenge is no strategy for success. … As we move forward, we face serious new challenges and overcoming them will not be easy. It requires new ideas, cooperation and sacrifice from everyone involved. We must make sure that every community in Chicago is heard and included and has a chance to participate in that future.”

Critics point out that Chicagoans have had to make plenty of sacrifices in the past year, including with their jobs and pensions, but the mayor’s failure to hold community budget hearings shows a lack of genuine interest in community input and participation.

At the alternative budget hearings, residents and community leaders also repeatedly pointed out that cost-cutting contracts and layoffs often have significant hidden costs, from sub-par performance and cost over-runs to the fact that contractors do not need to live within city limits and hence may not channel their wages into Chicago’s tax base.

While the 2013 budget doesn’t explicitly propose many layoffs, union leaders and others who have analyzed it fear de facto layoffs and job cuts through privatization and competitive bidding. At yesterday's hearing, speakers stressed how minority workers and communities are likely to be disproportionately impacted by belt-tightening in the 2013 budget, just as they were in 2012.

“They’re dismantling our office, which is primarily minorities,” said Greg Turner, an employee of the city’s finance department call center.

Low-income minority neighborhoods are suffering a double whammy, as public service cuts and privatization mean poor or low-income minority residents lose jobs, while also likely losing city services.

Mental Health Movement

A perfect example is the closing of six of the city’s 12 public mental health clinics last spring, which meant the layoff of numerous staff, disproportionately minorities. AFSCME, which represents workers at mental health clinics, released a report yesterday that analyzes the impact of the clinic closings. It found that between 500 and 2,000 clinic patients have “disappeared” from city records between 2011 and 2012, depending how their cases are classified. The report says the statistical discrepancy indicates that hundreds or possibly thousands of patients were never notified by the city about their options in the face of the clinic closings, and instead relied on the grassroots, all-volunteer Mental Health Movement for information.

AFSCME Special Projects Director and report author Jo Patton said that, “A number of therapists we’ve talked to now have more than 100 patients. We want the city to rehire Spanish-speaking therapists, African-American therapists, male therapists, because those things have a lot to do with how people bond with their therapist."

The special bond patients develop with hard-working, caring therapists—and how important that connection can be to their very survival—is one of the factors that can easily get overlooked in a bottom-line driven approach that ignores effects on the ground in communities.

Before the budget hearing, Jeanette Hansen and Margaret Sullivan described to me how their therapist Eric Lindquist at the now-closed Beverly-Morgan Park mental health clinic has literally saved patients’ lives.

“I’m manic depressive, I see black and white, I felt like if the world doesn’t want me alive then fine,” said Sullivan, 58, a former college English professor with a doctorate from UCLA, about a crisis she suffered a decade ago. “But Eric talked me into living another week. He taught me how to stay alive, he told me you go out into the community, he got me tutoring and working with special needs kids.”

They said Lindquist moved to the far southwest side neighborhood from the city’s north side in order to be closer to work and his patients, and that he would often “cross the alley” from his home to meet with a patient or take a phone call after hours. Sullivan said that she and other clinic clients became desperately despondent upon hearing the clinic would close, but Lindquist urged them to channel their despair into activism, opening a whole new world to them in the process.

Now Sullivan and Hansen travel up to two hours by public transportation to see Lindquist at the clinic where he has been reassigned.  At least they have that option, difficult as it can be. Many therapists were laid off—including all of the African-American male therapists in the system, according to AFSCME—so many patients are completely cut-off from the people who had been their lifeline.

The Mental Health Movement, a group of clinic patients and supporters that coalesced after former Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed closing clinics in 2009, has demanded that the 2013 budget include funds to reopen the six closed clinics to fully staff all clinics. They are also calling for more mental health resources in the schools, especially given the violence and other trauma many students face.

Police Officers and Politics

The October 30 community budget hearing was moderated by Cliff Kelley, a popular radio host and former Chicago city councilman. He noted that, “You know what group has asked me to try to keep those mental health clinics open? The police.”

Police officers, who are currently engaged in contentious contract negotiations with the mayor’s office, are stretched thin, especially given the escalating gang violence that has made international news this year. Mental Health Movement members say that during their various sit-ins and occupations over the past year, including a stand-off at one of the clinics about to be closed, police officers have been sympathetic. Chicagoans with mental health issues and police officers have publicly agreed that law enforcement is not equipped to deal with and should not be burdened with people causing disturbances because of mental illness.

Speakers at the hearing chastened the aldermen for voting unanimously for the 2012 budget, which included the clinic closings and hundreds of job cuts.

They also praised the aldermen for holding the alternative hearings, and challenged them to stand up to the mayor, promising political support in return. They directed this message particularly at Alderman Bob Fioretti, whose ward has basically disappeared as a result of gerrymandered redistricting—a move some described as retaliation for his speaking out against last year’s budget.

Members of the Mental Health Movement and other critics pointed out that last year 28 aldermen signed a letter criticizing cuts in the 2012 budget, including the clinic closings, but then ultimately voted for it. Many think they backed off in fear of Emanuel’s power in general and the idea that he wants to cut in half the number of city councilmen.

“Please aldermen, don’t let this be a 50-0 vote,” said Barney Franklin, president of AFSCME Local 2946, which represents employees of the city water department targeted for privatization. “If you support us we will support you.”

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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