Underscoring the extent to which Chicago’s April 7 election has taken on national symbolism, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) visited a church on Chicago’s Southeast Side on April 2 to call for a “political revolution” and rally behind mayoral hopeful Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and 10th ward City Council candidate Sue Sadlowski Garza.
Sanders told the wildly cheering crowd of several hundred Southeast Side residents that Garcia and Sadlowski Garza — a Chicago Teachers Union leader from a family of vaunted United Steelworkers activists — represent a break from the corporate-minded “oligarchy” that has ruled on municipal, state and federal levels.
Garcia, Sadlowski Garza, CTU President Karen Lewis and members of the crowd also came to the stage to speak, many describing the Southeast Side as symbolic of the way working-class neighborhoods have been decimated by globalization and then neglected by neoliberal politicians. The Southeast Side was once a thriving industrial area where tens of thousands of people worked well-paying union jobs in the steel mills. But as the steel industry largely moved overseas in search of cheaper labor, the neighborhood became plagued by unemployment and disinvestment. Residents say things have grew worse as successive mayoral administrations focused on downtown and wealthier areas, allowing crime and structural deterioration in their neighborhoods to spiral.
“Where there was a unified 10th ward, there is now isolation; where there were safe streets, now there are kids turning to gangs and drugs and despair,” Sadlowski Garza lamented. “None of this happened to us by accident.”
Residents say that after the departure of union jobs, the Southeast Side has become a “dumping ground” for industrial waste facilities — including Koch Industries’ controversial petroleum coke (petcoke, or “petKoch”) plant — while city officials have invested in downtown and other wealthier areas. They see Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who counts billionaires like Ken Griffin among his top donors, as the poster boy for these forces. Incumbent alderman John Pope, whom Sadlowski Garza is challenging, has Emanuel’s backing, and many residents say he has been too welcoming to the Koch subsidiary KCBX Terminals, the bulk storage company Beemsterboer Slag, the food processor Agri-Fine, and other corporations that have located polluting facilities in the area.
Indeed, on Avenue O, where the rally was held, a pungent, nauseating smell hangs in the air, emanating from the nearby plant owned by Agri-Fine, which has donated $38,400 to Pope since 2000, according to the State Board of Elections. Pope has received more than $22,000 from Beemsterboer and more than $10,000 from Koch-related companies over the same span.
Sadlowski Garza, Sanders and other speakers invoked the Southeast Side’s history of a once-thriving steel industry and legendary labor battles like the notorious Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, promising that the neighborhood and the labor unions that made it strong are poised to resurge and “take back” City Hall, starting on April 7.
“This is holy ground where we stand tonight,” said Sadlowski Garza. She described the church where many labor meetings have taken place as representing “the people power movement, the union brothers who gave their lives here in 1937 to secure rights that are under attack all over again.”
A similar message was delivered by Karen Lewis, the CTU president who was polling strong as a possible challenger to Emanuel until a brain cancer diagnosis caused her withdrawal in the fall, spurring Garcia to enter the race.
“This has got to be the start of a movement. This can’t be about one election, one election cycle,” said Lewis, who spoke with the same fiery vigor that made her a national figure during and since the teachers’ 2012 strike.
Sanders, the Vermont socialist whose name is being floated for a 2016 presidential run, said that as a federal legislator, he wants to work with municipal leaders like Garcia and Sadlowski Garza on drastically reshaping politics and government, including raising the minimum wage to a living wage, creating universal healthcare and bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.
“At a time when poverty is as high as any time in history,” Sanders said, “we’re going to ask the richest people in the country, the billionaires and the corporations, to start paying their fair share. When we do that and raise hundreds of billions of dollars, we’re going to invest it in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and putting people back to work.”“We know that when we stand together we can have local, state and national governments representing ordinary Americans and not just the 1%,” Sanders continued. “That’s what this election is about. Yeah, Chuy is going to be outspent 8 to 1, but there are a lot more of us than there are of them.”
People streamed towards the site of the rally for blocks around, walking by trim yards, many with signs for Garza and seemingly fewer for Pope.
Despite the loss of jobs and economic decay, the Southeast Side is still home to generations of tight-knit families who are proud of their communities.
Sadlowski Garza, a teacher who belongs to the CTU, is a third-generation union member whose family has been in the area for 140 years. Her great-grandfather, Adam Sadlowski, lost his job during the 1919 Steelworkers recognition strike and was a member of the International Brotherhood of Railway Engineers. Her grandfather is legendary union organizer Edward “Load” Sadlowski, a founding member of Steelworkers Local 1010, who was on the strike line during the Memorial Day Massacre. Another grandfather, Edward McDillon, was a union machinist at the General Mills plant nearby on the Calumet River. Her father, Ed “Oilcan” Sadlowski, who attended the April 2 rally, is another renowned Steelworkers labor leader. Her husband, Raul Garza, and her son, David, are members of the Ironworkers Local 63.
“Generations have fought so hard to make them understand that the people just want a voice,” said Sadlowski Garza. “Brothers and sisters, we’ve already fundamentally derailed the conversation [promoting] Rahm Emanuel and John Pope’s corporate agenda.”
“I know that when you give the power to the people they start to take pride,” she continued. “They get involved, they take the initiative to make this neighborhood strong and vibrant like it once was.”
Garcia said he looked forward to serving with Sadlowski Garza in City Hall, and to promoting the values and history that she and her family and fellow union members represent.
“What they stand for and the values she has inherited from them is [that] you always treat working people with the highest dignity and respect,” Garcia said. “And you put their interests first.”