CHICAGO — On Halloween morning, several dozen pre-school and early elementary-age children, many in their costumes, sat on the floor outside Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s fifth floor City Hall office. There they listened excitedly to a group of librarians read children’s books, such as Where the Wild Things Are and Go Away, Big Green Monster.
They were cute, not scary, in their princess and cartoon character attire. But they might have been just frightening enough — especially to members of the City Council – to save “story hour” and other threatened services of their local public libraries.
The “green monster” in their real lives — aka Mayor Emanuel — recently proposed a budget that would cut a third of the full-time equivalent library staff to save about $8 million in a $6.3 billion budget (in an effort to fill a projected deficit of $636 million). Although former Mayor Richard M. Daley built 58 new libraries, two years ago he cut back staff and left hundreds of positions vacant. Emanuel proposes eliminating 268 currently vacant positions and laying off about 284 employees. Emanuel has alternatives for filling his budget deficits, such as diversion of surplus local property taxes accumulating in tax increment financing districts.
Chicago aldermen normally would avoid being seen with a protest against the mayor, but seven (out of 50) stopped by to associate themselves, however loosely, with the photo- and telegenic protest: Pre-schoolers mimicked the hundred-plus librarians, parents, patrons and
supporters present and pumped their tiny fists in the air, chanting, “No more cuts,” as they delivered a petition signed by 4,000 more opponents of library cuts.
The next day, Emanuel received a letter signed by 28 council members calling on the mayor to avert cuts to essential services, including the library, physical and mental health clinics, and family and social services. An unusual gesture in a council already appearing to comply with most of Emanuel’s wishes, the letter reportedly prompted some initial discussions with the administration. These protests may also have contributed to the council giving a prominent position to testimony in the first budget hearing from two opponents of library cuts, including well-known Chicago mystery writer Sara Paretsky. (They followed the first two presenters, traditionally the Civic Federation – a business-backed policy group – and the Chamber of Commerce, in a nod to the economic powers in the city.)
Anne Riddick, a neighborhood branch librarian, joined the protest (as a private citizen, she insisted) because “we’re concerned if it goes through, we won’t have the staff for programs like story time, computer assistance, adult and teen book discussions, and putting books back without delay, or we will not be able to provide adequate computer reference help to people looking for work.”
It’s not just kids who need help. Wearing his home-made placard, saying “don’t lock out learning” and “it’s a bat idea to cut libraries” (next to images of a lock and a big bat), 59-year old Ronald Schupp sang praises of librarians as helpful and friendly as they assisted him in dealing with four different learning disabilities.
Carl Sorrell, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local union representing city librarians, argued that “without the Chicago Public Library, the city of Chicago won’t be as great as it is.” But he also contended that the city would lose economically, since library employees must live in the city, and the cuts would have ripple effects that depress local buying power. (Full disclosure: My wife works for the Illinois state council of AFSCME.)
The union – which organized the Halloween action – also stresses how many of the job cuts in Emanuel’s budget will hurt the most vulnerable and needy, such as the distraught but well-organized mental health service consumers who testified yesterday against the cuts.
But the homeless, the emotionally troubled, poor people needing healthcare and others dependent on city services are not always as cute as little kids. It is harder to generate support for these programs against Emanuel’s cutbacks and privatization, especially if, as the union contends, the mayor is exaggerating potential savings from both privatization and governmental consolidation. But the tykes with their raised fists may have opened the floodgates of concern enough to preserve both libraries and the other services.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.