A New Model for Progressive Politics in the Heart of Deindustrialization

Bruce Vail

Aerial view of wheat fields and farm near Peoria, Illinois. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

It’s startling when your hometown is labeled the worst city in the United States for African Americans. 

That’s what happened in Peoria in late 2016 when a survey by the online publication 24/7 Wall St. rated the central Illinois city at the top of its list of the Worst Cities for Black Americans.”

The slap at Peoria wasn’t even the worst indignity suffered by the people of the city at that time. Shortly afterward, world-famous machinery maker Caterpillar Inc. said it would close the company’s Peoria world headquarters and move to Chicago. The decision was announced after years of discussion about the future of the company’s headquarters, during which the locals were consistently misled to believe that Caterpillar was committed to remaining in the city. The move reflects the deindustrialization and associated ills that are afflicting Peoria and scores of other small cities across the Midwest. 

The two events were recently cited by labor activists as the sparks that generated the Peoria Peoples Project, a new initiative to unite labor unions and the city’s progressive elements. The goal is to improve the lives of working people across the city through political action, particularly action at the state-wide policy level, the labor activists say. 

Spearheaded by local units of the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Project got started last year with the help of the Chicago-based Grassroots Collaborative, says Jeff Adkins-Dutro, president of the Peoria Federation of Teachers. The Collaborative is dedicated to building labor-community alliances in Chicago, Adkins-Dutro says, but is also keen to see similar alliances established in the smaller Illinois cities. Collective action from multiple city-based alliances of this sort are needed to reverse some of the statewide trends that are undermining the interests of working families in Peoria and elsewhere around the state, he says.

Right now, Illinois trends in voting are very much on the minds of the leaders of the leading health care workers union, adds Beth Menz of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, a regional grouping of SEIU locals for hospital, nursing home and home care workers. Unions of all kinds are mobilizing for the November election, she says, and are determined to defeat the re-election bid of anti-union incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner.

There are multiple goals,” of the Peoria Peoples Project, Menz says, and increased progressive voting is just one of them. We are more issue-based,” than concerned with the results of particular elections like Rauner’s, she tells In These Times. Quality healthcare and adequate funding for public schools are obvious priorities for the two unions involved. Most of the tens of thousands of members of the SEIU group are low-income or middle-income African-American women, so bread-and-butter economic issues are foremost, Menz says. 

Progressive organizations have been springing up in Peoria,” as a response to the right-wing agenda of Gov. Rauner and President Donald Trump, adds Chama St. Louis, an organizer for both the Peoria Peoples Project and the Grassroots Collaborative. It’s a fertile field for new organizing, she says, as the increasing power of conservative forces is inspiring pushback in many circles. Rauner’s attacks on public employee unions, for example, are being reinforced by the pending Janus U.S. Supreme Court decision, which is expected to further weaken unions. Adkins-Dutro agrees, telling In These Times that the teachers’ union is now aiming to strengthen its internal cohesiveness in the face of the Janus threat.

A year after 24/7 Wall St. insulted the city, an updated survey replaced Peoria with Erie, Penn., as the country’s worst for African. That reduces the sting a little bit, but the city still has a long way to go, St. Louis says. The Peoria Peoples Project is seen by labor unions as a step in that direction. 

One initiative on the agenda for this year is to build support for an Illinois constitutional amendment on taxes. The Illinois Federation of Teachers, SEIU Healthcare and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) are all supporting an amendment that would raise taxes on high-income individuals, according to St. Louis. This kind of tax restructuring is needed to secure adequate funding for public schools and universal health care, St. Louis emphasizes.

The Project is still very much an early stage. SEIU’s Menz says, for example, that initial efforts have been focused on drawing union members and progressives together to form the solidarity needed for any effective political action down the road. The Peoria community has been badly battered by outside forces and turning things around will take time.

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Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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