A New Model for Progressive Politics in the Heart of Deindustrialization

Bruce Vail May 4, 2018

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 247 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 247 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.

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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