CHICAGO — As anti-NATO protesters left the streets of Chicago last week, union members filled them again, in anticipation of decisions expected this week by the state legislature on a budget that will harm the public welfare.
They were fighting attacks on public workers and public services, some related to budget crises deepened by the lingering effects of the recession, others stemming from politicians’ deference to the threats and more insidious influences of big corporations and financial institutions.
On Wednesday, May 23, nearly 5,000 teachers in bright red Chicago Teachers Union T‑shirts and supporters marched through downtown streets, protesting the contract demands of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his school board. In front of the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), in the heart of the city”s financial district, they met up with 1,000 marchers from Stand Up! Chicago — a union-community coalition initiated by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — who were part of a day-long series of protests against tax cuts won earlier this year by the hugely profitable CME Group, which owns both the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and CBOT.
Stand Up! Chicago linked the tax cut to the threatened reductions in state funding for childcare for the coming fiscal year, which will make it more difficult for many needy parents to work.
The turnout was so large that organizers did not have space for a planned “die-in” in front of CBOT, intended to symbolize the effects of austerity public policies.
The following day, about 250 members of SEIU and community groups from the service areas of four hospitals heavily dependent on Medicaid to reimburse expenses for patient care protested a $1.7 billion cut in Medicaid spending for the next fiscal year. Legislators approved the cuts later, despite right-wing Republican objections to provisions allowing Cook County — which includes Chicago and some suburbs — to enroll additional Medicaid patients at no cost to the state. They argued the move essentially began implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
The day of actions against the CME Group started when 20 protesters — some in wheelchairs — linked arms in front of the CBOT entrance in protest of both a proposed $210 million cut in state funding for home care for elderly and disabled people and the tax cut for the group controlling the exchanges that handle the majority of futures trading in the United States. Fifteen were arrested as 200 others showed support.
Later in the morning, children, parents and child care providers marched at the state of Illinois office building in the Loop, objecting to child care cutbacks.Then in the afternoon, a delegation of about 60 protesters — stock shares in hand — overwhelmed the CME Group’s annual stockholder meeting. Anticipating their arrival, CME Group CEO Terrence Duffy opened the meeting with a defense of the company’s threat — successfully deployed by several other corporations as well — to leave the city and state if it did not receive the state tax break. He said CME Group only demanded what other companies already had received.
Worth about $77 million in its first year, the specially carved loophole will cost the state at least $1 billion over a decade, conservatively assuming 10 percent growth (though CME has racked up 19 percent annual growth for three decades).
In the annual meeting, CME tried to limit questions on its taxes to the final minutes and removed everyone who tried to speak earlier and then began chanting “give the money back” and “pay your fair share.” But Iraq Veterans Against the War member Alejandro Villatoro — trading his desert khakis for a dark suit and tie — managed to speak in the final session.
“I said I was glad the company was doing well, but I was concerned about our country,” Villatoro said later. “It seems the board members had forgotten that we’re in the midst of a war, and that everyone in American society was carrying a burden, and they had to carry some burden.”
“They’re just concerned about their profits and benefits and aren’t relating to the rest of us,” he said.
At a rally afterwards, retired police officer Charles Brown, from the largely black Englewood neighborhood, said, “you should see how decimated our neighborhood is. CME made millions of dollars last year, and they give nothing back to the communities.” And Karen Leyra told of how both her brother and sister had died recently in their forties because of shortcomings in medical care available to them. “It’s too late for my brother and sister,” she said, “but it’s not too late for CME to give back its tax break.”
As the spirited group marched down LaSalle Street, past banks and government buildings, they chanted, “corporate welfare has to go,” and carried signs with messages like, “Our money, our banks, our CME, our Chicago.”
On the other side of the Loop, Ron Barbercheck, a former banker, was also marching. Now a third-grade teacher with a Harvard M.A. in education and 14 years experience, Barbercheck said the big turnout showed teachers “stand united for respect and dignity.”
As a result of the unilateral changes in school practices, a denigrating stance towards teachers, and a tough line on contract talks from Emanuel, Barbercheck said, “Morale is low, people feel disrespected.” Nobody wants a strike, he said, but “people have had enough.”
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.