Workers Vanguard No. 1066
17 April 2015
Obamas Hatchet Man Beats Progressive Rival
Chicago: Democrats Segregation City Elections
We Need a Revolutionary Workers Party!
The Chicago mayoral elections drew national attention after incumbent Rahm Emanuel failed to win re-election on February 24, forcing a runoff. The mere fact that Emanuel, former chief of staff of Barack Obama’s White House, could not get a first-round knockout in Obama’s hometown was, as the Chicago Tribune put it, a “national political embarrassment.” Emanuel is widely despised for having pushed through brutal austerity measures in his first term as mayor of “Segregation City,” so named for its entrenched residential and school segregation. Most notoriously, he closed nearly 50 schools, overwhelmingly in black and Latino neighborhoods, as part of carrying out Obama’s “school reform” policies.
The once seemingly invincible Cook County Democratic Party machine has not been so for years and can no longer turn out the living and the dead to the polls as it did in its heyday. More than ever, the city’s Democratic Party electoral apparatus is dependent on the trade-union officialdom. In the face of widespread disaffection with the arrogant labor-hating mayor, many prominent union leaders along with the reformist leftists who tail them rushed to promote Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who finished second in February. Castigating Emanuel as “Mayor 1 Percent” and a “corporate Democrat,” they worked overtime to paint Garcia as some kind of alternative. Central to this effort was the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which had waged a widely popular nine-day strike in 2012.
Many did not buy the idea that Garcia would be any better than Emanuel, who handily won re-election in the April 7 runoff. Despite all the hype, the voter turnout was 40 percent. Garcia’s main qualification was that he was not well known and hence didn’t have so much to live down. But “Chuy” is as much an enemy of working people as his much better funded opponent for mayor or any other Democrat. As floor leader on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Garcia served as hatchet man in his own right, pushing through attacks on public workers. In the campaign, Garcia vowed that he would wring concessions from the unions more effectively through negotiations rather than Emanuel’s ham-fisted provocations. He also promised to hire 1,000 more cops.
Last summer, there was much ballyhoo about the possibility that CTU president Karen Lewis would run for mayor against Emanuel. But then Lewis became ill, and she persuaded Garcia to take her place. Forces from national teachers unions to radical black professor Cornel West and the liberal MoveOn.org quickly jumped on Garcia’s bandwagon. In reality, Garcia’s campaign platform made clear that his “friend of labor” credentials were just lipstick on a pig. Among other lowlights, he upheld a 2007 state law enacted by Democrats that jacked up transit workers’ mandatory retirement contributions by more than 400 percent!
The journal In These Times surely spoke for many reformist leftists in painting Lewis’s withdrawal from the race as a “huge blow.” Encouraged to run as an independent for the mayoral race, Lewis is a Democratic politician with or without the label. In fact, Lewis is a longtime ally of Chicago’s own Jesse Jackson and a loyal Democratic Party supporter. The same goes for the leaderships of teachers unions nationally, who have handed over tens of millions of dollars in union dues to Democratic candidates and supplied hundreds of delegates to the last Democratic National Convention.
The labor bureaucracy, including the CTU leadership, represents a conservative, pro-capitalist layer at the top of these workers organizations. This layer is far removed from the militants who built the unions in this country by class-struggle methods, often in defiance of anti-labor laws and court injunctions. For Marxists, independence from the Democrats is not mainly a question of formal affiliation but means organizing the working people in uncompromising opposition to the capitalist class enemy and all bourgeois political formations.
On principle, we never vote for, or otherwise extend political support to, any capitalist politician, Emanuel and Garcia included. In Chicago and beyond, the Democrats have ruled by mastering ethnic “divide and rule” politics to mask the common interests of the working people and oppressed. Our aim is to build a workers party independent of and opposed to the Democrats and Republicans, one that champions the cause of all the exploited and the oppressed in the fight for socialist revolution.
Democratic Party of Massive Cutbacks
All it took was some vague “little guy” rhetoric for Garcia to become a darling of the “anybody but Emanuel” crowd. The “fight the right” refrain usually is the excuse to vote the Democrats into office in order to keep out the Republicans, but here the only contenders were Democrats, reflecting the party’s lock on the city. Showing the futility of supporting the “lesser evil” Democrats, in Illinois, as in other Midwest states, workers are facing an onslaught of union-busting government attacks. From the state legislature in Springfield to City Hall in Chicago, for decades it has been the Democrats who have looted public worker pension funds, while working to hamstring the unions.
Shortly after taking office as mayor in 2011, Emanuel canceled a 4 percent pay hike previously negotiated by the CTU and laid off almost 1,000 teachers. Later that year, Democrats pushed through a new state law dictating more school hours and a longer school year without any additional pay for teachers. The bill, ludicrously supported by the CTU executive board, also required 75 percent of the union membership to authorize teachers strikes. In 2012, the teachers voted overwhelmingly for a strike that succeeded in holding the line against some of Emanuel’s demands. However, the union leadership agreed in advance not to make school closings a strike issue.
Now the governor’s mansion has been taken over by a nut job free-market Republican, venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, who has called for lowering the minimum wage and slashing social spending, while vowing to hold back union dues collected for the state’s public-sector unions. Rauner’s aggressive posture is a gift to the Democrats, enabling them to come across as reasonable by comparison. In fact, despite minor policy differences, Republicans and Democrats are fundamentally united around austerity. For example, last month Rauner and Democratic House majority leader Michael Madigan (for decades the real boss of Illinois politics) agreed to a “short-term” service-slashing budget “fix.” It is no secret that Madigan, Emanuel and Rauner are all sharpening their knives for a deal to carve up the public employee pension plans to pay off the banks and balance the state and city budgets.
The trademarked response of the labor bureaucracy to union-busting onslaughts was displayed in Wisconsin in 2011, when 100,000 angry unionists who massed at the state capitol looking for a way to fight back were funneled straight into a campaign to recall the Republican governor. Since then, “right to work” (prohibiting the union shop) has taken root in one Midwest state after another, including most recently in Wisconsin. Forswearing the mobilization of labor’s social power in strikes and solidarity actions, the union misleaders continue to push the election of Democrats as their only “answer” to capitalist attacks on union rights and to declining standards of living.
Break with the Democrats!
The national attention to the Chicago election reflected broader tensions within the Democratic Party between Wall Street Democrats like Obama and Hillary Clinton and forces favoring more populist candidates such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York mayor Bill de Blasio. Seven years ago, it was the relatively unknown Barack Obama who spoke of “hope” and “change.” Now that disillusionment with Obama’s policies has set in, a new cast of Democratic wannabes wants the party to refurbish its image.
In the Chicago mayoral elections, the trade-union misleaders were working overtime to turn out voters for either Emanuel or Garcia, based on who they thought was more likely to win, or more likely to toss loyal supporters a few more bread crumbs off the table. Construction craft unions, many Teamsters locals and the firefighters lined up behind Emanuel, with UNITE HERE Local 1 airing nauseating “Rahm Love” TV ads. Other labor leaders, particularly from unions with a large proportion of black members, lined up behind Garcia, who was endorsed by the ATU transit union, the SEIU health care workers and National Nurses United. The CTU bureaucrats even urged teachers to stay in town during spring break to help get out the vote for “Chuy.”
The reformist left rivaled the trade-union tops in scrambling to make it seem as though something important was at stake in this election. The Communist Party touted the birth of a “new kind of people’s movement” (peoplesworld.org, 3 April). The Party for Socialism and Liberation enthused over Garcia’s “progressive credentials” and the possibility that he would initiate “badly needed reforms for working and poor people” (liberationnews.org, 1 March). Socialist Alternative cheered that Karen Lewis’s candidacy had opened up “the possibility of a labor backed, combative election campaign to challenge the Democratic Party establishment,” and advised Garcia to mount a “real fighting challenge to the corporate elite and their servants in the political establishment” (March 8). These groups and others like them differed only over whether to be open or backhanded in supporting Garcia.
ISO: Gooey for “Chuy”
The International Socialist Organization (ISO) publicly aired a debate over whether to vote for Garcia. While the ISO has not openly campaigned for Democratic candidates, it makes its preferences clear: when Obama ran for president, the ISO did not actually say workers should vote for him, but ISO spokesman Sharon Smith crowed after the fact that “Obama’s victory also represents a surge in class consciousness and a decisive rejection of neoliberal policies.” The program of these opportunists is to pressure the Democrats but they prefer to express it at one remove, for example by backing the Greens, a small-time capitalist party whose function is to corral disaffected Democratic voters back into the fold.
Over the Chicago elections, the ISO seemed torn: while trying to reassure its readers who worried that the group’s mild criticisms of Garcia would make them “irrelevant” in the eyes of the masses, the ISO stopped short of following CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey into Garcia’s camp. Sharkey boasted that he was out electioneering for Garcia in the frigid Chicago winter, and rhapsodized about hugging his candidate in celebration of Garcia’s getting into the runoff. The ISO has always strongly supported the CTU caucus led by Karen Lewis and Sharkey, and columns by Sharkey have been featured in the ISO’s paper, so this public divergence represents a dilemma for it. (As for Sharkey’s courtship of Garcia, the only tragedy in the latter’s defeat is that we will not get to see if it would have ended in a wedding or a broken heart.)
Given the disappointment in Obama expressed even by many black workers and others who still support him, the ISO is surely aware that unalloyed enthusiasm for today’s Democrats would be unwise. So an article by Lee Sustar and others in Socialist Worker (March 17) duly takes note of Garcia’s shortcomings before offering that “an article on the mayoral runoff can and should also show what we have in common with the militants in the CTU and beyond who are supporting Garcia.” Translation: we too support the lesser evil...for the millionth time.
Chicago: Divide and Rule
Chicago is the quintessential American city, where contradictions of race and class are raw. Historically, the fault line has been between blacks and whites but today the city is nearly a third Latino, adding another element into the mix. Unemployment in black ghettos is four times as high as in white neighborhoods, and black youth unemployment is estimated as high as 92 percent. The black South and West Sides are riddled with boarded-up “zombie” homes and apartment buildings, urban decay exacerbated by the subprime mortgage scams. Today in Chicago, the rate of racist police “stop and frisks” is three times the rate at its highest in New York City.
The ethnic constituency politics that the Democratic Party specializes in were much in evidence in these elections. The Mexican-American immigrant Garcia gained over two-thirds of the votes in Latino wards. What clinched the election for Emanuel was winning nearly 60 percent of the black vote; he took every black ward in the city. That fact reflected not only his ties to Obama, who flew into town to bolster support for his henchman before the February election, but also the rivalries that emerge from competition between ethnic groups in a capitalist society for what is seen as a fixed (or shrinking) pie. One black man was quoted by the New York Times (3 April): “I ain’t voting for a Mexican,” adding that he was tired of competing with Latinos for jobs. It is the task of revolutionaries to actively combat such backward attitudes among the oppressed. We seek to win black militants to the defense of immigrants, and Latinos to the understanding that the racist oppression of the black population is the bedrock upon which American capitalism was built.
Garcia and his cheerleaders invoke memories of the 1983 election of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, who built a coalition of blacks, a majority of Latinos and liberal whites under the slogan “It’s our turn.” Although Washington’s election was met with a barrage of racist reaction, the reality is that he served as the enforcer of Reaganomics—wholesale attacks on the social services gained through earlier class and social struggles. It didn’t take Washington long to go after the very unions that had supported his election. He pushed a bill looting the ATU pension fund, introducing part-time jobs and tearing up the union contract. In 1988, teachers went out on strike against attacks on education and jobs.
A central demand of Washington’s 1983 campaign was to fire the racist cop commissioner, Richard Brzeczek. And the mayor replaced Brzeczek with a black police commissioner. This made not one whit of difference to racist cop terror in the city; throughout the Washington years, the notorious “midnight crew” under police commander Jon Burge continued to extract confessions from black men though such interrogation techniques as battery clamps to the genitals. Washington’s black top cop, Fred Rice, twice promoted Burge even after the allegations of torture began to surface. This February, the London Guardian ran a series of articles documenting continued torture of black men by Chicago police to extract confessions, including at a “black site” detention center at Homan Square where arrestees are held, their location unknown to their families or lawyers.
For all the nonsense spouted recently about re-creating Harold Washington’s supposed rainbow coalition, the falling out among Democrats in the mayoral squabble only underscored the black-Latino division (among others) in Chicago. For a taste of the possibility of uniting the working people, one can look back to the 2012 teachers strike, even hamstrung as it was by its leadership. Many black and Latino parents supported the strike, some joining the picket lines. The basis for this cooperation was not mutual affection but common interest: parents along with teachers had everything to gain by fighting to defend public education against further cutbacks and layoffs.
Through class struggle, the different layers of the working people can come to understand their unity of interests, a necessary part of which is rejecting the suicidal illusions of common interests with our exploiters. What is required is a revolutionary workers party based on the program of socialism—the fight to meet the needs of all of society by destroying the capitalist profit system itself. Our reformist opponents endlessly recycle their bankrupt strategy of supporting “progressive” Democrats, who make promises to the working people only to turn around and kick them in the teeth once they are in office. Believing the fight for socialism to be utopian, these fake socialists have nothing to offer except the truly hopeless prospect of reforming the system of brutal capitalist exploitation.
As we said in “Harold Washington Will Betray Black Chicago” (WV No. 328, 22 April 1983), at the time of his first mayoral victory:
“If it is to be ‘our turn’ to rule for blacks, workers, Hispanics and the poor they must break with the Democratic Party and find within their ranks the class-conscious leaders that can forge a fighting workers party determined to wage class war for power. Chicago may be the most segregated city in America but it has a powerful working class with an enormous potential for integrated class struggle.”