Red Star Bulletin: Issue #10

Welcome to Issue #10 of the Red Star Bulletin!

The aim of this bulletin is to bring Chicago Democratic Socialists of America members a regular round-up of important legislation, committee meetings, and other updates from City Hall, as well as analysis of what this means for our organizing as socialists.

Make no mistake: the City Council is not friendly terrain for us. We must first and foremost continue to build power in the places it derives from–our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and the streets. But we hope to give CDSA members information they need to assess the electoral project we’re embarking on, and to continue building it into a powerful vehicle for working-class politics in our city.

A Penchant for Pettiness: Recapping the April City Council Meetings

The week of April 20 was an eventful one for Chicago’s city government. At stake was how Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the 50-member City Council would govern with social distancing measures in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The mayor’s stance on governance was clear: she would be the sole decider. To that end, she proposed an ordinance that, among other special powers, granted the mayor the ability to transfer funds within the city’s budget, sign contracts under $1 million, and lease and occupy property, all without the approval of the City Council.

The mayor argued that this was necessary to give the city the agility to respond to urgent needs, such as purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE). Members of City Council, including the Socialist Caucus, countered that the measure was a power grab that would leave Lightfoot free to ignore equity considerations in making emergency appropriations. Alderpersons noted that the city has already been successful in purchasing critical supplies like PPE without the need for expanded executive powers.

On Wednesday, April 22, the City Council met via Zoom to take up the mayor’s ordinance as well as other matters. Alds. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and Raymond Lopez (15th)—historically political adversaries—used a procedural move known as “defer and publish” to push the official vote on Lightfoot’s ordinance to the next City Council meeting.

At this point, the mayor showed her penchant for pettiness. Rather than take up other business on the chock-full agenda, Lightfoot immediately moved to adjourn the meeting and set the next meeting date for Friday, April 24. Despite a spirited effort by some socialist alderpersons, the mayor secured the support necessary to carry out her wishes. For anyone who thought Mayor Lightfoot might be a step away from the vindictive politics of Rahm Emanuel, this move—coupled with her public statements about Ald. Ramirez-Rosa afterward—showed that Lightfoot is merely Rahm 2.0.

Following the clamorous meeting, Alds. Jeanette Taylor (20th), Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), Rossana Rodriguez (33rd), and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) released a statement explaining their reasoning for opposing the mayor’s ordinance:

–   The lack of any guarantee that an equity lens would be used for emergency appropriations;
–   The increase in unilateral powers for the mayor that strip away democratic decision-making—something that is entirely unnecessary since the Council can meet virtually, as it did on April 22nd;
–   Mayor Lightfoot’s poor record in other areas where she has unilateral control, such as Chicago public schools, where she provoked a strike in 2019, and the issuance of demolition permits, which led to the Hilco smokestack disaster in April.

On April 24, the City Council met again via Zoom.

The first order of business was the mayor’s emergency powers ordinance. Alds. Ramirez-Rosa, Taylor, Rodriguez, and Sigcho-Lopez all made impassioned speeches against the ordinance. Their fiery orations didn’t move the mayor’s City Council supporters, and the ordinance ultimately passed by a 29–21 vote.

The final vote offers both hope and concern for Chicago socialists. Only a few years ago, a proposal like this would have had significantly fewer opponents. Organizing has built real power in the City Council. On the other hand, the vote shows that socialists still have work to do to achieve the radical shift in priorities that this city so sorely needs.

Another major controversy was when the City Council would have its next meeting. Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) introduced a plan to require the council to meet twice a month during the pandemic, instead of the usual once per month.

Vasquez contended that the public health emergency required legislative representatives to meet more often to deliver for their constituents. He noted that the two meetings during the week of April 20 were proof that an increased pace could be handled. Additionally, Vasquez suggested more meetings would help new alderpersons learn more about legislative procedure and become more effective.

Once again, the mayor’s supporters united against Ald. Vasquez’s proposal, and the next meeting was set for May 20, nearly a month away.

Altogether, the City Council meetings highlighted some progress for Chicago socialists as well as some shortcomings. While there are now six members of the Socialist Caucus fighting in the City Council to create a more democratic, just, and equal city, they are often hindered by the entrenched powers of the neoliberal order, which Lightfoot is representing as eagerly as Emanuel did.

The City Council will meet next week, on May 20 at 10 am CT. You can watch here. You can learn more about how to make a public comment here.

Charting Local and State Governments’ Milquetoast Response to the Housing Crisis

On April 29, Mayor Lori Lightfoot shared her podium with bankers and powerful landlords to announce a “Chicago Housing Solidarity Pledge.” Responding to the financial difficulties and mounting debt facing working-class residents, they promised that profit-driven landlords and lenders would voluntarily show “grace” on rental payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One week earlier, Ald. Matt Martin (47th Ward) had introduced an ordinance guaranteeing a grace period of 12 months to pay rent debt accumulated during the pandemic without late fees, essentially a guarantee of delayed income for landlords. The Neighborhood Building Owners Alliance and other landlords forcefully fought the bill. It now languishes in the Rules Committee, where proposals go to die. Lightfoot sided with the landlords, unveiling her completely voluntary proposal the next week.

Outside the public spotlight, backers of this “solidarity pledge” continue to file evictions. Landlords are sharing strategies for negotiating with tenants one at a time and pitting them against maintenance workers, while the city expects an anodyne mediation program to bring landlords and tenants through the crisis holding hands. And a leaked briefing with City Council members revealed that Lightfoot thinks she doesn’t have time to worry about the housing fears of Chicago residents.

These fears demand attention, but toothless pledges and shows of good feelings are intended to make it look like we can trust the state, banks, and real estate interests to protect working class people.

Governor J. B. Pritzker has called for a moratorium on evictions during his shelter-in-place order, but this provides no protection after the order ends and months of rent debt come due. This is compounding a larger crisis: 5,000-plus residents experience homelessness each night while 2,000 units of public housing stand vacant. In April, some 83,000 people applied for just 2,000 emergency rental assistance grants of $1,000 each—from a program that is explicitly designed to “help landlords to stay afloat.” Another program will keep 3,400 low-income tenants housed by making sure banks continue to receive mortgage payments.

Instead, we could force banks and billionaires to pay for housing for the 120,000 households classified as low income that are unable to find affordable housing. But the ruling class is giving aid on the condition that it flows back to them in the form of rent and mortgage payments.

While Governor Pritzker dodges demands to declare a rent holiday, the ruling class hides behind philanthropy and nonprofits, unilaterally deciding how much wealth to give away to keep people housed. Numerous funds, including one organized by the Pritzker family, have sprung up that allow billionaires and corporations to trumpet their giving while never putting their personal wealth at risk. State governments have increased funding for chronically underfunded nonprofit housing providers, but only slightly. This is what “solidarity” looks like to the ruling class: keeping their hands on the resource spigot and hoping that a trickle of dollars into a broken patchwork of nonprofits will hold off real reform.

The ruling class is trying to maintain its legitimacy by mobilizing private funding through private channels to help private nonprofits respond in privatized ways to the bodily danger we experience as a class.

Inside these privatized and nonprofit spaces, workers and clients are exposed to real risks. Undocumented children detained in Heartland Alliance facilities have frightening rates of infection. At least one homeless shelter has publicly reported an outbreak. Two workers at Haymarket Center have died of COVID-19. Howard Brown Health Center recently fired a union leader, robbing her of health care at the onset of the pandemic. Workers at Community Counseling Centers of Chicago continue to contend with late paychecks and unstable health care during COVID-19.

Behind the aura of ruling class philanthropy and professionalism, a quarter of COVID-19 deaths statewide are in nursing homes. Chicago’s Black community has endured disproportionate lethality. Unhoused individuals sleep on cots in open-air gymnasiums in a city with over 45,000 private hotel rooms, most of them vacant today.

In Springfield, Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, focuses his actions chiefly around individual solutions, such as the stay-at-home order, while doing nothing about the systemic inequality and injustice.

In Chicago, Lightfoot has foregrounded “equity” in her COVID-19 response. But this has materialized mainly in belated outreach and voluntary measures by neighborhood nonprofits, coupled with intensified policing and threats to send house partiers to jail. All the while, Cook County Jail remains one of the largest outbreak centers in the country.

But grassroots mobilizations of workers, mutual aid networks, tenant unions, and campaigns to declare a rent holiday show that we are not satisfied with solutions that leave control of all our resources in the hands of the ruling class. Real equity demands unconditional protection of our homes and bodies and environments, a baseline of shared safety from which workers and the people they serve can exercise the power to define their own recovery. Real equity demands real solidarity.

There are many ways to demand real rent relief. If you are a member of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America, you can click here to learn about how you can act. Otherwise you can plug into mutual aid, connect to tenant unions and organizers citywide and join the Lift the Ban campaign.

Hilco Covers Little Village in Dust; City Slaps Them on the Wrist

The demolition of a smokestack at the old Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village last month left residents of the predominantly Latinx community choking on dust and pollution in the midst of a pandemic of a respiratory disease. The demolition has become a growing controversy for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, which faces criticism from local environmental justice activists.

The smokestack was demolished on April 11 by Hilco Redevelopment Partners, in coordination with the city, with little notice for residents and despite pleas from activist groups to halt the demolition. The demolition sent a dust cloud through the neighborhood, which already has poor air quality because of nearby industry, according to Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. The demolition occurred without the safety measures the subcontractor had promised to implement.

Hilco’s project to turn the former plant into a shipping center received a tax break worth $19.7 million from the City Council in 2019, despite opposition from residents and environmental groups, which argued that increased air pollution from diesel-fueled trucks would exacerbate respiratory illnesses. Hilco has a history of environmental violations; it was fined $3.75 million for environmental violations in Maryland and was cited by the City of Chicago only weeks before the demolition for allowing dust to blow off the site. Additionally, in December, a worker, Reynaldo Grimaldo, died in a fall at the old plant site; the worker’s widow has sued, alleging negligence. Following Grimaldo’s death and the announcement that Target would be the anchor tenant of the warehouse, Little Village residents and organizations held a press conference in February to demand that city and county officials cancel the 2019 tax break.

Lightfoot blamed the demolition on Hilco, while Hilco in turn blamed its now-former contractor MCM Management and subcontractor Controlled Demolition Inc. Lightfoot issued a stop-work order for the site and promised to hold the company responsible and fine it for failing to follow demolition procedures. But she has also cited test results by the Chicago Department of Public Health and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claiming that the demolition triggered “no apparent health risks.” By contrast, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, in a referral for an enforcement action to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, accused the company of violating the Illinois Environmental Protection Act, among other regulations.

It is difficult to accept Lightfoot’s attempt to evade blame given the heavy criticism the project has faced from the outset, not to mention the fact that Lightfoot signed an executive order on her first day in office stripping alderman of their control over licensing and permitting in their wards. Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd Ward) claimed he was powerless to block Hilco’s city demolition permit; he said that he twice tried to delay the demolition, only to be told by the city that the project would move forward.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward), a member of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America, noted in the same Chicago Sun-Times report that Lightfoot’s choice to centralize power had “unfortunate and shameful consequences,” noting that a concrete plant he opposes in his ward could have similar results. “She can try to point fingers all she wants,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “But at the end of the day, the departments issued the permit in the first place. She has to own this as much as Hilco owns this.”

The bottom line is that Hilco, a company with a history of environmental violations, received almost $100 million in tax breaks for a project that residents and environmental groups raised safety concerns about for more than a year. Those concerns were routinely ignored or dismissed, as were the attempts of the ward’s alderperson to delay the demolition, even as the company’s on-site conduct has been called into question. And since the demolition, Lightfoot has ducked accepting responsibility for her administration’s part in the incident.

While City Hall claims the air quality tests show “no particulate levels considered to be unsafe for human health, per EPA standards,” the lack of transparency during this whole process—to say nothing of the mayor’s lack of transparency in general—has deepened the sense of distrust around the incident. Wasserman, who has called for an overhaul of the city’s permitting system, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the IEPA’s “referral for enforcement action” against Hilco shows a “glaring lack of coordination” between the city and the state. It is hard to disagree with her conclusion, and the city owes the residents of Little Village far more.

The Red Star Bulletin was conceived by Ramsin Canon and is a project of the Political Education & Policy Committee. This issue was drafted by CDSA members. Special contributions were made by Brent Glass, Geoff Guy, Charlotte Kissinger, Abi Kunkler, Alan Maass, Max O’Connell, and Sveta Stoytcheva. Graphics were contributed by Patrick O’Connell. If you would like to contribute to the Red Star Bulletin or have any feedback, email politicaleducation@chicagodsa.org.