The socialist story in Milwaukee should provide contemporary leftists in Chicago with hope that electoral success, beyond what they have achieved so far, is possible. The Milwaukee socialist movement was born out of the work of trade unionists and mostly German immigrants. The late 19th century in Milwaukee was characterized by enormous industrialization and the grim consequences that followed – pollution, long hours with little pay for workers, and difficult living conditions for many. David Rose was elected mayor of Milwaukee in 1898 and his tenure was marked by profound corruption. Milwaukee had reached a breaking point by 1910 – voters recognized the status quo was broken. The socialists’ winning message centered on cleaning up corruption and improving the lives of the city’s workers, many of whom were immigrants.
There are shades of that message in the campaigns of the five socialist aldermen who took office in 2019 in Chicago. The 2019 election was marred by a corruption scandal involving long-tenured alderman Ed Burke. Progressives and socialists running for City Council were happy to campaign as anti-corruption outsiders in a city famous for graft. But more than simply corruption, 40 years of neoliberal policies pursued by Republican and Democratic politicians in the United States has seemingly led to a breaking point, not unlike Milwaukee in 1910. Overtly class-struggle-oriented campaigns resonated with voters in 2019. Part of that success can be explained by resurgent labor unions in Chicago in recent years – not the craft and industrial workers that powered Milwaukee’s socialist movement, but teachers and service employees. After the ascendance of the militant Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators to the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), teachers in the city went on strike in 2012 in an action that is seen by many labor activists throughout the country as a pivotal moment. The strike signaled an organized resistance to austerity that had not been seen in modern history and paved the way for similar actions across the country.
Several of the socialist politicians in Chicago represent communities with large working class and immigrant populations in neighborhoods like Albany Park, Edgewater, Logan Square, and Pilsen. Campaigns focused on improving the lives of the working class through raising the minimum wage, making housing affordable, and improving public schools led to enormous success in last year’s elections. And similar to the “Bundle Brigade,” Chicago’s socialist aldermanic candidates relied on an army of volunteers from the Chicago branch of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and CTU to distribute campaign literature and get out the vote.
In the year since they took office, these five socialists have faced intransigence in City Council and from the mayor’s office on most of the issues that they campaigned on. But there have been some successes. Left-wing activists, such as Fight for $15, fought for years to raise Chicago’s minimum wage, and it will reach $15 an hour in 2021. The Chicago Teachers Union and local Service Employees International Union (SEIU) went on strike in 2019 for improved working conditions and more support staff such as social workers, counselors, and nurses in Chicago schools. The five Chicago socialists took to the picket line with striking workers and wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times demanding that the mayor support them. Perhaps most significantly, they teamed with Chicago DSA to launch a program called Bread for Ed that was modeled after a similar action taken by East Bay DSA during the Oakland teachers’ strike the year before. Volunteers made lunches for families that were affected by the strike and distributed them from the socialists’ aldermanic offices. This sort of mutual aid allowed CTU and SEIU workers to stay on strike for 11 days, the longest teachers’ strike in Chicago since 1987. They won major concessions from the city including contractual language that increases support staff in schools.
There are plenty of indications that Chicago socialists want to go beyond simply cleaning up corruption, beautifying the city, and improving public works. Affordable housing was at the center of many of the Chicago socialists’ campaigns. In the 100 years since the sewer socialists took control of Milwaukee government, the United States experienced discriminatory housing policy emanating from banks as well as local and federal government. America’s urban centers saw the Great Migrations of African-Americans moving from the South, white flight to the suburbs, and the emergence of new immigrants largely from Asia and Latin America in the second half of the 20th century. In recent decades, gentrification of whites back into urban areas has led to the displacement of Black and Brown residents. Chicago socialists have tried hard to address these developments in their city. They have endorsed the Lift the Ban Coalition’s efforts to reintroduce rent control in Illinois. They have supported the construction of 100% affordable housing complexes in their wards. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, a socialist alderman from the Albany Park neighborhood, has attended demonstrations sponsored by the militant Autonomous Tenants Union that has organized tenants that have been displaced by rising rents and gentrification.
Affordable housing is one area where the Milwaukee socialists had some success, but it also contributed to their downfall. In the early 1920s, socialist Mayor Daniel Hoan built the nation’s first public housing project called Garden Homes which was modeled after similar housing developments in England. But in 1955, socialist mayor Frank Zeidler’s political career suffered because of his commitment to public housing. Author Dan Kaufman described what happened: “In 1955, he was photographed inaugurating an addition to Hillside Terrace, a public housing unit built a few years earlier. He pointedly handed the first sets of keys to two families: one white and one black. That moment contributed to a racist backlash against Zeidler that included violent threats against his family during the 1956 campaign and rumors that Zeidler was using city funds to pay for billboards in the South urging African-Americans to settle in Milwaukee.” In 1960, Zeidler declined to run for reelection. There are potentially enormous political landmines for politicians supporting desegregated and affordable housing. So far Chicago’s socialists have stayed committed to reintroducing rent control and constructing more affordable housing in their neighborhoods.
Chicago’s socialists have also demonstrated a commitment to racial justice – an area with mixed results for Milwaukee’s socialists. Obviously, Frank Zeidler promoted desegregation in housing. Before him, Mayor Daniel Hoan forcefully opposed racism in Milwaukee. As Dan Kaufman explained, “In 1924, with the Ku Klux Klan in Milwaukee boasting more than 4,000 members, Hoan declared that he would make the city ‘the hottest place this side of hell’ if a K.K.K. member attacked one of his constituents, ‘whether he be black or white, red or yellow, Jew or Gentile, Catholic or Protestant.’” But Victor Berger, the godfather of the socialist movement in Milwaukee, expressed racist views about African Americans.
Chicago’s socialist aldermen attended protests organized by Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd by police in the summer of 2020. They have been the most forceful voices in Chicago’s City Council for a reassessment of policing in the city, a reassessment which would have drastic impacts on communities of color. They strongly argued for a reallocation of money in Chicago’s budget away from the Chicago Police Department and towards social services. They have also urged the mayor to adopt Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day and remove the statues of Christopher Columbus in the city.
Milwaukee’s socialists campaigned for years on making Milwaukee’s electricity a public utility, but failed to do so. Chicago’s socialists are hoping they can eventually make electricity a public utility in Chicago, a position that has led them to break with progressives on the City Council. Chicago’s electricity is distributed by Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), a private company that has provided northern Illinois with electricity since 1907. Chicago DSA created a campaign to Democratize ComEd in 2019: “By turning ComEd into a municipal utility controlled by the people of Chicago, for the people of Chicago, we can increase clean energy, get fairer rates, and put profits back into our community rather than into shareholders’ pockets.” The Chicago socialists on City Council have supported Chicago DSA’s campaign. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa identified democratizing ComEd as a major priority for the new Socialist Caucus almost as soon as it formed in the summer of 2019 when he went on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight and said, “We want to make sure we’re pushing forward the socialist cause…We want lower rates, we want to make sure we see an end to electrical shutoffs, we want to see municipal control of that utility.” In July of 2020, ComEd paid $200 million to the federal government after a sweeping investigation in which they were accused of bribery and illegally lobbying the powerful Illinois Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan. Despite the scandal, the city of Chicago is moving towards renewing ComEd’s contract which expires at the end of the year. The previous contract lasted for 30 years, tying Chicago to the private utility company for a generation. Socialists are hoping that their pressure on the private utility company will result in a shorter contract this time around with gains for constituents such as a commitment to greener energy. This is a fight that Chicago socialists will have to continue to wage over time.