CHICAGO — A coalition of the multiracial organized labor movement and its community allies scored a stunning victory in the April 17 municipal runoff elections when 8 of 12 labor-backed candidates were elected to the City Council.
This included five union members, whose election will create an entirely new political dynamic in the council. They join a block of independent and labor-backed aldermen elected outright in the first round of voting Feb. 27.
“A baker in City Council? That’s right!” said Katie Jordan, president of Chicago Coalition of Labor Union Women, referring to Toni Foulkes elected in the 15th Ward. Foulkes is a bakery worker at a Jewel grocery store, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and a leader of ACORN.
Jordan told the World, “You don’t need a Ph.D. to be an alderman. A worker knows what working families are going through better than anyone else.”
The battle pitted Mayor Richard M. Daley’s political machine, the most powerful real estate and financial interests in Chicago, Wal-Mart and other global corporations against the organized unity of the people.
The election pivoted on reaction to Daley’s veto of the “big box” living wage ordinance legislating living wages and benefits at Wal-Mart and other big retailers. Aldermen who opposed the legislation were the chief targets for defeat.
But the election broadly reflected roiling discontent in working-class communities from marching gentrification, loss of affordable housing, spotty neighborhood services and economic development, and the erosion of affirmative action in hiring and city contracts.
Organized labor was angered by a drawn-out contract fight for public workers, privatization, and the growth of nonunion construction sites. It was determined to gain a louder voice in the council.
“This isn’t a one-time deal,” said Dennis Gannon, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “We’re going to be involved in aldermanic politics forever and ever. We’re not going to walk away from our friends. We’re not going to forget our enemies.”
At the heart of the victory was the alliance between the Chicago Federation of Labor, including the Service Employees International Union, and the African American community. This alliance deepened around the living wage fight. It stayed united despite efforts to split it, including vicious anti-labor lies targeting the African American community. But five of the biggest victories occurred there, when five African American women, including four with trade union backgrounds, were elected to the council.
The anti-labor attacks arose sharply at an April 3 ribbon cutting ceremony for new housing constructed with nonunion labor in the Englewood neighborhood. There, 16th Ward Alderwoman Shirley Coleman and Daley boasted that nonunion, low-wage labor made the new homes affordable.
The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists blasted Daley and Coleman for “declaring war on the idea of unionization” and ignoring that the housing was subsidized by working-class taxpayer money. AFSCME member Joanne Thompson defeated Coleman handily.
Also winning was Pat Dowell, former AFSCME member and director of a community development corporation. She defeated longtime incumbent Dorothy Tillman in the 3rd Ward.
Tillman had staked her reputation on early involvement in the civil rights movement. However, in recent years she had become increasingly anti-labor, cozied up to Daley and finally opposed the living wage ordinance. While she accepted Wal-Mart and developer cash, Tillman sought to portray unions as racist and all-white. Yet, 5,000 Black and Latino union members reside in her ward alone and voters soundly rejected this appeal.
Ald. Joe Moore from the Rogers Park neighborhood, a leader of the fight for the big box living wage ordinance, was heavily targeted for defeat by the real estate and financial interests. His opponent received 70 percent of his funding from a Republican fundraiser and Wal-Mart stockholder.
Moore narrowly won and, unbowed, proclaimed, “I don’t mind being a tool of working men and women, the average people, the little guy. Thank you very much.”
At a victory rally on April 20 with labor and its allies, six new aldermen along with Moore and Ald. Ricardo Munoz, thanked supporters and pledged to fight for a new pro-people agenda that included new living wage and affordable housing ordinances.
In reflecting on the election’s impact, Chicago Jobs with Justice Executive Director James Thindwa told the World, “The cycle of impunity is over. Unions are capable of exacting a price if you betray the people’s interests. This election was a triumph of old fashioned organizing anchored in truth over money and lies.”