Chicago story shows Poor People’s Campaign participants the power of solidarity
A marcher attends the Block the Permit block party in front of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s house in Chicago, November 2020. Photograph: Oscar Sanchez

MADISON, Wis.—Oscar Sanchez brought an example of the power of solidarity to the Poor People’s Campaign at a meeting in Madison, Wis.

Sanchez, a resident of Chicago’s Far Southeast Side 10th Ward, a now-predominantly low-income African-American and Latino area and a longtime dumping ground for toxic wastes from around the city, discussed a potential win against more waste in that neighborhood.

It only took a month-long hunger strike a year ago by Sanchez and eight colleagues to achieve it.

The nine banded together as leaders of a community campaign to stop the transfer of General Iron’s scrap-iron shredder plant from gentrified Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side, once home to heavy industry, notably steel mills. At their high point, hundreds of people joined the hunger strikers in solidarity.

The heavy industry is gone. The pollution from them and similar plants remains, including in Lake Michigan, environmental studies show. General Iron’s Southside Recycling plant would have added even more, and more toxic, chemicals.

But Chicago officials quietly granted an operating permit to General Iron, until the hunger strike caught everyone’s attention. The permit is stalled, but not dead yet. “We are not done with this struggle,” said Sanchez.

“We shouldn’t be treated poorly because we are poor,” he told the crowd gathered in a downtown Madison, Wis., Methodist Church at the second of two Poor People’s Campaign rallies on March 27. The first returned to the campaign’s original roots in Raleigh, N.C.

Both rallies anticipate the campaign’s June 18 mass march “Moral March On Washington And To The Polls.” RSVPs are at https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/june18/

PPC co-chairs the Revs. William Barber II (in Raleigh) and Liz Theoharis (in Madison) urged attendance there to show mass solidarity of poor and low-wealth people for the campaign’s goals.

Its 14-point platform leads off with eradicating poverty by raising wages, expanding the right to unionize, cutting war spending in half and diverting that money to education and other domestic needs, legalizing undocumented people, and expanding health care access.

“Even if you have health insurance, the companies still deny you treatment,” added the Rev. Della Owens, who has battled life-threatening lupus for 35 years.

The PPC also campaigns for expanding and protecting voting rights and against religious and political white nationalism, among others—and against environmental racism, just like the plant which threatens the Southeast Side.

“We need to shock the heart of America and revive the heart of America,” Barber told the rain-drenched crowd in Raleigh. “We need a heart transplant.”

But campaigns also need wins, especially when politicians ignore or dismiss the people involved. That’s where the Chicago hunger strike came into the picture.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s government quietly awarded General Iron the operating permit for the Southeast Side scrap metal plant. Before construction could start, the hunger strike, and a follow-up demonstration near the mayor’s house, got her attention. General conditions in the 10th Ward got attention, too.

“We shouldn’t have a 30-year difference in life expectancy between the Southeast Side” and gentrified Lincoln Park, Sanchez explained. That gap, with his ward trailing, is due to the pollution of both air and water in the neighborhood.

“There is no justice” when “you see a polluter move” into a poor neighborhood—a common occurrence of exploitation of people of color and by class from coast to coast. “We demand justice,” including a ban on the Chicago move, and reparations for past such moves nationwide, Sanchez added.

Other speakers, in both Madison and Raleigh, detailed other abuses against poor and low-wealth people—abuses the campaign plans to highlight when tens of thousands of people descend on D.C.

“We are the ones who make the money,” Fight For 15 And A Union campaigner Audrey Taylor said in Madison. “Not the CEOs. They sit back, with their legs crossed, checking their bank account…and wait for us to bring the money in,” said Taylor, a Wendy’s worker since 1995 who makes $8.25 an hour, a dollar above the state—and federal—minimum wage. That federal sum, $7.25, hasn’t risen since 2009.

“We’re not here just for people who work in a fast food restaurant. We’re here for the people who work as security guards, in nursing homes. We come together” to achieve those goals, she declared.

“We have always been ‘essential’ workers, yet well still don’t get the respect we deserve, or the wages and the benefits,” Takia Royal, a North Carolina health care worker and president of United Electrical Workers Local 150, said in Raleigh. But “workers in North Carolina and in the South are in a major, major crisis.”

The crisis is especially acute in the Tar Heel State. Despite recent union wins there, including a National Nurses United victory at a big hospital in Asheville, North Carolina is second to last nationwide in union density, ahead of only union-hating South Carolina. Both Carolinas also pay the federal minimum.

And North Carolina is one of two states to ban public workers from collectively bargaining, a ban Royal noted Carolina lawmakers approved in the segregation era.

“I see why corporations come to North Carolina,” she added. “They get some of the biggest tax breaks” from state and local governments “and pay some of the lowest wages.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

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