CHICAGO – Over 300 demonstrators representing 35 organizations denounced Bush administration policies outside the Sheraton Hotel here May 13, while the President was inside wining and dining with Republican fat cats. Bush was here to tout his welfare reform proposals and raise campaign funds for Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan, who is battling Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

‘Our leader is here,’ joked Rev. Calvin Morris, director of the Community Renewal Society. ‘Well, he’s your leader if you’re a billionaire or part of the military-industrial complex.’

‘It’s still the economy stupid,’ Bernice Bild, leader of Action for New Priorities, told the crowd. ‘$48 billion for the military will not help fight terrorism.’ Bild said it was time to put an end to the waste in the military budget and for new priorities that would put people’s needs first.

The rally was one example of a growing alliance of labor and community forces across the state that has been galvanizing in opposition to Republican policies. Fierce opposition has confronted Gov. George Ryan and Republican legislators who are attempting to push through $1.5 billion in cuts to health care, education, housing and services for the disabled.

There is growing unity around an agenda demanding no cuts to people-serving programs and for taxing the rich to overcome the budget crisis.

The pitched battle for governor and control of the state legislature is causing growing concern in Republican ranks. Illinois and the Midwest are seen as a key battleground in the 2002 elections. Bush has made four visits to Midwest states in the last week, with one eye on this year’s election and the other on 2004. Labor and its allies emerged from the March 19 Democratic primary largely united, while Republican moderates, conservatives and extremists were at war with each other.

The impact of right-wing Republican policies on top of the economic crisis has created a groundswell of protest across Illinois. Springfield has been the site of three mass demonstrations in as many weeks. On April 24, 10,000 trade unionists marched at the annual Solidarity Day lobby demanding repeal of anti-labor legislation; another 10,000 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees members protested May 7 against budget cuts; that would mean 1,800 layoffs, givebacks and service cuts, and on May 9, 5,000 protestors from the multi-racial Grassroots Collaborative, representing dozens of labor, community, religious, immigrant, student and senior organizations, ringed the capitol building.

‘Today is a day of reckoning. The people and water are rising. Either you sink or swim with us,’ Denise Dixon, Illinois ACORN chair, told the May 9 rally.

The mass protests against the anti-working-family agenda are increasingly being channeled into mobilization for the 2002 elections.

‘Our objective this year is to elect a pro-labor government,’ Sean Stott, legislative director for the Illinois State Federation of Labor, told the World. ‘We are working hard to elect the first solidly pro-labor governor in 30 years. I think Bush was in town because they take it as a very serious threat.’

Stott said the election mobilization of the million-member State Fed would surpass previous efforts because of the opportunities for change. The federation has launched a campaign to register 250,000 workers and their families to vote. Although billed as non-partisan, the election year effort is also aimed at electing a majority of pro-labor candidates in the State Senate to break the power of Republican State Senate President Pate Philip. This campaign is aided by the winning of a favorable redistricting map resulting from the 2000 census.

‘The message is clear. Union members and their families are angry about the treatment they’ve received,’ said Illinois AFL-CIO President Margaret Blackshere in announcing the campaign. ‘Whether it’s proposals that seek to balance the budget on the backs of workers or Pate Philip’s complete lack of regard to their concerns, workers have had enough.’

New census figures for Illinois show that while the rich grew richer during the boom period of the 1990s, the poor got poorer. Right-wing Republican efforts to further dismantle the welfare safety net in the middle of an economic crisis by cutting Temporary Assistance to Needy Families is creating more anger.

While in Chicago, Bush tried to boost his welfare reform proposal during a photo op at a UPS warehouse with workers who had formerly been welfare recipients.

‘It’s hypocritical of Bush to kiss women at UPS. Caseloads may be down, but women are poorer than ever,’ John Donahue, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless executive director, told the World. Donahue said Bush’s proposal would force women to work 40 hours a week while cutting income supports including transportation, education and child care.

‘We took 5,000 people to Springfield [on May 9]. We will not give up our agenda. We will make a difference in the elections,’ he said.

Lance Cohn and Emile Schepers contributed to this article.

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