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Forty years of women’s history

Jan Schakowsky and Heather Booth will join local leaders for a panel discussion celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Area Women’s History Council at 2 p.m. on Sunday, October 16, at the Prairie Production studio, 1314 W. Randolph.

Also participating are Maria Pesquiera, executive director of Mujeres Latinas; Jackie Grimshaw of the Center for Neighborhood Technology; Tracy Baim of the Windy City Media Group; and historian Rima Lunin Schultz, co-editor of  CAWHC’s biographical dictionary, “Women Building Chicago 1790-1990.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Reenacting Haymarket

Anybody who gets time-and-a-half for overtime and weekends off should know and appreciate the Haymarket Affair of 1886, one of the seminal events in labor history. Read the rest of this entry »

Where the money is: a lesson from CTU’s founders

This week Dirt Diggers Digest highlights the legacy of Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin, two Chicago teachers who founded a federation in the 1890s which grew into the first teachers union in the nation and ultimately the Chicago Teachers Union.

When the board of education used a purported fiscal crisis to demand reductions in teachers’ salaries, Haley and Goggins “launched an intensive investigation of tax dodging by some of the largest corporations in the city, finding that property tax underpayments amounted to some $4 million a year.” That was a lot of money in 1890.

Today in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is demanding that teachers and other public employees surrender not just pay and benefits, but their right to collective bargaining.  This would allow Walker and other officials to dictate terms of employment.

He says this is needed to meet a budget gap projected at $3.6 billion over the next few years.  But his recent enactment of $140 million in business tax breaks give credence to charges that his real agenda is destroying public employee unions.

This turns out to be a pattern around the nation — in states with Republican governors, as Michael Winship points out at Huffington Post. In Michigan, Rick Snyder has demanded $180 million in concessions from public workers and a billion dollars in cuts to schools, universities and local governments; he’s also pushing $1.8 billion in corporate tax cuts.

In Arizona, Jan Brewer passed $535 billion in corporate tax cuts, and now plans to kick a quarter of a million people off Medicaid.  In Florida Rick Scott is cutting essential services to pay for $4 billion in corporate and property tax cuts.

Closing deficits is not these folks’ top priority.

Last week we cited HuffPost’s report that two-thirds of corporations in Wisconsin pay no taxes, and the corporate share of tax revenue has fallen in half since 1981, according to the state’s revenue bureau.

Addressing the rhetoric of “shared sacrifice” coming from Walker, Real News Network’s Paul Jay points out that Wisconsin’s billionaires have seen their wealth continue to grow while everyone else suffers.  He says that restoring the state’s estate tax – which has brought in nothing for two years – to 2008 levels would raise $158 million a year.  Restoring it to its 2001 level, and throwing in a million-dollar exemption, would solve the state’s budget problems neatly.

Corporate tax avoidance is the target of US Uncut, a new group modeled on a movement in Great Britain.  They protested this weekend at Bank of America, which paid zero taxes [in 2009] and made over $10 billion in profits last year.

According to the Guardian, a GAO report found that 83 of the top 100 publicly-traded corporations in the U.S. use corporate tax havens to minimize their tax bills.  US Uncut says that big corporations dodge up to $100 billion in US taxes every year.

That’s a lot of money, even in 2011.  By coincidence, it’s the same amount that Republicans in Congress promised to cut from the federal budget.

In Chicago, CPS faces huge deficits, more school closings are promised, and state legislation backed by the mayor and his successor would take away teachers’ collective bargaining rights.  Meanwhile a new analysis shows that half of TIF subsidies have gone to the city’s most profitable corporations, with much of the rest going to developers of high-cost housing.  Expect that program to come under increasing scrutiny.

Sounds familiar

The regular morning trip to the coffeeshop for the newspapers was attempted, out of a combination of uncaffeinated inertia and curiosity, but aborted when a foolhardy plunge into a bank of snow resulted in a boot full of the stuff.

Back home, an old pamphlet, acquired in the free box outside Powell’s Books, presented itself:  “A Choice, Not an Echo,” by Phyllis Schlafly (1964); and the bitter tale of the betrayal of conservativism in the mid-20th century Republican Party led, as such things often seem to around here, to checking the version in the magisterial and highly entertaining “American Political Parties: Their Natural History” by Wilfred E. Binkley, also acquired outside Powell’s.

The relevant chapter goes a bit further back, and some of it sounds strikingly familiar.

There’s Andrew Mellon, treasury secretary from 1921 to 1932, who argued in 1924 that “if income and inheritance taxes were drastically reduced…the money hitherto paid in taxes would then be diverted from the Treasury to productive industry and provide ample employment and bustling prosperity,” as Binkley puts it.

The historian comments:  “Instead, much of it served to stimulate a bull market and contributed to the stock market crash of 1929.”

Then there’s William Humphrey, appointed by Calvin Coolidge to the Federal Trade Commission, which had been created under Woodrow Wilson “to scrutinize business practices, warn violators of anti-trust laws, and, if necessary, recommend prosecution of the heedless.”  Humphrey denounced the FTC on which he served as a “publicity bureau to spread socialistic propaganda” – which “harassed and annoyed business instead of assisting it.”  He vowed a new role for the commission: “to help business help itself.”  That worked out well, too.

By mid-century, with “a leadership prepared to govern in a static society, but bewildered…by one suddenly become intensely dynamic,” the GOP was “threatened with the palsying conservatism that had doomed the Whig Party,” according to Binkley.  Writing in the early 1960s, he saw hope for the party in the rise of “Modern Republicanism” – the very thing Shlafly viewed as a conspiracy of eastern internationalist elites and the source of the party’s irrelevance.

Today Schlafly stands vindicated, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell brands as unconstitutional a health care reform much closer to versions backed by Richard Nixon and Mitt Romney than to Harry Truman’s.

At Huffington Post, Robert Borosage writes, in anticipation of next month’s celebration of the centenary of the 40th president, that our current morass of economic decline and crisis could be considered “the ruins of Reaganism.”

Anti-union and free trade policies have decimated manufacturing and shipped millions of jobs overseas, sapping the middle class.  This has undermined the real engine of our prosperity – and perhaps the ballast for political moderation and tolerance – leaving us with economic strategies largely dependent on speculative bubbles and consumer borrowing.

Anti-regulatory policies that would have made Humphrey proud have gutted protections for consumers, workers, and the environment and left us vulnerable to the recklessness of the Enrons and the big banks.

Anti-tax and anti-spending policies have widened the nation’s huge income inequality gap which, as Robert Reich argues, is at the root of our economic malaise, and left government at all levels impotent to address the jobs crisis or invest in badly-needed old and new infrastructure – not to mention threatening basic services like schools and police.

Some folks think the economy is rebounding, but that requires accepting a “new normal” where jobs are hard to find and unavailable for increasing numbers, and where this advanced economy stops advancing. HuffPo’s Peter Goodman takes a skeptical look at claims of economic revival, pointing out that we’ve already experienced a “lost decade” — with a devastating downturn on the heels of the weakest recovery on record; over 25 years, while the cost of health care, education and housing have skyrocketed, workers’ earnings have stagnated.

We’ve gone from casino capitalism to cannibal capitalism, an economic system which feeds on its own, where homeowners are marks for predatory profiteering by powerful banks, where schools are cut and the big money is in prisons, where low-price, low-wage retailers make money from the food stamps their employees spend at their workplaces.

What’s scariest, perhaps, is the way economic decline feeds political reaction and division, which brings more economic decline in a vicious cycle.  We can do better than that.  We just have to get some people out of their 1924 mindset.

King Day: Hazel Johnson, jobs crisis, public workers

On more than one Martin Luther King Day, Chicago columnist Vernon Jarrett wrote columns highlighting the role of E.D. Nixon, the local organizer who recruited King to lead the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.

His point was that while history focused on King–  the way it always focuses on great leaders — the vast grassroots movement he shepherded was far more than a mass of aggrieved followers.  It included hundreds of local leaders, deeply rooted in their communities, many of them maintaining struggles over decades with remarkable tenacity and determination, often at great risk, and far outside the limelight.

A longtime Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organizer and president of the Montgomery NAACP, Nixon had led a march of 750 African American men to the Montgomery County courthouse to register to vote – in 1940.  He not only recruited King, he also recruited Rosa Parks, another long-time activist, for the campaign against segregation on city buses.

So it’s more than fitting that on this King Day, Mary Mitchell’s column memorializes Hazel Johnson, who died Wednesday at age 75.

Johnson shared the stage briefly with another great leader, Barack Obama, who worked on a campaign for asbestos abatement at Altgeld Gardens in the late 1980s, before heading on to law school and broader horizons.

Johnson began researching toxic contamination of the far south CHA development after her husband died of cancer in 1969 at the age of 41. She contacted public agencies and demanded information about the toxic waste dumps, landfills, incinerators and refineries that ringed the community, and when she didn’t get answers, she kept demanding.

Johnson – who also pioneered green jobs with training for Altgeld residents in environmental remediation — is the precursor of Van Jones and Green For All, Jerome Ringo (of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley) and the Apollo Alliance; and locally, of groups like Blacks In Green and Little Village Environmental Organization.  And People for Community Recovery continues its work under Johnson’s daughter, Cheryl.

Also part of her legacy is the ban on landfills on the Southeast Side, a long process initiated by Mayor Harold Washington after he toured Altgeld with Johnson in 1986.  In 2004 Waste Management was barred from accepting refuse in the last active landfill in the area.

Jobs crisis

When Martin Luther King Jr. launched the Poor People’s Campaign shortly before his assassination in 1968, it was in response to economic conditions that would look good today.

Unemployment in 1968 was 4 percent, 7 percent for African-Americans.  It’s double that or worse now, writes Isaiah J. Poole of the Center for America’s Future.

Poole calls for reigniting King’s drive for economic action, offering quotes from a sermon delivered by the civil right leader days before his assassination – quotes that ring true today.

Citing the Declaration of Independence, King declared that unemployment threatens its core commitments: “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”

To a political establishment that has abandoned action on the jobs crisis while it funds overseas wars, King declares: “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

Poole rejects “the constrictions on today’s political debate, which limit our horizons to variations of the discredited conservative notion that giving business what it wants — few rules to follow and even fewer taxes to pay — will lead to a revitalized middle-class America, when in fact we’ve already done this for more than a decade and what we have gained is a shrinking middle class caught in a race to the bottom.”

The Poor Peoples’s Campaign was necessary, King said, “because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.”

Today, “we could use a massive, dramatic confrontation on behalf of the more than 27 million who are unemployed or underemployed today,” Poole writes. “The spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. would certainly be in its midst.”

Public workers

A year ago we noted King’s final campaign was on behalf of public service workers in Memphis.  A year later, attacks on public workers and their unions have ratcheted up considerably.

The Progressive points out that this shifts the blame for the nation’s economic problems away from the powerful and further weakens the meager recovery now underway.

Labor Notes argues it’s based on a number of myths –that public employees make more money than their private sector counterparts, that private enterprise is more efficient, that taxes are too high (the problem is really that tax system is unfair, with working families taxed more heavily than the very rich).

It’s the latest phase of a largely successful, decades-long drive to neutralize unions by severely limiting workers’ right to organize.

The latest manifestation in Illinois is what Labor Notes describes as a billionaires’ attack on teachers unions.  In a sign of bad times, Democratic leaders like Mayor Daley and Rahm Emanuel have endorsed limits on teachers’ strikes, though the last strike in Chicago was decades ago.  Emanuel also wants to cut pensions for existing city workers, although the state constitution bars such action.

Mike Klonsky points out that Emanuel’s “I’ll Hammer Teachers” program ignores the real problems facing Chicago schools and makes it much tougher to attact good teachers. (Miguel del Valle has spoken up forcefully in defense of teachers.)

Ambitious candidates may chase the latest wave of political opportunism, but Martin Luther King – who once vowed to “fight laws which curb labor” — would advise them to get on the right side of the arc of the universe, the one that bends toward justice.

DuSable celebrates Burroughs; archives go online

Tomorrow, DuSable Museum features a day-long celebration of the life of Margaret Burroughs, the artist and institution-builder who died November 21. At the same time, the University of Chicago unveils a project to improve access to archives at South Side cultural institutions, including two founded by Burroughs, DuSable Museum and the South Side Community Art Center.

Dr. Margaret Burroughs: In Her Own Words is a day-long celebration of DuSable’s founder featuring storytelling, children’s workshops, musical and spoken word performances, and symposiums on Burroughs as educator, institution builder, social justice activist, and poet and artist.

Tours of the museum’s new exhibit, “Phenomenal Woman,” dedicated to Burroughs’s work, will also be held.

The free event starts at 10 a.m. (Saturday, December 11) at DuSable, 760 E. 56th, and concludes at 4:45 p.m. with a reception featuring Maggie Brown and Kelan Phil Cohran.

Friday night, U. of C.’s Uncovering New Chicago Archives Project unveils a website that will allow researchers to search the contents of collections from DuSable, SSCAC, the Chicago Defender, the Chicago Review, and the Vivian Harsh Research Collection at the Woodson Regional Library.

UNCAP grew out of a project at the university to identify and process archives related to African American history in Chicago, according to the University of Chicago Chronicle.  Graduate library students were trained to sort and inventory a range of archives, creating descriptive “finding aids” to help researchers locate materials on the website.

UNCAP includes collections from musician Sun Ra, poet Paul Carroll, and Defender political cartoonist Chester Commodore, as well as the Chicago Jazz Archive and the contemporary poetry archive at the University of Chicago Library.

Shel Trapp

It was always hard to conceive that Shel Trapp had been a Methodist minister.  He smoked like a chimney and swore like a sailor.

The co-founder of National People’s Action, who died October 18 at the age of 75, Trapp was strategist for the extended organizing campaign –growing out of grassroots drives against redlining and blockbusting on Chicago’s West Side – that won the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977.

“I don’t know many organizers who can claim an impact of $1 trillion,” sociologist Randy Stoecker tells the Sun-Times.  He says the campaign for CRA was “arguably the best piece of community organizing,” after the civil rights movement, in the nation’s history.

“The success of CRA is not debatable,” Stoecker said.  “It has brought so much money into communities that would otherwise have been excluded from that money.  Cities would be different.  It’s scary to think of what they would be.”

Beyond CRA, Trapp’s legacy is comprised of thousands of scrappy organizers he trained, passing on his tenacity and commitment.

“Among his proudest achievements was his work to help create ADAPT,” NPA reports.  Trapp worked with the group from the beginning, on campaigns to free people from nursing homes, to win accessible public transportation, and ultimately to pass (and enforce) the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Students create civil rights memorial in Marquette Park

Almost 44 years after Martin Luther King led a march through Marquette Park – where he was hit in the head by a rock – Gage Park High School students have created a civil rights memorial for the park.

It will be dedicated at 12 noon tomorrow, Friday, June 11,  at the Marquette Park Field House, 6734 S. Kedzie.

“What adults have talked about doing for 30 years, it took a team of 16-year-olds to accomplish,” said Gage Park civics teacher Victor Harbison.

Students spent two years researching the history and reaching out to elected officials, community groups, businesses and schools for support.  They’ve created content – including oral histories, footage of the marches, and photographs – for an interactive touch-screen kiosk donated by George Burciaga and SmarTechs

The students had an extended debate over the focus of the memorial, and ended up deciding the civil rights march was a vantage point to tell the story of their community, Harbison said.  The memorial is titled: “A Community Transformed: The Legacy of Dr. King and the Marches of 1966.”

Harbison points out that Gage Park High has “all the problems of a stereotypical urban high school” – high dropout rate, gangs, violence – “and the same group of kids were able to do this.

“This shows what high school kids can do.  All they need is somone to give them a chance.”

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