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In Bronzeville: school closings, violence, Wal-Mart, and TIFs

Two actions protested the closing of Overton Elementary in Bronzeville today — a morning rally highlighting safety issues (and much more), and an afternoon action, which raised larger issues of resources by drawing the connection to a Walmart being built nearby with TIF funds.

About a hundred parents marched from Overton, at 49th and Indiana, to Mollison, at 44th and King  — past four gangs and four drug locations, according to Francis Newman, a parent from Williams Prep, which is also on the school closing list.

The walk also took them past the spot where Columbia College student Kevin Ambrose was shot and killed last week, she noted.

“We’re demanding these schools be kept open and that they get the resources they need,” Newman said.  She said she recently visited Disney Magnet school, which has numerous computers, smart boards, and iPads for children.  “In our school, we can’t get a computer that works,” she said.

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Walmart turns 50

A coalition of Walmart workers, community groups, and small businesses is throwing a 50th birthday party for the retail giant.

In that spirit, here’s a story from Walmart’s earliest days (related at length here a few years ago): At the time of Walmart’s founding in July 1962, President John Kennedy passed a law extending the minimum wage to retail workers – with a loophole for companies earning less than $250,000.  Sam Walton promptly divided his stores into individual companies so they could be exempt.

On Saturday, community activists will pass out birthday cupcakes outside the Walmart Express at Presidential Towers, and Walmart workers — employees of local stores who are part of the new OUR Walmart group, along with members of Warehouse Workers for Justice — will tell stories of low wages, unaffordable health coverage, and wage theft.

It takes place a 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 30, at 570 W. Monroe.

“The past 50 years have really not been great for our economy, and Walmart’s growth is not unrelated to that,” said Janel Bailey of Chicago Neighborhoods First, a coalition of labor, community groups, and small business.

“Because they’re such a large employer, their model has had an impact throughout the retail industry and throughout the economy,” said Susan Hurley of Chicago Jobs With Justice.  “What they have done to the standard of living of working people has been dramatic and quite harmful.”

With the closing of Walmart departments and stores where employees have voted for union representation, thousands of workers across the country are now coming together in OUR Walmart (it stands for Organization United for Respect at Walmart).  It’s a nonunion association, as is Warehouse Workers for Justice.

And because previous efforts to block Walmart’s entry into Chicago failed – the company is pioneering a smaller format, the Neighborhood Market, allowing it to move into properties already zoned commercial without the public oversight required for big box developments, Hurley points out – local activists are focusing on supporting Walmart workers and “reforming” the company.

Food deserts and food stamps

While the company talked about filling “food deserts,” nearly all its Chicago stores are in affluent areas downtown or on the North Side – and its Walmart Express in Chatham is in an area with a thriving business district.

“The food desert talk was a red herring, part of the p.r. push to get into the city,” said Bailey.

“Food deserts are only part of the story,” she said.  “Areas that lack food access also lack access to good jobs.  Food deserts are also living wage deserts.  The problem is that if you’re not paying a living wage, you’re not really solving the problem of access to food.”

Indeed, half of all Walmart employees qualify for food stamps – not a strong sign that access to food is high on the company’s priorities.  (With Walmart now accepting food stamps, Newstips pointed out a couple years ago, “the money paid by taxpayers to supplement Walmart’s low wages can now be spent at Walmart, contributing even further to the Walton family’s riches.”)

On top of that, it’s estimated that $225 million is spent nationally on free and reduced school lunches for children of Walmart employees.

Meanwhile, in recent years Illinois has led the nation in tax subsidies to Walmart.  That’s in addition to providing Medicaid for many of the company’s employees.

In another 50th anniversary event, Interfaith Worker Justice is holding a prayer vigil on Friday, July 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Walmart at 3636 N. Broadway.  The group is calling on the company to mark its anniversary by finding ways to “give back for the sake of the neighborhood.”

’99 Percent’ vs. CME tax break

CME has been successfully bidding for the attention of Illinois politicians – and now regular folks are starting to notice.

On Tuesday, a statewide allliance is protesting at City Hall and then marching to State Senate President John Cullerton’s office to protest his legislation granting a $50 million tax break to CME, owner of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade.

On Wednesday, a coalition of community and labor groups will launch a campaign to derail CME’s tax break – and press for a small financial transaction tax on CME trades – with a march on protest at the Chicago Board of Trade and a stand with Occupy Chicago.

“It’s a shakedown,” said Mehrdad Azemun of National Peoples Action, of the new tax break.  NPA is one of several regional and statewide networks of community and church groups that are joining to protest the measure on Tuesday.

“Corporations as large as these need to pay their fair share, especially at a time when every day brings news of more cuts to state and city programs, more police stations being closed.”

He points out that just a few years ago, CME threatened to leave – and then promised to stay, after it received a $15 million TIF subsidy and millions more in property tax breaks.

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‘An amazing convergence’

It’s been a remarkable week in Chicago, a nonstop whirl of protests targeting the financial industry and government collusion with corporations, and demanding action on jobs, housing, and schools.

Coming Friday:  a rally for “jobs not cuts,” with MoveOn, Stand Up Chicago, Chicago Jobs With Justice and Occupy Chicago joining forces, at noon at the Federal Plaza.

Occupy Chicago gets much credit for capturing the public’s imagination – and for their 24-7 commitment and important organizational innovations.  But it was community groups and unions that staged some of the most dramatic and creative actions here this week.

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This could be the start of something big

New and old strands of youth, community, labor and peace organizing – voicing growing anger over the state of our economy and our democracy – will come together in a series of events here over the next week, with thousands expected for a major Columbus Day demonstration.

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Chicago In These Times

As a national publication based in Chicago, In These Times often provides better coverage of the local scene than its rivals – but this week’s issue seems particularly noteworthy on that account.

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Rally at Republic

It was the workers who made these windows,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez at Republic Windows and Doors yesterday. “These windows belong to the workers until they are paid for.”

He spoke during a rally of Republic workers and supporters in the cold and snow outside the occupied factory Saturday afternoon. Supporters included members of Teamsters, SEIU, UAW, AFSCME, United Steelworkers, and the Chicago Teachers Union. Republic workers are represented by United Electrical Workers Local 1110.

Federal law requires 60 days of pay — and state law requires 75 — when a plant is shut down without notice, Gutierrez said. It also mandates continued health coverage for that period, he emphasized.

Workers’ anger was fueled by the announcement that vacation and legally-mandated severance pay would not be forthcoming — according to union, the company’s bank, Bank of America, refused to allow the payments. (Bank officials have denied the charge.) Earlier the union had denounced Bank of America for failing to use $25 billion in federal bailout funds to maintain credit for businesses. There is widespread consensus supporting that charge.

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Bailout – 7

As Congress ponders possible reconsideration of the Paulson bailout package, local housing experts say it would have limited impact on the growing foreclosure crisis (more here).

Meanwhile, Chicago Jobs With Justice has called a rally tomorrow at the Federal Reserve Bank, 230 S. LaSalle, to demand that any legislative action include requiring that Wall Street be held responsible for paying for any bailout, to avoid cuts to other programs; an economic recovery plan that includes job creation; and real foreclosure and bankruptcy reform that protects homeowners and consumers (Wednesday, October 1, at 12 noon).

[UPDATE]  The weakness of the financial sector is not the main problem facing the economy, writes economist Dean Baker. “We would still be facing a recession even if all our banks were flush with cash. Hence the hype about the urgency of the bailout was an invention.” Read the rest of this entry »



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