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Its about More Revenue, not Budget Cuts!

At a time when states and cities are fighting back austerity measures, organizers in Chicago are flipping the script! Instead of asking policy makers to stop making cuts, they are exclaiming ‘Show me the Money’!  Taking up the #Occupy moment, Grassroots Collaborative Executive Director Amisha Patel sits with OrgUp editor Sushma to discuss a recent victory: an agreement with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to return $60 million in social services for the People.

Q: This year marks historic outburst and outcries by the American public against budget cut backs and austerity measures. From February’s uprising in Madison, Wisconsin to #OccupyWallSt mobilizations last week, people are coming out of the woodwork.  Why now?

A. The housing collapse in 2008 finally signaled to the mainstream that something is wrong with this system, though people of color and poor communities have known this for some time.  The Right took hold of the narrative and used the moment to connect with the squeezed white middle class, and moved them with anti-government rhetoric that built on resentment and frustrations that had finally boiled over.

Its about More Revenue, not Budget Cuts!

Progressives, however, have increasingly broken through.  And what’s done it has been bold direct action grounded in long-term grassroots organizing that captured the sentiment of the majority.  The 2008 winter occupation of Republic Windows by UE rank and file workers did just this.  So did Mohamed Bouazizi in Jan 2011.  The takeover of the Madison statehouse continued this work.  Occupy Wall Street, and the birth of hundreds of acts of resistance, is yet another continuation.  This isn’t to say that the conditions for each of these efforts are the same, but they all point to the sparking power of direct action that directly confronts the corporate agenda, particularly when organizations and movements of people are ready to sustain the momentum with clear demands that speak to majorities of people.

 

In Chicago, we have been strategic about how to move direct actions around our organizing campaigns.  We have effectively built upon the national attention of Occupy Wall Street, and the effort is grounded in local organizing.  Through a broad community and labor coalition, we organized a march of 7000 people in October to protest two conventions of the financial elite.  We followed the mass action with days of planned actions and civil disobedience, generating tremendous coverage and effectively changing the narrative.

 

 
 
 

Q. While many movements are criticizing the cutbacks and spending cuts, some Chicago organizations tried another tack.  You flipped the script. Instead asking to end cutbacks, you called for increasing revenue generation. Where did this idea come from and how did Chicago’s decision makers respond? 

A.Grassroots Collaborative groups and our allies have been fighting for more revenue at the state and local levels for years.  This stems from a shift in strategy as the economic crisis became justification for the right to slash the public sector and services to low-income communities.  If we continued to have a reactive fight against cuts, we would be pitting ourselves against many other equally critical programs and services.  For us all to win, we need to expand the pie.

In 2008, we spearheaded a coalition called the Campaign for Illinois’ Future that brought together over 130 groups to fight for an income tax increase.  By launching a hunger strike that included an 87-year old neighborhood leader, we wrested attention away from the corruption-focused media circus surrounding ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich, to the dangerous state of Illinois’ budget and its impact on women and communities of color.

Its about More Revenue, not Budget Cuts!

Our work addressing revenue in Chicago came from a power analysis we led with 20 key labor and community organizations immediately following the election of Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Spring 2011.  Consensus emerged that the ultimate power of the Mayor lies in the corporate power that elected him.  We realized that we could no longer keep running issue campaigns that did not reframe the corporate agenda.  So, we developed a strategy to move campaigns for revenue that targets city subsidies (Tax Increment Financing dollars) meant for blighted communities.

On the eve of the Mayor’s inauguration in May, the Grassroots Collaborative held our first action on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), who received $15 million in our TIF dollars to renovate their bathrooms.  Last year, the CME posted a profit of nearly $1 billion dollars, yet took our tax dollars away from our classrooms and our libraries so they could install golden toilets.  It’s a message that resonated powerfully with the broader public.

On Oct 16, 2011, one week after introducing the RBO, Mayor Emanuel agreed to declare a 20% TIF surplus, sending $60 million back to our public services.

From the beginning, Mayor Emanuel repeatedly rejected the idea of declaring a TIF surplus.  The Collaborative’s strategy was to do a series of creative, public actions that captured our message powerfully and shifted public support against corporate welfare.  We held a Bake Sale for Billionaires, we held class on the sidewalk outside the CME, and conducted a Corporate Welfare Tour via trolley through the streets of downtown.

Meanwhile, we introduced legislation that directly challenged Mayor Emanuel on the TIF Surplus.  Called the Responsible Budget Ordinance, our legislation calls for a 50% TIF surplus declared, and would return hundreds of millions of corporate slush money back to our struggling schools, parks, libraries, and City.

On Oct 16, 2011, one week after introducing the RBO, Mayor Emanuel agreed to declare a 20% TIF surplus, sending $60 million back to our public services.

We continue to push for our 50%, but this victory is significant for several reasons:

- We forced the City to move significant dollars from what has become a downtown corporate slush fund to our neighborhood schools, parks and libraries, bringing revenue into public services at a time when most cities are cutting back

- We changed the narrative.  Even Crain’s Chicago, our right-leaning business journal, wrote articles in support of our position against the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and reader comments overwhelmingly supported our position as well.  This resulted from a key columnist taking interest in our Bake Sale for Billionaires action at the CME – it was a clever message that resonated with him and readers and put us on the radar

- In a time of regular defeats, it is critical that we claim this victory to grow momentum, acknowledge the reform achieved, and continue building.  Our low-income, majority Black and Latino leaders are energized around this work, are constantly developing their skills and knowledge around taking on the corporate agenda, and are forceful advocates for taking on corporate power and winning a people’s budget.

 
 

Its about More Revenue, not Budget Cuts!Q. We are rumored to be on the precipice of a double-dip recession.What new strategies do you see union and community organizers taking on in the face of such possibilities? 

We’re at an interesting moment with the national and international attention that Occupy efforts have brought to what’s not working with capitalism, but the conversations still must be deepened.  We do this by looking at 1) history, 2) participation, 3) collaboration, and 4) theory/imagination.

History. I was at a gathering a few weeks back to mark the release of a new book on Gale Cincotta.  The room was full of movement leaders active in that era.  Some remarked with dismay how little things have changed from the 70s to present time – that the signs protestors carried back then could be carried at an Occupy march today.

A different perspective is that we must know what we’ve done before to understand how we have arrived at the moment we are in.  Cincotta’s march on the American Banker’s Association preceded Take Back Chicago’s march on the ABA by 30 years.  It failed to ignite the movement she had hoped for, yet 3 decades later, Occupy Wall Street exists.  Its worth considering how many of our “failures” are actually instead sparks with the potential to ultimately shift the paradigm.  Maybe if we knew that, we would never stop trying.

Participation. As organizers, we must continually deepen our leadership development work – and get to the place where people of color and working class leaders are deeply connected with one another, because we cannot take on the oppressions we’re up against if we’re in silos, or tokens at press conferences.  The Collaborative has worked steadily to move beyond superficial engagement with our leaders, as we have tired of waging great multi-year campaigns that don’t lead to greater capacity or connection at our base.

We must be in connection and in deep community so that we can undo the internalized effects of the classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, colonization, genocide, and every other form of oppression.  We must sustain and grow spaces of learning and engagement that create real space for grassroots leaders to grow themselves as they grow the work.  We must recognize that getting our minds back is just as key as creating good policies and transforming structural inequities.

Collaboration.  Labor and community efforts could lead to work that is both deep and at scale, but only if both are open to learning from each other and innovating new strategies.  We must continue to articulate what we are for, and not simply what we’re against.

The current structures and frameworks for most labor unions and community organizations do not support this work.  It requires us to go beyond the union contract, and the measurable objective of the policy win.   Community Unionism sees that the decriminalization of youth of color, the defense of public housing, and the end to sexual violence are economic justice issues.

In Chicago, issues of turf remain strong 40 years after the death of Saul Alinsky.  Recent work though has pushed against the traditional barriers to movement building, creating shared platforms, analysis, and strategies for change.  The Grassroots Collaborative has played a useful role in this effort.  We organized 2600 people from 25 community organizations to create a citywide push for a people’s agenda during the muni elections.   We followed this with a People’s City Council meeting that brought together 19 aldermen and 1600 energized community leaders and rank and file workers taking on the corporate agenda.

Theory. Imagination. As the economy continues to worsen, the question emerges: what are we doing now to prepare to rebuild society, and how will we create a world that supports the liberation of all people?  What are we doing to make sure that low-income people and people of color not only survive the collapse, but are the center of building anew?

We must work with our leaders on their early experiences of poverty, racism, sexism etc, because as the economy worsens, feelings of discouragement and hopelessness will continue to get kicked up.  We must do this work ourselves as well.  We are still figuring it out ourselves at the Collaborative, but it seems that if we want to imagine another world is possible, let alone build it, we must undo the effects on us of the current one.

The power of telling our stories grounded in smart analysis has shifted the sense of what is possible in this city.  There is more work to be done.  But taking on the corporate agenda to win revenue for our communities has grown our power significantly, and has helped to finally begin to shift the narrative.

Amisha Patel serves as the Executive Director of the Grassroots Collaborative, a community-labor coalition working to win racial and economic justice in Chicago and Statewide.  This follows six years of work at Service Employees International Union Local 73, where she organized hospital employees and Head Start workers, as well as worked in coalition with community organizations to fight against school closings and to win more resources for parks in communities of color.  She worked for five years doing arts-based violence against women prevention programming in communities of color in the Bay Area.  The documentary that her youth created, Young Azns Rising! Breaking Down Violence Against Women, screened in numerous film festivals and won the Asian Emmy for best documentary.  

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