The First Chicago Soviet?

The Chicago People’s City Council

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May Day 2006

A version of this article was originally published in New Ground 137, July — August, 2011.

by Bob Roman

Not really. But an exceptionally na├»ve Marxist-Leninist or your typical conservative might be forgiven the thought when first confronted by a flyer entitled “Chicago People’s City Council Meeting.” Instead, the event was an exercise in popular theater, an indoor rally of some 1500 community and union activists demanding a fair economy. It was held on the evening of July 7th at the UIC Forum at Halsted and Roosevelt in Chicago.

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it. Neither Chicago daily paper covered it, and broadcast media didn’t quite know what to make of it either. It had the form of a drama, an enactment of a legislative session complete with a roll call of the 17 or so community and labor organizations participating in the event.

Indeed, it takes some explaining. The meeting focused around four issue areas: jobs, housing, education, and public safety. For each, “Mr. Moneybags” in formal attire and top hat provided the usual neo-liberal rationalizations for policies that benefit the rich. He was answered each time by activists from the organizations concerned with that issue area. Audience reaction was encouraged, and Mr. Moneybags was provided with his own small cheering section of “millionaires.” The audience was asked to vote on the alternatives presented, and (no surprise) Mr. Moneybags lost each time. At the end, these were summarized in a “People’s Resolution” and voted on by the audience.

The image of Mr. Moneybags is straight out of the Great Depression, of course. And that period has in common with today the very rich sitting upon large amounts of wealth while much of the nation’s productive capacity is unused, including a large part of the population not participating in the labor market. It’s interesting that, unlike the Great Depression, Mr. Moneybags was not referred to as a “capitalist,” nor was there any mention of capitalism. Instead, the point of this exercise was a complaint that the rich have far too much say in arranging things to their own benefit, often to the disadvantage of everyone else. This is a pretty mild complaint, but then, not too many people are starving yet. It should be no surprise that some of the participants have a somewhat more radical critique of the matter.

The entire Chicago City Council was invited to the event. Some 19 of the 50 accepted though not all were able to attend. These included Bob Fioretti (2nd), Will Burns (4th), Roderick Sawyer (6th), Michelle Harris (8th), George Cardenas (12th), Toni Foulkes (15th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd), Roberto Maldonado (26th), Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), Jason Ervin (28th), Deborah Graham (29th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Nick Sposato (36th), Tim Cullerton (38th), John Arena (45th), James Cappleman (46th), Ameya Pawar (47th), Joe Moore (49th), and Deborah Silverstein (50th). The attending aldermen were seated on the stage. After the meeting adopted the People’s Resolution, the aldermen were invited to respond and to sign the People’s Resolution. Each had 90 seconds to respond and, for politicians, they did quite well with the time. When it came to their comments, it was clear that a few of them were very unclear on the concept, as the saying goes, but they all did sign the Resolution.

Being activists, a serious attempt was made to collect the names and contact information of the audience.

The Chicago People’s City Council was a follow-up, apparently, to an earlier “New Chicago 2011” project, a 501c3 type intervention in the Chicago mayoral election that provided a forum for the mayoral candidates and their prospective constituents. It was organized by the Grassroots Collaborative “and allies”, a community / labor coalition rather like Jobs with Justice. How did Chicago come to be blessed with two such organizations? Well, Chicago is big enough, for one thing. Beyond that, it’s an accident of history and politics that is best understood if you think “affinity groups.”

Earlier in this century, when the City of Chicago had been stonewalling the unions representing its employees, dragging negotiations far beyond the contract expiration dates, the Chicago Federation of Labor under Dennis Gannon and Tim Leahy organized a series of townhall meetings all across the city. At each meeting, 3 or 4 of the neighboring aldermen were invited to hear complaints from and answer questions from union members mostly from their own wards. The intimacy of these not small meetings made them highly effective. While the Chicago People’s City Council was impressive, it may be a little too easy, especially for those “unclear on the concept,” to think “these ain’t my voters.” On the other hand, Chicago politicians have learned to take the labor movement seriously. Stay tuned and stay engaged.