This is an article that I wrote for New Ground 45, March – April, 1996. It played a small role in the 2008 election. Why? Barack Obama. You may recall that right-wing blogs and propaganda media began a campaign to label Obama a “socialist” that year, that he was someone who had worked closely with Chicago Democratic Socialists of America. This article (among a few other articles in New Ground related to the New Party) was proof. It was also argued that this (and Bill Ayers) demonstrated that Obama owed his political career to DSA. While these points were floated as trial balloons as early as May, the campaign was not unleashed until after Labor Day in September.
The timing was perfect: It was just in time for the dramatic start of the Great Recession. Especially since many of the web postings included links to the New Ground article. Thank you for referring folks to DSA right when capitalism was going through a major dysfunction! It generated considerable traffic.
Here’s what I know about the meeting itself. It was the University of Chicago Young Democratic Socialists (then referred to as the “Youth Section”) that organized the meeting. It was part of a national DSA agitation on the topic of economic insecurity. The UofC YDS brought on board the University of Chicago Democratic club. Just who invited any particular speaker I really don’t know. It would be more reasonable to assume the University Democrats were responsible for both Obama and Preckwinkle, but I don’t actually know. Chicago DSA endorsed the event as a matter of doing publicity.
Obama did not need anyone’s help in 2008. After he knocked Alice Palmer (the incumbent and his former employer) off the primary ballot, there was no primary contest. In the November general election, there was no one on the Republican ballot line. He walked into office.
A Town Meeting on Economic Insecurity:
Employment and Survival in Urban America
by Bob Roman
Over three hundred people attended the first of two Town Meetings on Economic Insecurity on February 25 in Ida Noyes Hall at the University of Chicago. Entitled “Employment and Survival in Urban America”, the meeting was sponsored by the UofC DSA Youth Section, Chicago DSA and University Democrats. The panelists were Toni Preckwinkle, Alderman of Chicago’s 4th Ward; Barack Obama, candidate for the 13th Illinois Senate District; Professor William Julius Wilson, Center for the Study of Urban Inequality at the University of Chicago; Professor Michael Dawson, University of Chicago; and Professor Joseph Schwartz, Temple University and a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.
The meeting demonstrated that economic insecurity is an issue not exclusive to Buchanan Republicans. It is a vital issue for the left as well. More than that, it illustrated that, unlike the Right, the democratic left has a number of potential solutions that go beyond mere demagoguery.
Alderman Preckwinkle began the discussion by observing that the Chicago City Council rarely takes up the great issues facing the city even when it is presented with legislation dealing with these issues. Hearings are not held. Legislation rarely makes it out of committee.
As examples, she used Alderman Joe Moore’s (49th) Privatization Ordinance which was introduced last year and the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance which will be formally introduced in the Council very soon.
The Privatization Ordinance (see January – February, 1995, New Ground, page 1) was a modest effort to regulate the manner in which city services were privatized. It would have made the process accountable and made sure savings were not accomplished at the expense of employees. The measure was consigned to oblivion in committee. While a majority of the Council “supported” the ordinance, an attempt to release it from committee failed for lack of votes.
The Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance (see January – February, 1996, New Ground, page 10) is a more ambitious attempt to require city contractors to pay a minimum living wage. The measure will be formally introduced into the Council in April or May. Alderman Preckwinkle was not optimistic about its prospects although the presence of the Democratic National Convention may provide some opportunities for better leverage.
Barack Obama observed that Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in the 1960s wasn’t simply about civil rights but demanded jobs as well. Now the issue is again coming to the front, but he wished the issue was on the Democratic agenda not just on Buchanan’s.
One of the themes that has emerged in Barack Obama’s campaign is “what does it take to create productive communities”, not just consumptive communities. It is an issue that joins some of the best instincts of the conservatives with the better instincts of the left. He felt the state government has three constructive roles to play.
The first is “human capital development”. By this he meant public education, welfare reform, and a “workforce preparation strategy”. Public education requires equality in funding. It’s not that money is the only solution to public education’s problems but it’s a start toward a solution. The current proposals for welfare reform are intended to eliminate welfare but it’s also true that the status quo is not tenable. A true welfare system would provide for medical care, child care and job training. While Barack Obama did not use this term, it sounded very much like the “social wage” approach used by many social democratic labor parties. By “workforce preparation strategy”, Barack Obama simply meant a coordinated, purposeful program of job training instead of the ad hoc, fragmented approach used by the State of Illinois today.
The state government can also play a role in redistribution, the allocation of wages and jobs. As Barack Obama noted, when someone gets paid $10 million to eliminate 4,000 jobs, the voters in his district know this is an issue of power not economics. The government can use as tools labor law reform, public works and contracts.
Finally, Illinois needs an industrial strategy. How do we create more jobs for everyone? Illinois has no strategy for encouraging high wage, high productivity jobs.
Professor Wilson’s presentation was based on his forthcoming book, When Work Disappears: the World of the New Urban Poor. William Julius Wilson began by demanding that the left not be intimidated by the Contract on America and how it has limited the terms of the debate. What we need, he asserted, was a jobs policy based roughly on the New Deal’s WPA. The work would concentrate on badly needed infrastructure maintenance and improvement. It would be a universal program; the jobs would be available to everyone, “including Donald Trump” if he chose to do some useful work for a change. These would be new jobs. State and local government would not be allowed to subsidize their own budgets the way they did with CETA in the 1970s.
Professor Dawson spoke on how critical the issues facing this country have become. Not only have the problems themselves become severe, but the politics resulting from them have become a danger to freedom and democracy.
DSA member Joe Schwartz brought the presentations to a rousing close. He observed that any politics of the democratic left needs to confront racism. There is no way we can finesse the issue by simply organizing around universal programs; we need to build a new politics of social solidarity. He concluded by pointing out that all of the proposals given tonight, even the most modest, will be red-baited. We must grow up and be forthright about how social democracy / democratic socialism has made the life of working people better the world over.
Which is exactly our point.