Windy City elections show growing class divide

CHICAGO — The chorus from the famous labor song “Which Side Are You On?” may turn out to be a refrain in the February city elections here. The city’s Chamber of Commerce threw down the gauntlet when it declared it had a hit list of aldermen who voted for a “big box” living wage ordinance last year.

At the same time, labor and community groups, including the Service Employees International Union and the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), are preparing to back pro-union candidates for City Council seats. These organizations lobbied strongly for the passage of the living wage ordinance.

In July 2006, the City Council passed the Big Box Living Wage Ordinance by a veto-proof 35-14 vote. The ordinance would have required retail stores with over 90,000 square feet and $1 billion in sales, like Wal-Mart or Target, to pay their employees $13 an hour with $3 in health care benefits by the year 2010.

Mayor Richard Daley vetoed the bill after three aldermen who originally voted for the ordinance switched sides last September.

Nick Kaleba, communications director of the CFL, told the World that labor is one participant in a “broad coalition” of forces aiming to promote the rights of workers in City Hall. Chicago labor is very involved in the February elections and plans to endorse candidates accountable to working families, he said. “We’re going to go out and do everything it takes so that working men and women have a real voice in City Council.”

The CFL sent a five-page comprehensive questionnaire to all candidates running for office on issues ranging from the big box ordinance to privatization, Kaleba said. “We want to make sure that when we elect City Council members they know what labor is all about and care about what affects working people.”

Also in the mix is Chicago Jobs with Justice, a community-labor coalition. The group coordinated a Dec. 11 rally in response to Chamber of Commerce plans to oust alderman who don’t “support” Mayor Daley and big business. They pledged $1 million dollars to the effort — a huge amount for local races. The election is Feb. 27.

The Rev. Calvin Morris, executive director of the Community Renewal Society, told the rally that big business is trying to undermine the democratic process. “We are here to send a message to the Chamber of Commerce that City Hall belongs to the people, not the mayor, and not to private interests,” he said.

Katie Jordan, president of the Coalition of Chicago Labor Women, said, “Hell will freeze over before we let the Chamber of Commerce dictate to the workers about their rights to a living wage. We don’t want a complacent City Council and we are not going to stop until we get a living wage for all the workers of Chicago.”

South Austin Community Coalition organizer Elce Redmond told the World, “The Chamber of Commerce wants to buy City Hall, saying you can’t have an open debate when energy, rent and the cost of living is going up.”

At the end of the rally, protest leaders presented a letter to the business group carrying two demands: stop meddling in City Hall politics, and stop obstructing living wage laws and other pro-worker legislation.

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