PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday November 11th, 2014, 4:39pm

Chicagoans Rally For Economic Justice, Policies To Support Working Families (VIDEO)

Hundreds of Chicagoans hit the city's downtown streets Tuesday afternoon to rally for economic justice. Progress Illinois provides highlights from the "Take Back Chicago" march and rally.

Hundreds of Chicagoans hit the city's downtown streets Tuesday afternoon to rally for economic justice and demand action from their elected officials on policies important to working families, including a minimum wage increase.

The "Take Back Chicago" protest and march, organized by community and labor groups, started at the Chicago Temple and ended with a rally at the Chicago Board of Trade. Activists -- who carried signs reading "the 1 percent owes us" and "students before bankers" --  called on city and state policy makers to prioritize neighborhoods over corporate interests.

They specifically took aim at the "failed" policies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is up for re-election in February.

"In 2015, we won't forget the [mental health] clinics being closed. We won't forget the libraries being cut. And we will not forget the 50 plus schools that have been closed under this administration," Brandon Johnson with the Chicago Teachers Union told the large crowd at the Chicago Temple before the march.

The demonstration, held one week after the midterm elections, focused on several key demands, including approval of a state minimum wage increase to $10.65 an hour during the upcoming veto session, adoption of a $15 hourly minimum wage in Chicago and an elected school board in the city.

"We don't need an unelected school board that is appointed by the mayor to make profit (off) of our children, especially when they claim that they're broke," said Byron Sigcho, a Pilsen Alliance member and a 25th Ward aldermanic candidate. "And all of a sudden we see money being poured to projects downtown. I mean, how insulting? How disconnected these public officials are that they don't realize how our communities are being hurt."

Activists also called for the reopening of six public mental health clinics that closed in 2012 and immediate reforms to the Chicago Housing Authority. The call for CHA reforms follows a recent fiscal review by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, which showed the housing authority has built up large cash reserves in recent years primarily by socking away millions in federal funds intended for housing vouchers.

Public housing advocates are specifically upset with Emanuel, who appoints the CHA's board and CEO, because he has not endorsed the "Keeping the Promise" ordinance, introduced by 13 aldermen in September, that would provide the Chicago City Council with greater oversight of the CHA.

Knowing that the CHA has millions of dollars that could otherwise be used for public housing frustrates Chicago Housing Initiative member Mary Nelson, who has struggled with homelessness.

"The CHA sits on thousands of vacant public housing units and unused vouchers," she said. "Why, Mayor Rahm, are you allowing people to die on the streets? I was one of those people. How'd you let my son live in a shelter for so long when CHA has all this money?"

On the hourly minimum wage, Emanuel supports an increase to $13, up from the current $8.25. Organizers are pushing a competing $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance in the council, because it would cover more workers. The $15 plan also includes a greater wage hike for tipped workers, who currently earn a base hourly wage of $4.95.

"Chicago is a service city. The mayor and aldermen love being served from casual to fine dining restaurants. But they want to pay us just $4.95 or $5.95 an hour. Once again, tipped workers are being left out," Nataki Rhodes, a tipped worker and member of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) said at the Chicago Temple. "Thirteen dollars is not enough for a livable wage in Chicago. Why is the mayor only listening to the restaurant lobby? Tipped workers deserve living wages too."

Here's more from Rhodes and scenes from the protest:

Protesters toted signs with the names of different Chicago neighborhoods. Other carried eight-foot-tall puppets of Rahm Emanuel as well as fictional elected officials, including "Alderman Ronald McDonald," "Alderman Loop Capital" and "Alderman Bank of America" to represent the "corporate players" driving policies "that turn the pain of Chicago neighborhoods into profit." Those at the protest said they take issue with certain corporations and banks profiting off of "poverty wages," toxic interest-rate swaps and social impact bonds.

"We wanted to make very clear the connections between corporations in the city of Chicago, banks in the city of Chicago and the policies that the city of Chicago makes," said Amisha Patel with the Grassroots Collaborative. "People think that it's the aldermen and the mayor that move forward our public policy, but the fact is so much of that actually is influenced or directed by the corporations who have the ear of the mayor, unlike the people."

"What we want to say is: listen to the people," she continued. "Our needs need to be listened to and met when deciding public policy."

Organizers called for an end to the interest-rate swap agreements the city and Chicago Public Schools have with banks and private investment firms, including Bank of America and Loop Capital. Critics of the agreements say the deals cost the city and school district some $100 million each year.

"We want the city to demand that money back, but we also want the bank to do what's right, instead of getting rich off of taxpayers of the city of Chicago while our schools get closed," Patel said. "They have an opportunity to step up and be part of the solution as well."

Chicago progressive Alderman and mayoral candidate Bob Fioretti stood in solidarity with the marchers.

"Income inequality has grown significantly in this city, and it keeps growing day by day," the alderman said. "If we don't increase the minimum wage, it keeps right on going ... Something's wrong with the way we are doing business. This city is heading in the wrong direction."

Fioretti also reiterated his support for reopening the mental health clinics.

"That's an issue that's going to be important to me under my administration -- that we make sure everyone has the care that is necessary for mental health issues [and] to address the homelessness in this city, which is barely being touched in the next few days in what we vote for in this budget," Fioretti said.

In last week's election, meanwhile, Illinoisans overwhelmingly backed a statewide advisory ballot referendum on a state minimum wage increase to $10. It remains to be seen if the state legislature takes up a minimum wage hike during the veto session, which starts next week.

"Winning the referendum is a huge victory, but there's still more work to do," said Alvesta Sanders with Action Now. "We need to let our politicians know that working families will be watching to make sure the minimum wage increases quickly."

Activists are planning a trip to Springfield to advocate for a minimum wage increase on November 19. They are also gathering petition signatures to put an advisory elected school board referendum on the ballot in each of the city's 50 wards.

"These are basic issues that have mass support of community people across neighborhoods in the city of Chicago," Patel said. "And we're going to be out here talking, integrating our fights as much as possible until we win."


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