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Dec. 16 2009 - 4:11 pm | 92 views | 1 recommendation | 24 comments

Chicago street battle: corporations vs. public interest (and afforable housing…)

Protesters from the local group Sweet Home Chicago lined Dearborn Street yesterday, asking for more TIF money for affordable housing.

Protesters from the local group Sweet Home Chicago lined Dearborn Street yesterday, asking for more TIF money for affordable housing.

It was sort of a rally/protest/affordable-housing-street-brawl on Dearborn street yesterday. A brisk winter morning, protesters lined up in front of 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti’s office downtown, asking him to sign on to an ordinance that would require 20 percent of Chicago’s TIF funds to go toward affordable housing.

Why? Because the group says that money is being used for “corporate welfare” -  subsidies for big businesses like UPS and the CME group. Their report, released this week, says millions of TIF dollars have been given to big corporations already making large profits, instead of being used to benefit the public.

It started off normal enough. Signs, chants, singing, people bundled up in the cold, police shooing them off the sidewalk. Several speakers, including a mom living in a shelter and a factory worker from the North West side, spoke about how difficult and stressful it is to find affordable housing in Chicago.

And then, something happened which almost never happens.

I’ve been to rally after rally, and I’ve never seen the party being protested come out and confront the rabble-rousers. Usually, they’re “not at the office” or “in an important meeting.” Can they come out and speak to the people? Absolutely not.

But then came Alderman Fioretti, striding down the street, into the crowd. It helped me realize why officials rarely do this. It wasn’t pretty. Take a look:

So Fioretti sounded like a politician with Tourettes – switching from statistics to administrative worries, from agreeing to disagreeing. I give him credit for trying, but the crowd just wasn’t feeling him.

The basic conflict is this: money from TIF funds went to corporations. Corporations like UPS ($6.9 million), CME Group ($15 million), and Willis Holdings ($3.9 million).

The companies like this. Their employees like it. The politicians that they help support, and that want those businesses to stay in their district, like it.

The people on the street – they don’t like it. They say those dollar bills should be going to help hardworking Chicagoans, not companies who already made profits of hundreds of millions each.

It’s a very familiar struggle. It’s like evolution vs. creationism. Pro-life vs. Pro-choice. Coke vs. Pepsi.

Do we give taxpayer dollars and tax breaks to businesses because corporations are not greedy life-sucking mammoths, but helpful entities that create jobs? Or should taxpayer dollars go directly to making sure that people have the necessities – food, shelter, and education?

The popular liberal stance is to demonize corporations. The popular conservative stance is to demonize the people on the street, asking for a handout (although, I think it should be noted here that wealthy corporations are not too good to ask for government handouts, apparently).

IMG_2768What do we do? How do we answer this question? How do we balance the interests of government with the interests of the people?

Many readers will say (I have one in mind in particular) that we serve business and business will serve the people. But the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire comes to mind here, 146 workers burned or jumping to their deaths because it was in a corporation’s best interest to lock them on the factory floor. And a year ago today, we were celebrating the victory of the Republic Window’s workers, who sat in their former employer’s factory for six days, demanding to be paid what they were owed. As someone who stood outside in the cold each of those six days, covering the story, I can’t help but admire their courage and understand the need to stand up when business tries to screw the workers.

On the other side, there’s all those cities, now more like ghost-towns, that fizzled after a factory moved out. Towns like Thomson, Illinois, where people are delighted to take Gitmo prisoners if it means a paycheck and food on the table. Is it better to have a crappy job or none at all?

Maybe these battles are truly American in their own way. Business vs. the individual, church vs. state, majority vs. minority. Fighting them out on the street may seem futile at times, but it’s also a beautiful demonstration of democracy.

In the balance between corporations and the public interest, which side do you think should tip the scale?


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  1. collapse expand

    Housing EVERYONE can afford? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Why can’t politicians just leave our money alone and let the market work. Output and price should be set where supply equals demand. It’s pretty simple.

    “the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire comes to mind here”

    So because workers died in a fire a hundred years ago, we should turn to government to solve our problems?

    It has always been in a businesses best interest to maximize profit. That’s how more and better jobs are created. Businesses have far more motivation to keep their workers and customers happy than government ever will. If people don’t like how a business is being run, they will take their money elsewhere. That’s the great thing about living in a free society. Even tho everyone acts in their own self interest, it still raises everyone up. Ever heard of the “invisible hand”? Adam Smith wasn’t just spewing non-sense.

    • collapse expand

      Its a different world now, the moral compass is lost, Adam Smith could not have imagined the perverse incestious relationship between the gov and the business lobby. I am wishing for you to think about were we are headed as a society, it is getting dangerously bad. Are economics paving the way for another revouloution? We have to do something with the poor, the numbers are to big to ignore and getting worse. I also wish I had the answer, I do not. We need ideas now, think and help please.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      See also another excellant essay here today.

      The American march toward European style socialism Ungar

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Well, here’s a story from 2004 about Wal-Mart locking their workers in their stores (http://tinyurl.com/nqc35k). So, locking employees up, not exactly a historical artifact.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Reading your last paragraph, shaking my head, & rolling my eyes. Sorry, but you Libertarian types have this wide-eyed, childlike faith in “the free market” (whatever that is) that would be almost touching, if it was about Santa & the Tooth Fairy, & you were five years old… So you actually believe that businesses wouldn’t enslave their workers, poison their customers, pollute the environment, & wreck the economy, if they could thereby maximize their profits without consequence? That’s kind of totally naive. Because in a free enough market, there are plenty of cheap & easy ways to avoid consequence, Adam Smith notwithstanding. Sorry about the snark, but if you keep reading Reason Magazine without looking out of your window & contemplating the wreckage, you’re going to deserve the ridicule you get. If, after the current catastrophe, & considering the economic history of the U.S. leading up to & since the Great Depression, you still defend unregulated capitalism, especially if you’re not one of the very few who profit from the system, well, you just ain’t no rational thinker, nohow. If it upsets you that fewer & fewer are buying your faith-based magical thinking in the marketplace of ideas, well, that’s just the “invisible hand” at work. & whatever you do, DON’T read “The Tragedy of the Commons”- it would only hurt your head.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Oh right, I forgot how much better socialism has performed than capitalism. My bad. I should really learn my history.

        So what would explain the success of Hong Kong if it isn’t the free market? In your view Hong Kong should be disastrous by now given their lack of government oversight.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      “So because workers died in a fire a hundred years ago, we should turn to government to solve our problems? It has always been in a businesses best interest to maximize profit.”

      Do you even listen to yourself? The owners made out like bandits on the insurance they had on their employees, who had quite profitably – for the owners – burned to death.

      Nevermind that turning to government is exactly what happened. Between 1910 and 1921 virtually every state passed workmen’s compensation laws, creating an incentive for businesses to maintain safe workplaces, because people lept into the arms of the dreadful nanny state and insisted that the perverse incentives that had contributed to that fire a hundred years ago be corrected.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    So you refuse to learn a lesson from an historical event, but are willing to put stock in an “invisible hand?”

    And what about people that can’t take their money elsewhere?

    • collapse expand

      “So you refuse to learn a lesson from an historical event”

      The lesson has already been learned. There is a reason Megan couldn’t find a better example sometime in the last 97 years.

      “(you) are willing to put stock in an “invisible hand?””

      I’m assuming you haven’t read “The Wealth of Nations”. People who don’t understand the concept use this rebuttal.

      “And what about people that can’t take their money elsewhere?”

      What monopoly are you referring to? What big bad company is this that is forcing people to hand their money over? You’re being too vague for a response.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        “There is a reason Megan couldn’t find a better example sometime in the last 97 years.”

        Like workmans comp, e.g., and the ever increasing number of regulations and interventions in workplace safety over that period. Invisible!

        In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        “I’m assuming you haven’t read “The Wealth of Nations”"

        You clearly haven’t. Smith endorsed public interventions left and right, the “invisible hand” was in reference to native protectionist sentiment (“preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry” the merchant pursues the national interest, which is in turn his own interest, as if “by an invisible hand”). It’s weird when people use the phrase when they’re arguing for free trade, but I digress. Apropos public safety, this one springs to mind:

        “The tolls for the maintenance of a high road cannot with any safety be made the property of private persons. A high road, though entirely neglected, does not become altogether impassable, though a canal does. The proprietors of the tolls upon a high road, therefore, might neglect altogether the repair of the road, and yet continue to levy very nearly the same tolls. It is proper, therefore, that the tolls for the maintenance of such a work should be put under the management of commissioners or trustees.”

        The invisible hands of the commissioners!

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          “he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

          In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        So, I’m not going to reply to all of this, as obviously, I don’t want to interrupt a lively conversation.

        But, in your saying that I haven’t been able to find another example in 97 years – there are plenty, plenty of examples, both historical and fairly recent. In fact, in the same paragraph, I talk about the Republic sit in, which I personally witnessed, where the head of a big corporation tried to close up shop and cheat his workers out of their pay. That happened a year ago last week. Claire’s Walmart example is even better.

        As far as I know, every major advancement in workers rights was made because people stood up and demanded it and convinced the government to make it the law – not because corporations are going to be kind and do what’s best for their workers.

        I, personally, believe that humans are selfish. Workers will try to cheat their employers and employers will try to cheat their workers. If everyone was kind-hearted and entirely selfless, we wouldn’t need laws.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    If $92 million gave Chicago more than 2944 jobs then I would say that it is a better deal than additional welfare. I would rather pay for someone to do something than for them to do nothing.

    Heck, if $92 million gave Chicago 1000 blue-collar jobs I would consider it more successful than welfare.

    Why are they protesting? Their “gimme” attitude is an embarrassment to modern day society. What gives people the right to demand charity? Given what they have to pay in taxes and what they get from taxes, they have no right to complain when others also seek to gain from taxes which they also have to pay. If you want welfare to only benefit individuals then only individuals should pay taxes. If you want welfare to only benefit businesses than only businesses should pay taxes. Should not corporate welfare be the first step used to keep additional people out of the soup kitchen lines, and out of public housing in the first place by providing them jobs?

  4. collapse expand

    I was saddened when I read the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Dec, 13 article “City cites progress in public housing overhaul” paean Mayor Daley and the City of Chicago for progress in overhauling public housing. Life was once so beautiful for me and exciting (like so many other former residents before displacement) when I received my first apartment as a freshman in college at Northeastern Illinois University as a single male parent and leaseholder in the now demolished Robert Taylor Homes on the State Street Corridor. When the overhauling of public housing first took place, I like so many other residents begin to question the Mayor’s and City of Chicago motives for it. I wondered what would happen to me and all of my other neighbors who lived there. Where would we go? Now after 10 years, while the City of Chicago were over at the ‘University of Illinois at Chicago’ for two days boasting about the progress of the overhauling with politicians, HUD Officials, Lawyers and a few handpicked residents chosen with a fine tooth comb telling their story of success and change like Crystal Palmer–which got her hand greased by the mayor being given a hush hush job working for the redevelopment company who rebuilt Abla Homes as Westhaven in –which she supposed to be the resident leader of. Yeah right, some kind of progress from the mayor. I know where alot of my neighbors went. Right here in the homeless shelter sleeping in the next bed to me. Moving from homeless shelter to homeless shelters as time run out, we are now competing for beds over carts or the floor. I was also appalled also that as a former graduate of U.I.C.s Great Cities “Urban Developer’s Program” , I was uninvited because I was going to raise the issue of 12,000 homeless children attending the Chicago Public School from shelters like mine. Being traumatized and teased at school by other students because they have no place to call home since the public housing overhaul. I would just like to thank Mayor Daley and the Chicago Housing Authority for their 10 years of progress in overhauling Chicago public housing children from a bed at home to a homeless shelter cart for Christmas.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

    In addition to being a journalist, I also teach dance for the Chicago Public Schools. I don't just do it for the money. I love children and love arts education. I'm also on the board of a new nonprofit dedicated to helping the underserved find jobs called Employing Hope. I write fiction, keep house, and am generally a renaissance woman.

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