Chicago street battle: corporations vs. public interest (and afforable 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).
What 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?