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Turning Occupy Anger Into Local Change

Chicago groups push specfic anti-austerity demands during week of protests

Mike Elk

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The Occupy Together movement has been criticized for not having focused demands. Some unions, however, are trying to use the momentum and energy of Occupy Wall Street (and myriad other protests that have followed its lead) to make very specific policy demands to local governments trying to enact budget cuts and extract concession from workers.

On Wednesday, members of Occupy Chicago and Take Back Chicago, a coalition of labor and community groups, marched to Bank of America's headquarters in the city to demand an end to interest-rate swap deals between the Chicago Public School system and several of the nation’s largest banks, which activists say have lost the school system more than $100 million in recent years. 

While activists were storming the Bank of America location, other activists in Chciago were protesting the diversion of revenue from schools and other projects through a program called Tax Increment Financing (TIF). The TIF fund is split between private development projects and public projects.

CTU has been trying to bring attention to the interest-rate swap and TIF issue for months. This week's protests are an example of how labor groups are trying to push specific goals under the umbrella of a national movement.  

A quick interest-rate swap primer: When local governments or school boards issue bonds, they do so with a variable interest-rate swap. A variable interest rate can go up or down depending on the interest rate set by the Federal Reserve, which can be tricky for governments trying to do long-term planning, so they swap interest rates with a big bank in order to get a fixed rate (see Working In These Times coverage back in May of the launch of the Chicago Teachers Union campaign back in May).

Now, even though the Federal Reserve has slashed interest rates close to zero to spur economic growth, the CPS is still paying the equivalent of a 3.66 percent interest rate to the banks. The union claims the interest rate swaps cost the Chicago Public School System $35.9 million in the last year and that the deals with the banks have produced a $120.7 million net loss for the school system since 2003.

Activists claim that TIF development money is often used to persuade big profitable companies like United Airlines, which has received nearly $31 million in TIF money, and Millers-Coors, which has received $6 million in TIF money, to merely move corporate headquarters from the suburbs to downtown Chicago.

“Taking taxpayer money to subsidize expenses they should be covering themselves is not responsible. It’s about making corporations more responsible," says Eric Tellez, an organizer/researcher with the Grassroots Collaborative, a labor and community coalition. 

Activists are hoping to draw attention to the TIF funds as a source of revenue that could be used to prevent budget cuts and to tap the unspent TIF funds to stop budget cuts and layoffs. One analysis by the Chicago News Cooperative shows that at the end of 2010, there were $868 million in unspent TIF funds still in the account—and this number was suppose to grow. Yet, say activists, under Mayor Emanuel’s proposal, Chicago Public Schools will only get $30 million in funding from the TIF funds.

 “Why did the City Council decide to give United Airlines, one of the most profitable corporations in the world, $30 million of our tax dollars in TIF funds? “said Beverly King, a laid-off Special Ed Classroom Assistant and member of SEIU Local 73 “If the city sticks to declaring only a $60 million dollar surplus, that means only $30 million will go back to the Chicago Public Schools. So 600 schools get the same amount as a corporation that made $854 million [in profits] in 2010 alone?”

As opposed to merely saying "no" to budget cuts and public employees concessions, some unions are getting specific—and hoping to use the energy of the flourishing Occupy Together movement in their fight against austerities.

“Here we have a local example of how this national messaging of Occupy Wall Street breaks down and how we can get out in public and show who is really struggling” says Tellez. 

As the Occupy movement grows, its ability to win real change for workers will be determined not just by its ability to change the political debate at the national level, but by its ability to funnel energy into fights at the local level.

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