Thousands Shut Down Chicago Streets, Protesting ALEC Meeting

CHICAGO –Union and non-union workers and their allies shut down the streets around the posh Palmer House Hilton in Chicago on August 9, protesting the Right-Wing American Legislative Exchange Council meeting at the hotel.

Unionists from around the country descended on the Second City for the protest, organized by the Chicago Federation of Labor and a host of community allies.

The estimated 1,000-plus protesters parading in front of the Palmer House’s marquee on Wabash Avenue in the Loop – and spilling over into side streets — equaled the number of Right Wing state legislators and GOP governors whom ALEC hosted and paid for.  Those solons met inside the hotel.

The unionists and their allies made the point that ALEC is hurting just about everyone in the U.S. who is not part of the top 1%.

“Ohioans have seen firsthand what happens when shady corporate interest groups write the laws,” Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga, who led a delegation of dozens to the protest, said before starting out.  Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan were among ALEC’s top target states in the last two years.

“We saw an unprecedented attack on workers’ rights in SB5 and an egregious attack on voting rights in HB194.  They both had ALEC’s fingerprints on them,” he added.  ALEC drafted SB5, which eliminated collective bargaining rights for all 400,000 state and local workers, then got Gov. John Kasich (R) to jam it through a willing GOP-run Ohio legislature in 2011, Burga explained.

Labor petitioned that new law to a referendum that November, where labor convinced voters to clobber it, 61%-39%.  Another ALEC brainstorm, HB194, to curb Ohioans’ voting rights, got sidetracked in the courts.

ALEC jammed many similar anti-worker and anti-voter bills through legislatures nationwide, such as eliminating collective bargaining rights for 200,000 Wisconsin state and local workers.  Its secretive conclave in Chicago to craft even more such schemes drew the protesters to the Loop.

Other ALEC legislation weakens workers’ comp, lowers corporate income taxes — which it’s now scheming to do in Missouri – and cuts teachers’ tenure.  Most notoriously, ALEC created “stand your ground” legislation, such as the Florida-passed law that neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman used to justify his killing of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin almost two years ago.

Outside the Palmer House on Monroe Street, the Musicians Union band played “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” as wave after wave of union members paraded.

Amalgamated Transit Union members driving CTA’s elevated trains along Wabash Avenue, on the trestle above the hotel’s other entrance, blew their horns in support.  ATU colleagues who weren’t driving the trains joined marchers at street level.  The crowds roared every time they heard train operators blow the horns.

“This is a beautiful gathering not just of union workers and non-union workers but of all our allies as well — a true coalition,” Chicago Fed Secretary-Treasurer Bob Reiter told cheering crowds.  “ALEC thinks they can, in secret, take over the democratic process and write our laws for us.  They are wrong and we are here to show them that.”

Melissa Rakestraw, a Letter Carrier from suburban Schaumburg, Ill., said she came to the protest because a pro-ALEC lawmaker saddled the U.S. Postal Service with an unmanageable debt.

“You know that $5.5 billion mandate with Congress forcing the Postal Service to pay that out for future pensions?” – actually annual prepayments for future retirees’ health care — she asked.  “That’s what’s killing the post office and it was John McHugh, a Republican congressman — a member of ALEC — who pushed that through years ago.  ALEC has its deadly fingers everywhere.”  Ironically, McHugh, who represented part of upstate New York, later became Democratic President Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Army.

Kimberly Bowsky, a Teacher at Seward Elementary School in Chicago, was also intent on opposing ALEC: “I see the scars in my neighborhood.  I haven’t lost my job yet, but I know these people are out not just to cut services but to kill public education altogether.  Their idea is no public schools for our children.  They prefer charter schools, or better yet, private profit-making prisons.  It’s got to stop.  That’s why I’m here.”

Ohio’s Burga called ALEC’s schemes “dangerous and unfair,” adding that “we will fight these corporate interests at every turn, because what they’re trying to do will hurt Ohio.”  ALEC responds to Burga, and the others, that it fights for “free enterprise.”

ALEC faces other opposition, too.  Just before the protests, Common Cause and other good-government groups filed a formal brief with the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C., asking the IRS to yank ALEC’s tax-exempt status.  They told the IRS that ALEC illegally offers gifts – which it calls scholarships – to state lawmakers to attend meetings with corporate lobbyists, at the Palmer House and elsewhere.

– By John Wojcik, Labor editor, People’s World
and Press Associates