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From Here on Out: Jeff Helgeson

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From Here on Out: Jeff Helgeson

Jeff Helgeson. (WBEZ/Melissa Townsend)

As part of our Chicago Matters: Beyond Burnham series we asked local residents to reflect on the past year and share their hopes for the region— “From Here on Out”. All this week we’re sharing some of their thoughts.Today we hear from historian Jeff Helgeson. He says this year has been one in a long line of tough years for local workers. But he imagines a more prosperous future for working families if they follow in the footsteps of past generations.

2009 has been a tough year for working people in Chicago. For many, the current recession is only amplifying trends that have been at work for decades.

Since the 1970s, families have been working longer hours for less real income. Women in particular are working more hours, yet earning only about 75 percent of what men make per hour for the same work. Black and Latino workers have been unemployed at two to three times the rate of white workers for decades. These long term economic trends have been creating social divisions reminiscent of Gilded Age Chicago.

From here on out, let’s commit to the kind of economic development that benefits the masses of workers who have been falling behind. Picture a region where jobs are created in low-income neighborhoods. Where all workers can balance their budgets, raise their families start saving and even look forward to retiring. We’re talking about hospital workers, hotel staff, teachers, janitors and security guards.

President Obama says he is working to get the economy back on track. And the recent jobs summit highlighted some good plans to create more jobs and make American businesses more competitive in the long run. That’s a good thing.

But workers can’t pin their hopes on federal action. Change will have to take off at the local level. Chicago’s workers need to build a stronger voice in politics and at work.

Unions must overcome external opposition and internal divisions. They need to represent traditional blue collar workers as well as a lower-income, largely minority workforce. And they need to align with broader community based political coalitions.

This is not a new idea.Between the 1930s and 1970s, workers organized in the steel mills and packinghouses, on the railroads, in public employment, and in thousands of small factories. They won the wage increases, benefits and labor legislation that created the blue-collar middle class.

And working people organizing in their neighborhoods built the foundation for a movement that twice elected Mayor Harold Washington. They cultivated a vision of urban development that prized job creation as much as increased real estate values.

With a stronger voice, Chicago’s workers can claim their share of an economic recovery, and ensure that any new prosperity will benefit the entire metropolitan region.

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