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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jul 21, 2011, 7:53 am

Chicago Unions Resist Mayor Emanuel’s ‘Threat’

BY David Moberg

With only a few exceptions, Chicago union leaders did not support Rahm Emanuel when he was elected mayor of the city earlier this year. And his first few months in office have confirmed their suspicions, according to Henry Bayer, executive director of the state council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, “that this guy is a real threat.” 

Facing a $30 million budget shortfall in this fiscal year that is almost certain to swell next year, perhaps to $600 million, Emanuel has turned his political and policy guns on city workers and the several dozen unions representing them to find ways to plug the fiscal hole.

The latest shot across the unions’ bow came last Friday. The mayor previously delivered, then postponed for two weeks, a one-day ultimatum demanding changes in contractual work rules. With no advance warning to the municipal unions, Emanuel told a press conference, “Despite ongoing talks between union leaders and members of my administration, they have not embraced any of the needed changes. And no amount of smoke and mirrors can put off the tough decisions any longer.”
   

He then listed nine “reforms” that he believed the city needed and that unions had not “embraced,” such as ending double-time pay for overtime work that some city employees had negotiated. Consequently, he announced cutback in seasonal sidewalk repair and privatization of several functions, such as operating the water bill call center, which he said could result in 625 jobs lost and $10-12 million saved.

The mayor’s announcement suffered from some factual and logical lapses.  First, there had been no “ongoing talks,” just a very few, short conversations between labor leaders and city officials.  Second, the unions had already promised to deliver proposals by the end of the month on how to save $10 million or more this year. Third, there is no connection between the work rules Mayor Emanuel had attacked and the announced policies. If the changes were merited, and that’s doubtful in most cases, they should have been implemented regardless of work rule disputes.  Finally, it’s pretty clear, even though editorialists and business-backed civic groups hailed Emanuel’s effort to change the rules, that such work rule changes would do little to balance next year’s budget.

On Monday, Emanuel escalated his privatization drive, an unpopular legacy of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, when he announced that private contractors would compete for six months with existing city crews that pick up recycling in part of the city.  Rather than try to do a better job in managing the city’s garbage and recycling operations, as he promised in his campaign, Emanuel punted.  Although privatization often turns out to save nothing or cost more or typically gains whatever competitive edge it has by paying workers more poorly than local government does.

But when the city’s deputy mayor, Mark Angelson, and budget officials met with union leaders on Monday, “The tone was totally different,” Bayer says. “He said, ’We want to work with you. We want to be partners, blah blah blah.’ He said it was a mischaracterization to say we were in negotiations, and he apologized for that.”

The union leaders “took him on,” Bayer says. “’The mayor’s not stupid. He’s been out there saying things for weeks now that imply that city employees are responsible for the budget problems, and that’s not the case. [Angelson] listened to us and said, ‘We’re not tied to those ideas. We just want someone to write us a check for $10 million, and all the problems will go away. We’re just looking for $10 million.’”

Bayer says labor unions will put together a proposal that can find the $10 million and start on the bigger problem for next year, combining cuts such as trimming back a top-heavy bureaucracy and new revenue, such as a city income tax. But the mayor is looking for political fall guys.

“I think he wants to put unions on the defensive,” Bayer says. “He wants to show taxpayers he’s tough, that he’ll wring out all the waste and inefficiency. And this pleases his corporate backers to get tough with the unions….A lot of this is about sound bites, not good public policy.”

Emanuel is boxed in on some fronts: Daley struck a ten-year deal with the building trades that runs another six years, originally in a bid for labor peace during the Olympics he pursued, and even though police and fire departments account for the lion’s share of corporate budget personnel costs, Emanuel had promised more cops on the street. (Both unions can demand arbitration of any contract dispute, limiting how far Emanuel could cut their wages or benefits.)

On other fronts, he is often duplicitous. He singled out the poor performance of the water bill call center, but at no point in the past 18 months when the center was moved under the revenue department have city managers approached the union to offer proposals for improvement, Bayer says. Emanuel implicitly blames the workers and the union, but if there’s a problem, managers should be fixing it, Bayer says. “If it takes 20 minutes to answer the phone, and 40 percent of callers hang up, they should address that problem irregardless of the cost. The logic [of proposing privatization as the solution] escapes me,” Bayer says.

While some work rules may vary from other private sector jobs, Bayer stresses that it’s important to look at the total cost of the contractual package, not one item (which may have been included at the expense of another provision traded away).  With regard to the 35-hour workweek that Emanuel criticizes, Bayer says that was the standard before unionization and was simply incorporated into union contracts.

Ultimately, he says, changing work rules will save little, the front-line city workforce has shrunk already, and most workers have taken cuts in their income in recent years. “If you’re going to be honest,” Bayer advised Emanuel, “you’ll have to raise taxes or cut services.” But Emanuel seems more interested in bashing city workers.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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