Police and Firefighters Unions Join List of Public Employees Targeted by Chicago Mayor Emanuel

Kari Lydersen

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel with Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy at a press conference March 26, 2012. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is picking his latest fight with unions representing public workers, though the political context is markedly different than his bitter stand-offs with the Chicago Teachers Union, AFSCME and SEIU.

Emanuel has provoked the ire of the firefighter and police unions by planning significant cuts in the firefighter union’s next contract and refusing to pay police officers all the overtime they say are due related to the NATO summit in late May. These unions aren’t traditionally allied with the city’s other public sector unions, which were among the key organizers of protests during the NATO summit, where Chicago police were accused of using excessive force.

While protest leaders circulated videos that they say show police mistreatment of protesters, city officials and business leaders proclaimed the city’s handling of the summit a success and praised law enforcement. But the Fraternal Order of Police has filed four grievances related to the summit and overtime pay, charging that the city is not honoring their union contract or its promises in regards to paying 3,100 officers for overtime — part of a bill for taxpayers that is expected to be huge. Officers had their days off and furlough days cancelled over a two-week period and were ordered to work 12-hour days in preparation for and during the summit. 

The union is disputing how overtime was calculated, including for officers who worked six or seven days within a week. A city spokesperson has said officers will get all the overtime due them, with checks arriving in mid-June.

On the FOP’s website, union president Mike Shields wrote, We protected the mayor’s residence from anarchists. You’d think he could at least pay us what we are owed.”

On May 30, he told the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Police Department made Mayor Emanuel shine throughout the nation and the world. Yet he won’t stand up for us and say, You guys had my back, I’m going to have yours.’”

Meanwhile the Chicago Firefighters Union contract is up June 30, and Emanuel has indicated cuts are in store for the next one as part of a move to reform the department. Emanuel’s proposal reportedly calls for eliminating duty availability pay, bonuses for firefighters with cross-training as paramedics, and clothing allowances; and reducing the number of people per engine from 10 to 9. Union president Tom Ryan called the proposals horrendous” and said Emanuel is using the word reform” as a euphemism for cuts.”

City Inspector General Joe Ferguson has said the city could save more than $50 million by eliminating extra pay for police and firefighters for being on call 24 hours a day, and an additional $50 million by reducing the required number of workers staffing a piece of fire equipment from five to four, in order to allow the staff cuts per engine. Altering the minimum staffing limit is what led to a firefighter strike in 1980, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Emanuel is also proposing significant changes to police and firefighter pension plans, including increasing employee contributions and raising the retirement age by five years.

Firefighters have long been known for having extreme political clout and enjoying generous contracts and pension plans, even as the department was accused of racism and irresponsibility, with reports of parties involving prostitutes while firemen were on the clock during former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s tenure. Last year an investigation by the Chicago News Cooperative found that the number of firefighters on the public payroll is proportionally the highest of any major city and is out of step with the steadily shrinking number of fires in Chicago. 

Many Chicagoans surely agree reforms of police and fire contracts and closer scrutiny of these departments are needed and timely, especially given the cost to taxpayers and widespread complaints about many police officers’ behavior. But others see Emanuel’s moves as a general signal of disrespect to unions and the collective bargaining process. Chicago’s local ABC affiliate The police demands for NATO overtime pay come as many residents are still vehemently questioning the priorities behind spending so much on the summit while services are being slashed and crime is epidemic in poor neighborhoods — with 10 people killed and more than 40 shot over Memorial Day weekend alone. 

In a scathing column in the June 1 Southwest News Herald, Ray Hanania attacked Emanuel’s focus on the NATO summit and what it represents at the expense of regular people:

He did a masterful job of taking the NATO conference, which never should have been brought to Chicago, and making it look like Chicago has somehow become a better place because didn’t replicate the police riot’ that took place in 1968. Chicago is still the city that doesn’t work, its narrow shoulders getting smaller and holding up fewer and fewer.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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