Rahm Emanuel Is a Union-buster. So Why Are Chicago Unions Backing Him?

Most of the city’s labor movement is laying low or supporting the mayor in the upcoming election, despite his well-known anti-worker policies.

David Moberg

Despite Rahm Emanuel’s well deserved reputation as an anti-worker mayor, only a few unions have been willing to take him on. (Image via Rahm for Chicago)

When Rahm Emanuel strode into office as mayor of Chicago in 2011, one of his first targets was the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). He sought and obtained state legislation limiting the right of Chicago teachers to strike. But he lost doubly in the fall of 2012: The CTU successfully mobilized its members to go on strike, then won both a good contract and the battle for public support. Yet Emanuel still closed 49 public schools and expanded charter schools the following spring. Meanwhile, other public employee unions moved into the mayor’s crosshairs as he drastically cut and privatized city jobs and services, often with help from a Democratic governor and state legislature.

‘Nothing would make us happier than to take Rahm out. But ... if we’re going to take a shot at the king, we’ve got to kill him.’

Emanuel stands for re-election February 24 in a non-partisan primary against four challengers (and if no one wins 50 percent of the vote plus one, there will be a run-off between the top two on April 7). Polls suggest Chicagoans are not satisfied with their mayor, but most observers give him the odds because of his financial advantage — as of early 2015, he had a $11 million war chest, 10 times that of any opponent.

In theory, labor could be an important part of these calculations. Chicago is a more unionized city than most, and union endorsements typically come with credibility, money and an army of campaign workers. But despite Emanuel’s anti-union record, unions are divided about how to deal with Mayor 1%,” as Kari Lydersen’s biography of Emanuel is titled.

Emanuel earned that sobriquet not only for the millions he made working for an investment bank and his gift for convincing the rich to empty their pocketbooks for the Democratic Party, but also his disdain for unions. Fuck the UAW,” he infamously said when serving as Obama’s chief of staff during the auto bailout. He also largely shares the worldview of the financial and corporate elite: Give the hard back of the free-market hand to Jane and Joe Sixpack, the soft palm of friendly government to needy businesses.

Emanuel’s leading — but still longshot— opponent is his opposite on most counts. Cook County Commissioner Jesus Chuy” Garcia, a former alderman and state senator, has been a member of three different unions and strongly supports labor.

My roots are with working-class people,” Garcia said in an interview with In These Times. I understand what working-class families need. … Chicago would be better served by a mayor who has that background and would work with unions.” He says that Emanuel’s attempts to break the CTU” were heartless” and spiteful.” Those are harsh words from a man who comes off as modest, self-effacing and genuine”— as Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 President Robert Kelly said while endorsing him. Garcia supports the Fight for 15, wants to strengthen neighborhoods and their infrastructure and wants to replace the mayoral appointment of school board members with a board elected by Chicagoans (a major demand of the CTU).

You might imagine that unions would rally behind a seemingly pro-labor challenger to an incumbent with an anti-union record. But as of early January, Chicago’s unions were divided between Garcia, Emanuel and neutrality for a variety of reasons — some peculiar to Chicago, others typical of the U.S. labor movement’s electoral strategy.

Broad shoulder unions

Chicago’s unions, riven with thuggish political squabbles in the late 19th century, grew more unified, progressive and powerful in the first part of the 20th. They often supported labor and socialist party candidates and welcomed organizers like William Z. Foster, a Communist Party leader who led ambitious unionization campaigns in the Chicago meat-packing and steel industries.

But during the reign of Mayor Richard J. Daley from 1955 to 1976, the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) was dominated by conservative unions such as the building trades, who were closely tied to the Democratic machine. Unions became more concerned with transactions than with societal transformation. A mayor could win much of labor’s support simply by pointing to the cranes on the skyline and noting the number of jobs involved. But as public employees organized, they formed a large new bloc of union workers with a big, but different, stake in local politics. For professionals like teachers and nurses, city policies affect not only the number of their jobs but also the character of their work and the lives of the people they serve.

Too often, a narrow perspective — looking only at jobs, a single policy decision or a calculation about who is likely to win — backfires for labor. Case in point: Rahm Emanuel.

When Emanuel ran for Congress from Chicago in 2002, he was up against Nancy Kaszak, an experienced, progressive, pro-labor state legislator who opposed the anti-worker NAFTA trade deal. Emanuel, on the other hand, had helped Bill Clinton ram NAFTA through Congress the decade before. Most of the city’s labor movement backed Emanuel, however. As the state AFL-CIO’s political director Bill Looby said at the time, She had the good labor record, but he had the record of knowing his way around Washington.” Labor helped create its own latter-day nemesis. When Emanuel ran for mayor in 2011, labor split its support among Emanuel and other candidates, but the CFL remained neutral.

As the 2015 election drew near, the prospects for a strong challenger to Emanuel dimmed. U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., headed off to prison for misusing campaign funds. Toni Preckwinkle, the cautious, moderately progressive and respected African-American president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, resisted the many suitors trying to draw her into the race. White progressive alderman Bob Fioretti threw his hat in the ring. But the modest excitement around Fioretti seems to be generated mainly by his status as not-Rahm.

There was one potential candidate with the moxie and the understanding of public policy issues to take on the mayor: CTU President Karen Lewis. In an August Chicago Tribune poll, voters chose the strong-willed, sharp-witted and community-oriented union leader over Emanuel 43 to 39 percent. Members of union households backed Lewis 56 to 31 percent — a signal to union leaders who were listening.

On the verge of declaring her candidacy in October, Lewis suddenly fell ill with a brain tumor and withdrew from the race. With CTU encouragement, Garcia announced his candidacy. He could quickly call on an experienced group of progressives from his time as an aldermanic supporter of previous Chicago mayor Harold Washington, but his has not been a household name in Chicago politics.

Still, he has a strong backer in the intensely political CTU, which contributed $52,600 to his campaign, while its national office, the American Federation of Teachers, gave $250,000. Garcia won financial and political support from another large local in late December. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Health Care Illinois Indiana (HCII) backed Garcia with a $250,000 contribution, despite a decision by the SEIU Illinois State Council to remain neutral. Two smaller unions, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 and the United Electrical Workers Western Region, also endorsed Garcia.

Will the rest of Chicago labor jump on the bandwagon? “[CFL President] Jorge [Ramirez] wants a strong, independent labor movement, but he doesn’t see taking on Rahm as the way to do it,” says one public sector union political organizer. Historically, Chicago has been a strong union town. So most of the unions feel comfortable where they are. Why should they be bold? We’ve got jobs. Our kids have jobs. Why should we have strong progressive democratic unionism?’ ” The CFL made no endorsement in the mayoral election. On top of that, the influence of the building trades unions, with its largely white and suburban membership, makes Chicago labor more conservative, especially about the role of government, and less in tune with communities of color.

Emanuel is likely to pick up support from most of the Teamsters, who supported him last election; most of the building trades, who appreciate the city’s new tall buildings; and ostensibly the police and fire unions, who seem fairly satisfied with their new contracts (with the exception of the police sergeants’ union, which endorsed Fioretti). The usually progressive Local 1 of UNITE HERE, the hotel and restaurant workers union, which joined the fight against Emanuel’s school closures, donated $25,000 to Emanuel, who attended a union town hall meeting in December 2013, leaving the union with the impression it will be an integral part of his plans to promote tourism and the hotel industry.

A number of unions remained neutral or publicly undeclared as of early January: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Illinois Nurses Association and National Nurses United, industrial unions (steel, auto and others), and SEIU Local 1 (building services).

But some may jump into the race if Garcia’s campaign takes off. Sources familiar with the thinking of SEIU Local 1’s leaders say there was enthusiasm for Preckwinkle and Lewis, but less for Garcia — even though they see him as a friend — because he entered the race so late that his campaign does not seem viable. If Chuy were even 30 percent viable, we’d be with him,” one source said. Nothing would make us happier than to take Rahm out. But we’re not tilting at windmills. If we’re going to take a shot at the king, we’ve got to kill him.”

AFSCME is backing five members of the city council’s progressive caucus, as well as one socialist candidate, Jorge Mujica, but will remain neutral in the mayoral race, says spokesperson Anders Lindall, who notes that the union has not endorsed a mayoral candidate since Harold Washington. It’s not hard to see AFSCME’s dilemma: On the one hand, Emanuel has cut city services and jobs, as well as workers’ pensions, and his hostility to working cooperatively with employees and their unions sharpens their grievances. On the other, Garcia’s record as a Cook County commissioner, where he supported Toni Preckwinkle while she carried out cuts to county jobs and proposed cuts to county pensions, makes it hard for some municipal unionists to embrace him.

Nearly everyone in the labor movement would agree that unity among unions is good. But in practice, unions tend to support unity only if everyone agrees with the correct — that is, their — view. Principles are noble, but, leaders ask, aren’t unions here to protect their members’ interests. And what’s more important than a job?

So the debate goes on, and will continue with variations. But the labor movement would benefit from the kind of broad vision that made the early-20th-century CFL, under the leadership of progressive unionist John Fitzpatrick, the model for American unionism. That vision of a society with workers democratically in control helped the CFL to organize half the city’s workforce by 1910, to pioneer unionization of occupations from janitors to school teachers and to promote progressive political ideas.

As much as possible, unions need an open, democratic discussion with other unions and their members about such long-range political goals, whether transactional or transformational— not deals cut in back rooms with just a few union leaders or representatives of the boss (both still too common in union affairs). The discussion needs to transcend fault lines exploited by employers and anti-worker politicians, such as between private sector unions (especially the building trades) and public sector unions — while there are still unions and pro-union politicians to make such a debate meaningful. And debate about the direction of the city — and country — needs to engage the labor movement with community and progressive groups in year-round efforts to build power that go beyond election-time door-knocking.

With encouragement from national AFL-CIO leaders, that transformation is beginning to happen in many places around the country. In Chicago, the CTU has taken the lead.

The problem with labor generally is that it’s way too timid politically,” says Jesse Sharkey, acting president of the CTU. Democrats and Republicans don’t represent our interests, and we need a political organization of our own.” To this end, the CTU has joined with SEIU’s HCII local and the community groups Action Now and Grassroots Illinois Action to form United Working Families, an independent political organization that will not just endorse candidates at election time but also work year-round to hold elected leaders accountable. Similarly, National Nurses United has allied with the People’s Lobby, a Chicago-based membership organization, to form Reclaim Chicago, which is currently working on aldermanic races.

A new wave of discontent from black, Latino and white working-class neighborhoods may be emerging to replace the old anti-machine, middle-class reform politics of decades past. This new movement may not be strong enough to oust Rahm Emanuel this year, but some day — contra the old adage by the famously corrupt Alderman Paddy Bauler — Chicago just might be ready for reform.

AFSCME is a sponsor of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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