Major Daley vs. Labor

Robert Novak

9/18/2006 12:01:00 AM - Robert Novak

CHICAGO -- Richard M. Daley had just prevailed in the City Council, sustaining his first veto cast in 17 years as mayor of Chicago. But as I sat with him in his City Hall office late last Wednesday afternoon, he was not triumphant in defeating labor union efforts to punish Wal-Mart. Rather, he seemed frustrated by a confrontation that points to long-term problems for the Democratic Party nationally.

The council fell three votes short of overriding Daley's veto as it lined up 31 to 18 for the "big-box ordinance" to require Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers to pay workers $13 an hour. Daley turned around three aldermen from their July 26 vote after Target threatened to kill a planned store in Chicago. As I entered the mayor's office, demonstrating union members and community activists chanted that aldermen who voted against the ordinance "got to go."

This political situation transcends Chicago. Unions aligned against a Daley in a council vote actually represent weakness rather than strength by the labor movement. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, facing declining union membership and a depleted labor federation, launched a national campaign against Wal-Mart (employer of 1.2 million in America). However, even in its weakened state, labor remains a dominant Democratic interest group that can control Chicago aldermen and U.S. congressmen alike.

It is difficult to imagine the mayor's father, Richard J. Daley, facing a labor-driven City Council rebellion during his 21 years as mayor. But the son's role is quite different from the father's. While the two Daleys share credit for transforming dark and dingy Chicago into the shining city on the lake, they face different political circumstances.

Richard J., as the unchallenged Democratic leader of Chicago (and longtime Cook County party chairman), was assailed by Republicans as an evil political boss. Richard M., only vaguely a Democrat, is much admired by Republicans and talks occasionally on the phone with the target of Democratic abuse, George W. Bush. "I have a lot of respect for President Bush," he told me.

Daley followed his council victory with a promise to press for a state minimum wage ("Everyone wants a living wage," he told me). But he regards this as a national power play against Wal-Mart, which currently has only one store within Chicago's boundaries. "This vote got interpreted as being anti-Wal-Mart or pro-Wal-Mart," said Daley, who fought the big-box ordinance in the context of bread-and-butter legislation. "Target knew that once they started going down this path," Daley told me, "they would be asked for more every day. We stand to lose real estate and sales taxes, and that hurts the budget, hurts public transportation."

I asked the mayor whether he had sat down to discuss these realities with Sweeney. He didn't answer, but I later learned that Daley indeed delivered a blunt lecture to the AFL-CIO president. He informed Sweeney that in building the new Chicago, he had produced high-paid union jobs and warned that the anti-Wal-Mart crusade threatened to bring it all down.

Daley cannot control the aldermen because he no longer possesses the absolute power of his father. The council members fear not Daley but the unions, who are capable of denying them re-election in labor's promised renewed battle against Wal-Mart.

Such is the case of Ed Burke, an alderman since 1969 who led the council's white majority against black Mayor Harold Washington in the "Council Wars" of the early 1980s. I asked him why he opposed Daley Wednesday. He replied in blunt Chicago style: "What is the gain for me to go against labor?" He added that his wife, Anne, was now an Illinois Supreme Court justice, "and there is no reason why she should have to run [for election] against labor."

Daley looks impervious to labor revenge. The mayor, now elected on a non-partisan basis, will receive massive Republican support next February against a possible challenge by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Daley's closest political associates believe his confrontation with labor makes him more likely to win over 50 percent of the vote without a runoff. Labor, strong enough to frighten aldermen, looks impotent in the broader political arena.