Even in Chicago, mayor goes after labor unions

AP News
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Posted: Oct 26, 2011 6:59 PM
Even in Chicago, mayor goes after labor unions

He's mayor of a city where Democrats and organized labor are famous for working side by side, but Rahm Emanuel is now turning up the heat on Chicago's unions one by one.

Emanuel has ridiculed the practice of paying heavy equipment operators overtime just to get ready for work. He's invited private trash haulers to square off against city crews to see who does a better, cheaper job. And he's called out transit workers for getting paid time off not only for their birthdays but for the day they landed their jobs.

Mayors and governors across the country have criticized organized labor in their efforts to ease budget problems. But the public spats between union leaders and the former White House chief of staff are a brand-new spectacle in Chicago, where for generations unions have kept a tight hold on many jobs and played an important role in the party political machine that kept mayors in office.

"It's an effort to demonize the workforce," complained Robert Kelly, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, which city officials blamed this month for the need to cut $277 million in public transportation funds.

Since taking office in May, Emanuel has portrayed himself as the champion of taxpayers and even the city's schoolchildren as he targets the overtime pay, perks and work schedules of teachers, garbage collectors and other workers in the three dozen unions that represent more than 60,000 city employees.

Union leaders recall heated differences with Emanuel's predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley. But Daley, they say, kept most of the disputes behind closed doors. Emanuel has confronted them in headlines and nearly weekly news conferences.

Emanuel, a former Clinton administration aide and congressman, has taken tough stands against organized labor before, particularly during the 1994 negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But he came into the mayor's office less reliant on the unions than his predecessors, due to the more independent coalition that helped him get elected. And he appears to have capitalized on the weak economy creating a less friendly climate for unions, even in Chicago.

"He's calculated that organized labor in this city is in a less powerful position to inflict some sort of pain," said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Unlike previous mayors who maintained a level of diplomacy, he's calculated that he can take these public stands, that he can be so confrontational."

Emanuel spokeswoman Chris Mather said the complaints ignore all that Emanuel and the unions have done together since he took office.

The two sides passed a "comprehensive wellness plan," she said, referring to a program to manage chronic health problems for city workers.

"We are working with them to competitively bid city services," and city officials just sealed a deal governing much-debated union rules at the mammoth McCormick Place convention center. "That's huge."

Characterized by opponents during his mayoral race as an elite outsider from Washington who doesn't understand the struggles of working families, Emanuel now portrays the unions in much the same way.

At a time when people line up for jobs that pay little more than minimum wage, he has been quick to note examples such as one sanitation worker whose overtime alone in the first four months of the year totaled nearly $38,000.

"Nobody takes advantage of city taxpayers as if they're dumb money," Emanuel said shortly after announcing he would lay off 625 city workers, including some at the water department's call center and custodians at airports and libraries, because union leaders wouldn't bring costs down.

"I'm not looking to beat labor. I want them to be a partner in solving" the city's fiscal problems, said Emanuel, who added that he recognizes the role organized labor plays in the "economic and cultural fabric of our society." But, he said, "You cannot be a full partner if what you say is, `Everybody has to put skin in the game but us.'"

After taking office, Emanuel swiftly began pushing changes to city work rules, such as one he says pays $8 an hour more to mechanics than to machinists. He also wants to stop paying garbage collectors more when they work alone than when working with someone else, when the amount of work doesn't change.

He has canceled a raise due to the city's teachers and is battling the teachers' union over his promise to lengthen school days. He recently launched what might be called the Trash Olympics to see whether public or private employees do the best job on Chicago's recycling collection _ a move some unions worry is a threat to privatize city operations.

Emanuel also successfully pushed _ behind closed doors _ for unions that represent carpenters and truck drivers to eliminate entrenched rules that trade groups said raised their costs and dissuaded them from holding conventions at McCormick Place. Among other things, the rules prohibited exhibitors from unloading their own vehicles and using their own tools to set up their booths.

Union leaders insist that beating them is precisely what Emanuel has set out to do, as he recites the work rules and says students are getting "the shaft" from teachers. They say he is not giving the public the whole story.

For example, they say, his call to save $234,000 in overtime pay by cutting 30 minutes of "prep time" for hoisting engineers fails to mention that it saves the city even more money because other workers aren't waiting around for the equipment to warm up.

Transit workers take exception to the notion that they're pampered.

"The reason why you give people birthdays (and anniversary days) off is because in the private sector they get more holidays," said Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. "You can't shut the system down, so you get creative."

One after another, union leaders complain that they learn about Emanuel's complaints not in meetings with him but in the media.

Henry Bayer, executive director of Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called Emanuel's pronouncements "public relations gimmickry."

"They've gone on a union-busting campaign," said Kelly, the transit union chief. "And he's counting on the average person, especially those (who are) unemployed or are struggling, to be angry at the unions."