You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

Emanuel gets tough with unions

New mayor puts Chicago workers on notice amid budget crisis

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Rahmbo" is going Rambo on the Windy City's union employees.

Making good on a campaign ad from last winter that barked "city government is not an employment agency," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is fearlessly putting city workers and their unions on notice to bargain amid the budget crisis or be gone.

Last Friday, he announced layoff notices for about 625 city workers after their union failed to offer its own deficit-cutting concessions by a deadline the mayor had set.

In addition to the job cuts, he announced he was delaying repairs to sidewalks, curbs and gutters and was bidding out some of the city's recycling pick-up to two private companies that will compete with the Department of Streets and Sanitation for the most efficient option.

All the measures, which also include a set of work-rule changes, are geared at slashing a $31 million budget shortfall that is projected to worsen in 2012.

"My duty as mayor is to protect our city's taxpayers and be their voice, not to protect the city's payroll," Mr. Emanuel, a former chief of staff to President Obama, said at a news conference last week, defending his hard-line stance to stanch city spending.

"No amount of smoke and mirrors can put off the tough decisions any longer," he said.

Mr. Emanuel, a former Illinois congressman who earned the nickname "Rahmbo" for his aggressiveness and tough talk while working in the Clinton and Obama White Houses, has spent much of his early tenure as mayor trying to balance the city's budget. He says he has cut nearly $20 million through hiring freezes for non-union employees and through lowering health-care costs.

He previously had asked the union to bring its own ideas on how to save money, but when it failed to do so, even after a two-week extension granted July 1, he announced his own sweeping cuts, which included work-rule changes that, among other things, mandate a 40-hour work week, rather than the current 35 hours, and cut back double overtime to time-and-a-half.

Union officials met Monday to discuss Mr. Emanuel's plan of privatization and competition and the city's budget woes, which some said he inherited from is predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley. Deputy Mayor Mark Angelson met with about 30 union leaders and reportedly declared: "There's a new sheriff in town."

Steve Stanek, a policy analyst at Chicago's Heartland Institute, praised Mr. Emanuel for holding his ground in a city that has been run by unions for decades. He said the mayor has made it known from Day One that he was cutting the budget, and thus far has kept to his plan.

"I am pleasantly surprised. I knew from his reputation that he was very tough, very hard-nosed, but I also knew the government worker unions are a very important part of the Democratic Party," Mr. Stanek said. "I'm glad to see him so far standing tough."

City workers, he added, have long been a powerful bloc in Chicago, and many are no doubt in shock that the mayor is putting his foot down on reforms, particularly his insistence on managed competition.

"I'm sure it's going to turn to anger," Mr. Stanek said of any looming showdown. "Unless the union officials are delusional, I think they are going to have to start going along with these things. If they don't, instead of hundreds of layoffs, there could be thousands."

Chicago political consultant Kyle Hillman says Mr. Emanuel is having an easier time pushing through reforms during the honeymoon phase of his mayorship because he raised much of his political money from outside of the city, making him less beholden to a traditional constituency.

Mr. Hillman noted that the mayor also has taken on the city's teachers union, helping push through a school-reform bill in the Illinois legislature in Springfield and then promptly implementing it in Chicago. The new law limits teacher tenure, revises how teacher success is measured and changes how educators can be removed or promoted.

But even as Mr. Emanuel takes it to the unions, don't expect mass outrage of the kind that some Midwest governors received when they have taken on organized labor, Mr. Hillman said.

"The unions are losing miserably in the state. Some of it is that they just don't have the influence because they didn't elect this guy. Some of it has been that the union leadership - the optics - have been pretty miserable.

"They are not happy but at the same time I am quite surprised how little public pushback they have had to muster and how little support they have gotten from the Chicago public," Mr. Hillman said. "We don't have the Ohio or the Wisconsin rallies of the general public going out and saying you have to stop this. It's quite the opposite feel. A lot of people here support these changes and [Mr. Emanuel has] actually been really smart about how he's putting this before the public."

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.