Chicago Organized Labor Divided over Tuesday’s Mayoral Election

Author and journalist Kari Lydersen discusses why some Chicago organized labor is backing incumbent mayor Rahm Emmanuel despite his anti-union reputation

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Chicago voters head to the polls Tuesday to choose their next mayor. It’s an historic election because it’s forced incumbent mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff against challenger Jesus Chuy Garcia. The election has divided organized labor, a powerful force in Chicago politics. Some have come out in support of Chuy, including the Chicago Teachers Union, which famously went on strike, held mass demonstrations, and carried out civil disobedience against Rahm’s policies. They were joined by several other unions backing Garcia, with the teachers contributing $30,000 alone.

But others have publicly backed Emanuel, including Unite Here Local 1, which had previously joined the teachers in protesting Emanuel’s school closings. They launched “Love Rahm” TV campaign which is showing right now on the screen.

Now joining us from Chicago to discuss all this is Kari Lydersen. She’s a longtime Chicago journalist, and the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Thanks so much for joining us again, Kari.

KARI LYDERSEN, AUTHOR: Thanks.

NOOR: To combat the image of Mayor 1%, as the moniker of Rahm Emanuel, and the fact that he’s raised over $20 million for his campaign, he’s enlisted some 70 unions to back his campaign. I’m going to quote Don Finn, the business manager for IBEW. He said he called Emanuel “The construction mayor. In the last four years our union has come out of the economic downturn better and stronger than ever. Our members are going back to work, and it’s no small part because of what Rahm has done. He’s helped bring in a new era of construction in Chicago, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for the second term.”

So you know, from my experience and from what many have, might have heard of Chicago under Rahm Emanuel, he’s seemed like a very anti-union mayor, and he’s had these public confrontations with the Chicago Teachers Unions and others. So what’s behind the fact that some of these, some unions, 70 locals in fact, have come out in support of Rahm?

LYDERSEN: Yeah. And those, if you look at that list, the vast majority are different building trades unions. And 70 makes it sound like a lot, but a lot of them are doing, like you said, construction. I mean, it’s things like the pipefitters and plumbers, and electrical workers, and the ones that — Rahm has done, he’s overhauling the city’s water system, so there’s a ton of construction going on with water pipes and there has been a lot of development in building. Especially in downtown, which is one of the criticisms of him. That there’s this effort focused on downtown.

So anyway, there definitely is a good reason that a lot of these unions would be happy with what Rahm Emanuel has been doing. And then there’s also just the — and we’ll probably get into this more later — but you know, the sort of self-interest that unions, even if they haven’t been helped by Rahm, even if they’ve been hurt by him, there’s this element of fear or of having to play politics, and this balancing act that they’re always doing trying to figure out who is actually going to win and wanting to stay on the good side, at least to some degree, of that person.

And Rahm had really his very first summer in office, which is almost four years ago now, he had really picked fights with a lot of the unions that had even been traditionally in line with the mayor’s office. He had even alienated the Chicago Federation of Labor and some of these building trades and operating engineers, and some of the trades that are usually just really tight with city hall. And a lot of the reason he did that is he was just steamrolling over the process and not paying adequate respect to these unions.

But I think he did learn his lesson kind of early on. He learned to play ball enough with the unions that he had to play ball with, and so he did what he had to do. There have been reasons that a number of these unions are happy with him, and then that’s given him, he probably feels that’s given him enough leverage to be able to just really oppose unions like the teachers and other ones who are still opposing him.

NOOR: I wanted to ask you, I think you alluded to this in your response, about Unite Here Local 1. Because some, I guess many of their members would consider it a progressive union. But In These Times reported that former Unite Here staff have signed a public letter which they published in In These Times decrying their support for Rahm, and they cited the school closings which cost several members of Unite Here their jobs, because there were janitors in these buildings that were closed down as part of Rahm closing these 50 schools.

LYDERSEN: Right. So there’s a union that was actually, the actual union jobs were impacted by what Rahm’s done. And then maybe more importantly, you have to remember that given the demographic makeup of Unite Here, even if their job wasn’t affected directly, they are exactly the constituency, the people that live, a lot of African-Americans, immigrants, the people that live in the South and West side neighborhoods that were most affected by the school closings. So even if they didn’t lose their job, there’s a good chance that their kids lost their school and had the turmoil of going to a different school and just in other ways have been affected by Rahm’s policies.

Which, you know, the school closings aren’t the only thing. People feel that in a number of ways things have really gotten worse for people in the South and West side, and lower-income neighborhoods, under this administration.

So that would be another reason that Unite Here members on an individual level would be upset with Rahm and would be upset with their union for not only endorsing him, but doing those ads that you showed, that are kind of ridiculous. Putting their moral weight in backing a man who’s really pretty clearly opposed to the whole concept of unionism.

NOOR: And the polls I’ve seen on this eve of tomorrow’s election shows Rahm sort of pulling away with a decent-sized lead. We’re not going to know what’s going to happen until tomorrow, but how much of the fact that, you know, we know that Rahm has raised something like $20 million and he’s poured a lot of that money into TV ads. What is the sense, how much of this constant bombardment on the airwaves, which Chuy cannot compete with, is contributing to at least affecting the polling and showing Rahm in the lead?

LYDERSEN: Yeah, I think it’s got to be the TV ads, which means the money is exactly the reason why Rahm’s pulling ahead in the polls. It’s tough. I mean, even people who should be Chuy’s supporters, maybe even who were Chuy’s supporters in the past, I’ve heard them repeating this talking point of the Rahm Emanuel campaign that Chuy doesn’t have a financial plan.

Which if you look at, at the actual plan and at the facts, that’s not necessarily a valid criticism, but people don’t get into the weeds, especially if you’re talking about TV commercials. They see the talking points. And when people are worried about their jobs and about the economy, that’s a talking point that’s really hit home.

So yeah, I think Chuy is in trouble to some degree because of Rahm being able to flood the ads, and to a lesser extent because of the extent that Rahm has gotten from some unions. But I think the important thing is the polls are getting people in the comfort of their home willing to talk on the phone for a few minutes. It’s a lot different for someone to actually go out and vote, and it may be that — I mean, when you talk about the unions, these trades unions, and probably even Unite Here, if they don’t have the actual buy-in from the members, are those members really going to go out and vote and really do the groundwork to get their friends and neighbors to vote?

The unions like the Teachers Union, who really believe in this struggle, and really not only are doing what their union tells them to do but actually do support Chuy — you know, that makes a really big difference, and beyond the unions, too, there’s a level of passion, excitement for Chuy that even the people who support Rahm, I don’t think you’ll find that. I know that you won’t find that feeling of excitement that will motivate them to get off the couch and go vote on Tuesday. The turnout was really low in the primary, and a lot of polls aside, a lot is really going to come down to what the voter turnout is like tomorrow, and not just what it is overall, but what it is, whose voters come out more.

NOOR: And finally, what’s at stake for the unions that have backed Chuy? Because, like the Teachers Union, they’ve kind of emerged bruised and bloody from these four years of Rahm’s administration, and they’ve suffered some defeats with the school closings, and with the contract negotiations. Their contract is going to be up soon.

LYDERSEN: Yeah. I mean, throughout Rahm’s political career, one of his main strategies and political attributes has been this ability to inspire fear in people. And you know, with unions, public unions who are negotiating jobs with the city, and whose livelihoods depend to some degree on what the mayor does, on one hand there’s a reason to be fearful.

But then if you look at it realistically, he already hates the Teachers’ Union. He’s already done everything he can to undermine and really, you can go so far as saying trying to break, to some degree, the Teachers’ Union. So it really can’t get any worse.

And then it’s important to mention SEIU’s state council — so during the past few years of Rahm’s administration, SEIU Local 1 was really taking on the mayor with all sorts of creative and militant protests, because of things that he’d done that caused their janitors to lose jobs, and other things. And then they had actually waited out, they remained neutral, in the primary election, presumably because they didn’t want to alienate Rahm. They struck some kind of stasis with the administration. So the they decided to actually endorse and pretty aggressively back and run campaign ads, TV ads, for Chuy.

That says a lot. That says not only do they presumably believe in Chuy, but they also actually believe he has a good chance of winning. And regardless of who wins, Rahm is going to have to work with SEIU, he’s going to have to work with all these unions. And that’s kind of — maybe the more interesting story down the road is if Rahm does win, then it goes back to what does a union actually do? The whole point of a union is to fight for its members’ rights against often adversarial opponents who have a self-interest in those workers having fewer, lower wages and less benefits.

So you know, if we have Rahm back in there, that’s where it’ll maybe challenge the unions to step up to the bat, to really do what they’re supposed to be doing anyway.

NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us.

LYDERSEN: Thank you.

NOOR: And we will certainly keep following developments as the election wraps up tomorrow evening.

Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

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