There’s no question where the Chicago Teachers Union as well as a coalition of community groups stand when it comes to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
They’re out for his head after he closed 50 schools, mostly in poor and minority communities.
But so far in Emanuel’s re-election efforts, organized labor is showing it isn’t rigid in its support — or opposition — to the mayor.
Money tells some of the story.
Union groups have donated more than $1 million to Emanuel since last year, a review of donations shows. That includes contributions from SEIU Local 73, the Teamsters, plumbers and substantial backing from both the International Union of Operating Engineers and the IBEW, the electrical workers union that represents 14,000 members, including some 700 city electricians.
It isn’t unusual for trade unions to back an incumbent — the current administration is doling out work, after all.
Lately, Emanuel has been publicly embracing a series of issues — immigration reform, early education for all and boosting the minimum wage — in an attempt to shed some of that “Mayor 1%” image that’s dogged him for much of his first term. If the hope is to appeal to some of the mayor’s liberal-leaning naysayers, he has a ways to go.
Critics say Emanuel’s public embrace of the positions is too little, too late.
If you look at three divisions of SEIU, they go in different directions.
SEIU Local 73, which has a fair number of public-sector jobs, is showing some support. It has kicked in $25,000 to Emanuel’s re-election efforts.
Meanwhile SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff, in a letter published in the Sun-Times, praised Emanuel for launching a commission to seek a minimum wage increase in Chicago.
“Because Washington can’t or won’t act, hiding behind tax cuts for the wealthy that never ‘trickle down’ to the rest of us, workers in big cities are taking the reins and raising local minimum wages,” Balanoff wrote. “Mayor Emanuel and the Minimum Wage Commission added significant momentum to this movement with their proposal.”
That doesn’t equate a campaign endorsement, however, from the same group that created “Job Killer” buttons with Emanuel’s picture on it earlier in his term.
SEIU Health Care, a third division of the service employees, has joined a coalition that’s largely opposing Emanuel’s policies.
Many major unions, meanwhile, including SEIU and Chicago Federation of Labor have publicly pushed for immigration reform, something Emanuel is now doing in a more high-profile manner.
Emanuel partnered with U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., in a letter to The New York Times to make the path to citizenship easier, by lowering fees for eligible permanent legal residents who are already in this country.
Emanuel also has offered up Chicago as a landing spot for the children of illegal immigrants.
“These kids are leaving violence. There are 1,000 kids. We are not only a city of big shoulders. We’re a city of big hearts, and we welcome them and get ’em on their way,” Emanuel said. “And we will also make sure that the city of Chicago has universal pre-K, universal kindergarten, expanding after-school programs, expanding summer jobs, because the test and measure of this city is how we treat our children.”
Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, a nonprofit community group in Chicago, said Emanuel’s embrace of those issues comes too late and doesn’t appear genuine.
Johnson said the push for an increased minimum wage grew out of a community-based movement.
“Divide and conquer is what he does. This is not a new tactic for him,” she said. “Now he’s touting himself a champion for working people; that wasn’t even the case a year ago. It isn’t a genuine effort to get anyone out of poverty but a clamor for votes.”
Amisha Patel, executive director of Grassroots Illinois Action, said Emanuel had been quiet on the minimum wage issue until recently.
“Looking at the mayor’s track record over his entire time in office, you can actually see where most of his actions have been harmful to communities,” Patel said. “To close schools and to cut school budgets across the city — that says a lot more than what a public official says a few months before his election.”
On Friday, Emanuel’s campaign held up immigration and the minimum wage as issues that could make inroads with unions.
“From reforming our country’s broken immigration system to increasing the minimum wage, Mayor Emanuel’s agenda has always been about moving this city forward,” spokesman Steve Mayberry said.
“From creating more hotel jobs to rebuilding the Red Line on the South Side and the water system in every neighborhood, to fair and non-arbitrated contracts with unions like AFSCME and the firefighters, the mayor sincerely appreciates the collaborative spirit in which he’s worked with labor unions,” Mayberry said. “Not everything is easy or quick, but our relationship has been respectful and collaborative. Relationships are sometimes tough, but we want to do what’s fair for labor.”
Brandon Johnson, deputy political director for the Chicago Teachers Union, said if CTU President Karen Lewis does launch a mayoral bid, she will have no problem grabbing union backing. “We’re confident there will be plenty of labor support for her,” Johnson said. “She’s prepared to defend retirement security and bring real revenue to the city.”
Terry Allen, business manager from IBEW 134, said the reason for his union’s backing of Emanuel is simple: The mayor is building.
“This is a mayor that’s building more so than anyone. There’s 29 crane permits. That means by October … you’re going to have 29 cranes visible in the city of Chicago,” Allen told the Sun-Times. “Even when he brings in a thing like Microsoft, when they moved over here to the Merchandise Mart, there were 400 electricians setting that up. You don’t see a crane. But we put over 400 guys to work over there.”
Renovations to the CTA’s Red Line, shows at McCormick Place, that’s giving IBEW jobs, he says.
“All of that work is putting our guys to work,” Allen says, “and more importantly doing what needs to be done for the city.”