Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday held a closed-door meeting with 50 labor leaders, some of who opposed his re-election and set the table to work together to solve Chicago’s $30 billion pension crisis.
Specific ideas to cut costs and raise revenue were not on the menu at Plumbers Hall, 1340 W. Washington.
Instead, the hourlong meeting was aimed at building trust in a relationship that started off rocky — with labor virtually united against Emanuel in 2011 — and has since produced tangible benefits for both sides that stands in stark contrast to the “dysfunction” in Springfield.
“We have worked together, labor and my administration. It hasn’t always been perfect music. But it’s been music. And the city of Chicago has real economic and job gains because of it,” the mayor said, pointing to McCormick Place reforms.
“We have challenges. We also have opportunities. I want labor to be . . . both a part of the solution and a partner in finding a solution. We have to work together to find the reforms, the savings and target the investments that are necessary for the future.”
Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez said the urgency for cooperation in Chicago is being “reinforced and exacerbated” by the pension crisis that has dropped Chicago’s bond rating to junk status. Also weighing heavily is the dysfunction in Springfield that has Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in a budget stalemate with Democratic legislative leaders, he said.
“We have to do this in a collaborative way. There’s no other way,” Ramirez said.
Emanuel has openly bemoaned the tone of his 2011 confrontation with labor that saw the mayor demand work-rule changes to replace morale-killing furlough days and labor leaders stand their ground, forcing layoffs.
The strident tone of that early standoff gave way to collaboration — on wellness, McCormick Place reforms and on managed competition between city employees and private contractors that has saved the city millions in recycling costs.
Emanuel said the goal of Wednesday’s meeting was to “create an environment” where labor leaders “feel comfortable” tossing out ideas “that have risks associated with them” — for their own members and for the city.
“We’ll have our disagreements. But that doesn’t mean we’re gonna be disagreeable. And everybody in that room recognized we had differences. And I said in that room, `There’s people who supported me and people who didn’t support me.’ It doesn’t matter to me. We have a common future. I ask you, for the love and passion you have for this city and for the future for your members, work together,” the mayor said.
“This was a discussion . . . about a process, not a place where we’re gonna say, `Here are the specific solutions.’ That will come in that process.”
Four years ago, the CFL served up a smorgasbord of ways to cut the city budget by $242 million — by eliminating redundant layers of middle management, improving efficiency and having city employees do work currently doled out to politically connected contractors. Many of the ideas have already been adopted.
Ramirez was asked Wednesday whether labor leaders have any new ideas for cutting costs or raising revenue.
“Specifically, today, no . . . What we’ll do is we’ll find out, to the best of our ability, if the city is being run in a way that we think we can extract some efficiencies out of it,” Ramirez said.
“It doesn’t have to be in work rules. It doesn’t have to be in cuts to what people make. It could be in the way that things run and the way the departments work. It could be in the way they interact with each other. We’re not sure. What we’re really gonna do is take a look at it for the sake of collaboration.”
Last week, the Democratic-controlled Illinois General Assembly lifted the financial hammer hanging over Chicago taxpayers: a state-mandated, $550 million payment due in December to shore up police and fire pension funds.
Lawmakers approved a bill that would give the city 15 more years to ramp up to 90 percent funding levels for the two funds.
Chicago taxpayers would still be on the hook for $619 million in payments to the two funds next year — more than double the current payment. But that’s still $219 million less than the city would have been forced to pay and an $843 million break over the next five years.
The pension reform bill is now caught up in the state budget stalemate over Rauner’s demand for pro-business, anti-union reforms that seems to be intensifying by the day with the governor ordering $400 million in budget cuts.
So is Emanuel’s request for an elusive, city-owned Chicago casino with all of the revenues devoted exclusively to police and fire pension.
With a $634 million payment to the teachers pension fund due June 30, the General Assembly hasn’t even entertained the issue of teacher pension reform.
With those issues as a backdrop, Emanuel also met on Wednesday with Rauner in Chicago. The mayor’s office refused to say what the two old friends and former business associates talked about, calling it a “private meeting.”
Emanuel, whose legislative agenda is hanging in the balance, said again Wednesday that he hopes “cooler heads and cooler voices” in Springfield will prevail.
Asked to predict when the stalemate would be resolved, the mayor said, “That’s a crystal ball. I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know the answer to our future is working together” with labor.