Marlen Garcia: Emotional ties bind us to unions

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Christian Mitchell, Illinois House 26th district Democratic primary candidate. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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Unions are behemoths dragging down Illinois’ ability to ascend from a debt pit. They must meet their demise or at least be crippled to bring Illinois back to financial prosperity.

That’s what I hear Governor Bruce Rauner saying.

Here’s the flip side: For decades unions have given average folks a chance to reach the middle class. There’s a lot of emotion attached to that for union members and their families.

As dozens of candidates for the Illinois House and Senate visited the Sun-Times Editorial Board in recent weeks to seek the newspaper’s endorsement in the March 15 primaries, I caught a glimpse of that sentiment.


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No one was more poignant than Steve Caramelli, a state trooper who is running for state Senate in the 22nd District that covers Elgin, Carpentersville, Hanover Park, Hoffman Estates, Streamwood and Schaumburg.

Asked if any part of Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda had merit, Caramelli said the governor has no chance of making Illinois a right-to-work state.

“Absolutely not,” Caramelli said, adding that he and his parents are products of unions.

“This country, this state and this city were brought up on the idea of working hard and you’re going to be OK,” he said. “That’s what my mom and dad did when they came to Chicago.”

Caramelli told us his mother emigrated from Mexico and his father from Italy, each with limited education. They took union jobs with Brach’s Candy Factory and succeeded in giving Caramelli a solid middle-class upbringing.

“Here’s a perfect example of where a factory worker has the ability to work in this place, pay their taxes, give back to their community and allow their son to be raised the proper way,” he said.

Where did that take Caramelli? To college, the police academy and a candidacy for state Senate “to continue the protections for the middle class,” he said.

We asked state Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, of the 26th District a similar question.

“The short answer for me is that my grandfather was a U.S. steelworker,” Mitchell said. “He had an eighth-grade education. The reason I’m sitting here is because of that job that he had.”

Over in the 22nd District that includes West Elsdon, Garfield Ridge, West Lawn and Clearing, Jason Gonzales is the first serious primary challenger in a long time to House Speaker Michael Madigan. Gonzales is running as a Democrat but is backed by Republican money. This left me wondering how true he is to Democratic ideals.

Gonzales said he promised his father, an electrician, that he would stand up for unions. “I won’t hurt the working class,” he said. “That was the commitment I made to him. I don’t think I’d here today if it wasn’t for the fact that my dad was an IBEW electrician.” The IBEW is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Here’s why I identify with these guys on their claims: I once wrote about my dad’s job as a custodian for a major airline at O’Hare Airport. He worked there long before the airlines began farming out such jobs to outside companies to cut employee pay and benefits.

His job never paid all that much, but we had food on the table and could rely on top-notch health insurance. My dad had lifetime flight benefits. In other words, he could travel anywhere for free. He had a pension until he died.

My dad belonged to a union.


Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @MarlenGarcia777

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