Union, aldermen seek elected board for O’Hare, Midway

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Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1, announces an effort to have an elected board oversee O’Hare and Midway airports. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Union leaders and a few City Council members say an elected board should control O’Hare and Midway airports, a move that would dilute Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s control over billions of dollars in airport revenue and contracts.

Flanked by members of the Service Employees International Union 1, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he would introduce a resolution to put an advisory referendum on the November ballot, citing grievances ranging from long lines at security checkpoints, long-running complaints about politically connected contractors and resident complaints about jet noise.

“A lot of the issues that have cropped up over the years could be addressed by having an airport authority,” said Waguespack, who was joined by fellow Aldermen Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) and Roderick Sawyer (6th).

A spokesman Chicago Department of Aviation said the referendum proposal was “backwards in its approach” and “no other major airport in the country has an elected airport authority.”

“We oppose subjecting thousands of jobs and the economic future of the region to an unknown and untested political process,” spokesman Owen Kilmer wrote in an email.

O’Hare was the second-busiest airport in the nation in 2015 behind Atlanta-Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

The proposal comes as Emanuel’s popularity has been on the decline, with the mayor beset by scandals in his police department and seemingly perpetual opposition from labor unions. Waguespack was introduced by SEIU President Tom Balanoff, a frequent Emanuel critic whose union represents about 465 workers at O’Hare and Midway, including janitors and service attendants.

Balanoff complained about the low wages paid to airport workers while political insiders collect multimillion-dollar paydays for concessions and construction work at the two airports. He singled out a contract Emanuel inked three years ago with United Maintenance, which replaced some 300 union janitorial workers. The union says that deal was tainted by a United Maintenance executive’s ties to the Chicago mob.

It was not clear if the referendum, which would only advise city leaders of public support for an elected board, would make it to the council floor for a vote. To get the resolution on the November ballot citywide without council action, supporters would have to gather the signatures of some 53,443 registered voters by Aug. 8.

Balanoff noted that after the union was able to put an advisory referendum on the ballot in a handful of precincts two years ago, it pushed Emanuel to back an increase to the minimum wage for employees of city contractors. The push for an elected airport board, Balanoff said, was an effort to “ensure the revenues generated by the airport are shared with the workers and the people of Chicago.”

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