Four years after a strident confrontation with organized labor he later regretted laid the groundwork for a more cooperative relationship, Mayor Rahm Emanuel will strike a dramatically different tone on Wednesday.
The mayor has summoned leaders of virtually every union representing city workers — with the exception of the Fraternal Order of Police — to an unprecedented meeting at the plumbers’ union hall.
The conversation is certain to include the $30 billion pension crisis that has dropped the bond rating of the city, Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Park District to junk status and threatens the on-time opening of schools this fall.
“This is all part of the process I’ve always had of open dialogue with labor leaders. . . . You can’t ask people to come forward with ideas if you’re not willing to go sit at a table,” the mayor told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“From McCormick Place [reforms] to health care stuff, Jorge [Ramirez, the Chicago Federation of Labor president] and I regularly talk. And I said I wanted to, at the right time, talk about what we’re gonna be doing to meet all of our obligations — both in the pensions, the budget and economic development.”
Asked about the meeting with Emanuel, Ramirez compared it to the highly strained relationship between organized labor and rookie Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“Sitting down and having a constructive and collaborative dialogue stands in stark contrast to what’s happening at the state level, with the governor,” Ramirez said.
Emanuel has openly bemoaned the tone of his early confrontation with labor over his demand for work-rule changes to replace morale-killing furlough days. Labor leaders who did not support Emanuel’s 2011 mayoral bid stood their ground, forcing layoffs.
The strident tone of that early standoff gave way to collaboration — on a wellness program, McCormick Place reforms and “managed competition” between city employees and private contractors that has saved the city millions in recycling costs.
The union representing garbage-collection workers also agreed to cut the pay of new hires and cross-train them so they can be moved around based on the city’s changing needs.
On Tuesday, the mayor was asked whether he has another round of cost-cutting work-rule changes up his sleeve.
“You’re framing this the wrong way. I’m coming to say, ‘What ideas do you have? I have ideas. But we both have an interest in solving this in the same way that we worked through all of the pension issues,’ ” the mayor said, noting the five pension deals he has negotiated.
“I’ve always said, ‘What ideas do you have. You want to talk about investment? What ideas do you have? From Day One, if you’re open to making changes, you have a seat at the table. This is one more table we’re sitting at to work through ideas.”
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.
“For the first time ever, the city’s gonna step up and make that payment. [But] I’ve always said it had to be done in a responsible and reasonable way . . . that doesn’t unfairly burden taxpayers,” the mayor said Tuesday.
“Back in 2010, when police and fire [pensions] were dealt with, it mandated tripling the payments. This doubles the payments from where they are. So I wouldn’t call that kicking the can if you’re going up 50 percent. . . . You can’t ask for a freeze on [property] taxes, then say this kicks the can. The next step in my implementation is to then have a casino as a way to shore up these funds.”
The pension-reform bill is now caught up in the state budget stalemate between Democratic legislative leaders and Rauner over the governor’s demand for pro-business, anti-union reforms.
So is Emanuel’s request for an elusive, city-owned Chicago casino with all of the revenues devoted exclusively to police and fire pension.
The General Assembly hasn’t even entertained the issue of teacher pension reform and Emanuel’s demand that the state end what he calls the “dual taxation” that forces Chicago taxpayers to pay twice — for the pensions of city teachers and for teachers outside the city.
Rauner appears to be digging in for a summer-long battle by preparing to unleash a multimillion-dollar, negative advertising campaign targeting Illinoia House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton and their Democratic minions.
Emanuel, whose legislative agenda is hanging in the balance, said he’s hoping cooler heads prevail.
“My recommendation is, everybody take a step back. Cool the temperature. This is a time to work together to get [something] done in Springfield by passing a budget that meets all the needs — not only the state, but also the city,” he said. “Cool the rhetoric. Let’s get back to the table of working through the issues without finger-pointing or accusations.”
Emanuel can’t afford to take sides in the Rauner-Madigan power struggle. He needs the support of both political heavyweights if he hopes to get state help for his needy city.
On Tuesday, the mayor was asked whether he has any intention of mediating the dispute between his longtime friend Bruce Rauner and Madigan, with whom Emanuel has forged a surprisingly strong bond.
“I will play a productive role and constructive role if required,” the mayor said.
Emanuel noted that since his own re-election, he’s met with nearly every member of the City Council—even those who opposed him. He broke the stalemate over who will lead the Council’s independent budget office and solicited revenue ideas from the Progressive Caucus.
“I didn’t ask anybody to come in and resolve that for me. That’s the job of being a mayor: setting a context and an environment and an atmosphere where you can be productive in meeting the needs of the people of Chicago to both grow the economy and grow jobs,” he said.
“That said, as the biggest city in this state, I want to see Springfield resolve our challenges, pass a reasonable budget that meets the needs of the state. And I’m gonna play a constructive role. An example of that is when the governor came to the City Council. I was clear. I don’t support right-to-work. That’s bad for the state. It’s bad for middle-class people. On the other hand, I said as it comes to worker compensation reform, I agree with that. We’re the largest employer in the state and I want to help on that. I hope that helps to create an environment to get things done.”
Wednesday’s meeting marks the first time Emanuel speaks to all of the city’s labor leaders at the same time other than when he has sought their endorsements at election time.
At a famously contentious closed-door endorsement session more than four years ago, the CFL decided to stay neutral in the race to replace retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley after Emanuel told the union leaders he favored changes to the pension system for city employees.
Emanuel would not go so far as to call for those changes publicly during the 2011 campaign, but as soon as he was elected mayor, he began pursuing pension reforms.
Many labor groups, including the police and firefighters union, backed Emanuel rival Gery Chico in the 2011 race. Among the only unions to support Emanuel then were the Teamsters and the plumbers.
In his first term, Emanuel won over many of the trade unions that were initially cool to him. Still, when he ran for re-election earlier this year, the CFL was neutral again, while the Chicago Teachers Union and the Service Employees International Union threw heavy support to vanquished mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.