How Chicago worked with labor unions rather than step on them

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Chicago City Hall. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Last week, we reached an agreement with 31 labor unions on a new contract. It’s an agreement that protects the millions of taxpayers in Chicago. It’s an agreement that ensures our 2.7 million residents will continue to receive the high quality services they expect – that their streets will be plowed, that their garbage will be picked up and that their trees will be trimmed. And it’s an agreement that respects the 7,700 city employees who serve our city and are members of those unions.

OPINION

Yet, importantly, the contract is a departure from the previous agreement, signed in 2007. It’s half as long, it includes new work rule changes, the average annual pay raise is 2.1 percent as opposed to 2.6 percent and it includes increases in health care premiums for the first time in more than a decade. That’s why the city’s inspector general, Joe Ferguson, said the agreement “reflects the interests of the taxpayer.”

All negotiations involve give and take, but no one wins if the city’s finances aren’t stable. Not taxpayers, not residents and not employees. That’s why over the past seven years we have worked to stabilize our health care costs and shore up our pensions. This agreement is built on the foundation we laid through that collaborative work.

Skyrocketing health care costs are challenging governments and private businesses across the country. However, in the City of Chicago our health care costs are actually lower today than they were when I took office. In 2011, we spent $425 million on health care. In 2017, that figure is estimated to have been $417 million.

It has not been easy. It required many difficult and sometime contentious choices, year after year after year. But when I took office the city’s health care costs were growing at 5 percent each year – from $340 million in 2007 to $425 million in 2011. The hard truth was that it was simply not sustainable. That’s why I pledged in 2011 to put the city on a different path, and in 2018 we budgeted $44 million less for health care than we did in 2011.

By sitting down with our partners in labor, we were able to build on our work over the past seven years to lock in those health care savings as we work to keep our costs relatively flat.

We did it by being upfront, open and honest with each other. I was clear, the city needed additional health care savings and we needed work rule changes. So, health care premiums will rise for city employees, a new deducible for prescription drugs will be established and the city’s share of health care contributions will be reduced by $12 million.

These changes will help us continue to keep the city’s finances stable into the future. That in turn will allow us to provide residents with high quality services, invest in our neighborhoods, improve public safety and ensure our city employees receive fair compensation for their work.

There’s a lesson here for Springfield, too. If the governor actually sat down with labor unions, instead of trying to step on them, he might find his rhetoric doesn’t match reality. The unions are more reasonable than he thinks and ready to roll up their sleeves to get the job done.

Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago in 2011 and re-elected in 2015. The 31 unions with whom the city reached a contract are members of the Chicago Federation of Labor, whose president, Jorge Ramirez, also is chairman of the labor-heavy investor group that owns the Sun-Times.

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