Five-year trade union contract teed up for final City Council vote

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Chicago City Hall. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A five-year contract that guarantees labor peace with 21 percent of the city’s workforce through the 2019 mayoral election is poised for City Council approval Wednesday after an easy ratification vote in committee.

The City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development approved the agreement Tuesday after a direct introduction into the committee chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader.

That’s a parliamentary maneuver normally reserved for the most urgent of matters. That sets the stage for a final vote at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

The only hint of financial dissent came from North Side Ald. Michele Smith (43rd).

Smith acknowledged that a five-year agreement with annual health care savings of $12 million by 2021 is an improvement over the ten year-contract hammered out by former Mayor Richard M. Daley to guarantee labor peace for a 2016 Summer Olympic Games that Chicago didn’t get.

But Smith noted that, even with those savings, the agreement with unions representing motor truck drivers, plumbers, laborers and members of the building trades will cost the city $12.5 million this year and $57.8 million in the fifth and final year of the agreement.

That’s, in part, because it guarantees those employees the prevailing wage paid to their counterparts in private industry. Of the 7,713 “full-time equivalent” employees covered by the agreement, 52 percent are covered by the prevailing wage.

If the agreement is a blueprint for other city unions, the annual cost would be $250 million.

“We’ve got some really big negotiations ahead….This is the smallest part of our negotiation. And I, for one, having just asked the taxpayers to take this enormous property tax increase to get us on our way to some kind of pension stability, am quite concerned that we are again setting ourselves up for an enormous ask of the taxpayers,” Smith said.

“In private industry, people haven’t had even increases [of any size] for years….Even though, on a relative basis, people are saying this is pretty good, I’m very concerned that this is still a situation in which we are not operating in the context of the real world for our taxpayers.”

Jim Franczek, the city’s chief labor negotiator, said the mayor was “acutely aware” of the crushing burden that Chicago taxpayers have already paid and will continue to pay to put the Municipal Employees and Laborers Pension funds on the road to financial health.

But he said, “When you balance out what we accomplished on the health insurance side, which is very significant, and the fact that we think we had some pretty major work rule changes here, it’s a balanced and fair agreement.”

Workforce Development Committee Chairman Pat O’Connor (40th) strongly disagreed with Smith’s “not-in-the-real-world” characterization.

“These agreements are shorter by half….They include significant increases to health care contributions. They have an increase in salary that is significantly less. And they include pension contributions–put in by previous legislation–which help the pension contributions of new employees to exceed the salary increases they would get over the life of these contracts. It’s very real-world, if you ask me,” O’Connor said.

South Side Aldermen Sophia King (4th) cast the only “no” vote, to protest, what she called a shortage of minorities in the trade unions.

“Collective bargaining agreements should be used as a vehicle to make sure that we celebrate the diversity in the city like ‘One Chicago’ that we talk about,” King said.

“The unions do not reflect the great diversity of our city right now.”

Franczek said workforce diversity was not a subject of collective bargaining.

In exchange for the increased health care contributions and related savings, the city will continue to guarantee 4,010 employees of those employees the prevailing wage paid to their counterparts in private industry.

Franczek has defended that move by claiming that it was “important to those unions” and that, without it, the “very significant health care savings” and work-rule changes “wouldn’t have happened.”

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