Jorge Ramirez to step down as Chicago Federation of Labor president

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Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, addresses the media in July 2017 about an investment group that included a coalition of labor unions acquiring the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Reader. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez, the city’s most powerful labor leader, said Monday he will step down when his term expires in June and support secretary-treasurer Robert Reiter as his replacement.

Last year, Ramirez led a labor-dominated investment group that purchased the Chicago Sun-Times.

He said Monday he has no specific job lined up and no plans to leave Chicago. He hopes to stay on as the newspaper’s board chairman “as long as they will have me.”

Ramirez said his reasons for calling it quits after 12 years at the helm of the CFL are “multiple and personal and not stuff I’ll get into at this point.”

But he stressed that there is “no grand scheme,” that it has nothing to do with his health and that the decision to call it quits and pass the baton to Reiter was his alone.

“There’s not one specific reason. It’s just a combination of different stuff that’s going on at different levels of my life. Personally, family — everything,” said Ramirez, 47.

“A culmination of different factors [led] me to reflect on these things and think about what the organization needs and what it should look like going forward. That kind of led me to this decision and this time.”

During a meeting Monday where he announced his decision to call it quits, Ramirez said he got the “ultimate compliment” from a fellow labor leader.

The union leader, whom Ramirez did not identify, told the outgoing CFL president that he had left the organization “in a condition that’s better than what you found it in.”

The compliment meant the world to Ramirez, particularly because of the sacrifices that it required.

“I have four young boys. They can hold their head up high and know that the time that I spent away from them and the things that I missed in their lives were because we’re making things better for a lot of other kids,” Ramirez said, his voice choking with emotion.

“They get it. I want them to know that it was worth something and that it meant something. That’s what moves me. My dad gave me that lesson.”

Over the last seven years, Ramirez has emerged as Mayor Rahm Emanuel closest ally in organized labor.

The two men worked closely to avert layoffs, reduce skyrocketing health insurance costs, identify dedicated funding sources for all four city employee pension funds, and most recently, to push an $8.5 billion O’Hare Airport expansion plan that will create 60,000 jobs through the City Council.

Emanuel and Ramirez also worked together to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $13-an-hour by 2019, guarantee a living wage for O’Hare Airport employees and push through an ordinance guaranteeing paid sick leave.

Things weren’t always rosy — and they sure didn’t start out that way.

Emanuel has openly bemoaned the “tone” of his early confrontation with organized labor over his demand for work-rule changes to replace morale-killing furlough days. Labor leaders who did not support mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel stood their ground, forcing layoffs.

On Monday, Ramirez said he’s proud of having “partnered with the mayor to accomplish a lot of great things” for Chicago and organized labor.

“The airports, getting the contracts done with COUPE. The commitment that he’s made to help fix the pensions. The countless number of deals that we’ve done around capital projects around the city to create jobs, to save jobs. The work that we’ve done on the budget to save jobs,” Ramirez said.

“Some of that stuff was absolutely difficult and nasty and hairy. … But we found a way to develop a mutual admiration and respect even though there were some very difficult circumstances,” he said. “To be hard on issues and not on each other and fully understand that the people who run this great city also live here.”

During Ramirez’s 12-year reign, there was only one labor strike.

On Sept. 10, 2012, Chicago teachers walked off the job for the first time in 25 years, fueled by their anger with a mayor who had persuaded the General Assembly to raise the strike threshold, stripped them of a previously negotiated 4 percent pay raise and offered schools and teachers extra money to waive the teachers’ contract and immediately implement his longer school day.

What wasn’t really known is how pivotal a behind-the-scenes role Ramirez played in helping to end that bitter strike.

“One of the things that will never get reported in the news was a very important piece of legislation that they tried to move forward as a trailer bill which would have limited the period of time in which the CTU could have voted a strike,” in addition to raising the strike vote threshold, Ramirez said.

“Karen [Lewis, CTU president], along with some help from the CFL and others, was able to keep that from happening.”

Ramirez identified Gov. Bruce Rauner as the heavy hand behind that failed legislative power play.

“Rauner told me at one point — I saw him at a public event — and he said, `There’s a war going on with teachers unions.’ I told him I disagreed with him and that we would meet him at the fight and return in kind,” Ramirez said Monday.

Ramirez’s fellow labor leaders were effusive in their praise for the outgoing CFL president.

Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said Ramirez “always understood that the 300 affiliated unions” of the CFL “come together to form one single movement.”

“He never sought to distinguish between public and private sector, industrial and service sectors. If there was work to be done, he was there to do it,” Lynch was quoted as saying in an emailed statement

Donald Finn, business manager/financial secretary of IBEW Local 134, said city workers “owe Jorge a debt of gratitude” for the work he did in securing a “fair” five-year contract with 34 unions representing motor truck drivers, plumbers, laborers and members of the building trades.

“For Jorge, every day is another chance for him to fight for dignity and respect for workers and nothing will ever stop him from doing what is right and just,” Finn was quoted as saying.

Reiter, Ramirez’s hand-picked successor, said he has been “honored to fight side-by-side with Jorge” over the last eight years.

“He has become my brother, mentor and confidant,” Reiter said. “Looking around at the CFL Executive Board, I see strong leaders from all sectors of this movement represented here because it was important to Jorge that he hear from everyone.”

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